The M Word

Featured Illustration: Daniela Jordan~Villaveces

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I’m in my early 20s. Still in university. Single so far. Muslim. Indian. 

And marriage is a trigger word to me.

Not really. It’s not that the very word induces panic. Or that I can’t fathom the idea of it or that I’m against it. But when I’m made to think of myself getting married someday, the thought is enough to make me reduce my nails by a good millimeter or two. 

I’m at that age where older people either take great pains to caution me from unseemly habits or derive great pleasure from imagining me, wedded, living in homely respectability, with a husband who supports me and a family to come. The idea very nearly makes me break out in hives.

I think the institution of marriage is sacrosanct to us as Indians and as Muslims — whether we partake or not. I personally believe it is one of the highest and most challenging responsibilities a person could take on, and I’m sure that when it’s done right, the rewards reaped make the compromises worth it.

I see friends and family members tie the knot and it seems like the most arduous thing — their bliss makes me greatly relieved and pleased for them, but I draw a blank when I picture myself like that.

Although a lot of people from my generation are choosing to wait till their late twenties or their thirties to get married, none have had the privilege of not dealing with overbearing elders on the matter. The hardest part is when people try to tell you how much you’ll regret it if you don’t go through with it. Doubt kicks in harder than ever — what if they’re right? Everyone tells you how younger people think they have all the answers. The truth is we doubt ourselves down to our bones — we want this to work out more than you do. We weigh all the options — even the ones we don’t like. We don’t always make the right decisions, but you can bet we did everything to preserve what mattered to us, in the moment. 

And who wants to be lonely? We laugh off the crazy cat lady jokes, but we’re Desi and we’re Gen Z — we’ve all grown up lonely, even those of us who were popular and had friends by the dozen. We all want someone to give our time to. We know life isn’t going to be the same, and we don’t want to wake up one day and know that we have no one at all. But that doesn’t mean we are meant to get married — even if some of us actually do want it. Depending on what filters you set on a spouse, getting married isn’t hard. What matters is playing the game right. And the only way to play it right is to set the right filters. 

. . .

I’m in my early 20s. Still in university. Single so far. Muslim. Indian. 

And mental health is a trigger word to my community.

In a time when mental health problems are coming up rapidly, with increased exposure despite our parents’ attempts to be a firewall for what gets through to us, getting married seems like the gamble of a lifetime. The average, moderately self-aware person carries a ton of emotional baggage; there is no one worth being with that is pure as untrodden snow. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that such a person exists at all.

Mental health is often heavily romanticised these days and it has become a trend or even an attention-seeking measure, but for a lot of us, it’s a very closely lived reality. While most of us aren’t necessarily in need of a diagnosis, pretty much everyone I know would benefit strongly from therapy. There are those who wish they could afford it and there are those who are afraid to learn what exactly might come loose, after years of holding on tight. I wish I had the money to send at least a few people for a session or two — and I say this not out of frustration but sympathy. 

When everyone around you has similar problems and no solutions, it gets rather taxing, after a while, to think of the same things again and again. Being women, we’re all active therapists to our friends, but it hits rather close to home sometimes. Someone relating their panic attack at a friend’s wedding reminds you of the time a relative asked you about your marriage and you couldn’t sleep for two days. 

I have no resentment for those getting married. If you’re happy about it, then I’m happy for you. Anyone who has ever been part of a Muslim friend group has probably heard, “When are you getting married?” almost as much from their friends as from their family. The difference is that the former often say it jokingly. There is an unspoken agreement that there is safety here. We understand the fear behind it all. 

And everyone has fears and doubts — I recognise that. What we drop in between jibes and silences is the very real disappointment and apprehension that we face marriage with — will I ever be able to give myself up to someone who doesn’t appreciate the work I put into myself, day and night, to keep myself together? Camus said it before I could — some people expend a tremendous amount of energy merely to be normal. At this point, that’s all of us young people, and none of us realise how abnormal we all feel. 

Whatever my state of mind is, whatever issue I may or may not have — I am not blind to the way it affects my life. I see it in others I know — eyes puffy from nights of crying, tremulous hands, unhealthy attachments, anger issues, and enough mood swings to populate a mental theme park — there is no wonder that financial stability or good education or a disarming smile doesn’t cut it. Those are simply free-standing assets. I want someone who realises the willpower it takes to pull myself together every time I’m faced with a trigger, someone who knows that I don’t pick at my face for fun, someone who understands that I came this far with a lot of pitfalls, how much pride I’ve lost along the way, and how much better I know myself because of it. 

If it fits, it fits. There is no guarantee that love marriages will work out, I’m constantly told. There’s no guarantee for anything, though. And if it does come to the worst-case scenario, I’d rather regret having made my own choice than regret someone else’s. I have the Islamic right to pick a spouse without any compulsion, and being aware of that right yet not availing it when I could’ve would just lead to double the resentment. 

. . .

I’m still only beginning my 20s. Who knows, four or five years down the line, my mind will have changed. Maybe I’ll be ready for the next person who comes along, maybe the fear of being alone, as most of my friends embark on their own marriages, takes hold, will trump the fear of ending up tied in holy matrimony to someone who doesn’t get me at all. 

But right now, I think of the voices telling me how it’s important to be strong, because you never know what the husband will be like, what the in-laws will be like. And I think about how no one has taught me how to be strong for myself. How to start earning early, how to let go of toxic people, how to manage my emotions, and take my own thoughts into counsel. It’s a maze up for navigation and I’m running in circles trying to figure it out. 

The thought of seeing my progress being dashed to pieces, to wake up one day and realise that the man I’ve married has never really understood the way I hurt and heal myself, is enough reason to keep me off the market. The door isn’t fully closed but I would work more on myself first — it is the most important project of my life and my biggest responsibility. The bitten-down nails and the constantly jiggling foot, the apologies like band-aids over my scalpel words, the fluctuating health routine, the books, and the writing waded through in an attempt to feel like myself again — the job is constant and taxing, and I don’t know if, or when, I’ll ever be able to give someone else the burden and the honour of being a co-worker. One whose own project is fascinating enough to dip my fingers into.

There are days of looking forward, but more days of quietly untying the knots that somehow get tied overnight, every night. No one will be more pleasantly surprised than me, if someone ever really fits the bill I have put forward. And I have so much to do before I can fit theirs. Till then, I’m doing just fine. 

kulsumk

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