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Mitali Saran: I take this man/woman with a pinch of salt

Mitali Saran 

Mitali Saran

I've been to a couple of weddings in the last few weeks, and it struck me again for the umpteenth time: can't we update Hindu wedding vows?

Everyone knows that marriage in India is such a fundamental expectation in the life cycle, from individuals as well as from society, that it is perfectly acceptable to grill a stranger about theirs and offer unsolicited advice: "Are you married? Why not? Meet my son. I have a niece/nephew in an investment bank in USA. Is there … a problem? You're 40 - how very sad, have you tried online? Who will look after you when you're old? Oh, you're divorced." *Walks away.*

Weddings everywhere make people misty-eyed, but in India the general social relief of getting a child off one's hands and into the hands of holy, lifelong, socially respectable, financially secure matrimony is almost crushing. Perhaps that's why people aren't too fussed about the vows. The weddings I attended were cross-cultural affairs filled with bright, modern, cosmopolitan men and women, and the vows were roughly explained in English for the benefit of the foreign party. Hearing them in a language you know - because you failed to grow up in post-Smriti Irani classrooms - is enough to make your jaw hang like a sack of dowry.

At the end I blurted out: "Those wedding vows turn my stomach." The face of the foreigner standing next to me performed a complicated ballet of negotiation between agreement and cross-cultural uncertainty before settling for a weak smile, and I felt bad about that, but they do turn my stomach. Here's how they go.

Bride: "I vow to care for, and look after, you and your whole entire family, including the infants and the really old people, for the rest of my life, and to do all the household chores, and to bear and raise your children, and regularly cook you delicious food, and to help increase your wealth, and to never sleep with anyone else, and to do my darndest to please you, and to support you in everything you do."

Groom: "I vow to earn some money for you and the kids, and am really looking forward to having you please me in every way, you lucky thing."

A rough distillation, admittedly, but that's the meat and potatoes of it. There's something about being friends and companions, too, but it's thrown in amid a lot of very specific, pragmatic, division-of-labour stuff.

The distance between ritual and social practice may have grown immensely, but traditional attitudes retain a deep subliminal hold. So, for instance, when today a woman goes into the world to work at a career of her own, her husband gets unspoken extra credit for being okay with that. (I'm not speaking, here, of the millions of families in which women work outside their homes as a matter of necessity, not choice.) When a man pitches in with household chores, he gets hosannas for his generosity, since the baseline is that he doesn't have to. In either case, he is "allowing" his wife something he is not contractually obligated to: work a second job (her first, domestic job isn't seen as a job but as the natural duty she signed up for-which, technically, she did) and slack off on her rightful chores, thanks to his contribution, which is barely visible against the glow of his halo.

Without question, many social attitudes have changed, and, of course, not everything is taken literally. But maybe it's time for couples who take the consecration part of their marriages seriously (as opposed to completing the ritual as a matter of form, which is perfectly fine) to consider writing their own vows. Perhaps it's time to observe karva chauth only if you really genuinely subscribe to the idea behind that one-way fast, rather than just because it's a reason to dress up and buy jewellery? In other words, trace the connections, where they exist, between sacred tradition and the routine brutalisation and oppression of women. Malignancies deserve excision.

In an age where divisive, communal politics has not so much gone mainstream - all political parties have cynically used that strategy whenever convenient - as come proudly out of the closet, "tradition" has become bitterly contested territory. Is a critique of those sacred matrimonial Sanskrit shlokas, and any others that sound tinny in the modern age, just another sad little sickular Westernised assault on the great glory of Indian tradition?

No, and it's no fun either. Weddings are parades, and nobody likes to rain on a parade. But you'll have to explain how it is possible to swear allegiance to gender equality and empowering Indian women, and simultaneously maintain a hands-off policy on tradition.

First Published: Fri, December 05 2014. 22:40 IST