Saturday, October 06, 2007

Picking Battles

Mrs. Sharma and her family moved next door to us when she was in her early 40s and I was a teenager. She was a stay at home mom and taught music. Every evening kids poured in and out of her house and sound of harmonium and tabla was always in the air. They were a nice family. The husband was quiet and unassuming, the two boys were bright and well-behaved. Mrs. Sharma had the look of contentment that comes to those who have most of their life’s needs and some wants met.

Sometimes during the summer vacation, she would come to our house in the afternoon to have tea with my mom. Often, I joined them. There was one version of Mrs. Sharma that we saw when she was in her in house with her husband and sons. That was an efficient housewife who followed her husband’s lead in almost everything, laughed at his jokes, rarely if ever voiced an opinion informed or otherwise.

Whereas, Mr. Sharma would hold forth on politics and the state of the Indian economy, she confined herself to sidebar conversations about how the boys were faring at school, her trip home to Allahabad where her parents lived or the latest in a long series of altercations with the domestic help. We had come to believe that was who she was until she started coming over for the afternoon cup of tea with us all by herself. We discovered that she had a masters degree in economics and was a gold medalist to boot. The rigorous training in Hindustani classical music was something she had done recreationally. Right around the time she started working on her PhD, she got married. She never returned to academics after that.

She was extremely well informed and articulate in her views about the Indian economy. These were exciting times in the country, with Manmohanics in the works. I listened to her with rapt attention – unlike every other adult who threw in their two cents, she really understood the fundamentals of this endlessly fascinating subject. It was like listening to a very knowledgeable professor. She had many interests outside her subject as we were to find out. Our afternoon soirees were lively and educative. I loved this other version of Mrs. Sharma I got to see only at our home.

I would wonder how a smart, articulate, intelligent woman could transform herself into the complete antithesis of her real personality. More importantly, how could she possibly be happy while not being her natural self. Yet when I met her first, there was nothing about her to indicate any obvious lack of it. There was a certain vivaciousness about her as she explained the underpinnings of the Hindu growth rate, or talked about the poetry of Mahadevi Varma and Nirala. Her eyes sparkled with joy and energy. In her own home, surrounded by her family she looked completely insipid. She was just one of those boring, over-weight married women who had no life outside servicing the needs of their family. But for her beautiful singing voice, she would not have made a blip on anyone’s radar.

Sometimes she would talk about her husband – he was kind, considerate and uncomplicated. He never kept any secrets from her. They always reached consensus before making significant financial decisions. He was also very frail and asthmatic – always had been. Ever so often, he would come back from work completely exhausted and fall asleep directly after his evening tea and snack. Mrs. Sharma had always been high energy and in excellent health.

There was a slender subtext of dissatisfaction of an adult nature that I could sense but did not fully understand. I could tell there was more she would like to confide in my mother than was possible in my presence. While she would have liked me to leave for a while, my mother preferred I stayed on so she would not become privy to matters too private to be shared with a new neighbor. My mother always had a great fear for people unburdening to her in a moment of weakness and regretting it later. Unless she was truly close to someone, she did not want to be their confidante. Neither articulated what they wanted of me and I wavered uncertainly as someone on the verge of adulthood must upon their first contact with adult concerns.

Years later, when I decided my marriage was dead and I did not want to cohabit with the corpse of a once vibrant and joyful relationship, my mother mentioned Mrs. Sharma. While she was completely supportive of my decision, she reminded me that wanting more came at a price. To her, intelligent women like Mrs. Sharma know to pick their battles and that’s the reason they survive in their flawed and imperfect marriages. She was smart enough to recognize her husband would feel insecure if she showed her true personality. It was far easier to pretend to be the woman he would feel comfortable with. In return she earned his complete trust and confidence, was able to raise two brilliant boys and nurture her passion for music. In the final analysis she did not loose out completely for making the compromises that she had consciously chosen to make.

I asked my mother if she would like for me to emulate Mrs. Sharma and change colors like a chameleon to avoid conflict with her spouse. Was that not equivalent to cheating ? How was that any different from someone having an extra-marital affair ? Mr. Sharma had no idea who he was married to not unlike the man who discovers his wife has been having an affair with his best friend for years unbeknownst to him. She did not say much to any of that but I guess she had already made her point.

More years later, one of my good male friends would say that absolute, unflicnching, brutal honesty (which is my style) is more often than not counter-productive in relationships and specially so in marriage. There are some things that are best kept under wraps. In his case, he did not want to hear about his wife’s relationships before marriage and in the same token he had no intention of going in full-disclosure mode about his. Since the past cannot be undone, best to let sleeping dogs lie was his rationale.

When I argued that the person he is today is the aggregate result of those relationship experiences and likewise for his wife. Unless they knew where the other was coming from how could they possibly reach a good understanding of each other. How could trust be compartmentalized - it was all or nothing. He believed the damage done from raking up the past outweighed any advantage gained from getting to know the partner better. My friend had picked his battles too. He admitted his marriage was very comfortable but lacked passion. That sounded very reminiscent of the Sharmas.

Those of us who let their romantic notions about what a marriage should be all about come in the way of practical considerations end up chasing will-o'-the-wisps. Sometimes, there is a promising flicker of light; you rush headlong almost find what you are looking for, but closure is always tantalizing out of reach. Ironically, choosing not to accept the flawed and imperfect marriage is a battle picked too even if not nearly as prudent or wise as to accept such a state for life and try to find happiness in it.

1 comment:

Dave Lucas said...

The things one must do to survive at home...