Below The Belt
What's wrong in having more than one wife?
Is it easier for men to bend the rules in relationships? Does marriage have room for more?
- Total Shares
About a year back, a girlfriend texted me around midnight. "I’m sleeping with a married man. It’s amazing…" read her SMS.
I replied with a smiley.
I did not wish to impart any judgement on her character. Or his. Ask whether this was purely physical or serious.
"It’s not that simple," she messaged again, a few months later. "I am falling in love… We are falling in love… I can’t stop myself, and neither can he. He makes me come alive…"
I sat up in bed. This was serious – more than a one-night stand or a casual fling. Was he in an "open marriage"? How could my friend break another woman’s home? Did he have children? Was she playing safe? What if the wife got to know? Who would the man choose then? What rule would he want to live by?
Duty or desire?
What if he wanted both?
"She’s a slut. Living in sin, with a married man, a father of two. Clearly, he’s just using her. Who’s going to marry her after this? Ussko haaye lagegi," a common friend of ours said, when we heard that she had started living-in with the man, in the same city as his wife and children.
"What if they are in love? Soul mates..." my words trailed.
What becomes of the woman whom he is legally married to? Who bore his children and cooks his meals? The one who waits for him to come home, still? Women are women’s worst enemies. Can a mistress ever gain the social acceptance of a wife? What if she has children?
"They will be bastards," another friend chipped in, pregnant, protectively clasping her belly.
I looked away. My heart strangely divided.
In a recent ruling, the Supreme Court of India has stated that a woman who is in a live-in relationship is to be deemed the "wife", unless proven otherwise.
My own thoughts veer back to an ageing uncle back home. His two wives. The first from an arranged alliance, forged when he was 23, to a country cousin, then 19 or so.
A woman with light, grey eyes and the saddest smile – someone I only spotted at weddings, sitting aloof, accompanied by her son, daughter-in-law and cherubic grandson. Her forehead gleaming with freshly applied vermillion, arms glistening with gold bangles. Glancing down embarrassedly as soon as her "souten" would enter, accompanied by my uncle. His twin daughters in tow. The shameful silence that would descend over the ceremonial proceedings. The way hushed whispers rose and fell about the foreboding presence of the "other woman" – referred to by the ladies in the family as a "vaishya". Someone out to get his property. Someone younger, who never covered her head, her ample bosom, her waist more serpentine, her cheeks rouged, someone who trapped the man using her body, who was responsible for his eventual estrangement from the larger familial clan, who never bore him a son...
Punished, in some way…
"Do you think she will inherit a dime when he kicks the bucket? It’s the son’s duty to light his father’s pyre according to Hindu shastra. His first-born. She will have nothing, just the pleasures of the flesh aren’t enough," an elderly, tone deaf aunt cackled viciously, patronisingly preaching to the first wife, who watched, expressionless, her jaws clenched.
Who is this "other woman"?
And why do we continue to assassinate her as sly and sensuous. In books, films, popular culture, social consciousness? The way she and her children are openly discriminated against.
Can a man love two women, at the same time? Can a consort and a concubine bear the same affection? Is an open marriage just an upgraded, modern version of what was traditionally known as polygamy in India? Or do we deliberately reserve the stigma purely for drivers and maids - a class of people whose morality we pretend doesn't belong or affect mainstream Indian culture. The poor, naturally, the perverse...
The law of the land declares bigamy illegal. It acts against a person who has more than one wife, only if the first wife lodges a formal complaint. Even when this is done, it is not easy to establish that a second marriage has occurred at all, since the second liaison wasn’t registered in the first place. Is that the reason my aunt accepted her husband sleeping away from her, on certain days of the week? Why he made it a point to bring his second wife with him, just about everywhere he went?
Why do women like some of my friends – modern, successful, educated, evolved, in their mid 30s - willingly choose to be a second partner to a man with a ring on his finger? What is this attraction? Can she ever be forgiven and accepted? Do we ignore the innate sexism that exists in stereotyping the character of the other woman – the way we blame her. Taunt her. In the centuries-old good versus bad woman debate and the marriage versus mistress mud-slinging.
What about our gods and goddesses?
Lord Krishna was called "Ashtabharya" (ashta for eight, bharya for wife) because he had eight wives - Rukmini, Satyabhama, Jambavati, Kalindi, Mitravinda, Nagnajiti, Bhadra and Lakshmana, according to Bhagavata Purana. Why do we stress on the monogamous marital ideal epitomised by Lord Rama and Sita, instead of ancient Indian kings like Dasharatha, who kept three wives? And face attack for premarital and extramarital sex by various saffron clad, self-anointed spiritual leaders who turn a blind eye to our epic Mahabharata heroes such as Ved Vyasa (who authored the epic), and the sons that he bred through adulterous relationships (Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura), and his grandsons (the five Pandavas). Is it because Indian mythology is replete with cases of bigamy and polygamy that existed largely in the spiritual domain?
What if the other woman played a role that was diverse, and inhabited a personal space that was well-defined? Like Vishnu had a bhoga-patni for sensorial pleasure (Lakshmi) and a moksha-patni for intellectual stimulation (Saraswati). Shiva had Ganga (the restless one) and Gauri (the mature one). Murugan had Valli (tribal) and Sena (celestial).
And, what if a woman could also step out the strict Lakshman Rekha of her fidelity with the same ruthless impassiveness of a man? Find love outside of a suffocating, dead marriage? Be a muse? A mother? Both?
States like Tamil Nadu endorse bigamy openly, institutionalised through "Chinnaveedu", which loosely translated implies "small house", or second home.
Former chief minister MG Ramachandran (MGR) was known to relish the company of more than one woman. But his private life never marred his popularity or standing as a politician. MGR's biographer, former DGP K Mohandas says in MGR: The Man and the Myth, “It is often considered a matter of prestige to have one or more lady friends. MGR was honest about it and did not hide it”.
Closer home too, there are plenty of celebrity instances of the other woman. From Sukanya Shankar who openly embraced husband and sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar’s former partners and stepchildren to celebrated Kuchipudi dancer, Radha Reddy who married her first cousin, Raja Reddy in 1959. There are so many more examples.
Is it easier for men to bend the rules in relationships? Does marriage have room for more? Are hearts always broken? Can the other woman’s love and devotion ever win when pitted against the wife, whose tears too are seen as her ultimate sacrifice? Will the Supreme Court ruling affect scores of women who share their man?
Straighten the blurred line between morality and law.
Make them equal?