27 February 2011

To Be or not To Be

‘To be or not To Be, that is the question’. These immortal lines from Hamlet are apparently one of the most famous lines of world literature. The reason I guess has more to do with a very basic fact of life i.e. taking decisions, than celebration of Bard’s genius. Right from the time we are conscious of our existence, we take decisions – big and small, pleasant and unpleasant, consciously and unconsciously (and subconsciously). And I guess to get married or not is a fairly big decision.

They say that marriage is the biggest turning point in a man’s life. One of my seniors from engineering days when asked about “Why do people get married?” had a wonderful reply which has remained etched into my mind even to this day. According to him, life has a pre-defined checklist. Right from the time you are born, items keep getting ticked off – getting into school, college, job and marriage. You do some of the items voluntarily and some involuntarily but you do them, nevertheless.

According to me, marriage is probably the only voluntary thing in this “checklist of life”. All other things happen more or less in the “auto pilot” mode. I know that, technically speaking, everything on this list is voluntary but still I believe that completing one’s education, building a career etc. happens more or less on “auto-pilot” mode i.e. there’s not much room of maneuverability. Yes, you can choose not to go to school but then the rest of the world (i.e. your socio-economic milieu) goes to school.

However, I am not able to extend the same line of argument to marriage. For me, just because everybody does it or it’s a socially acceptable practice to get married at a certain age, which differs for men and women and from community to community, is not a reason sufficient enough to get married. To let someone in my personal space and access the most personal ‘me’.

My early and mid twenties breezed past without any worries of ‘settling down’ by just being the typical vagabond. The realization that it lies somewhere in distant future and by that time the cobwebs of my mind will get cleared was a pleasant and comforting thought. Now, on the threshold of 30 (the number itself is a bit moribund when used in context of age. Somehow it signals the end of youth, as the world understands it :)), I can no longer seek refuge in such procrastinating thoughts, as the prospect of marriage stares at my face. And with it comes the associated feelings of getting old, end of I-don’t-give-a-damn days, being responsible to someone, prospect of having to spend the rest of your life with someone whom you barely know (yes, arranged marriage) and the proverbial cold feet. It’s scary enough for you to decide not to take the plunge.

Then, you realize that you have reached a stage where you have hardly any friends left to hang out with, you share your apartment with someone who is six years younger to you (in some cases you end up staying alone), the once-in-a-blue-moon occasions when you meet up your old buddies, they come accompanied with their better halves and you neither use the engineering college expletives nor can have free flowing conversations over beer. People become more ‘buttoned up’. You attend get togethers (which are sometimes birthdays of the kids of your friends) where you are the only single. Such occasions force you to think – what next? After a while people even stop inviting you for such occasions because, and I am not sure about the reason, either they don’t want to make you feel out of place or they don’t want to make other guests uncomfortable by giving opportunities for potentially awkward situations.

After a certain age, inquiries about your marital status is the next logical question which strangers (And I mean absolute strangers) ask you after initial introductions. (I guess single women are luckier in this respect than single men simply because asking a woman whether she’s married or not is still considered a ‘personal’ question while in case of men, there’s nothing ‘personal’ about it ).

Prospective employers, after looking at your CV, year of graduation, number of years of experience and doing some basic math, ask whether you are married or not. The reason is, of course, whether you have any constraints in travelling etc. (as if single men don’t have any ‘conventional’ constraints and they are always ready to be on the road). The fact that such questions were not asked, say two years back, is sufficient enough to make you take notice of these things. It seems that the whole world starts to look at you with a different lens while you yourself can’t figure out a reason for doing so.

Then, there are those warped notions of our society’s list of acceptables and unacceptables which makes an unmarried man or woman beyond a certain age stick out like a sore thumb. Being single at say 35 is just not ‘normal’. And I don’t even want to ask people what they think is ‘normal’. The imaginative ones won’t even hesitate to make comments about your sexual orientation (behind your back, of course).

Even for a guy who tries his best not to give a damn to anything people think about him or what he does in his personal life, it becomes a tad too difficult to remain aloof, ignore exhortations from parents (and I must give them the credit for listening to my side of the story) and keep on justifying (even to himself) that why he is the odd one out.

I can understand how infinitely more difficult will it be for women to stay single after a certain age. Pressure from immediate family is just one thing. Our holier-than-thou, ‘morally superior’ Indian society has enough number of cretins who think that any single woman is ‘available’.

Then, there’s this funda of ‘market’ – as in marriage market of prospective brides/grooms. Just like any other market, as economists understand the term, this market is also governed by the same old forces of demand and supply. A friend of mine explained this to me with the example of ‘aams’ (mangoes). Every day, the local fruit market gets a definite supply of mangoes (of course, during the season considering the fact that mango is a seasonal fruit) – of different qualities. People who reach the market early in the morning get to choose and pick the best mangoes from the available lot. And people who get late have to make do with whatever is available which is, more often than not, not the good ones – the leftovers, some of them, rotten as well. Now, just extend this logic to the market of brides and grooms. Here comes the importance of ‘right’ age to get married. The later you get, higher the chances that you will have only the ‘leftovers’ to choose from. So, even if a gentleman at the age of 30, decides to remain unmarried and suddenly, at 35 he decides to get married, then he has committed a marital hara-kiri even without getting married. So, effectively the decision to stay single is an irreversible decision.

I, for one, is a person who enjoys his own company quite a lot; loves solitude (main aur meri tanhai), to think and reflect; doesn’t get ‘bored’ the way many people do when you deny them access to Facebook or television and fiercely guards his own ‘space’ (often to the exasperation and disappointment of many good and well meaning friends).

Still I can’t deny that we all need companionship. One can’t keep on talking to oneself for the rest of his life. One can’t keep on staring at the glass of beer and reflect, every time he visits a pub. Your mind reaches a limit beyond which it can’t withstand.

I have spent months at a stretch in cold, alien countries without a known soul and hardly anyone to speak to on evenings and weekends. And I realized how pleasurable a small talk with a cab driver, bartender or check-out clerk at supermarket can be. It’s quite an effort to keep oneself upbeat in such settings, when your ear strains to listen to a human voice other than your own. And I also realized why solitary confinement has been used since ages to break a person.

But is marriage the only way to ensure companionship for life. Unfortunately, for the society of our kind, where fleeting and casual relationships are frowned upon, it is.

However, origin of the institution of marriage (at least heterosexual marriage) lies more in the need for propagation of the species within a defined framework than the need for companionship. Every species has a natural instinct to propagate itself. In case of humans, this accompanied, by what sociologists term as ‘division of labour’, gave rise to what we call society – that complex matrix of relationships which links all of us to others, through our kith and kin. As our society became more and more complex, the concept of family evolved over time.

Then, there’s the help, support and care which we all need at various points in life, most of all at old age. Especially in a country like India, where there’s no institutional framework for the care of the elderly.

I have had many discussions with people (of course the ones who had the time & inclination for the pointless ramble I love to indulge in) on the institution of marriage. Some discussions were academic in nature like identifying origins of marriage as an institution, imagining our society if the institution of marriage itself wouldn’t have been there and some have been mundane to the point of over simplification of the whole thing (Marriage is just a license to have legitimate sex).

More pragmatic friends of mine have advised me not to think much and not to have such scary notions about the whole exercise. The optimistic ones say that things just fall in place. Most of my closest buddies who have already been on the other side of the fence chose their own life partners so things are just like moving in with a long time friend of yours. Since I don’t belong to that privileged club, it’s a ‘leap of faith’ for people like us.

My father once told me that every man romances in his youth – some people romance with women while others romance with ideologies. I had my share of romance with lofty, noble and often unrealistic ideologies. It gives you a high which I am sure is not very different from the exhilaration people experience in being in love with each other.

Then, there is the whole notion of finding the right person, The One. You can wait till eternity and still not find your 'The One' or you may just ‘compromise’ – something which we Indians are quite adept at. Now at the end of the day, what makes a relationship click? What makes a man get attracted to a woman and vice versa? What is it, beyond hormones, of course? What is that one 'thing' that made such moving poetry, literature of all the ages possible? What’s that thing called ‘Chemistry’, when the term is used in context of the relationship between a man and woman?

More questions than answers. And I know that these thoughts are not new – neither to me nor to the world at large.

And I don’t have answers to these ‘profound’ questions but from the point of view of companionship I guess, one will be happiest if one chooses, as his or her mate, a person with whom he or she loves to talk. That’s probably the best one can do to ensure enduring happiness. And as many wise people before me have said – Your life partner should be your best friend. I guess the word ‘friend’ defines all the things which we expect from a relationship like marriage (Yes, as humans all of us have expectations) – love, respect, trust, companionship, support in times of crisis etc.

Of course, the greatest love of all, lies within us. You can’t love someone without loving yourself. There are numerous people around us who are, as they say, in love with the idea of being in love. And I am definitely not one of them.

Let us just end this post with the thought that trying to love oneself, itself is not as straight forward as it may seem. Being a megalomaniac or narcissist is much easier than loving oneself after true self-realization. And that takes a sadhna (my limited English vocabulary doesn't have an equivalent term or is it that English is really such an 'inadequate' language), a dedication of a lifetime.

1 comment:

Suvro Chatterjee said...

We seem to have been thinking about so many things along the same lines, Rajarshi, with only age making any difference at all in our thinking. I do wish you good luck, and if you like, you might visit my blogpost titled 'A future for marriage?"