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Sunday, September 5, 1999
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Locked in holy deadlock
By Manohar Malgonkar

BERNARD Shaw believed that marriages were popular only because they combined the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity. But that may have been true when he said it, nearly a hundred years ago. Since then the institution of marriage has gone on mutating and of late the permissive society has given it a severe hammering so that, in many countries nowadays you don’t have to go through any sort of a ceremony for two people of opposite sex — or indeed of the same sex — to live together in that blissful state of maximum temptation as well as opportunity. They.... well, abide by Nike’s advertising slogan and ‘just do it’.

The advantages are self-evident, the principal one being that, if, after a fair trial, either of the participants in this experiment of living together decide that it is not working out they, with equal casualness, just undo it — and go their own ways.

Without any outside help, a couple has accomplished both marriage and divorce, see? No priests and no lawyers either. All self-service; inexpensive, neat .... oh, well, if not quite neat, at least vastly less messy a way of unlocking a union which, in Shaw’s days, had come to be known as "holy deadlock", and the disengagement of which, entailed endless legal wrangles and shocking lawyer’s bills.

But, even in Shaw’s days or, for that matter, ever since ancient times, marriage has been a device fabricated to enable a man and woman to live together; the ritual, the ceremony, is mere ornamentation. True, in most societies, the act of getting married is presided over by a priest. But the sanctity of the institution of marriage is so much sugarcoating, a romantic concept. Logic doesn’t support it. If, as it is generally believed, all marriages are made in heaven, so must inevitably, be all divorces, too, made in heaven because about 50 per cent of marriages end up in divorce.

All marriages are supposed to endure till, in the words of the Christian wedding service, ‘death do them part’. But if either the husband or wife dies, among the Christians, the survivor can remarry. Among Hindus, only widowers could remarry; the widows, unless they chose to burn themselves, had to remain celibate all their lives. At least they could never become wives again. Both Hindus and Christians believed that marriages meant unions of just two people, the husband and the wife. Nonsense! — say the Muslims. Among us it means a union of as many as five: one male and four females. For a Hindu, man or woman, there is no divorce — all marriages are life sentences. Muslims can have quickie divorces. All it entails is for the husband to pronounce a magic word three times — talak, talak, talak, — and it is done. If at all the wives too have the same rights, they have seldom, if ever, put them to the test. For them — as for the Hindu wives — a union is a life sentence — or until talak.

In all marriages, women seem to be the underdogs, and this seems to have been the case throughout the ages. In parts of Africa, women were bartered for cattle. If a man had a large herd of cattle, there was no bar on the number of wives he took, who, in turn, minded the cattle.

The whole concept of what constitutes a marriage has gone on changing in all societies. For instance, Hindus make quite a production of marriages. Both brides and grooms have to belong to the right social and income bracket, and to ensure this, pedigrees have to be exchanged. But this was not at all necessary in ancient times.

Imagine the scandal it would cause today if same business tycoon, or a politician or an ex-Maharaja were to make a public announcement that he had made his beautiful daughter the prize in a contest to which he had invited a whole lot of likely suitors. During the times of Ramayana and Mahabharata, this was precisely how our kings and noblemen found husbands for their daughters. It was in such a contest, for marksmanship with a bow and arrow, that one of the five Pandava brothers, won the hand of a princess, Draupadi, and then proceeded to share the prize, as it were, with his four brothers, which suggests that polyandry was an accepted practice in those times. Indeed it was rampant in some parts of India, notably in the Jaunsar and Babar districts in the Himalayas, as recently as the 1940s.

For the Hindus, the ideal marriage was that of Rama and Sita, because both the husband and wife remained faithful to one another throughout their lives. Aside from the fact that this itself suggests that most other married couples of those times did not observe their marital vows all that scrupulously, the irony is that in most Hindu families of today, a marriage like that of Rama to Sita would not have been countenanced at all.

Because in all conventional Hindu marriages, it is customary for both the families of the groom and the bride to check the bloodlines of the other. Pedigrees are scrutinised, checked, double-checked before even talks of a union can begin. Sita would have been rejected by most respectable families.

She, poor thing, had no pedigree at all. No one knew who her parents were, or whether she was born in or out of wedlock. The man who had brought her up, Janaka, was a powerful and just king, but was childless. He had decided to hold some sort of a religious ceremony with the idea of offering prayers for the gift of a child, and while they were clearing the ground for this performance, Janaka, saw among the bushes, a baby divinely beautiful.

Janaka’s prayers had been answered even before they began. He brought up the foundling as though she were his own child, as a princess, and when she came of age devised a test which any suitor for her hand would have to pass. He had in his armoury an antiquated bow, so heavy that "no ordinary man could so much as move it". He made a proclamation: "Sita, my daughter will be given in marriage to the prince who will lift and bend my bow and shoot an arrow from it."

Several princes, eager to marry this beautiful girl, came to claim her hand but failed the test. Luckily Rama happened to come along and was able to shoot off an arrow from the bow and thus saved Sita from the prospect of lifelong spinsterhood.

In the event, that particular union came to symbolise the ideal marriage, in which both partners remained faithful to one another throughout their lives.

But the epics are not history, and history, for its part, does not even pay lip service to the concept of fidelity as an essential condition of marriages. Our military heroes tended to think of women as possessions. While they expected their wives to remain true to them, they recognised no such obligation on their part.

In the palace of the Jat ruler at Deeg, there is a courtyard overlooked by a dozen or so marble pavilions. Once it housed the zanana women of the ruler. In the Turkish capital, Istanbul, there is a palace which had 500 rooms set aside for the Royal harem. Our own Mughal emperor, Akbar is said to have had more than a thousand women in his harem. It is not easy to come to terms with the idea that any one man could even remember the names and faces of so many women, and separate the wives from the concubines.

The Chinese seem to have organised it a little better. In the 7th century, the Tang emperor had in his palace "one empress, four imperial concubines, nine consorts, nine graces, four beauties, five selects, in addition to 27 each of three lower classes of women."

That was what the marriage vows had been reduced to for centuries, lusty young women locked up for life in harem cells guarded by emasculated eunuchs. Luckily the days of epics are back with us, in the form of one-man-one-woman unions for life, with the green card having replaced the test for excellence in archery.Back

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