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Modern marriages aren’t made in heaven

In the past few weeks, sexual tragedies have blighted some prominent and attractive lives. Sunanda Pushkar, wife of the writer and minister, Shashi Tharoor, died recently in Delhi. Around the same time, the French First Lady, Valerie Treirweiler, had to be hospitalized in Paris. Both events followed revelations of alleged sexual affairs. Sunanda Pushkar accused her husband of an intimate relationship with a Pakistani journalist. Ms Treirweiler was devastated by the French president, Francois Hollande’s liaison with an actress; France’s first family split a few days later. These are not only titillating sex scandals about glamorous celebrities — they reveal something deeper and infinitely sad about the melancholic human condition. 

The standard narrative in such cases is to blame the unfaithful man, calling him 'scumbag’ and 'cheat'. There is another narrative, however, which holds the institution of 'love marriage' equally guilty. Modern marriage combines three idealistic ideas — love, sex, and family — which make distinctive but unreasonable demands on a couple. To raise a family was, of course, the original idea behind marriage. To it has been added the second ideal of romantic love; and a third — that one's partner should also be a great performer in bed. 

We have a sensible institution in India called 'arranged marriage' which we contrast with 'love marriage'. Throughout human history arranged marriages were the norm in most societies. People got married to raise a family. In early 19th century, with the rise of the middle-classes, 'love marriage' emerged in Europe. It coincided with the Enlightenment, which incubated 'modern' ideas such as liberty, equality, individualism and secularism that quickly swept the world. These liberal ideas, along with 'love marriage', came to India on the coat tails of the British Raj. Initially it infected a tiny westernized minority but today it has permeated a larger middle-class. Most Indians received their ideal of 'love marriage' unreliably from Bollywood, which may explain why good old fashioned arranged marriage is still well and alive in India. 

In pre-modern times, men satisfied the three needs via three different individuals, according to the philosopher Alain de Botton's sensitively male perspective. A wife made a home and children; a lover fulfilled one's romantic needs clandestinely ; and an accomplished prostitute or courtesan was always there for great sex. This division of labour served men well. Given a chance, I expect, my grandfather would have lived thus. But today, we make impossible demands on a single person to meet romantic, sexual and familial needs. She feels huge pressure to fulfil all three roles plus make a career outside the home. What she mostly wants is a love marriage with good and faithful husband. 

The insane ambition of modern love marriage to satisfy so many needs places a huge burden and this might also help to explain the tragedies of Sunanda Pushkar and Valerie Treirweiler. It was certainly behind the tragedies that befell the heroines of two of my favourite novels, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. Both women had enviable financial security but also loveless marriages. But both had modern, romantic expectations from life, and dared to fulfil them outside marriage. Society did not forgive their illicit love affairs and their lives ended in tragic suicides. 

Human beings may have become modern and liberal but society remains conservative. Who has not been tempted by illicit love? An affair with a beautiful stranger is a thrilling prospect, especially after years of raising children. There is also fear of death if one is middle-aged — life is passing and when will another chance come? But these exhilarating thoughts have to be weighed against hurting another human being. One must always empathize with the victim of adultery. Even the Kamasutra admits that dharma trumps kama. 

Does one betray another human being or oneself ? Either way one loses. If one decides to have a fling, one betrays a spouse and puts one's love at risk. If one abstains from temptation, one risks becoming stale and repressed. If one keeps the affair secret, one becomes inauthentic. Confessing to it brings needless pain. If one places one's children's interest above one's own, one is disappointed when they leave. If one puts one's own interest above theirs, one earns their unending resentment. This, alas, is the unhappy, melancholic human condition.

Gurcharan Das, February 18th 2014

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