For the sake of the well-being of the entire nation, I have asked my husband to be on his best behaviour for the next three months. You will be proud to hear the compelling argument I have made to back up my request.
“Please be on your best behaviour for the next three months,” I said to Afzal at the breakfast table.
He was instantly amused. “Why?” he asked me. “Why, why?”
“Listen, we are going to complete 15 years of being married in three months and I want to write a glorious column on the joy of relationships,” I elaborated. “To be able to write truthfully about how stunning love can be, we have to make it wonderful first.”
“Aha!” he said, a little flabbergasted at my suggestion.
“Look, I want to speak to people who are still trying to figure out how to make this marriage thing work. I want to show them that despite its ignominious flaws, we can recover the fun and humour.”
“And I have to do all the hard work for your column?” he asked.
“Think of the lives you can influence with your model behaviour, Afzal,” I said. “People on the verge of despair will know that they can recover their love. You are the inspiration they need.”
Our eldest daughter cleared her throat, reminding us that she was also at the table.
“For the next three months, be like me,” Afzal said, making a quick comeback. “Stay calm, be agreeable, don’t stress and relax!”
I gulped. I didn’t say what I always say—how will things get done unless somebody gets all wound up and creates pressure on the rest of the group?
“Follow the leader,” he said. “ Eat more, eat longer, don’t try to be an expert, be forgetful and dream big.”
We have a deal for now. I remind him of small details and he shows me the bigger picture. I pretend to be patient with his fantasy of living on a large farm and rearing horses one day. He pays attention when I show him the family of squirrels who have made a home on the ledge above the AC in our room.
The difference between Afzal and me is that he is the only son in an Indian family and I am the only daughter in an Indian family. He takes what he needs, knows how to allocate chores to others, receives love without having trust issues, and has the raw confidence that the world will offer him what he seeks.
Not having acquired any of these skills when I was being raised to be a good woman, I used to find him very odd in our early years. I am still sceptical, but having seen the long-term benefits of his way of being, I have agreed to copy them.
“Shabaash,” he sometimes says to me when he catches me at it. Even if it means I have learnt to ask him to do the work that he cannot even see needs to be done, until I have placed it right in front of him.
“Not so shabaash,” he feels at other times when my behaving like him makes him less comfortable.
Copying his authoritative ways makes me more relaxed and less grumpy. Copying my role of paying attention to the details has the reverse effect on him.
“I have become like you,” he complains with exasperation. “I used to be so happy and blind. Now I can see too much. I don’t know what good it does.”
I keep quiet in response.
I scoff at the patriarchal hierarchies that he is trained to honour within the family and in the world, because there is no place for women and children in that pecking order. I have first-hand experience of how systems silence women, and invisibilize the needs of children and the poor. Not being a beneficiary, I reject and rebel against it.
On the other hand, the big city hierarchies and snobberies that I am trained to participate in, exclude people like him and he is very good at calling out their injustice and hypocrisy.
Often it gets tiresome and we crave the comfort of the familiar. We long to return to the reassurance of groups, languages, jokes and etiquette that we grew up with.
This is a mountain every relationship learns to climb. Not having anticipated it, it is hard to stay even-tempered as we run out of breath and wonder if it is just simpler to return to base rather than keep trekking towards the unknown with this disagreeable person next to us.
We know that we must be equals in our relationship but our upbringing and gender conditioning hasn’t quite prepared us for it. The world has raised us with different expectations. Every day it treats men and women in unequal ways. We find our needs pitted against each other’s. We had thought love would mean always being on the same side. Love demands confrontation.
As the years pass, we learn to differentiate between situations that divide us and those where we are fighting to stay together. Collectively, we want to create a world that has scale, comfort, peace and justice—both for us to keep and to share. A world in which we have discovered how to make love work.
“Why do you like to remember so much?” he asks me.
“I want to reconcile,” I say. “I want to make sense. I want to understand and accept ourselves for who we are.”
“It’s 6 in the evening,” he says. “Go out and cycle aimlessly. Come back for tea when you are relaxed. Or tired.”
He is reminding me to be less like me and more like him. For the sake of the country, I agree.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three.