A play with the third
By Lora Tomas
10 January 2017
Voyeurs, partners and shadow presences in Indian narratives of marriage.
(This is an essay from our December 2015 print quarterly ‘The Marriage Issue: Loves, laws, lusts’. See more from the issue here.)
Several years ago, as tourists in Pune, my friend and I visited a homeopathic doctor. His clinic was a simple whitewashed room containing a shaky table, a swivel chair and a black-and-white photo of a sculpted naked torso. As we sat down, the chubby, grey-haired doctor volunteered the information that he had been Mr India for bodybuilding, 30-odd years ago. There was no guessing. Besides the doctor’s ardent eyes and the same avid expression, the two bodies were unrelatable. But both men meant business.
After giving my friend a quick check-up, the doctor invited us to his daughter’s wedding. Taken by surprise but flattered, we accepted. He said he’d send a car to our hotel. We spent the rest of the day trying to find a suitable gift and outfit for the evening’s celebration. With a set of tea cups and dupatta for the bride, we arrived at the crowded tent around seven o’clock, before the party had really taken off. The two of us, complete strangers to the family, were treated as guests of honour. The doctor and his wife seated us at the centre of the banquet tent and served us personally. The courses were endless: creamy dal tadka, sweet-scented biryanis, tandoori chicken and paneer, radiant green mint chutney, lightly-charred butter naan, koftas and curries, firni in clay cups, syrupy gulab jamuns. A band played Bollywood numbers. We were periodically asked to pose for photos onstage with the couple and members of the family, and then escorted back to our table. After hours of eating and dancing, we were driven back to our crummy hotel in a shiny limousine, groggy from the lavish hospitality.
We left Pune the next day, and felt grateful to have been part of the family’s milestone event. From a tourist’s perspective, we’d had an ‘authentic’ experience. But we wondered why our presence mattered to the family, except for a chance to shower strangers with hospitality on a special day. By inviting foreign onlookers, were they making public an otherwise private fete?
Tabish Khair’s The One Percent Agency: A Comedy in Three Acts tells a slightly different story: uninvited Western tourists pay to crash Indian weddings. This short Shakespearean-esque comedy was first staged at the Shri Ram Centre in Delhi on 15 December 2012, and then in Gurgaon a couple of days later. Directed by Sohaila Kapur, both performances opened to full houses.
The title of the comedy – The One Percent Agency – is the name of a fictional travel agency that caters to well-paying Western tourists who want to attend a traditional Indian wedding, a fad sparked by hit movies such as Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001). For the craze-stricken tourists in the play, the more ‘exotic’ the ceremony the better – the agency has already pulled off all kinds of participatory weddings, from Parsi to Santhal. Kabir, the director of the agency, says: “Why one percent, because, Sir, only one percent divorce rate in India. Miracle of Indian Marriage, Sir. Wonder of the Wedded State. That is why so many tourists want to come to see Indian wedding: colour, sound, drama, and 99 percent chance of living happily ever after!”
It seems, Western tourists, real or fictional, might not only be attracted by the glitz; they are interested in glimpsing “a happily ever after”. It is also the ‘arranged’ marriage – which fell out of fashion in the West around two centuries ago, along with powdered wigs – that tickles the voyeurish instinct.
The so-called ‘love marriage’ began to be the norm in Western Europe and North America in the late 18th century. Stephanie Coontz, in Marriage, a History, states that this coincided with the individual pursuit of happiness as an Enlightenment-era prerogative. Anthropologist Meena Khandelwal further states that as a consequence, the West has viewed the otherwise ‘irrational’ East as “pragmatic in the one domain where, according to Western ideals, rationalism should not apply. Indians are too otherworldly where they should be economically minded… and far too calculating in matters of love and marriage.” Still, marriage by choice has made the institution more fragile in the West. People chance it until they get it right, and this is reflected in the divorce statistics.
In The One Percent Agency, the agency gets an order from a tourist for an inter-religious, Hindu-Muslim wedding. However, as the tourists are in a rush to continue sightseeing the next day, the two different ceremonies for the respective communities would need to be conducted in one evening. Akbar, a young employee of the agency, lures a couple to have their wedding organised for them. If they let go of the idea of a simple court ceremony, and agree to a showy wedding reception for touristic consumption, they’ll get a modest financial reward to kick-start their life together. “The divorce rate is higher for court marriages,” presses Akbar. Marriages “fail because they are not planned”.
Akbar and his colleague Aruna, who is arranging the wedding with him, mirror the future Hindu-Muslim couple. They exchange details from their lives, testing religious and political prejudices on each other. But their bickering is light, flirtatious. Both the Hindu-Muslim double-ceremony and Aruna and Akbar’s electrified relationship are ways of introducing the ‘problematic’, ‘exotic’ other into the marriage dialogues.
The wedding doesn’t go as planned. The enlisted maulvi and pandit fight over primacy and legality, demanding evermore money. The two sets of parents fall out, and the ceremony is abruptly abandoned. In a comedic twist, the agency’s sophisticated and aloof secretary Rosie presents a substitute, instantly-formed Hindu-Muslim couple to Kabir: Aruna and Akbar. The wedding can take place after all, so there’s no need to cancel the tourists’ experience. The two are in love, she says, but she also promised them a cut of the agency’s profit. Akbar wants to settle down, buy a home. Still, he is ready to give up the money, he says, if that’s what it takes to convince Aruna of his feelings for her. She says she believes him, so nothing should stop them from being practical and seizing the opportunity.
The play ends with Rosie looking into the distance, announcing: “They are coming! They are coming! The tourist party is here.” The tourist guests, or ‘bloody firangs’, have arrived. But they are as spectral at the end as they were throughout the text, although they drive the plot. The last scene, although a triumph of difficult love, questions the economy of marriage.
Besides being paying voyeurs, like fair-goers squatting or bending to peer into an old-fashioned peep box showing the wonders of the world, the tourists in Khair’s play occupy a tentative space between trespassers and facilitators. Trespassers in that they buy their way into other people’s intimate rituals, and facilitators as both the agency and the couples profit from the commercial interaction. The latter significantly less than the former, except for Aruna and Akbar, who negotiate a good deal for their last-minute intervention.
The significant third
Psychotherapist Esther Perel, in Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, speaks about “the shadow of the third” that haunts every relationship. The interested or interesting third can be a fictional or real person or people, a (perceived) threat to the relationship. Therefore – and paradoxically – the third can sometimes happen to be an indispensable vitaliser of relationships when they fall into a rut. An additional pair of eyes through which to see the partner in a new, perhaps more appealing, light, and as separate from the self. In that case, the third can enable partners to become voyeurs in their own relationship, reintroducing that necessary space between the two. “Desire needs distance,” argues Perel. Merging or identifying with another may foster closeness, but it dampens the erotic. When not midwifing the dissolution of a relationship, the third can actually facilitate it.
The film Monsoon Wedding, written by Sabrina Dhawan and directed by Mira Nair, is a cathartic story of an arranged marriage and simultaneous hook-ups. It develops the theme of the third in two of its many parallel storylines. Yet it deals with the problematic third upfront, before marriage, preventively. The plot revolves around the preparations for a wedding in an upper middle-class Punjabi household in Delhi. The hectic and warm wedding atmosphere generates additional couples: even Dubey, the wedding planner, ends up marrying the family’s house-help, Alice. The movie opens with the pre-wedding commotion, then switches to the bride-to-be Aditi’s affair with Vikram, a married man. Aditi is painfully aware of her position as a dispensable third in Vikram’s marriage, so hurries an arranged marriage in the hope of settling down with another man.
At Aditi’s sangeet cerermony, the singer tells of a daughter leaving her father’s house and becoming a stranger to him. From now on, she will be a guest in her parents’ home, almost a tourist. But she will also be a guest in the in-laws’ house, if she is to live with them. The status of a traditional bahu, or daughter-in-law, is one of a perpetual guest, a third.
Shortly after, Lalit and Pimmi Verma watch their daughter Aditi and niece Ria as they sleep. There’s an open Tagore book between them, face down. As Lalit talks to Pimmi about his unbearable love for his girls, he pulls out an issue of Cosmopolitan from beneath Aditi’s pillow. The next frame shows Aditi’s cousin Ayesha sneaking into Rahul’s bed. When Ayesha asks him why he’s not asleep yet, he answers that he’s been thinking about good Indian girls. As soon as he says this, the camera is back on the Tagore cover splayed between Aditi and Ria. The frame then shifts to Aditi, who gets up and walks out to meet Vikram.
It is raining heavily when the police find Aditi and Vikram intertwined in his car, by the side of the road. Amid the shouts, indignation and threats with charges of obscenity, Vikram’s phone rings. “Your time is up,” one of the two officers says to Vikram. The other notices that the incoming call is from ‘home’. As Vikram moves away to answer the call, the policemen close in on Aditi, who is in a state of undress. They pick on her bride-to-be’s hennaed hands. “If you are in such a hurry, come with me,” says one of them. Aditi drives off in a panic, leaving Vikram to deal with the police and the deluge.
The next day, Aditi decides to admit everything to the husband-to-be, Hemant. He is devastated, but eventually responds that every marriage is a risk, whether arranged or not. He believes they can put that part of her life – Vikram as the third in their relationship – behind them. Significantly, Aditi might not have gone through with the wedding if the police hadn’t arrived that night. With that in mind, the policeman’s remark to Vikram about his time being up is full of foreshadowing.
In a parallel storyline, Aditi’s single cousin Ria has to shed her own third – her uncle Tej who sexually abused her when she was a child – before she can attempt a union with another. But this time the third is a sinister presence, nothing of the sort that Perel means when she speaks of desire. For most of the movie, we see Ria fighting with her feelings about what happened in her past, but she can’t bring herself to say anything, either to Tej or the rest of the family. When she notices that Tej has started to repeat the abusive behaviour with a young niece, it all comes out. Finally Lalit, the patriarch of the Verma household, publicly disowns Tej by expelling him from the family shrine. At the end of the film, Ria’s own future marriage is suggested: the good-looking cousin Umang appears as Aditi and Hemant’s wedding is already in full swing. Late, but really he’s right on time.
As this motif of marrying is multiplied in the movie, wedding-planner Dubey’s overbearing mother asks him, in Hindi, if he is thinking of ghar basana, settling down, anytime soon. He earns a lot, but does he think of girls, her future grandchildren? Through visuals and Mychael Danna’s soundtrack, the movie treats the term ghar basana and the verb barsana, to rain, as synonyms. This culminates in the movie’s final scenes – it rains on the wedding day. It pours over the brass band and the dancing guests. The closing credits show Aditi and Hemant performing the sacred fire ceremony, and the Punjabi theme song, Aj mera jee karda, evokes monsoon and marriage.
Households of three
Tagore, who has a brief but perfectly timed cameo in Monsoon Wedding as Ria’s bedside reading, looked in on the Indian marriage in his own work, both with interest and worry. In his 1916 novel, Ghare Bhaire (Home and the World), the third, Sandip, only gains prominence after the wedding. Tagore plays with notions of home and the ambiguity that the world, or the third, introduces to it (to borrow from scholar Ana Jelnikar’s thoughts on the novel). The radically anti-British, pro-Swadeshi activist Sandip is welcomed into the home of the politically and personally moderate landowner, Nikhilesh, and his wife Bimala. Nikhilesh questions the traditional position of women, and encourages Bimala to come out of the zenana. But Bimala quickly falls for Sandip’s boisterous presence, and Nikhilesh is torn between his idea of being a good host and the attachment he feels to his wife. In the end it is Bimala who, with her newfound agency, facilitated by both her husband and Sandip, asks Sandip to leave home. Nikhilesh and Bimala soon slip into their old roles.
A similar love triangle is described in Buddhadeva Bose’s 1967 Raat Bhor Brishti (It Rained All Night), a bolder version of the theme of Ghare Bhaire. This controversial novel is about a love marriage between Maloti and the (sexually) reserved college lecturer Nayonangshu. At one point, Maloti ponders how infatuation in marriage wanes, how it is “washed out in one monsoon”. The significant third here is Jayanto, Nayonangshu’s hot-blooded friend.
Bose’s novel opens up in medias res, four hours after Maloti and Jayanto’s love-making during a night of hard rain. It rained all of Maloti and Nayonangshu’s wedding night too, the husband reminisces. But their sexual encounter was far more restrained. The novel is the couple’s attempt at contextualising and giving meaning to what happened – the affair – as well as a candid dissection of the institution of marriage. In light prose, using the protagonists as narrators, Bose questions the viability of the Indian marriage as a static social contract, arranged or not. He feels that emotion, which is always fluid, should be the only glue between partners. The novel ends on a defeatist note – the little that connected the married couple has snapped, but the dynamics are left unresolved.
Both Bose and Tagore examined the weak spots of a (Bengali) marriage by dropping in a literary third – as maybe the fastest way to do it – and then documenting the chain reactions. In Monsoon Wedding, the two figures of the third define a marriage by being themselves identified as superfluous and unwanted. Khair’s tourists, who want so badly to have a peep at an Indian wedding, end up financially facilitating a marriage.
Ceremonies, like weddings, call for witnesses, voyeurs, thirds, even if it is only the registrar or priest. In fact, as in the case of our homeopathic doctor from Pune, they demand it. The presence of others validates and ratifies the ritual, linking the private to public, family to community. This impulse then transfers to marriage, too. Indeed, as Perel suggests, we could say that knowledge of the Other often remains incomplete without the tension provided by the third, whether as a catalyst for the couple’s first union or transformation, or as an agent provocateur who undercuts them irreparably, ripping at the existing tear in the seam. These shadow presences, when not outright fatal, seem to tread a fine line between trespassers and facilitators. What these narratives are trying to pin down is where exactly that line is.
~ Lora Tomas is a writer and an indologist based in Bengaluru.