Trigger warning: marital rape and domestic violence.
After my Nana, i.e., my maternal grandfather, passed away, my Nani, i.e., my maternal grandmother, inherited his smartphone and his bedroom. In the last three years, she has taught herself how to reconnect with her old and new family friends via WhatsApp forwards and has also mastered the dark arts of uninhibited doom scrolling in between chores. In the absence of my Nana, I have had the opportunity to kindle a long-distance relationship with her over phone calls, which were earlier managed in time and content by her husband.
A few weeks ago, while discussing the details of my visit to her house accompanied by my boyfriend, she offered to give the boy her room while she and I camp off somewhere else. I reminded her of my chadti jawani (youthful yearnings) and how separating me from the boy was pointless. She reminded me in horror of how “a woman’s character is her biggest possession” and that “sleeping with him will ruin my prospects of marriage as the boy will have nothing new left to unravel.” Knowing about the troubled relationship she shared with my Nana, I knew there were contradictions in her preaching. In an attempt to reason with her and unearth her societally conditioned thoughts, I discovered scarring memories of rape and unmet desires instead.
I told her how sex gets better with time as a man learns about your needs, and surely, she would have experienced this with her husband. After some reservation and resistance, she hesitantly told me about her suhaag raat (the first night after marriage). As she nervously waited to be alone with her husband for the first time, he entered the room, demanding that she take off all her clothes immediately.
She protested since her sole source of sex education so far had been Hindi romantic novels and films, and they had mystified sex with images of flocking flowers and pecking birds. She knew kissing and hugging were intimate acts, and when things get extremely steamy, you kiss each other all over and hug extremely tight until the woman falls pregnant. But nakedness was never mentioned or shown anywhere; then, how could this man be so preposterously out of line? So, of course, she stood her ground and refused to follow his command. He then said, “Novels aur filmein dekhne wali ladki ko yeh bhi nahi pata ki sex kaise karte hai (A woman who reads novels and watches films doesn’t even know how to have sex).” She felt embarrassed and quietly grabbed her corner of the bed while her new husband gave his new wife the silent treatment.
What hurt her was that the humiliation and silent treatment that she faced at the hands of her husband was gradually noticed by the entire household of more than twenty people. Eventually, one of her female relatives, who knew what could be the matter, advised without enquiring, “Usko joh karna hai karne dena, naa matt bolna (Let him do whatever he wants to, don’t say No).” This narration didn’t upset her in the way it upset me, since this is a horrible but common practice according to my Nani. Most new brides come home upset and inconsolable at the discovery of penetrative sex in action before learning it in theory.
She says, “Guddi Masi jab shaadi ke agle din ghar wapas aayi, toh itna royi ki chup hi na ho. Uska husband toh ek nahi teen chaar baar uske sath zabardati woh kaam kiya. Guddi ghar wapas jaane ke liye tayar hi na ho. Phir baaki sabne bhi usko bataya ki aaisa toh hota hi hai. Meena, Monu, Babita, Asha, Ekta, sabke sath aaisa hi hua tha. (After the first night with her husband at his home, when Guddi came back to her parents’ home, she was inconsolable. Her husband had forced himself onto her not only once, but three-four times. She was not ready to go back to his house. Then others told her that this happens with everyone. Meena, Monu, Babita, Asha, Ekta, had all faced this).” Nani says she can only talk about this now that her husband is not around. Otherwise, she would feel like she is betraying him.
When he was around, my Nana was my favorite person. He and I would spend hours listening to old Hindustani music. He used to tell me I am unique because of the way I am drawn to the pain of others. I was quite young when he opened up to me about his love affair while listening to the song “Kisi nazar ko tera intezaar aaj bhi hai (A part of me still waits for you).” That woman taught Hindi literature in the same college where my Nana taught Mathematics. He wanted to marry her, but his father wouldn’t let him marry outside the community — a terrible but common casteist practice. It left him heartbroken. The woman later married another professor from the same college, and they had two sons together. Nana told me that he still looks forward to their short occasional phone calls. Being privy to his secret made me feel extraordinarily special, and I guarded it for many years until a few years ago when it came up during a phone call with my Nani.
My Nani had complained about sex being largely painful. I asked my Nani if she and Nana continued to have sex later in life and if there was more hugging and kissing that may have made the experience pleasant. I also asked her if it bothered her to think that he may also be having sex with someone else. Nani told me that the only sex she had was penetrative sex that started and ended with penetration.
“Bas woh har weekend par ghar aate they, aur raat ko unko woh kaam toh chahiye hi hota tha. Chahe light ho na ho, garmi ho, mera mahina chada ho, ya mai thaki hui hun, sunte hi nahi the. Aakhir mai jab unko heart attack aaya pehli baar, tab doctor ne ek dum mana kar diya ki nahi karna. Phir unhone mujhe kamre mai sone se bhi mana kar diya aur mai bahar sone lagi. Yeh to ab jaakar mujhe room mila hai phir se. (He would come home every weekend, and at night, he had to do that in any situation. Whether there was a power cut, heat, my menstruation, or I was exhausted, he wouldn’t listen. At last, when he had his first heart attack, the doctor strictly told him to keep off sex. This was when he asked me to stop sleeping in the room, and I commenced sleeping outside. It is only now that I have gotten my own room back).” At the age of fifty, she was finally relieved of this “domestic duty.” It’s not that she completely detested it; she even missed it, but when it happened, it was rarely in accordance with how and when she wanted it.
Perhaps this narration is incomplete without my Nana’s corroboration. But there is no reason my Nani would be lying about something like this. I asked her why didn’t she talk about this with anyone else before, like her friends or sisters who may have gone through a similar experience and could have helped each other. My Nani replied that hearing things like “Ye sabke sath hota hai (This happens with every woman)” and “Usko jo karna hai tumhare sath, karne dena (Let him do whatever he wants to do with you)” made her think that this problem wasn’t important enough and that sharing won’t make a difference. This was decades ago, and seeing how courts today are still divided on whether to criminalize marital rape or not, is a testimony to our collective sustained sexism.
My Nani says that seeing the ‘openness’ with which women conduct themselves on the internet these days has helped her be more accepting of her own desires. Sometimes she can’t help but watch soft porn that comes with extended online scrolling, even when a part of her tells her that it’s wrong to do so at her age.
After one of my Masis (aunt) got married, her husband tried to have penetrative sex with her on their first night together. She didn’t feel ready and refused it. The second day when he tried, she let out an involuntary shriek that was heard by all others in the house. The husband took it personally. He wouldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer and continued to force himself on her, and she continued to cry out. After ten days and no penetrative sex, they reached Kashmir for their honeymoon. The moment they got to their hotel room, her husband looked at her and said, “Ab jitna chilana hai chila, yahan koi nahi sunega tujhe (Shout as much as you can, no one will come to your rescue here).” How is this not rape?
Another of my forty-year-old Masi has a husband who has to have sex with her every day. She gets no period leave, almost no sick leave, and not even the-kids-are-all-grown-up exemption. While reporting this to her mother (my Nani), she said she puts up with it by telling herself that she is better off than the women whose husbands have extramarital affairs (like my own mother). She fears that if she refuses it too much, he may be compelled to look for sex someplace else. If you look at my Masi, mother of three teenagers, frail and lanky who does every single household chore herself, you’d question how she manages to put up with the demands of her “domestic duty.” She now eagerly waits to find her daughter ‘a rich husband’ so that her domestic fate is slightly better.
Also read: Marital Rape: The One That Cannot Be Named
Growing up in a family that celebrates and encourages arranged marriages, I have seen domestic abuse of many shapes, shades, and sizes. I dread becoming a part of an institution that legally sanctions rape and has failed to uphold individual dignity over all else when there is government data (from National Family Health Survey 2019-20) that reports how 1 in 3 women have suffered sexual violence at the hands of their own husbands.
To this day, the Indian state has been careless and unsuccessful in using its constitutional responsibility to normatively reform the institution of marriage from the top-down, and the burden to transform it falls solely on the courage of a few gritty individuals usually left hapless by the courts in return. The implied consent of sexual intercourse with the marriage contract violates one’s right to equality and liberty while encouraging a relationship that doesn’t stand on the shoulders of love and friendship but that promotes inequality and violence; a lesson that men and boys coming of age are learning at home every day.
*The names of survivors have been changed for privacy.
Author’s note: The author took consent from her grandmother, aunts and mother before writing and publishing this piece.
Featured image: Shreya Tingal for FII