Marital Arts

(Originally published in The Hindu, August 7 2016)

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Illustration by Satwik Gade for The Hindu

When I was 16, my father’s parents descended upon us for a week in the summer. They were an unusual couple, I thought, till I grew older and discovered that there are people all over the place who happen to be married to characters they cannot stand. Back in their own house, my grandparents had devised a certain peace — they used separate rooms. That summer, however, my father had, to universal alarm, planted them in a single bedroom. He stayed up the first night they were with us to maintain order. Luckily, the hours passed without incident.

As a teenager, I found this sort of marital discord between people in their 80s hugely entertaining — they couldn’t have a meal without taking digs at each other, which inevitably ended with grandmother declaring she had “lived like a princess” till she married this ape, and the ape in question making a great show of his indifference, with a little puff of smoke to force the point. For all the histrionics, however, it was never an uncivilised affair — there was pattern to their daily exchange, and years of practise had refined the routine. When grandfather died, grandmother wept. Not, I suspect, because she had ever loved him, but because he had become too familiar to not matter.

Further up the family tree, I discovered other couples who had thrown marital decorum to the winds. On my mother’s side, I had a great-great grandmother who didn’t like her husband at all and took the art of domestic quarrel to new and refreshing heights. She was a tremendous woman who resented having been made to give up her artistic first husband and dragooned into marrying a brawny, masculine type instead (whose only redeeming quality was that he planted many trees). And so, every now and then, she made her displeasure known.

Great-great grandfather had a magnificent carved canopy-bed, complete with velvet bolsters and silk sheets. He would recline on it and hold court, with heaps of sturdy nephews around him (“they all had good legs,” grandmother once remarked wistfully) and servants to crack his knuckles and hold his spittoon. He was a country grandee if ever there was one, with a curved nose to go with it. His wife, however, remained unshakeable in her hostility.

One of her established techniques of offence was to send out attendants to gather a dozen children from wherever such children were found. They were then “given a bath”, that is, doused with oil, and asked to play in the yard. When enough dirt had gathered in sticky cakes on their scrawny persons, they were shepherded into the room where that grand, ornamental bed stood. And there she would unleash them to destroy her husband’s glorious, unsuspecting throne. (Tragically, but not coincidentally, only the legs of that bed survive today — in a cowshed.)

Great-great grandfather at first gathered the sheets and burned them in rage. But when the slight to him was repeated, he instituted another tradition. Each time he felt insulted in the house, his army of nephews would carry him — with his beloved bed — across fields to another place. The old man would park himself there for a few days until his children persuaded him to come home. The procession would then return till the next time the mother found herself in the mood to make a point. Her accomplices, those children, always received a feast for their contribution to the proceedings. She received a thrashing.

Unorthodox as this couple was, stranger still were their children. The eldest inherited a certain arrogance from his father but also a fear of wives with spines. He ended up marrying four times. The first lady was well-born but somebody said she looked older than him, so he discarded her. Similar was the fate of the second whose teeth were in hardened mutiny. These divorces, impulsive even by standards prevalent in Kerala then, where marriages could be contracted and terminated with ease, cover the arrogant aspect of the man’s character.

It was the third who revealed his fear of women with personality. Her name was Parvathi and she arrived sometime in 1916 with curls in her hair and a pair of indoor slippers. Her voice was sharp and she had an opinion. Pained as he was (for she was a beauty), great-uncle sent her away (and consoled himself by saying it was good riddance — her daughters had gone on to become actresses). The fourth wife stuck, because she worshipped the ground he trod. And because she had an inheritance he could squander.

The sister of this man — my great grandmother — thought of herself as decidedly clever. She had a second brother, the type given to music and heady romances, so she resolved to find him a wife. What she found was a much older and apparently unattractive spinster, the idea being that the lady would, in gratitude for her exaltation in life and society, cheerfully agree to also serve as my great grandmother’s handmaid. She did nothing of the sort, and shocked general society (as far as such society existed in a village in the middle of nowhere) by setting up a home quite separately. As her romantic brother anchored himself to an actually clever woman, great grandmother fumed.

In a family populated by characters like this, it is only natural that a flair for story-telling (with appropriate embellishments) should also exist. My grandmother (daughter to the fuming lady) inherited this quality, along with a charming disregard for holy (ancestral) cows. I was introduced, then, to these tales despite protests from my mother — after all, the breaking up of old households where such drama could unfold had tamed us by the 1990s into more predictable exemplars of good personal and social behaviour.

Today when my parents argue, nothing is burned and no oily children are deployed. We pay our staff for domestic services and do not scheme to acquire them through shaky bonds of marriage. And though I do have a distant uncle who has married many times, he is distant enough not to provoke any immediate anxieties. If grandmother knows of old family scandals, she must take them to the grave, not happily transmit them to a male grandchild.

Grandmother, of course, would have none of these arguments. “Nonsense,” she declared. “These are his ancestors and we all carry a little bit of them in us. He should know what they were like. Pity he hasn’t inherited those legs though.”

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