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May 14, 1997


Bian Lobo

My options are laid out before me. It's strange that I should be feeling suicidal at the vibrant age of twenty and three. But my alternatives are scarce and my situation seems to say… do or die.

For just about everybody wants to see me married. I can't seem to get away from it; everywhere I look the situation presents itself, veiled in the queries of friends or in the biting curiosity of society. But I am not alone… as I've learnt.

My friend Amla has a similar problem. A woman, relatively unknown to her, informed her that she'd better look out because her "value in the marriage market is falling fast". Amla is the same age as I am, time is running out on her, so it seems, and she isn't ready for the big M. Soon she will be married off to a man scarcely known to her, but who qualifies to be her husband because of the number of degrees he holds. Society is happy, her parents are happy, he is happy… Amla isn't. I realise now that marriages aren't made in heaven as I once so naively believed, they're made by society.

When I was a tender teenager, I couldn't wait to be in my 20s. The age itself spelt freedom and independence. At last, I thought, I could start exercising my own choice. So deluded was I then. But one circumstance would change my notion of what was to be. The pressure of being married.

Marriage, or the idea of every woman being attached to one man by institution, has slowly progressed from something people did out of choice to something that is being subtly forced upon individuals. Curiosity got to me and I asked the question… why? Why is it that a woman's social acceptability is increasingly dependent on her finding a spouse? Says my mother, "All parents wish to see their daughters happily settled down with a nice man; besides, what will people say?"

"Is it so strange that we can be perfectly happy without a man? I have no man in my life, I don't intend to 'settle down', yet I am perfectly happy," states Sadia Lobo, regional sales manager, NIIT, Bombay. Sadia is in her thirties and settled down. She is busy and content with living with herself. "I value my independence."

Doesn't it get lonely? "Not really, I don't have the time to get lonely. It depends on what you think of yourself; if you think you need a man -- and maybe you do -- then making the choice I've made could be wrong. My parents tried to hound me into marriage, a lot of people still think I am one of those left on the shelf. But this is the way I want to live and this is how it's going to be."

It's the 20th century. And I could be an independent, liberated woman. Wrong! I have reached marriageable age and, whether I am ready or not, it is what I have to do. The word 'choice' is limited in its definition. Parents feel they have an inherent right to choose. Choose for their children.

A friend of mine recently eloped. Weighing the choice of her parents and an unknown man asking for Rs 300,000 as dowry against her own choice, a man who loved her. The decision said, "Do or die." Death, not physically, but to marry a man only to please your parents and society is death just the same. It works for some; for others, it doesn't.

Ostracised! Well, not exactly! But it definitely comes close to what a woman might face if she's still unmarried by the age of 30 and above. "Wanted, female about 18 to 25 for 35-year-old male. Engineer in reputed company; salary, five figure. Should be fair and educated." Sounds familiar, doesn't it? If you haven't seen it, just reach for the nearest newspaper and read the marriage columns. It seems strange that a man of that age is keen on any woman only in the age group of 18 to 25. Oh well, perhaps he is the fatherly kind.

"It's not fair, when you come to think of it," says 21-year-old Natasha Alphonse. Currently doing her secretarial course, she finds it difficult answering questions on whether she has a boyfriend. "My parents are worried about me and, even though I really don't want to settle down with anyone, I feel compelled to find a guy… just so people won't look at me funnily when I say I am not interested in getting friendly or married."

This fear of 'being left on the shelf' isn't limited in its effect on the female sex; it so often clashes with the male's fear of commitment. This societal pressure extends its vicious hand to the male sex as well. The outcome can sometimes be disastrous.

Orrin Francis is an instrumentation engineer in Dubai. Things were working out fine for him -- he had a good job, great friends, a woman who loved him. Life was on his side. But love wasn't enough for his girl, she wanted a commitment. So a ring was bought and an engagement took place.

But she remained unconvinced. The 25-year-old couldn't risk a break-up "The fear of not finding a husband" plagued her. Within a few months, her father flew in from Kuwait and told him to set a date for his wedding. He didn't want his daughter to just have a boyfriend, she was ready for a husband.

Under pressure the date was set, the hall was booked and every one was content, or so it seemed. Twenty days to go and the blushing bride-to-be started becoming possessive. If her boyfriend was late for their appointment, she became nervous and threw a tantrum. Two weeks to the final countdown, the tantrums hadn't ceased and the groom was panicking.

Finally, unable to take it any more, Orrin broke down. The wedding was called off, the couple parted in disharmony. "I was pressurised into making that decision," he explains. "I had known Barbara for less than a year and she is very nice. But, when I saw signs of possessiveness and thought about the rest of my life, I realised that she wasn't the girl for me."

Should we learn from the experience of another, or should we just fall in line with what society expects of us, just out of fear of falling out of fashion? Choice. It's ours for the taking. As women, we have changed over time. Not just as individuals, but as the female sex. We are no longer limited to the confines of our homes. Educated as we are, our focus is now divided between career and family. Marriage isn't an ambition, it's a commitment. One that remains with us for life. It requires a desire to give, to share, but, most of all, it requires maturity.

From the pressure on a woman stems a pressure on the man. Men find it difficult to deal with women who are eager to settle down quick and, because of this pushing, tend to see marriage as a noose around their necks. Again that nagging question crushes my silence and forces me to ask…why?

"You get friendly with a girl you think is nice and fun to be with, a month later she wants to talk marriage. All of a sudden you feel the weight of decision-making; decisions you really aren't ready for. I am 23 myself; I don't even have enough money to take her on a classy date, let alone buy a house. I want to settle down when I am ready for it," says Shanat Shetty, an MBA student from Pune.

What about the women? Would you choose a woman who has also made the decision? I ask, my ears straining for the answer it longs to hear. "Hey, a woman is welcome to do what she feels (satisfaction sweeps over me). But you must understand that women also tend to age with time, so it's not really likely that a woman who has waited till she's 30 or so will find the guy of her choice. Yet, if I find one that's really in tune with me and is still attractive, why not?" finishes Shanat.

Why not? Why not allow a woman make her decision based on the same criteria? But that's another story altogether. Money may be a constraint for younger men, but there are a lot of other reasons that seem to plague men about the attitude to marriage in India.

"Marriage should be because you want it, not because society thinks you're ready. A lot of girls just want to settle down to get their parents and relatives of their backs, they don't care whether they are ready for it or not and that's the reason a lot of marriages are unhappy or breaking up," comments James Salins, a British resident friendly with an Indian girl.

February 21, 1997. Harriet Lewis, 22 years of age, a student of St Xavier's college gives in to societal pressure. For months now, her boyfriend has been trying to tell her that he has no interest in marriage. They've been together for two years. How could she face the fact that it was over? Her reputation would be marred forever. Harriet consumed insecticide and died that afternoon. I knew her in passing acquaintance, but she gave me food for thought.

Perhaps, if we weren't so judgmental! Perhaps if we were secure in the knowledge that not every relationship works out… that women were allowed more than one relationship… that marriage need not be a criteria for women in India. Perhaps Harriet could have had her say in the matter. We will never know.

Many a time, communication is lost or comes too late. Questions. Questions. They come fast, relentless in their search of information, food for gossip. "So, when are you getting married?" "Don't you think its time to settle down, should I look out for a boy?" There's no escape from an inquisitive mind. The pressure society exerts on us to get 'hitched' or be looked upon as leftovers is a sad reflection of a decadent society.

Petty-mindedness. It's the bane of our society. Middle class mentality or just plain idle gossip, it will always be around. But attitude, I believe, will differ. Sadia is just one example of a fast-changing attitude amongst today's women. An awareness of our right to make our own choices is spreading. And with each generation, the desire to fight for this right is building up. Perhaps all is not lost and the day will dawn when marriage will again become a choice of lifestyle.

My parents are worried. My boyfriend and I aren't ready to settle down. We have no marriage plans. Inquiring relatives draw embarrassed smiles from my folks. The rules stand. If I want to be friendly with this boy, we must get married soon. I could be a source of disgrace. They look at me, they see disappointment. I see in myself a situation of truth and dare. I face the truth and dare… dare to live my own life. Choice. I have taken advantage of it. Perhaps I won't be feeling suicidal for very long.

Montage: Dominic Xavier

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