Column | Marriage is like a tanga

Phuphee breaks down why the institution needs “two wheels”, otherwise it is just a crazy bull wandering around aimlessly

Updated - May 25, 2024 01:59 pm IST

Published - May 24, 2024 12:28 pm IST

‘Marriages are always unequal for women but that doesn’t mean you accept them as they are.’

‘Marriages are always unequal for women but that doesn’t mean you accept them as they are.’ | Photo Credit: Illustration: Zainab Tambawalla

A few days after I got married a curious thing happened. I was instructed by a number of relatives that I should stop addressing my husband by his name and instead show him respect by calling him ‘doctor saab’. Initially, I thought it was a joke (in poor taste, but a joke nonetheless) but it soon became clear that this was not the case.

During one conversation with an elderly aunt, I enquired as to why me calling him by his name was not respectful enough? And was it not the same when he called me by my name? Should he not call me ‘Saba ji’? I was met with silence and frowns.

I tried to ignore these assaults on my fragile boundaries as best as I could, but after a week or so I knew this would need addressing. It is custom in Kashmir that when a girl gets married and moves in with her new family, relatives from her parents’ side visit for the first week to see how she is settling in. It was luck or divine intervention that the next day Phuphee arrived with one of my aunts.

Once she had had a cup of tea, she told me she had seen a particularly handsome walnut tree in the garden and if I would show it to her. It was warm and balmy, and I instantly felt better, a little stronger, as we took a stroll, but I realised that it had more to do with Phuphee than anything else.

‘Let’s sit,’ she pointed at the foot of the walnut tree.

‘I always feel my mind is sharper after I sit under the shade of a walnut tree,’ she said, taking out a small wrapped parcel and placing it in my hand. She then fished out her cigarette box and popped two cigarettes in her mouth.

‘Right,’ she said, after taking a couple of deep drags, ‘What disturbs the peace of my gash [light of my eyes]?’

I explained what had happened.

She asked me to open the parcel. Wrapped neatly inside a small muslin kerchief were toasted walnuts dusted lightly with confectioner’s sugar.

‘When I got married, things were different. Women didn’t have a voice. For us, it was difficult to say anything because we were constantly told that ‘sabr’ [patience, endurance] is the most important virtue in a woman. I settled in easily when I got married, but after I had my first baby, things changed. There were now more demands on my time than I had ever imagined. Before the baby, I would sit with everyone to eat. After, I would end up serving everyone, then going back to feed the baby, and coming later to eat cold, congealed food on my own. I don’t know why, but of all the injustices, this one really got to me the most. Perhaps it was because I put my heart and soul into preparing the meals only to have all the pleasure of eating them taken away.

‘But I didn’t know how to address this. So, one day I told your uncle about how I felt. After I told him, however, I regretted it. How could he possibly do anything to change the situation? For a couple of weeks, things continued as they were, until one day, at dinner, after everybody had taken their places, your uncle took the baby and told me, ‘Tahira, you eat first while the food is hot and I will hold baba till then.’ For a second I thought I was hallucinating. His parents and the rest of the family were too stunned to speak, and before they could, I sat down and ate my dinner.

‘That became the foundation of our marriage. Whenever I am troubled by things that are beyond my power, your uncle will always try to come up with a solution. A marriage is like a tanga [bullock cart], it needs two wheels, otherwise it is just a crazy bull wandering around aimlessly pulling on a broken wheel. Now, eat your walnuts and put your grey matter to good use. Marriages are always unequal for women but that doesn’t mean you accept them as they are. Go change the world a little bit,’ she said, winking at me.

I thought about this for a while and then told my husband about the situation. He didn’t say anything, but after a few days he started addressing me as ‘myoan zuv’ (my life), which was completely unheard of. A husband addressing his wife in public so intimately and affectionately was simply not done. There were sighs and frowns and comments about how the world was getting closer to the end, and how shame and modesty had been lost. While all that may be true, a small battle had been won and today a story is told in hushed voices in a small village in Kashmir about a man who held a baby so his wife could eat in peace and a man who chose the love of his wife over the ways of the world.

Saba Mahjoor, a Kashmiri living in England, spends her scant free time contemplating life’s vagaries.

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