The Marriage that Lasted 46 Days

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The Marriage that Lasted 46 Days

Illustration: Rutuja Patil/ Arré

R

ashmi’s match was made the old-fashioned way – by an impersonal and efficient marriage bureau in Pune. Caste, finances, and the most important variable “family background” were all vetted. Love was not a part of the checklist. It would come, as in every arranged marriage, much later.

Raj, in his thirties, was an IT professional who confessed in their early meetings that he’d never had a conversation with a girl, let alone a relationship. This somehow endeared him to Rashmi. He is not a player, she thought with great affection and pledged her troth to the awkward young man.

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The wedding was a typical middle-class Maharashtrian affair and soon a breathless Rashmi and a slightly stunned Raj, left for Kerala. The honeymoon was supposed to be the week where they finally fell in love and lust.

But what followed over the next one week was not a tryst with intimacy. The conversations between the freshly minted couple refused to move beyond first-date tropes of “favourite food” and “favourite SRK movie”. In spite of all efforts by Rashmi to slide into more personal territory, the limits of familiarity were clearly drawn. Even as Rashmi told herself that her new husband was just shy, the silences between them became longer and increasingly awkward.

In the stillness of the night, this arrangement took on strange forms. Every time she would reach out for him, he would recoil from her touch. Brought up as a conservative Maharashtrian girl and trained to be unforthcoming in matters of sexual conduct, Rashmi ventured into unchartered waters and tried to probe, with great delicacy, why sex was not on the honeymoon menu.

Raj blamed his hesitance on a fear of hidden cameras. He had heard that hotels surreptitiously filmed couples having sex and then sold the footage to international pornography rings. So hung up was he on the idea of their marital relations being turned into fodder for universal titillation, that he switched off the lights if she was changing in their room and made her sleep at an arm’s length on the hotel bed.

Rashmi didn’t know what to make of this extreme paranoia, but she let it pass. Their relationship was too raw and unfamiliar, and snap judgments could be damaging. But when they got back home, the pattern of living in separate corners of the room, refused to change. Rashmi, desperate to stop this from becoming the leitmotif of her marriage, got bolder in her attempts to reach out, but much to her mounting shame, she was thwarted with the standard “I’m too tired/I have a headache” excuses. And when he accused her of having a libido with which he could not keep up, Rashmi was heartbroken.

She wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth. She wrote her husband an email, asking him straight out whether he was gay.

Days passed and even as Rashmi busied herself into creating the façade of a new home, she knew they were on thin ice. There was no love, no intimacy, and slowly the conversations too ceased. The idea of going back to her parents, with a marriage of less than two months, was terrifying. When she persisted, things quickly took a turn for the worse. Her attempts to cajole love out of him were met with increasing aggression. When a visibly frustrated Raj began to attempt violent sex, demanding acts that Rashmi did not consent to, she knew it was over.

On the 46th day of her wedding, Rashmi decided to return to her parents’ house.

***

According to gay activist Ashok Row Kavi, 75 per cent of the estimated population of 25 lakh gay men in India is married. In the conversation surrounding homosexuality and forced marriages, the halo of the victim is very firmly placed on the gay spouse. The wife is synonymous with the oppressive system that snuffs the life out of the queer-identified partner. But in a marriage where two different sexualities are forced to co-habit, there are two victims.

Last year, a Delhi doctor Priya Vedi committed suicide after outing her husband of five years, a fellow physician, with a Facebook post. She accused him of “tricking” her into marriage, withholding affection, and then blaming it on her own inadequacies. After many years of trying and constantly failing to get his approval, she found out that he was gay. All through their marriage, he had led an active double life and had multiple partners. Before she slit her wrist, Priya posted a fervent plea to gay men, urging them not to play this deadly game, just so that they can remain in the closet.

While the idea of homosexuality may have come as a shock to Priya, Rashmi was more than conversant with the subject. As a social worker, she had worked with many LGBTQ organisations and had led workshops for gay men, helping them on the path of self-acceptance. But her husband was “nothing like them”.

“There was nothing gay about him. Neither the body language, nor the mannerism. And it is not like I am a homophobe who has never met a gay man before,” says Rashmi. She is a soft-voiced young woman, waif-like, but as she talks about the 46 days, which changed her life, she gets animated.

As the conversation continues, I realise that Rashmi’s definition of gay men, in spite of her work, was made up of the popular stereotypes – the effeminate man with the infantile lisp and limp wrists, the flamboyant man who wore makeup. But it is possibly because of her work that Rashmi took only a couple of months to figure out what was amiss about their marriage. Most women take years to understand and some live in lifelong marriages, where they have no choice but to see it through. For these women, it’s not the sexless marriage that’s hell. The hell is what will come after.

In Rashmi’s story, after the matter was escalated to the parents of both parties, the shaming began. How could a girl even discuss the matter of sex with elders? Rashmi was surely not an “acche ghar ki ladki”. She was clearly a sex addict who could not think of anything else. After all, wasn’t there much more to a marriage than sex?

Rashmi sat quietly through these shaming sessions, but even as the shit storm of social pressure swirled around her, she grappled with the answers to the mystifying debacle that was her marriage. She spoke to shrinks and read marriage-counselling blogs online. She began to see how her experiences matched those of women who were married to closeted gay men. But this was all conjecture. She wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth. She wrote her husband an email, asking him straight out whether he was gay.

She never got a reply.

***

The taboo against homosexuality in India is still light years away from receding. Add to this, the shame of rejection and the drastic step of ending a marriage in which a family and perhaps even children are invested heavily. This keeps most women who are married to gay men silent. Along with their men, they too enter proverbial closets.

After Priya’s death, a Facebook page came up in her memory. Called Indian Straight Spouse, it became a voice of women, mostly young, some older, who had experienced the fallacy of such unions. Rashmi was one of the members of that page. Here she met women who had stories like hers to tell. The mother of a teenager, who had spent more than a decade in a loveless marriage, the young woman who was asked to sleep with the younger brother instead, the woman who was met with psychical violence every time she tried to get some affection.

Rashmi still hasn’t heard from her husband. His family closed ranks around him so quickly that Rashmi can’t help but wonder if they knew of their son’s preferences and believed marriage would be the answer. Maybe they hoped that she would be the one to “cure” his homosexuality.

She has met women who’d met a similar fate on Priya’s page. The Facebook page today has a few hundred followers, women who have finally found a platform to talk about their worst fears. Many of them are looking for a way out, but most of them will stay, hoping against hope, for change.

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