Let’s Face It, common interests are not crucial in a marriage

This edition of Let’s Face It! features Chennai based freelance writer, Saritha Rao Rayachoti. She writes short fiction and is currently grappling with a novel, a messy house and a compulsive need to travel. Her articles on Indian culture are available at her blog http://saritharao.blogspot.in
Pottsandpan (PP): As an author you’re constantly exploring relationships. In your understanding how have expectations about certain relationships (with a focus on those relationships that impact marriage later in life) changed / evolved over the years?
Saritha RaoRayachoti (SRR): I think expectations are at the heart of all conflict. And conflict is at the heart of all relationships! If a traditional role-expectation is held by the mother-in-law and fulfilled by the daughter-in-law, the conflict is a lot lesser, and about relatively trivial stuff. There is no threat to the person’s core values. If expectations are not met, it takes some guts to step back and reassess the situation and see what to do about one’s own expectations. We can hardly do much about another person’s expectations of us other than being true to our self and hope things even out.PP: What inspires you about these relationships when you’re penning a story or a feature?

SRR: I’m amused as well as intrigued by the way we’re cock-sure of how relationships work, forgetting that we’re viewing things through our own personal lenses. I like to believe that my stories focus on how a change of scene, a different perspective, either caused by an internal shift, an external event or interacting with a different person can upset our closely held opinions and notions.

changePP: You’ve been married for 16 years and followed your husband when he changed jobs and cities. What has been your experience of this change and how has it impacted your marriage? Has it felt restrictive in terms of settling in, making new friends, building a life etc.

SRR: We moved to Mumbai when my husband’s work took him there. It was a difficult move for me since I had finally begun to sink roots in Chennai – I had moved cities often until my senior school years. In Mumbai, I did have difficulty making friends because even something as simple as a definition of friendship is different between Chennai and Mumbai. Also, I had to start from scratch to get writing projects in Mumbai. We have since moved back to Chennai and strangely, I miss the vibrancy and efficiency of Mumbai. I would adapt a lot differently today if I had to return to Mumbai.

PP: How do you think the dynamics of the modern day Indian marriage are changing? How pressurising or challenging do you think the labels of new-age husband or feminist wife are? How do they impact marriages?

SRR: I think every marriage is unique, more so in the case of modern Indian marriages. It’s about two individuals with their own qualities, experiences and baggage, and how committed they are to make the partnership work with someone who may be very different from them. The factors that are changing and also challenging are not just the labels which are attributed rather casually and assumed to be generic, but also the fact that we’re attributing labels based on what we see second hand and not from life experience. If you analyse every label that you assume or attribute – say, feminist, new-age – and trace it back to where you got the definition from, it would be shocking to discover how much of it was second-hand. Today, labels are prone to being stereotypical, derived from magazines, books, movies, television and social media. And may I add, from frameworks we’ve imbibed from the West. For instance, resilience doesn’t score too highly in western feminism and contemporary feminist speak in India – it is often mistaken for subservience.

PP: The spoken word is powerful but sometimes honesty is not the best policy in a relationship – what is your opinion?

SRR: I guess that would depend completely on one’s discernment of a situation. There are no hard and fast rules – it really depends on whether speaking the truth in a specific situation is beneficial to the marriage or it’s just an individual whim to get something off one’s chest out of guilt or compulsion.

PP: You currently live with your mother-in-law. Based on your own experience, do you have any advice on how to create better ‘mother-in-law – daughter-in-law’ relationships?

SRR: As one of my cousins said, the relationship with one’s mother-in-law is at best like that of a favourite aunt. Unfortunately, nobody told our mothers-in-law that! Just like every marriage is unique, so is every ‘in-law’ relationship. The only difference is that there are heightened expectations. My own experience has been that finding common ground – in our case, Carnatic Music – makes us step outside our roles and regard each other as individuals. I cherish the times when we do that.

PP: As a freelance features writer and author, how has your journey been to receive recognition for the same within the family set-up? Have you felt the pressures of measuring up?

SRR: The concept of a working woman hasn’t sunk in yet and here we go confusing people with the term ‘freelance professional’! A lot of the time, since it’s not a job for the sake of an income, it is regarded as a hobby, an indulgence. And there are pressures of measuring up to not only the ‘working men’ and ‘working women’, but also busy mothers. I don’t have kids and my time is not perceived to be important as compared to mothers my age and people who work outside home. Maybe if I got a little more professional, published something substantial like a novel, actually looked the part of a writer or went away to an office, I may be perceived with a little more respect. But that may also be wishful thinking on my part!

PP: You’ve reviewed and commented on movies on your blog, can you name 3 movies (and comment why) which you believe rightly represented the changing nature of marriage and relationships in present times?

SRR: I love watching movies, but I honestly don’t think they represent the changing nature of marriage and relationships in present times. I don’t know of too many movies where the commitment to be together overrules all else. If Saathiya (Alaipayudhe) was one of the first to talk about what happens in the ‘happily ever after’ of love marriages, Queen gave us a glimpse into how women are blossoming into individuals. English Vinglish is a snapshot of many of our families where the wife/mother is underestimated and it takes something as superficial as the ability to speak English as a means to gain respect. Our movies are all about Indian men – no matter how they are – and how ‘their women should be’. At best, we try to emulate a western model of feminism that at some level inspires, and some level, feels disconnected from reality.

PP: Writing, at its best, is a lonely life ~ Hemingway. How do you deal with this notion when it brings you into conflict with who you are as a person and societal expectations from you?

SRR: It is a lonely life as a writer and I otherwise love people! Social media has been my saviour for interactions but I do recognise the need to have a better planned week so I write my quota as well as hang out with people outside of social media. Maybe I haven’t done a novel because I know it will consume me – it’s scary to be oblivious to expectations, to tune out others and their needs.

PP: As a couple, what is the one thing that has strengthened your marital relationship over the years? What would you therefore advice couples wanting to commit to each other?

glassesSRR: We have a similar value system and are in agreement on the big stuff. It helps that we’ve come to recognise that we’re different people, but can respect the difference (I’m still working on that!). We’ve grown in this marriage not only as a couple, but also as individuals. We’ve discovered that we love travel together. There’s just something to be said about handling challenges together – having one’s wallet picked, finding good accommodation, struggling with local language and currency, the quest for vegetarian food, making do with one strolley and a backpack each – and still have a terrific holiday.

My advice for couples – common interests are not crucial in a marriage – there’s no fun in marrying your clone, is there? The differences can bring different dimensions based on different experiences to the marriage. Also, as individuals we change over the years – the person you married is very different from the person he/she is today, as is the case with you. Allow for change, growth and difference. Ask for what you want, don’t wait for the other person to perceive your needs.

Marriage, is much more than a wedding

Marriages are made in heaven they say but one lives the life of a married couple on Earth – so guess that’s where the challenge lies!

Although we knew each other since 1994, we informed parents about our intention to marry only in 2001, by which time we were both working and well settled financially. There were issues because of our background and religious beliefs (more on that later!), but the parents took a year to prepare for the wedding. We were finally married in January 2002.

Ideally you would think the best possible way to approach the institution. We’d known each other for so long – we’d shared experiences, we had the same set of friends, we came to understand and accept each other’s shortcomings. We knew how the other reacted to uncomfortable situations, our opinions and views about people, family, work etc.

Yet after marriage it was a task, a huge one at that to adjust, compromise and settle into a married life.

Perhaps we didn’t count for the fact that we’d be with each other 24×7! Even if we argued it would no longer be switching off the mobile phone and going to bed. He’d be in the same bed with me!

The year we spent (along with our parents) on planning, preparing, buying clothes, jewellery and gifts for family, sending invitations, talking about menu, discussing how many people would attend each ceremony (Ai buro bhaat –  the last meal that the groom/bride eats as a bachelor; church wedding, gaye holud – yellow/turmeric on the body, Hindu wedding, receptions – one for the family and the other for external invitees etc – yes we did it all!), we didn’t give any thoughts to our life after marriage. We definitely didn’t believe in ‘happily ever after’ but we weren’t thinking of our expectations from each other.

It didn’t strike us simply because we didn’t think it necessary to ponder on – after all we’d known each other for so long!

Interestingly, marriage was a steep learning curve for both of us!