My Parent’s Marriage Story: Would They Be Happier if They Separated?

Modern Family

My Parent’s Marriage Story: Would They Be Happier if They Separated?

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

Marriage Story on Netflix is a visceral, wholly real story of two people in love, dealing with its decay while in the midst of a messy cross-country divorce, later answering the question, “Where is the love?” This isn’t a story about the messy side of a relationship in the shitter, but one about a relationship evolving under the duress of seeing someone you shared your soul with, leave with a piece of it while you learn to live without it.

Think of it as opening a box of pizza mid-munchies, only to learn that the Zomato guy ate a slice. You dreamt of this pizza, you imagined it fulfilling you in ways you couldn’t know, but were sure to discover, and then the inevitable happens. Do you start hating pizza? Do you hate this universe? No. You suck it up and dig in. Pizza will never be the same again and neither will you, but life goes on.

If Marriage Story were to be remade in India, it’d be about two people who realise their differences yet act like nothing’s wrong, living in a black hole of loveless denial until death actually does them apart. A lot like my parents and many parents who spawned my generation.

“If you find love Father, give it my address and phone number, it’s not been here in a while,” these words from my mother. My dad, on the other hand, sighed a deep long sigh, the trademark of ageing fathers everywhere when they briefly flash back to those glorious moments when they were free of the ball and chain of a marriage. The other Father, who’ll never know the scorn of a good woman, chuckled nervously as he hastily muttered a blessing over my bed-ridden dad and left.

My parents have been married for 32 years. My mum, a sweet-natured girl who quit school after the 10th standard to look after her six siblings, was married to my dad, the suave Catholic boy who worked in the Gulf, drank Black Label, and smoked 555’s, after her homemaking skills were on par with Mother India. It was a match made in purgatory, neither knew the other. My dad sought marriage for the same reason a large percentage of our country still does, to find someone who will haath batao his mother. Plus, my dad had zero game, so in the face of dying alone, arranged marriage was the bitter blue pill he had to swallow.

My parents took their vows, agreeing to be there for each other through sickness and health, good times and bad, and whatever black-and-white scenarios the Catholic church could think of. I first realised something was off when I was six or so, back when my friends and I were drawing pictures of a stick figure family standing outside a home next to a river with the sun setting between two hills. I was conflicted, all the parents in my classmates’ pictures were holding hands and smiling; mine rarely did. My dad worked in the Gulf, yet for those brief periods when he’d visit for a few months every year, the only sign of affection between my parents was an awkward kiss on the lips. I’d watched enough unsupervised cable TV by then to know that they were doing it wrong.

My dad sought marriage for the same reason a large percentage of our country still does, to find someone who will haath batao his mother.

My benchmark for marriage was another TV couple, Philip and Vivian Banks from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Happy, funny, black, rich and always there for each other. However, all around me the picture was the same. Marriages that were built on functionality, dowry, or having a bunch of kids to keep the family line unbroken. When my folks said, “I do” they meant it like Trump meant it when he promised to Make America Great Again. The only logical solution, is a simple separation.

My dad decided to try to make things work by quitting a high-paying job overseas to move back home to be a more active part of his family when I was 16. By then my parents had been married 21 years and it was a bit too late. My little family in its cosy little chawl home had all the love and warmth of an Uber Pool in rush-hour traffic with everyone waiting on the other to get off so their ride could get a little more comfy. But here we are 13 years later, still waiting for our trips to end.

The passive-aggressiveness of it all is astounding. Sure, my parents are unhappy, but never, in all my years has there been an outburst like Charlie and Nicole’s altercation. Charlie does the most American male thing ever and puts his fist right through a wall. His face a mask of sadness, love, and fury. He had me convinced all the love in his heart for Nicole was now crudely excised, replaced by festering scar-tissue, bandaged with hate and covered in a tincture of misplaced hope that it would all work out. It also made me wish my parents weren’t the equivalent of the two Koreas, always on the brink of annihilation but sharing the occasional cheeseburger at times.

What makes the institution of marriage more solvent than some banks in 2019? What is so binding about this exchange of words before God?

Sure, my parents are unhappy, but never, in all my years has there been an outburst like Charlie and Nicole’s altercation.

After the priest left and my mother’s arthritis-riddled fingers struggled to wrap a compression sock around my father’s swollen foot, he just sat there, avoiding eye contact, as I begged my mother to let me help. She would not. I watched her struggle in silence, as I’ve done for so many years. He did not even utter an indifferent thank you.

After it was done, my mom went on another rant about how living with the man was like trying to rip the balls off a bull bare-handed – pointless, frustrating, and painful. This was the first time I suggested my parents explore the option of divorce. Wouldn’t it solve a whole lot of her problems? She wouldn’t have to play dutiful wife to a man with the personality of the cardboard box your Flipkart order arrives in. I had her back. Why did she continue to give so much, yet get so little, without so much as a shred of love other than the solitary, dispassionate peck on the cheek that accompanies “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Birthday”?

Maybe it’s the ingrained servitude.

My mom is quick to pin “my solution” to her woes to my “generation” being all about quick fixes. This Marie Kondo-isation of marriage, according to her, is because people lack the will it takes to live with someone and their flaws.

She’s right and she’s wrong. We’d rather split up than stay together simply because we can – most of our parents couldn’t. Especially the women with no way out like my mum who was raised to believe she was meant to serve a greater good, not one like curing cancer or exploring space, but tending to the needs of a man she met for 60 minutes and later wound up bound to for 60 years.

One scene, in particular, from Marriage Story, killed me. It is when their son Henry reads aloud from a list of things Nicole likes about Charlie. His face at that moment, runs the gamut of emotions. With my parents, it is the exact opposite. They are playing “Ten Things I Hate About You” every morning and stoically watching Bigg Boss every evening, indifferent to each other, save for the occasional “Pass the water” or “Do you want some peanuts?”

My parents have grown and evolved over the 29 years I’ve known them. They’re in perfect sync, one zigs while the other zags, one bobs while the other weaves. They share a symbiotic – or co-dependent – relationship that if only peppered with love could be akin to Phil and Vivian from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Instead, they’re like post-separation Charlie and Nicole from Marriage Story, but still together. Maybe they’re in love and I just can’t see it. Then again, what’s love but Stockholm Syndrome?