Thursday, March 25, 2010

Settling down…. At what cost?

Don’t you want to settle down? You must be well settled? Settled in this city? … These are questions I frequently encounter in my daily social interactions. Like many of our other racial and national obsessions, SETTLING DOWN is a major obsession. For some reason everyone has to settle. What it normally means – for a man -- is having a good job(definition varies, but either money or job-security is of paramount significance, depending on who is asking), a wife (angel or harridan is immaterial) and preferably kids. Cars, owning a home, sending kids to so-called A schools, are other symptoms of the settling down syndrome. Being still largely orthodox and traditionalist, we see a woman as settled when she is married. The assumption is that the rest follows automatically, sooner or later, and that a career or job doesn’t really matter. On the other hand, if you are in a “good” job, making a decent salary, you are “well settled”.

I wonder sometimes why we place all this emphasis on “settling”. To me, and my English/American sensibilities of the language, ‘settling’ always has negative connotations. It’s settling for something, which automatically presumes not reaching for more, settling for second best, and so on.

There is a typical thought process at work in the mind of most people I meet, which cannot comprehend why I don’t consider myself SETTLED in this city, for example. Why should I? What on earth would persuade me to live in the same city/area/house for the rest of my life when I could live in ten instead? I’ve lived in many places in my life so far, and intend to live in a lot more before I am ready to give up, before I finally settle in any city (when I am old and retired).

In fact, settling seems like a plague to me. People who think of themselves as settled always seem to be a boring lot, obsessed with their things and their people, and with little time for anything else. They don’t even seem to have any attention or mind-space left for other pursuits and interests. Of late, I find myself beginning to resemble those people. Some aspects of life have fallen into the settled grid, and I cannot honestly say I am unqualifiedly happy with how it has changed life. A nine year old relationship (reaching the stage where we complete each others’ sentences), a four year old kid, car, house, and the usual frills thereof, some semblance of a work-life, its all beginning to add up… Every step, every brick has built up the edifice of a settled life.

Seems to me, the more settled I get, the more boring, and bored, I become. As successive layers of settling have settled, mantle like, on the shoulders, life seems to have become progressively more staid. The more things, and relationships, I acquire the less ME I seem to be. Acquiring these trappings took as much out of me as keeping them up does, and I wonder frequently at the mind numbing obsession that is required to lead a fully-settled life (which I by no means do). Every time I have to say no to a ‘must watch’ film night show screening because of babysitting issues; every time I have to cancel a night on the town because it is a school night; every time I have to pass up an exotic trip because I have no money left after paying various mortgages and EMIs; I feel myself sinking an inch deeper into the quagmire of “songsar”.

I read much less, these days, cause books require a certain kind of unencumbered time that I don’t seem to have anymore. Heavier reading has given place, almost exclusively, to Terry Pratchett and Dick Francis because I no longer seem to have the free RAM, or the undistracted grey cells to process Kafka and Foucault. Poetry, my own at least, has died a quiet death, and the occasional ranting blog and work related ‘content’ are all I feel able to manage. Movies have become more of a compromise, so I end up watching only the films “we” like, to the almost complete exclusion of the OTHER ones I like (I get to play some semblance of catch-up about once a year when uddie arrives with his collection from chicago). Pretty much the same applies to music as well.

So all in all, placidity, contentment, and peace, seem dearly bought at this price. And I am better off than a lot of others. At least my lifestyle is a lot more ‘unusual’ and my man a lot more ‘bohemian’, and our settlement a lot more surface than that of most people. So, for example, our house does not tie us down to this city, and ‘moving on’ to another is only a matter of time. So, my insane friends go in and out of the house at any hour, and parties are more about philosophy and argument and opinions than “aap kaise ho” dinners. How much worse must it be if one doesn’t have these? Or is it? Some, I am sure, are happy with the trappings, and care nothing about such “meaningless” agonizing.

Me…I can’t imagine ever being THAT settled. Chafing at how life is now, its impossible to even comprehend the possibility of ever being that far down the road. The price would be WAY too high.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Marriages are made in heaven

As a culture, Indians are BIG on marriage. The whole cultural emphasis is on pairing….everything in life is geared towards it, no matter how mismatched it might be and how awful a time you may have after. The concept of CHOOSING not to get married doesn’t exist, and neither does the idea of choosing to delay it until one is mentally, emotionally, and financially ready for such a huge commitment.

“shadi to karni hi padti hai” is probably the most oft quoted ‘truism’ in India, with “shadi barbaadi” coming a close second. No one seems to see or care about the inherent paradox this illustrates. Youngsters are dying to get married… principally because it is the only socially acceptable way to be sexually active, and a few years later they are bad mouthing their spouses, staying away from home/getting involved with offspring as much as possible so as not to have to face their partners more than necessary, and looking for any and every kind of action elsewhere (largely on the internet, more’s the pity. Can’t be in a chat room these days because of all kinds of yuck).

Yet, they continue to get married, and push others to marry, in the TRADITIONAL Indian way, which, in my opinion at least, doesn’t work. Whether it is the classic never speak to each other until after you are married, or the “we are modern bhai” concept of go out a few times before the wedding, neither approach really works. After all, in the first one there is zero scope for any understanding or choice to come into play, and the second is merely a farce. After all, you don’t get to date 10 different candidates before you decide which one you will marry.

What happens is quite weird. AFTER everything is decided, and after the engagement ceremony in most cases, the two are allowed to go out a few times, and spend a little time together. All this might achieve is to lessen the awkwardness of having sex with a total stranger just because you are now MARRIED. There is no way of telling what the person is like or if the two of you are at all going to be able to coexist, because for those few hours, OBVIOUSLY, both are going to be on their best behaviour, at their sweetest and most amenable.

In addition, because everything is finalized, engagement ceremony is over and done with, and – usually – cards are being printed and arrangements for the wedding being made, not to mention the huge social pressure bearing down, it is practically impossible to reject the candidate or stop the proceedings, even if things seem a little off. Nothing short of a major issue or flaw can change things at this stage.

This blind adherence to “traditions” leads to a living hell for many members of the thinking population. Arranged marriages are notoriously callous about personal compatibility. The criteria for a “good boy”, “good girl”, and “good match” have nothing to do with the two individuals to be tied together. It’s all a matter of FAMILY. The right background, the right education level, the right parents, the right kind of money (of course), and the right kind of job; anything and everything matters much more than the ‘real’ qualities – nature, adaptability, intelligence, beliefs, opinions, and so on. After all, we proudly tell the world, an Indian marriage is not a relationship between two ‘people’ it is a merging of two families.

Whether this was ever true, and ever really happened, is more than I can say. Sociological research will probably prove that it is the greatest myth of all time. However, one thing is certain, not just in the matter of marriages, but in pretty much all aspects of our social life. That there is no such thing as a person or individual. From the cradle on, we train the ‘individual’ OUT of our kids to make them fit in, and be another cog in the huge machineries of FAMILY and SOCIETY.

Whether the Indian arranged marriage ever really worked is anyone’s guess. If it did, worked in what sense? On the surface, and for many people, it seems to work till date. But in ALL the cases I have seen, and that’s a considerable number, it seems to be more a matter of two people co-existing, of tolerating each other, of overlooking the numerous problems, of not expecting any meeting of “souls”, and occasionally having sex, rather than any kind of meaningful sharing (at least in the sense I understand the term). Sure they eventually get to care for each other….that’s only natural, given the long term proximity they share, but true compatibility is almost nonexistent.

Two widely different people, with different upbringing, sensibilities and often widely divergent natures, with no shared history and no emotional connection, are suddenly thrust into the deepest, most intimate, most important relationship two people can have. Is it any wonder that most of them haven’t the slightest clue about where their partner is coming from? The total inability to read or understand the thought processes, mentality, expectations, and sensibilities of their partner makes for a certain amount of daily stress and angst, and aids the long term coolness that exists in most couples.

Often it is worse. Sensitive, emotional, and intelligent individuals often get saddled with below average intellects and insensitive and incapable-of-comprehending twerps as partners. Intellectually inclined people, fond of poetry and philosophy and interested in actually leading a considered existence, find themselves responsible for and to people who couldn’t care less. The result? Emotional distress, psychological stress, pain, humiliation, anger….

What on earth has looks, father’s job, parents’ education, caste, class and “social standing” got to do with whether two people will make a good couple or not????

Thursday, March 11, 2010

“I am beautiful as I am. I am the shape that was gifted. My breasts are no longer perky and upright like when I was a teenager. My hips are wider than that of a fashion model's. For this I am glad, for these are the signs of a life lived. “

~Cindy Olsen, co-owner of The Body Objective
To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment- Ralph Waldo Emerson