"Tumhara toh family scene hi different hai...people here are gonna die figuring that out!"
Earlier this year, my cousin laughed out loud when I told him that 'she' was joining us for my brother's wedding reception at our village.
She, my husband's ex-wife, my elder daughter's biological mother, was just short of booking her tickets from Mumbai to be with us for one of the many wedding feasts that my father ended up hosting.
This essay, however, is not about the big fat Indian wedding but explores what comes afterward, or at least is supposed to. The great Indian family is changing in form and fragrance, even if we are slow in acknowledging it.
Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao Remain "Family" Despite Divorce
We are still used to looking at divorce from a traditional vantage point where marriage is supposed to last a lifetime, if not more. At least the good and acceptable ones. The ones that are beyond the boundaries of socio-religious acceptance are routinely heaped with insults and curses—the latter often nothing more than wishing "divorce" upon such couples.
Divorce is dirty, dreaded, and disenchanting. Even if it is not messy. Even when the separated partners decide otherwise. We tend to understand family as a concept only in agnate terms, that, too, after several stamps of acceptance have been put on relationships.
Is our understanding of family so constricted, and the very idea so fragile, that it is threatened by choices that participating members make even consensually? Is the traditional Indian family, then, being fair to the modern Indian family?
It took my traditional Indian family I was born into some time to accept that my erstwhile three-member family now has:
my husband and I
my husband's ex-wife and her mother
my husband's ex wife's partner
my ex-husband and his father
my ex-husband's wife
and yes, most importantly, our two dogs.
It Truly Takes a Village to Raise a Child
I must admit that this big bonus-family often resembles a minefield despite all the adults being on the same page that the two girls must get the best that we can offer. Our methods are different and often mutually contradictory. From something as basic as homeopathy versus 'allopathy' to more serious debates on education choices, this bonus family has its work cut out. Sometimes, things are truly messed up and we (all of those listed above) end up being annoyed with each other in all permutations and combinations possible.
Nonetheless, my husband's ex-wife and I spent a whole night chatting, laughing, and eating pizza in a hotel room during my last trip to Mumbai.
And my husband and my ex-husband had long chats about national and international affairs in our living room during his last visit to Delhi.
Our daughters wait for such moments to occur because it assures them of the continuity of filial protection despite all odds. It is particularly important for them to have this security in today's pandemic-wrecked world where the very words like continuity, permanence, normal have become redundant.
When I contracted the COVID-19 infection in April a second time in six months, the girls were sent to my hometown to keep them physically safe and emotionally secure from Delhi's tragic second wave. It was the elder one's first unmediated sustained encounter with her step-grandparents. She chose to cut her trip a bit shorter than originally planned. Because Naani-Naanu grew so fond of her, the younger one began to resent it. Like a good didi, she decided to make way for undivided attention going to the younger love hound.
This situation repeats itself when they are in Mumbai and the younger one is treated like a princess. Even Shahrukh Khan is made available for her to get selfies with!
Could Things be Done Differently?
The end of a relationship defines us just as its beginning once did. Only the vocabulary changes. There is no denying that most marriages that end with divorce leave a debris of painful memories behind. My husband and I were once buried under them, and so were the two girls. Once we decided to put this new family together, it became incumbent on us to cut the clutter and clean all the cobwebs.
It's not without pain, and anger, that past and present get reconciled. Yet, when you "gotta move on", you move onward. There is a real, almost tangible, baggage of regret and thwarted expectations and lost time that you choose to finally dump.
The children do it, too. In their own ways. Like, the younger one asked me once, "If daddu was like uncle, would you guys still have separated?" No, there is no answer to such questions. Yes, they leap at you in different forms and shapes at the most unexpected times and places. For a long time, the older one kept looking for a mother in everyone except her biological mother. That quest ended when her biological parents found a mutually conducive meeting ground and she made her own journey to this space.
Pain is not optional, looking for a treatment certainly is.
Separating For the Sake of Children
Thanks to Bollywood and endless literature on how children save marriages, most people—especially women—find it difficult to end their abusive and unsatisfactory marriages. I don't need to explain how disingenuous and manipulative this whole concept is. First, children are used to save marriage and later marriage is used to save children. Mostly, nothing and nobody get saved.
No, abusive or pretend-marriages do no good to children. Au contraire, children tend to imbibe all that we want to shield them from: violence, trauma, insecurity, and unimaginable pain.
If a child can be nurtured lovingly in a one-parent family, why impose the other parent on her? Why subject the child to the power struggle and acrimony or, worse, hypocrisy of an adult relationship on an everyday basis when it can be avoided?
This is by no means didactic or prescriptive but I ended my first marriage because it seemed my little daughter could do without the ugliness of adult world. She deserved to continue seeing her parents as role models and it was not possible as long as they, us, stayed married.
There are different rules for different fools and the one that ends with "till death do us part" is junked by some of us for good reasons. And coming back to Aamir and Kiran, there may or may not be a third variable in the marriage equation for it to be unbalanced.
Sometimes, we simply drift apart before death has the chance of doing us part.
Family and marriage are not coterminous.