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Outside The Box

BY Blanche McCrary Boyd
Sexual Republican
BY Jennifer Belle
Sleeping Arrangements
BY Jaishri Abichandani
Subversive Desire
BY bell hooks

 

 
 
sleepingarrangements
BY JAISHRI ABICHANDANI

>>at a fairly naive 22, I allowed myself to be seduced by a married professor. I was in love. I didn't expect or want him to leave his wife; I just wanted to be the last woman he loved. I wanted to have an affair like the one my uncle had had for over 30 years. Everyone in the family, including his wife and son, knew about it. My cousin respected the relationship, but my aunt, who stayed in the marriage, was embittered by it. Meanwhile, my uncle would take his son, his brother's children, his wife, and his mistress with him on holidays, putting the wife and children in one room, taking one himself, and reserving one for his mistress. His mistress remained his beautiful companion, his confidante, his lover, and his soul mate. I felt for my aunt, felt badly that she suffered, but I respected my uncle's need to keep a mistress with whom he felt a deeper intimacy. In my own confused 22-year-old mind, I wanted to re-create with my professor the romance of my uncle's affair. But he was not Indian and his was not an arranged marriage. This was America and my professor had two more students on the side. I was transgressing boundaries of marriage, class, race, and my own sexuality. For me, an unmarried Indian woman, having an affair brings shame on myself and my family and diminishes my marital prospects dramatically. But I don't think adultery is bad or unnatural. It can certainly be damaging to a partner who is unprepared for it, but it can also provide a necessary escape and keep a marriage together, especially an arranged marriage.

Writing this piece was difficult. I wondered what my family would say when they read it, what judgments I would bring upon myself if I said that adultery isn't quite so awful, if I spoke of my own affair for the first time. I have generally been private about my sexual life because I want to maintain my own and my parents' "honor." I reasoned that if they knew about the relationship, they would wonder where they had failed in my moral upbringing. But I never felt guilty about the affair --it allowed me to express myself sexually without getting caught up in the romantic expectations and desires of marriage, which is supposed to be the culmination of my womanhood. The affair helped me see the shades of gray between right and wrong. I understood that adult relations are very complex, and that all couples aren't like my parents, who have a very happy and successful arranged marriage.

I have generally been private about my sexual life because I want to maintain my own and my parents' "honor."

At 18, I watched my dear friend Shobha agonize as her boyfriend went through an arranged marriage in India, only to return and pick up the relationship again. He insisted that he had married to please his parents but that he was in love with Shobha. The liaison continued well after his wife had arrived from India. Shobha would hang out with large groups of friends and watch them silently, yearning to be in the place of his wife. Too many of the South Asian men I have known maintained their relationships with girlfriends while allowing their parents to find pure and dutiful brides from India. For the girlfriend, it's a risky compromise, because she could end up without a husband or her virginity. In college, my girlfriends and I faced some interesting dilemmas. We could date South Asian men and hope that they wouldn't leave to marry women chosen by their parents, or we could date outside of our culture. I opted for the latter and worked to develop an autonomous, politicized sexual identity. From time to time, the words of a dear South Asian male friend ring in my ears. He would tell me that I am much too strong a woman, that I would find Indian men willing to have affairs with me, but not marry me. So far it has proven true.

I wonder what it must be like to wake up with the same person every day. I have many friends who are close and dear, yet over time I move closer or further apart from different people at different moments. Is it natural for two human beings to grow together and fulfill each other's needs forever? I wonder if the institution of marriage is even relevant anymore. During a lifetime, won't another person come along who touches you differently, in a space that your partner does not occupy?

I could allow my family to arrange my marriage, but I have shied away from this time and again, hoping to find a partner on my own.

Having said all this, the reality is that I wake up lonely in the mornings and the struggle within myself continues. I could allow my family to arrange my marriage, but I have shied away from this time and again, hoping to find a partner on my own. I know many South Asian women like myself, who are unwilling to compromise on our autonomy, who would like to be in relationships with South Asian men, yet are unable to find any who will accept us as political women with spirit, intellect, and sensuality. Though there are strong and independent women in my family who have divorced and successfully remarried, none of them have grown to sexual adulthood in the States, a difference that shows in how we perceive our bodies and our sexuality. As women between cultures, my friends and I usually end up in nontraditional relationships, often with as much access to adulterous relationships as men.

I think of my downstairs neighbor Nadia, a Punjabi Pakistani woman. She is in her thirties now, and has a daughter of eight or ten. She came to America about ten years ago when she married Rafiq. I wondered about Nadia when she moved into the building, wondered if she chose to marry a man almost 20 years her senior. She did not seem very happy. Shortly after their marriage, Rafiq had an accident and became disabled. Then, a few years ago, I heard whisperings in the building from my mother and the neighbors that Nadia had taken up with some man. I remember thinking that it made sense. Nadia is still married and maintains her relationship with her lover. I see them sometimes in the subway and restaurants, kissing and holding each other, the space between them small and charged with sexual energy. We don't acknowledge each other unless it is in the building. In that place of familiarity, we smile at each other, two women in a small community in America where we can dare to transgress, to exert autonomy over our sexual selves in ways we may be unable to do in India or Pakistan for fear of our reputations, our families, and even our lives. I don't begrudge Nadia or her lover. If anything, it pleases me that she is able to find happiness.

I understand the desire of some in my community to remain in a socially sanctioned marriage that provides a blanket of respectability and security while keeping another partner who can meet their emotional and physical needs.

Having grown up on a combined diet of romantic Hindi films and the Western notion of love and marriage, I want a balance that reflects my complex bicultural landscapes of romance and pragmatism, a partner with whom I have space to move and grow as an individual, a sexuality of my own. I understand the desire of some in my community to remain in a socially sanctioned marriage that provides a blanket of respectability and security while keeping another partner who can meet their emotional and physical needs. People remain bound to arranged marriage either because they choose to, or they see no alternative. I imagine that adultery in an arranged marriage in which there is a tacit understanding between partners must be very much like an open relationship in the West, but with the difference of a culturally induced commitment to stay together. For those of us caught between cultures, this may be a happy compromise between tradition and modernity.

Through the years, I have danced toward and away from an arranged marriage, tempted by the fruits of a practical companionship, yet afraid of experiencing the bitter aftertaste of a loss of independence. But I reserve the right to allow experience and life to change my beliefs. Although there are times when loneliness drives me to consider an arranged marriage, I can't imagine that I will ever exercise that option. I hope to find an Indian partner whom I can love on my own. I don't know if I would commit adultery, but I'd certainly consider it.

Jaishri Abichandani is a founding member of the South Asian Women's Creative Collective.