A Duet Need Not Be Out Of Sync
Sudhir Kakar, TOI, 5 December 2009
Modern Indian marriages are negotiating intimacy and familial communion
When asked to specify the most important change in middle-class Indian society in the last four to five decades, my answer has been, ''The changing Indian woman!'' More concretely, it is the middle-class Indian woman who i consider the driving force behind changes taking place in many areas of social life. Here, though, i will concentrate only on one such realm: marriage.
The woman's role as the prime mover of social change was made possible by two developments. One, a revision of the traditional view on the education of a daughter, which encouraged higher education for girls and thus made their participation in work life possible. Two, the growing financial needs of middle-class families, partly due to their higher consumption aspirations, which welcomed the woman's contribution to the family income.
One consequence of these developments has been the woman's higher self-esteem and potential for self-assertion which, in turn, have led her to demand greater emotional fulfilment in marriage than was the case with women of an earlier era. In other words, women today feel more entitled and are more vocal in their demand for a universal promise of marriage: intimacy, a couple's mutual enhancement of experience beyond procreative obligations and social duties, a state of being that integrates tenderness and eroticism, human depth and common values.
Even a few decades ago, the nature of Indian social reality and family life was not conducive to the fulfilment of this promise, at least in the first few years of a couple's married life. The dangers posed to the larger family by the development of intimacy in a couple were suggested by such questions as: Will the couple's growing closeness cause the husband to neglect his duties as a son? As a brother? Will the increasing intimacy of the couple turn the woman primarily into a wife rather than a daughter-in-law and inspire the husband to transfer his loyalty and affection to her rather than remaining truly a son of the house?
These were, of course, not either/or choices. However, custom, tradition and interests of other family members demanded that in the redefinition of roles and relationships initiated by marriage, the roles of husband and wife, at least in the beginning, be relegated to relative inconsequence. Today, slowly but surely, the middle-class woman is pushing the Indian family towards a greater acknowledgement, grudging or otherwise, of the importance if not yet the primacy of the marital bond, and a far greater recognition of the couple in the affairs of the larger family. The outcome of the conflict between two different principles of family organisation the importance of the parent-son and fraternal relationships on the one hand and that of the husband-wife on the other is shifting in favour of the couple as the fulcrum of family life.
This shift, however, is imposing its own distinctive strains upon Indian marriages. As middle-class disenchantment with other institutions in our society becomes rampant, there is a danger that the strains placed on the couple as a space that fulfils the quest for authentic experience may prove too much for this still-fragile institution.
For one, the couple is an emotional hothouse albeit one that also grows wondrous plants where, at different times, the spouse is required to be lover, parent, child and sibling. The demands on the partner, mostly unconscious, to fulfil these multiple roles rather than their being spread over the larger family as was the case earlier can certainly become a major source of strain in the emotional life of a young couple.
Another source of strain on the couple lies in its tendency to isolate itself from the larger family. Here, the danger is that the inevitable upsurges of aggression in the life of the couple will have no other outlet than the partners themselves, and thus cause serious damage to their intimacy. The larger family mitigates the effects of aggression by either some of its members serving as the objects of its discharge or by providing the stage where the husband and wife can be hostile towards each other in the relative safety of an intimate audience.
Is the middle-class Indian woman's increasing emphasis on intimacy as a sine qua non (a condition) of married life overblown? I will answer by saying that the movement towards the couple is indeed desirable, a necessary corrective to the excessive 'familism' as i would call the traditional ideology governing intimate relationships. We need to be on our guard, however, that this movement does not cross over to an extreme that is defined by a complete disregard of other family ties.
Whereas we may welcome the modern Indian woman's wish to constitute a two-person universe with her husband, we must also caution against the couple's tendency to become a fortress that shuts out all other relationships. The couple needs to remain vigilant that intimacy does not degenerate into a mutual ego-boosting enterprise; that it does not become a joint self-centredness which is the bane of not just a few European and North American marriages. The writer is a psychoanalyst and novelist.