“It wrenches me beyond describing, therefore, to accept that I have violated that long-standing relation

For Tanuja Patil and Shardul Kadam, a Maharashtra-based straight couple, starting their marriage off on an equal footing meant exchanging mangalsutras. They will both wear the traditional nuptial chain, conventionally worn only by women.

Objects like this are inherently loaded ones, even though they are also privately sentimental ones. For some, the radical abjuring of all such markers is the only form of acceptable self-presentation. For others, there’s sincerity in adapting markers so that they reflect the self, the partnership and shared or specific beliefs.

There are certainly strong arguments to be made for how an accessory isn’t going to equalise an institution, but these apply most at large. If all woke couples began to wear matching nuptial chains tomorrow, this will become just as meaningless as those cringey karuppu kannadi wedding photos that every Chennai couple takes (sorry folks, you look like rejects from a 90’s boy band music video). But within the scope of this one partnership, the ornament has been chosen to represent the kind of marriage the couple is making an effort to co-create. As Kadam stated, “Tanuja and I can define our relationship better than anyone else; we support each other’s work, believe in each other’s dreams, and are in this journey together. So, who cares what the world thinks?”

A friend of mine got married sitting on her mother’s lap recently. I’ve never been married, but I wore bridal mettis for a few years, because I wanted to (an aside about the evolution of gendered ornaments: mettis were originally worn by men to indicate their marital status – to women who were taught to keep their sights on the ground, rather than look a man in the eye). Many have opted for legal registrations over the uneasiness of figuring out how to have a ceremony that doesn’t reinforce regressive mores. Some reinvent the rituals to suit what they believe in, from eliminating certain portions to rewriting incantations. The mangalsutras mutually tied at the Patil-Kadam wedding would fall into this category.

Now and then, these little things happen that rearrange one’s personal equation to overarching institutions and traditions, and the way we navigate these as people who know that we all internalise conditioning, but can grow and choose anew. They are not radical things, just individually precious ones. Inter-religious and inter-caste marriages, even if they have the most traditional ceremonies, will always be more progressive on a larger and more long-term scale than small gestures. So will marriages that transcend racial and heteronormative boundaries. Then, of course, there’s the eschewing of marriage altogether in favour of partnership, and bonds that are forged and renewed without the scaffolds of societal and legal sanction.

But marriages and partnerships, even if they have elements which appear to be open-minded and reformist, are only as successful as what goes on out of sight. True equality within a partnership can’t be gauged only in comparison to cultural norms. Neither can acceptance or acquiescence be understood as contentment. The truth is our standards are low, with centuries of abusive relationships in our collective histories. Our simple gestures must open the door to deeper transformations, and broader change.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 20th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.