Recently, I was asked at a dinner party in South Mumbai how long I’d been with my partner, Kabir. I told him 7 years. Intrigued, he asked “How does that work? Don’t you want more? Every woman wants marriage and financial security, she needs it”. I thought to myself is that why people get married? And is that why he got married? I told him it worked just fine for us. But he pressed on. “Is he keeping his options open? Or maybe even you?”. I continued to humour him and the conversation soon petered out. I was a conundrum he couldn’t compute. He marvelled at the idea of such a relationship, kissed me on the forehead and said “Bless you, brave one”.
Brave? Marriage? Financial security? Options open? What language was he speaking? I couldn’t relate to any of it. My relationship gave me whatever I wanted.
I’m one of those women that never dreamt of getting married. I thought it’d happen one day, but that was as far as it went. I was born in the 1970’s when Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female Prime Minister. Sociologists have observed that girls born in the Thatcher years married much later or not at all. Having a female Prime Minister not only changed the socio-economic direction of the country but seemed to re-define the role of a woman for future generations. I must have influenced me too.
My childhood was quite unusual too. I was the eldest of 6 children raised single-handedly by my mother, who was also taking care of her parents. In short, I was raised by superwoman! She never complained, never played the sympathy card, she just got on with it. The only thing she insisted on was our getting a solid education, something, she’d remind us, no-one could ever take away from us.
Fortunately, I excelled in my studies at Rochester Girls Grammar School, the best in Kent. All the pupils were told they were the “crème de la crème” of the population, the privileged 3%. In my world anything was possible and marriage was not even on my list. Nor was it expected from me either. My path could be whatever I wanted it to be. Little did I know it would bring me to Mumbai.
Kabir and I have been together for 7 years. We’ve lived in 3 different cities, London, Rome and Mumbai. In each place we created a home, and each city was a phase of our relationship that evolved organically. Our stay in Rome extended from 6 months to 1 year and, finally, to 18 months. Kabir is a star in Italy and the Italian paparazzi loved us. We were always in the magazines caught shopping, at cafés, or at events. Life was good. There was no pressure of expectations or demands. We were together because we both chose to share our journey together.
We were a team and I was his co-pilot. I didn’t want to hand over the reigns of my life and he didn’t expect me to either. Living together worked for us. It complimented us as individuals and as a committed couple. If I was married in the traditional sense, I couldn’t love him anymore or be more steadfast. Ours was a union based on faith, respect and love.
By the time we moved to Mumbai our relationship had evolved into nothing less than a marriage. We were in it for the long haul. But it was here that the relationship faced its baptism by fire, its biggest and toughest challenges. The aggravations faced on a day-to-day basis seem funny now but were frustrating at the time. When house-hunting I remember the disdain when I’d refer to Kabir as “my partner” and they realised I didn’t mean business partner but boyfriend. When Kabir applied for an additional credit card the only options available were wife, mother, sister or daughter. The bank representative asked if he should tick the sister option. Rather than resort to fraud, I dropped the idea. When the national census team came knocking at our door, they didn’t know how to classify our relationship. They seemed very apologetic, almost embarrassed. Even though the laws have recently changed in India, accepting long term live-in relationships as equivalent to marriage, the corporate and bureaucratic system have yet to recognise this. So I’m completely marginalised by the system.
Socially, I’m often referred to as Kabir’s wife by our hosts, it makes them more comfortable, or it’s their way of conveying respect. I always smile but the think-bubble above my head reads “It’s OK not be married”.
At times I was treated as if invisible, perceived as the ‘flavour of the month’. Even now, 7 years on, some still take a moral high ground and I’m only grudgingly acknowledged. Thankfully I don’t need validation or acceptance from others or else these situations would be painful. I choose to live my life in my own rhythm, listening to my inner voice, it’s the only way I know. Certainly not by a moral compass imposed by others or a society obsessed with marriage and morality. Why should I be dictated to by social hang-ups?
Truth is, Kabir had asked me to marry him in Rome. I’d said yes, but I didn’t commit when it would happen and thankfully he never pushed me. So I took all the day-to-day frustrations and prejudices in my stride. But the last ring of fire was the most difficult. The hurtful challenges came from within the family. Some didn’t see me as part of the family because I wasn’t formally married. Others thought of me as the equivalent of Rajesh Khanna’s paramour “out to claim property”. It was at these times I questioned the wisdom of my choices. Kabir’s voice would come back to me like a distant echo, when he said marriage would ‘protect’ me and give me a ‘standing’ in society. I wondered why I didn’t listen to him, after all, he’s done it 3 times and knew what he was talking about. But I wanted to live my life on my own terms. Getting married to appease others was not part of my journey.
After 7 years of a live-in relationship our lives, finances, families and friends are all intertwined. I have all the joys and pitfalls of a marriage but some prejudices and discrimination remain. It’s far, far more difficult to sustain a long term live-in relationship than a traditional marriage in this country. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted. I am thankful that Kabir asked me to marry him, it was a magical and wonderful moment, one that I will always cherish deep in my heart. His thought, intent and desire was enough. That’s why we work so well. Groucho Marx joked, “Marriage is a great institution. But who wants to live in an institution?”. There’s some truth in that. But, as Kabir says, “we’re all unique experiments in consciousness”, and that resonates deep within me. I choose to dance to the beat of my own drum. Convention is not something that rules my life. At the end of the day, marriage or no marriage, I have my knight in shining armour, as Kabir was recently Knighted by the Italian Republic. And we are living happily ever after.