Till death do us part

In a culture that celebrates marriage as a sacrament, home is highest across all beliefs. But the focus that has rapidly changed from community to self has dislodged our framework of family, respect and obligation. Is our value base on regression mode, wonders Tejaswi Uthappa
“What was your reason to get me married?,” I probed my mother as I started work on this article. While she took her moment to frame an acceptable answer, my all-knowing all-of-nine, bounded to my lap and held my face tightly in his palms. With his characteristic, infectious smile he declared, “To have ME! Simple, silly!”

Kisses flew around the room. My son had, in one spontaneous moment, uttered the ultimate truth behind all creation.

For a country like India, this is the perfect endorsement for family — one that has always worked.

So when this idyllic situation witnesses trends that are totally opposed to its ethos, the jolt is hard because while the ideology that is India prospers as a nation, something is going horribly wrong at the very core of its society.

There was a time in all societies, all over the world, when things were quite simple. A sire presided. Set roles ensured smooth running. Set rules that dared not be broken, were laid down upon honour, pride and utter simplicity. This was a hierarchy close to nature — primal and effective.

As civilisation penetrated instinct more and more, ideas of individuality and equality began to surface. Material progression, strangely, regressed human psyche to the basic animal instincts of ‘self’ and ‘survival’.

Yet, India remains a system rooted in tradition and cultural assimilation, where home is highest across all beliefs. But the focus that has rapidly changed from community to self has dislodged our framework of family, respect and obligation. Though love remains at the heart of it all, personal gratification and demands of profession are taking us away from the people who once meant everything to us.

The Bhagwad Gita, the Bible, the Quran … they all preach harmony, patience and sacrifice. They all stress upon duty, mutual respect and subordination to the right path. This is what we all have been taught.

Manu’s Dharmashastra lays out the Hindu outlook based on the four stages of man and how he should lead them. Our Constitution itself is the greatest testimony to this value base and how much the country and its polity is shaped by religious philosophy. Under Article 25, the Constitution provides for its citizenry to be true to its roots, so that in the name of progress, culture is not lost. Every Indian has the right to engage in “any… secular activity… associated with religious practice,” and “provide for social welfare and reform”. Even the Supreme Court acknowledges that “religion is the foundation for valuable survival of human beings in a civilised society”.

And society rests on a family. In our culture, ‘family’, quite simply, is a man and woman, brought together in ‘holy’ matrimony, bound by vows and instructions meant to hold them as one, to progress materially and emotionally, and to contribute to each other and to society, with utmost respect to one’s self, the one one is bound to, and those who are affected by it.

This is at the core of our value system that has been admired and studied by those outside, for decades.

Rating highest in surveys of marital success and lowest on marital separation, India also enjoys one of the highest happiness quotients in the world. Our global market presence is dominating! There must be something right about our conservative social system that hinges on family, culture, achievement, and obligation!

Though respect for experience and regard for community sentiment still prevails largely, the urban Indian mind-set, unfortunately, is on overhaul and consequences are dire. Employment and education opportunities that disintegrated the joint family, and role changes and unprecedented accessibility as a result of that, have altered who we are and what we aspire for.

Now, even our relationships are not immune. Where once commitment ruled, today, in seeking equality, rather than fostering mutual respect, we see weakening emotional connects. Reinforcements of peer pressure, financial independence, depleting reliance among women on the family, and the possibility of gaining monetary benefits to either support a lifetime or a lifestyle, weigh heavily against ‘making it work’.

But there are also those like Richa, an entrepreneur who, though, like most of us began by looking for “love, freedom and a sense of belongingness” in her marriage, has the strength to accept what life deals her. She has “learned to look for nothing” and feels “lucky with what comes”.

Going beyond this thought,  Ashika Shetty, counsellor, teacher and a ‘passionate mother of two’ says, “…the only way the bond of marriage lasts is when you and your spouse are as comfortable being with each other, as you are being by yourself”.

Enter: Power of the Mind — an aspect that has gained social acknowledgement only recently. Any amount of physical change and ability has to pass the tough test of what we can psychologically handle and how much change we can truly accept. Retaliation is easy at hand now, and many, sadly, resort to it.

From what I understand here, love, especially, hinges on mutual respect and lots of compromise.

Others, “who lack this respect”, says Advocate K S Bheemiah, “lose out”. When he meets couples seeking separation, apart from those that he deems “serious cases” that have “genuine grounds”, like “cruelty, chronic illness or a total breakdown of communication”, he almost always recognises a lack of sustained guidance. He is vehement when he says, “Our society is based on roles. It is the role of the parents to instil basic human values of love and respect at a young age. They must watch over these values. As per our beliefs, responsibility changes hands when children become mature adults. It is our duty to show gratitude and shoulder the responsibility that comes. With sudden changes in fortune, big money is coming into the household. Long working hours reduce communication and patience. With financial independence taking centre stage, dependents, and even spouses, are becoming emotionally distant.”

Unable to grasp this nature and speed of change, even the seniors stand back from providing the kind of support and independence their children now seek. Guidance is lost.

A natural event? But how natural is it, when evolved intellect fails to see what is being continually lost?

Earlier, marriages were between families. Virtues and values were associated to each and alliances were formalised. But today, the focus is not as much on sustaining the marriage itself as it is on the individuals, and how ‘they’ will get along with each other. Renu Mishra, after 20 years of marriage, firmly believes, “Compromises have to be made. If the two families have respect and love for each other, the marriage between them rocks!”

“Love, respect and laughter,” glower Rajan and Nina, octogenarians, blissfully married for 67 years.

So, marriage has always been, first, about like-mindedness and mutual respect. Love, generally followed. What exactly has changed then?

Prathitha Gangadharan, a psychotherapist and IT professional, explains that couples today are so paranoid about privacy and independence that they tend to keep people shut away from their personal lives. When cracks develop, let alone heal them, there is no one to even point it out. “A simple lack of understanding that could have been sorted out with timely intervention is allowed to fester into a pathological issue. We can only try to bring in clarity. When these matters go too far, even counselling might be too late.”

Proof: Family and community still significantly influence harmony in a marriage.
“Patience is key,” chants my mother. Be it at home or profession, “who is better at dealing with A, must deal with A. That is how it has to work,” she dins into me when she thinks I need a chat.

“Time heals,” reiterates a friend, “people must remember. I look for a sense of belief … that I am the champion of my family’s heart. Companionship and a shared view of the future are important but relationships can become possessive — we might embrace them too hard and stifle them.” He believes in sensitivity.

Space, freedom and respect are what we all cherish, in our quest for love, togetherness and everlasting bliss. Many of us have it all. Yet, we see so many wanting more. We know what we want, we know we can get it, and some will use every instrument there is to get it, at any cost. Public opinion or reflection are far from consideration.

As a corporate lawyer, Ekta Bahl has seen plenty. Her personal view, however, is based on what she sees closer to her. She sees a downfall in dignity. Ekta pins this attitudinal “derangement” down to ethics. She believes, “We are what is around. The debasing of ethics in society outside our homes has forced its way into it.

People will misuse power until there is no logical point of return. By the time any realisation dawns upon the perpetrator, the damage is almost always irreparable.”
The majority of lawyers and counsellors, who responded, concur that most cases of marital discord involve couples from the IT sector and high income brackets. These cases dropped during the recession when jobs were dear. Many cases were withdrawn following redundancies — and many of these couples are together even today. The legal fraternity says that in urban courts, most divorces are sought on ‘flimsy grounds’ and of the total domestic violence and dowry cases registered, most are ‘fabricated’.

Sharada B N, a counsellor and trainer at Parivarthan, disagrees. She says, “When the amendment to the divorce law came in 2005, panic set in. Many rushed to understand how the implications worked. Now, people are better informed.

Affordability is a factor but those who come to us are in genuine need of support.”
But evidence to the contrary cannot be ignored. As it is, it took our legal system too long to acknowledge that violence within a marital set-up needed to be addressed urgently. But when amendments in keeping with changing psychographics were finally brought in, ugly consequences waited hardly a while.

From a society that has, for decades, silently borne abuse due to fear of social stigma, we now see a startling lack of restraint.

Quoting the “dreaded” Section 498(A) of the IPC, Dowry Provision and Domestic Violence Acts, senior advocate M T Nanaiah laments the misuse of “good” laws like these largely for perceived monetary gain. He rues, “Instead of preserving relationships, they tempt those who are able to separate. It demolishes society and man to man respect. Love and affection is lost. Families are getting destroyed!”
Rising aspirations, ‘unreasonable’ expectations, diminishing tolerance levels and greater permissiveness are changing the dynamics that our forefathers sought for a healthy, cohesive society.

Fighting the aftermath of the 2005 amendment, Save Indian Family Foundation supports men who have been unfairly victimised. They term this misuse of law by ruthless spouses, “legal terrorism”.

Ekta Bahl observes: “A law that seeks to empower women and aims to be progressive, in the hands of wrong intention, has become regressive… What’s dangerous is that real offenders continue to escape and real victims remain victims.”
With 7,000 dowry deaths registered annually and mental trauma on the rise, this is troubling. My dilemma is this: When faith binds and legislature provides to separate, what is the scope for a value-based society to remain in existence? While one is the foundation for civilised society, the other ensures its smooth functioning. What is the validity of either when one diktat contradicts the other? I accept that when compatibility is low and religion that binds provides no solution, law serves to bring respite by trying to give people another chance at ‘life’. This is respectable.

But, it is frightening that the mere ‘option’ of it can moot separation when a few good minds can work to withhold it! And what about false accusations forged to make stronger cases? What is the court’s social responsibility then?

M T Nanaiah says, “It is the duty of the court to advise out-of-court settlements in all cases. In divorce cases, six months is the statutory reconciliatory period. A minimum of three to four months of counselling is recommended.”

But many believe that courts don’t show as much sensitivity as they should. Cases have been closed in less than a week. There are couples who have not even appointed lawyers, have refused the recommended counselling, and have been ‘set free’ most clinically.

“As their legal ‘counsel’, we must become counsellors ourselves. We must consider everything and ‘go out of the way’ to facilitate reconciliation,” insists Nanaiah. He cites a case where, after ‘nine’ years of separation, all hope was lost. Nanaiah persevered for six months and succeeded in reconciling them. He cites numerous such examples and wonderful stories of hope, with many lessons.

General opinion suggests common laws to address common problems and stringent vigilance on law enforcers themselves. Counselling, of course, plays a vital role.
But, as a society and community that still believes in relationships and values its family base, we need to rethink ‘social responsibility’. We need to reacquaint with our roots. Our nonchalant attitude, borne of alien influence, needs to be contained.
Immediately, however, we ought to take that extra moment and look out for each other.

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