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Marriage in the time of politics

Couples see their own marriages in novels, movies and TED talks. The one place they do not look is in politics

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Once I had a vision in which God asked a young man, “Why did you get married", and the young man said, “To have fun". And even though God did not intend to be rude, a great laughter escaped him. People on streets too began to laugh. All the women in the Ladies’ Special held their stomachs and laughed. The men dangling from train compartments laughed. Even Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, in their framed portraits, began to laugh.

The most sacred tenet of modern marriage, which has been seeded by the marriage counselling industry and advice journalism, is that “marriage is hard work". It is a foolish analysis and probably one of the most destructive ideas to infest the young. Marriage should be fun. It can be fun. That is if it is not confused with eternity. An eternal marriage does sound like hard work but that is because eternity, and not marriage, is hard work.

Many tenets of marriage do not make any sense to the married. Many of them look for clarity and epiphanies in novels and films and TED talks and counselling. The one place they do not look is in politics. At first glance there appears to be nothing that politics can teach us about marriage, but there is a political quality to the relationship that is not appreciated enough.

There is a set of modern marital behaviour that is directly a part of modern political behaviour. The public posturing of the sophisticated class contains a set of crucial qualities—the high moral ground, self-interest masquerading as righteous indignation, the veneration of frailties, and ceaseless lament—which have entered marriages too along with more honourable political ideas like equality, fairness and dignity of labour. The narcissism that inspires people to give themselves labels extends into the marriages today where individuals describe themselves in specific ways to be allowed contentious behaviour—“sensitive", “depressive", and “emotionally fatigued".

But the deepest crucial political qualities of marriage are not influenced by politics. They have parallels in politics, they are similar to political behaviour. The marital quarrel, for instance.

The intellectual worth of debate in public life is vastly overstated. A debate, in reality, is the T20 of intellectual activities. It is largely a test of speed and immediacy, which leaves almost the entire human spectrum untested. Verbal articulation, as the articulate know, is a charlatan talent. Everybody wings it. But there is no denying that some are good at it, and as they debate more frequently, they get better. This happens to couples, too. The longer they are married, the more they quarrel and their quarrels get better because they know the other’s best lines. But what is political about the marital quarrel is the fact that it is useless. Its outcome does not affect the outcome of the marriage. In most cases, a marriage is neither saved nor destroyed by debate; the winner wins nothing, the loser loses nothing. It is the nature and the tone of the debate that is important. This has always been true of political debates. Even though they are huge television spectacles in many countries, their intellectual outcome hardly affect the elections. What is important in a debate is not the rationality of the argument but the person who emerges from the smog of words.

In many marriages men devise the strategy of avoiding quarrels. It serves them well in other relationships—like eccentric, ageing parents. But what works with parents never really works in an equal marriage, which is a coalition of two pressure groups. A marriage is reassured of its aliveness and freedom through the acrimony of a good fight when all truths are hurled.

In love, the rewards are always over the top, but so is retribution for hurt. A long, post-love marriage is often filled with retributions that are out of proportion to the sins, but a couple in an upper-class democratic system is constantly aware of this and is under pressure to be proportionate even though proportionality is not a fundamental natural force, it is a mere ideal and a fabrication of the justice system.

And, in both marriage and politics, the invocation of history is not a good sign. Because history is often a wound. Also, it is severely contested. No side is lying, both sides are believers in a convenient version of the wound.

People use the term “happy couples" without care as though two humans can exhibit properties of a sofa-cum-bed, a happy sofa-cum-bed. There are even scientific researches done on “happy couples". But can two humans ever be a collective organism? What if happiness in a long relationship is a zero-sum affair, what if the happiness of one is built on the sacrifice of the other? If you are of a generation, you may think of the lives of your mothers. This is not the political side of marriage. Just the opposite.

Politics is not altruism, it is too ambitious for that. Amusing then that a crafty politician like Nelson Mandela had once stated that you can achieve much in politics if you do not wish to take credit. We instantly see the wisdom in his statement but we also know what he was talking about cannot be politics. There are bureaucrats and cops who achieve great things because they choose to be anonymous. But politics is about being in plain sight, it is about taking credit. That is, in fact, the political side of couplehood, too. To be seen by the other, that is what being married is. To be seen and acknowledged and praised, and in the early days even adored. Singlehood is a form of anonymity. To be married is to have a witness to your days, and to, inevitably, preen.

Couplehood is not only a private arrangement but also a public act. Every couple tries to be good ambassadors of marriage. Marriage is often a public event, a social campaign (some days I feel that there are only two reasons why there is so much happiness on Facebook—couples marketing marriage, and people trying to make their former lovers sad).

When people propose in public, or throw surprise parties for their spouses, they are not only committing an act of love, they are also campaigning, performing, promoting themselves and stepping into the spotlight. A public display of affection is often a political moment.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.

He tweets at @manujosephsan

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