Indian Relationships: A State Of Anarchy

I saw a Hollywood movie about relationships and love. In one scene, a man and a woman meet in a department store and strike up a conversation over the cash register which continues till they walk out. Standing on the sidewalk, they talk, like any two strangers who’ve just met, of things that interest the other and ooh and aah over what they have in common. Then, just on the verge of that crucial ‘ask for her number’ moment, the guy shrugs and says,

“I can’t do this. I’m married.”

It struck me right just then. They were following a socially accepted ritual. Then they reached a point where an expression of interest had to be made or not. And it could not be made since he was clearly unavailable. The social mores of their world dictated that he not go any furthur unless he was intending to take it forward seriously.

A few years ago, I was in Europe. After much teasing from my group, about Turkish delights and Greek gods, I returned to report that no man had flirted with me. But my mother, told me of one of our co-passengers had struck up a conversation and told her she was very attractive, adding with a snide look at my dad that he couldn’t say the same about her husband. She was highly surprised till we were told that in some western communities, it was considered polite, practically a social requirement to mock-flirt with a lady and compliment her on her fine form. This especially for a married woman, since it was quite clear that it was in light vein and was not intended to be taken seriously. Quite unlike India where it would be considered highly inappropriate to flirt or compliment a married woman. On the other hand, it was pointed out, that it would be equally inappropriate for the same men to have flirted with me since I was clearly available. Flirting would have been an indication of serious intent, a formal expression of interest.

We are still in a nascent society as far as dating goes. Our parents’ generation invented love marriages in this society; we are the generation that brings in friendship between the sexes as well as socially sanctioned romantic/sexual relationships before marriage. We haven’t quite learnt where to draw the line between friendship-comfort and attraction-commitment. We are still experimenting with how far we go with being funny/cool/charming and where it trespasses into flirtation.

Think about some of the relationship scenarios that are very real to us today. The ‘best friend’ of the opposite sex that makes the girlfriend/boyfriend so uncomfortable. The good friends (sister-brother…this is really the most convoluted one of all) who vehemently decree that other people have dirty minds. The older colleague/father of a friend/friend of father/husband of a friend who are really friendly, but perhaps a little too much sometimes?

Don’t we all know a guy who promises the world to every second girl, believing correctly, that she’ll keep it to herself because, it still isn’t done for a girl to admit that she’s been with a guy? There is nothing to check him from repeating the same over and over again, no one to brand him for the cad he is. Even after the crime is complete and guy is far away, possibly chasing a whole new set of girls or actually married, how many of the women he has wronged are actually going to speak up? How about the committed ones who pass off their behaviour as harmless friendliness? There’s a general ‘kehne mein kya harz hai?’ syndrome working here. The problem is that people do fall in love, hearts get broken, trust is rended and lives are shattered. You can deny those are very real crimes, nasty things that people do to people.

As modern women, we are expected to be ‘okay’ with a certain degree of liberal expression. The question how far does that stretch? It’s okay to know a lot of guys, it’s fine to go out with them, even flirt with them, get into relationships with them. But all of that provided it ends in the institution of marriage or at least a ‘stable, steady relationship’. But from meeting a guy to ending up in that last socially sanctioned comfortable relationship, it’s a long way. We stuff our best-looking side into our public persona and bury our insecurities. We put up with a guy who is ‘comittment-phobic’ for months and months because we don’t want to be nags. We’re okay with the ‘just good friends’ tag. We even tolerate cheating and tell ourselves patience is a virtue. You can be sure a crime of sorts has been committed but who’s going to haul in the offender?

And if you’re thinking this is equally true for women, I agree. With one small exception. Men who have been wronged in this manner can speak up about it and they do. Where else do we get such nasty phrases like slag and tease from? On the other hand, a woman who has been wronged cannot speak up. Liberatedness be damned, when such a social crime is perpetrated, the woman (more often than not) doesn’t dare speak up since even friends would call her stupid for having believed such a guy in the first place. Well, you live, you learn.

We are a society in a state of transition, this is true. Many of us feel like we’re stuck in the stiff rules of conservative India while being seduced by the liberatedness of the West. We navigate our lives through some complicated mixture of the two. But while trying to have the best of both worlds, we have the safety of neither – not the security of a protected society, nor the societal support system of an individualist one. The touts that flourish in any anarchy are well and alive in this one too. Let me end this by just saying that glorious as this rule-free state may be, the very lawlessness of it leaves each of us vulnerable to social crimes.


* An earlier version of this post is here. A version is also posted to Yahoo! Real Beauty.

6 thoughts on “Indian Relationships: A State Of Anarchy

  1. A very engrossing piece of writing. It was news to me and interesting one at that to know the social sanction to acts of flirtations with married women, so much so that it is now almost etiquette and the logic behind it. Brother-sister/good friends thing being the most convoluted is very true and so prevalent even in the metros. But i think its a very female point of view, just as it’s a long way from being social with a man to being with him for good…..similarly men too have to get there before being sure about it. Commitment phobia it might not be.
    P.S.- you got a new reader…!! 🙂

    1. @cavalierme: I was surprised too but etiquettes vary across cultures, I guess. You’re right about this being a biased point of view. But hey, well, I’m a woman so this would be a female perspective. 😀 Thank you for commenting and a very warm welcome to XX Factor!

  2. I am sorry, this girl makes no sense. She cries across the length and
    breadth of the article until her voice turns hoarse, only to later
    admit that this may not be a one-way phenomenon and it is likely that
    they are many guys stuck with committment phobic girls. Then she draws
    a distinction saying that girls can’t speak up while guys can. I can’t
    accept that this is true for cities. And, if it is indeed true, then
    why aren’t girls more tough on men? They should outrightly tell a man
    that it is okay to flirt with them only if he promises to marry them.
    Simply because a guy flirts with you, to expect him to marry you is
    rather ridiculous. And if one does expect ridiculous things, you
    should at least fore-warn the person from whom you expect such
    ridiculous things.
    Her observations of the western world are flawed to the extent of
    being blind. Our girl says that in western countries men would mildly
    flirt with married woman out of politeness and never with single girls
    unless they are serious about a life long commitment with them. It is
    simply not true that men in western countries don’t flirt with single
    girls unless they are fully ready to marry them. [No man flirted with
    her because may be she wasn’t good enough, is a different matter
    altogether] In fact, there are many more one-night stands, random
    love-makings in parties and casual dating relationships in western
    countries than India. This is surely much more than merely flirting!
    What’s to learn in drawing a line between friendship, dating and a
    marriage commitment?! You can’t have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach,
    so there can’t be anything to learn. It is entirely an individual’s
    choice. If you aren’t comfortable with a guy flirting with you until
    he promises to marry you, rather than calling him commitment phobic
    and hoping that this would change someday, you should be outrightly
    stern with him telling him that you can’t flirt with a guy who can’t
    promise to marry you.
    Indian girls are the worst at this double standard – Case in point, my
    friend Aneesha. She had a boyfriend in college for the heck of it (or
    probably as a status symbol). Now, she is looking for a guy to get
    married to, and she has absolutely no intention of even considering
    her boyfriend of 3 years. Why? Well, because while he was a good
    boyfriend material (strong lad with biceps to protect her from the eve
    teasers of DU, enough money to pamper her, good in studies to help her
    pass her exams etc.), he is not good husband material (Oriya, family
    status and wealth not matching her family etc.). I would have still
    understood her approach if her parents were forcing her into
    something. On the contrary, her parents are cool with her marrying any
    guy including her boyfriend of three years. But she simply can’t get
    married to anyone of status and wealth lower than hers. Now, you might
    be tempted to think that she’s an exception and hardly the norm.
    However, I have seen so many girls like her that I am convinced that Aneesha’s behavior is the norm.

    1. @Rohit: ‘This girl’ (me) has lived in a city all her life so feels qualified to say that this is true indeed of the cities too viz – it being harder for a girl to talk about being a victim of caddish behaviour. I agree that this means that women have to be firm right at the start with men and insist on a conversation continuing only if there is an intent to commit. I must however explain, (from experience) that a number of men also object to this behaviour, either because they feel it insults their dignity (by assuming that they’re all cads) or on the grounds that it makes the woman ‘boring’, ‘paranoid’ or ‘overly vain’. Most women I know, find themselves in this strange quandary where whatever we do, is objectionable. Being naturally friendly is seen as loose behaviour. Being self-protective amounts to our getting labelled ‘ice queen’ and other less polite things.

      Regarding my perceptions of the western world, I recounted one incident that happened and what someone else mentioned, in context. It is true that this does not mean that cads and liars do not exist in the western countries. Of note, what I’m calling caddish behaviour is when one person leads the other person on, deceives and lies to them with absolutely no intention of fulfilling their promises. I don’t believe that one-night stands & casual dating fall into this if they occur with equal consent from everyone concerned (The ‘we’re both adults’ approach).

      And finally, I know that women like your friend exist too and I’d call them as much relationship criminals as the men I’ve talked about. I believe I’ve said this clearly in the post, that such caddish behaviour is not gender-neutral. If my post seems to come only from a woman’s point of view, it’s because I am a woman and this is a blogpost (subjective, opinion-based), not a newspaper story (objective, fact-based). Our experiences shape our perceptions so I respect that you have your opinion about women just as I have mine.

      Having said all of this, I’d like to end by saying, your opinions of my opinions and my posts are most welcome on XX Factor, whether they agree with me or not. But there’s really no reason for personal attacks so please refrain from them in the future. Thank you for commenting.

  3. Thanks for your reply. Didn’t mean to attack you personally but it seemed from your post that while away in the west, you were ignored more than you would have personally liked to. Like you admit yourself that blog posts are personal subjective opinions, and opinions are based on your perception (which, in turn, is largely shaped by your personal experiences). So although I didn’t mean to comment on your personal life, it couldn’t be helped. But for this reason, I fully agree with you that while commenting on an article, the bare minimum one must absolutely do is to refrain from launching any sort of personal attacks. Again, since blogposts tend to be much more subjective than newspaper articles, the authors of these need to have a slightly thicker skin than newspaper editors.
    On your other points –
    1. If it insults a (fragile) man’s fragile dignity because you wouldn’t flirt with him unless he is serious about a relationship, then really, is that his problem or yours?
    2. You have clearly met the wrong guys. There are millions of men out there who would not call you boring or paranoid just because you wouldn’t flirt with them. But if you like a certain X and want to flirt with him, go ahead by all means. But, if he does respond positively to your flirting, please don’t expect him to be ready to commit then, or at all. [The probable reason (whether its true for you or not, its true for many other girls) that you have not met these nicer men is because you would never even talk to a stranger – What is the paranoia?! You will talk to the most hideous of guys if you came across them at office, or a family wedding but never add someone whose profile interested you on facebook! – That is true social networking, by the way, and not telling your friends every twenty minutes that you have gone to the toilet, taken a bath etc. etc. by a ridiculous number of status updates]
    3. You title your article as “Indian relationships: A State of Anarchy” but contradict it through the piece and your comments above. You havn’t shown us the “anarchy” you proclaim; you have, in your comment, admitted that there is nothing particularly “Indian” about this phenomenon.
    4. I gave you the example of my friend to show you that your assertion (that women can’t speak up as much as men about this seemingly problematic issue) even if assumed to be true, is simply not relevant here. Is the case of my friend’s (ex) boyfriend any better than that of a girl duped by a ‘cad’?
    5. I find the use of the word ‘cad’ by you highly problematic. According to the dictionary,
    cad (kæd)
    — n
    informal , old-fashioned ( Brit ) a man who does not behave in a gentlemanly manner towards others
    an ill-bred man, especially one who behaves in a dishonorable or irresponsible way toward women.
    If you really care about the equality of sexes (and it seems to me that you do), please stop using such archaic, sexist words. If you agree that this problem is gender-neutral, why use such a sexist word?
    6. Finally, (and this disturbs me the most, almost as much as it disturbs the logical flow of your post), if one night stands/random lovemaking are fine (as per we are both adults approach), then how is a guy supposed to know which girl wants what? So, if the girl wants a one-night stand she is a mature adult, and if the guy works towards it (by flirting) he’s a criminal?! In any case, how is a guy supposed to know whether you want it or not?!

  4. Your piece was so full of the truth, I got all emotional up in my head. Pakistan is no different from India in this aspect, where does one find the balance between conservative and liberal outlooks? Especially when you’ve been brought up to think ‘openly’ but are also asked to be conservative by society and elders…really frustrating. Bottom line is that men are able to get away with a lot cause of this conservative-liberal confusion, but women in South Asian societies are mostly tied down cause of the simple fact that she ‘represents’ the integrity of the family name.

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