By Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan May. 21, 2016
For a people big on weddings, the “no-frills, no-fuss” of live-in relationships takes some getting used to. We’d better. Living in sin is in.
Iwas recently asked about a little household trick I was trying. I think it was some kind of cleaning or cat hack, no doubt. I remember the conversation for something else entirely. I said, “My partner and I,” in response to a question, and went on to finish my sentence, but I could see I had them at the preface. I could feel the whole room turning toward me. Partner. Hmm.
“You know,” said my friend, taking a sip of her red wine, “People don’t really know what you mean by partner. They probably think you’re gay or something.”
In the other room, a layer away, the silence broken by a lady asking earnestly, “So what kind of business are you and your partner in?”
My partner is a man and I am a woman, but he is not my boyfriend, because we are not in our 20s and have been living together effectively for the entirety of our four-year relationship, but officially for a year and a half. We have cats together, we’re planning a house together, when we make big life decisions, we don’t do it without consulting the other.
We are not in the holding cell implied by the word “boyfriend”. Our eyes are not fixed on the golden ring of matrimony. For all intents and purposes, we have what you’d call a marriage. Except, we’re living in.
The Supreme Court of India has blessed cohabitation. It’s valid: You both have to be of legal marriageable age (check), you have to be unmarried and qualified to marry (check), and you have to have a shared household, not just one-night stands over a period of time, or weekends together (check).
Marriage is such an adult institution. How do you ever know you’re old enough?
So we’re legal; so legal, it’s a bit boring. We get asked to weddings together, we consult each other on grocery lists, and we get sick around each other. I’m not always wearing lipstick or a red negligee. Nights at home are pizza and a TV show we both love. If we’re feeling particularly crazy, we order in sushi instead.
I always imagined living in sin would be filled with high drama and excitement. But it’s softer and fluffier than you would think.
“Don’t volunteer information,” says my mother. I’ve got to hand it to her, she has taken this “living in sin” business far better than most Indian parents would. I’m also rather in-your-face about it. I dragged my reluctant partner to a family wedding—his first, our first—and threw him to the wolves. I demanded we be put in the same bedroom or threatened to get a hotel. I introduced him to various extended relatives who then went to my mother and said, “Your son-in-law is so handsome.” She smiled graciously and didn’t correct them.
A few aunts and an uncle cornered us at various times to talk about marriage. “Why not?” they asked, gentle, humorous discussion turning almost hostile when I rebuffed them for the third time. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t want to,” I said, folding my arms across my chest as a full stop to this conversation. I walked away. I closed the door. The partner was far politer than I was. He engaged. “Don’t engage,” I hissed at him. He patted my back.
“We have a marriage,” I said to a particularly overbearing relative, “We just didn’t have a wedding.” She blinked twice. I thought she understood, but she was only drawing breath to ask again, “Why not?”
Our stance is not this big old political statement either. I’m not opposed to marriage, it’s not off the table. It’s not on the table either. It’s sort of… around the table. I feel my hackles rise when someone implies our relationship is less than someone else’s who signed a piece of paper.
I watched marriages fall apart my whole childhood and teens. I watched as friends’ parents tried “Part Two”, I watched as marriages within my own family, immediate and extended, imploded under the weight of collective expectations.
“I just want to live with someone for a few years before I marry them,” say my friends who are dating. They want “partners,” they want to play house-house until they have to go do grown-up things. Marriage is such an adult institution. How do you ever know you’re old enough?
All this would be okay, if we didn’t live in a country as obsessed with marriage as India. Some families have your wedding pictured almost as soon as you’re born. Others hang on to heavy gold jewellery. I have some gold things myself, which had apparently been earmarked for me back in the day, which I had never laid eyes on.
Finally, in my 30s, I said I’d like to at least see them. Get some pleasure out of them even if they were never worn for their “true purpose”. No one ever gives you a gold chain for your first lease co-signed with the person you love.
The other thing is, my partner and I are different nationalities. To be married would make everything easier, at least in terms of travel. Then I talk to a friend’s English wife. “I can’t work for two years,” she said, “I had to sign a paper saying I was dependent on my husband and in-laws for income.” She shook her head. In two years, she’ll get an OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) card.
I can’t imagine my partner agreeing to be financially dependent on me for two years. “Is this true for men as well?” I ask her. She shrugs, “Probably not.”
I Google “India Spouse Visa”. The Bureau of Immigration says, employment/business is not allowed on a spouse or “X” visa. If my partner married me, in two years, he’d have an OCI card. However, he’s been in this country for six years now, and another few and he should be able to ask the government for a PIO card, with or without me. Or so I hear. The internet is vague despite my search terms.
On the other side, I check my requirements to go to his country, if we were married. I still need a visa, the website tells me, but I’ll get it for free.
If we both still need visas, it makes the whole thing somewhat pointless. So little paperwork involved when you are not followers.
I know someone who knew someone who broke up with her partner. They had a child together. I was always struck by how easy it was to walk away: homes divided, child comforted, and voila, you were free to live your life.
That’s an argument people use a lot. So easy to walk away. They think of marriage as an obstacle course, of people unhappy in a marriage as goldfish in a shark tank. Even if they’re unhappy, they won’t leave, because it’s so difficult to. However, in my experience, the only thing more difficult than months of paperwork and lawyer visits to “unmarry” yourselves, is the stab of crushing loneliness you feel at 3 am when you still can’t sleep because the person next to you is someone you’d rather was very, very far away.
This relationship is not old India, not at all, but neither is divorce. If you can live with that, maybe you can live with this as well.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of five books, most recently Before, And Then After and Split. She is a full-time writer and novelist.