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A no-nonsense teacher lives the typical urban life in Delhi. Husband in a high-powered job, two kids, a dog, a picture-perfect home, two cars, one chauffeur. Routines are set, there are dinners in classy restaurants, and exotic vacations pep up the calendar. The neighbour, an older separated man who works from home, is now an integral part of this household. The kids call him Uncle, the husband calls him his Weekend Beer Buddy, the dog calls him Treat Dispenser...and the wife, Darling! She thrives on the flirting, the sneaking around, the intimate pictures shared on Whatsapp, the frantic lovemaking before everyone gets home.
She feels no guilt.
A banker who relocated from New York to Bangalore recently discovered that his wife of 15 years is still in touch with her American ex. Even though, on the surface, they have the perfect life together—high-flying, well-paying jobs that give them all the Instagram chic and Mediterranean cruises you’d need, plus three kids and two gorgeous homes—the marriage is a cover for her to carry on with another married man, her first love. She likes having her cake and eating it too. If her husband hadn’t figured it out, she would have enjoyed the status quo for years. Sadly, it all came out and now she will have to sacrifice the safety net of being a wife. The marriage is being dismantled amicably as we speak. She is off to Manhattan for a dirty weekend amidst black satin sheets while the kids stay home with him.
She feels zilch shame.
A Mumbai homemaker runs the household of the joint family she lives in and her daughter’s school schedule, and also performs with a devotional music group. They sing at satsangs throughout the city and also out of town on occasion. This takes her away from home a few times a month. Her traditional in-laws are proud of her achievements and speak condescendingly to the younger daughter-in-law, who doesn’t always perform the religious rituals they wish she would. They do not know that their older bahu also worships at the secret altar of deception. She is in love with a younger tabla player in the troupe and often the music they are making on a few make-believe outstation performances is of a sort slightly different from their usual jugalbandi. She never loved her husband of 10 years, but finds him especially boring since she met the sensitive man who is in tune with her emotions and can play her body like a musical instrument.
She thrives on her secret attraction.
It’s the one thing Indian patriarchy dreads most: a new willingness on the part of married women to consider, without too much guilt or remorse, the risky waters of adultery. Across Indian languages, marriage has always been framed in metaphors of bondage: the key verb is ‘tying’. At its core, it expresses a state of unfreedom and, internalised over centuries as virtue, it has produced the quintessential tropes of Indian womanhood: the pativrata, the sati-savitri, the bahu and the sexless ‘Ma’. In many meaningful ways, every Indian woman was a Sita.
And that wasn’t just a mental template; marriage being the sole source of happiness and emotional fulfillment, and striving to attain that ideal at all costs—no matter if she herself was neglected, without financial autonomy, sexually deprived—was the norm. Among all the moral clauses, the bar on seeking fulfilment through another man while being married was the highest law. The classic exemplar of this in Hindi cinema was Bimal Roy’s Bandini, whose state of emotional confinement is strikingly expressed through the fact of her being actually a prisoner. It’s this handcuff that’s now off.
However, the law—being so often a compendium of anachronisms, with its roots sunk deep in conservatism—curiously refuses to take cognisance of the woman as an independent, sentient partner. Under Section 497 of the IPC, “Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows, or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offence of rape, is guilty of the offence of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both. In such case the wife shall not be punishable as an abettor.”
In other words, if a woman has an affair with a man, then the husband can bring charges against the lover, but the wife will not be charged under the same offence. Although adultery by definition covers any extramarital incidence of sexual intercourse, the Indian law in its current form criminalises only one form of adultery. It is illegal only if a man has sexual intercourse with a woman who is married, and he does not have the consent of the husband of the woman for the sexual activity. The women herself is denied of any agency; and this includes the wife of the adulterer, who can take no action against her husband. This is theoretically saying that if a man’s property is defiled by another, the man can punish the offender—the woman here being thus reduced to mere property.
Even as the adultery law continues to be debated upon as gender-biased, instances of women indulging in extra-marital affairs are slowly, but surely, making their way into mainstream culture. In Bollywood, a little over a decade ago, Mahesh Manjrekar’s Astitva wove a strong, woman-oriented saga about a one-night stand between an ordinary homemaker and her music instructor that came to light after many years. Shilpa Shetty essayed the role of a loveless wife trapped in a mundane, monosyllabic marriage who sought succour in the arms of another in Anurag Basu’s Life in a Metro nine years ago. We had the critically acclaimed Lunchbox, where an average, middle-class housewife wrote detailed letters in a rare discovery of intimacy with a man with a mistaken identity. Or Mixed Doubles that delved into the swinger lifestyle. These, along with international films and TV series such as Desperate Housewives, Cougar Town and The Affair have possibly set the scene for the idea of infidelity to impregnate impressionable minds already searching for a way to find gratification.
Closer home, most of our prime-time soaps these days also openly endorse extra-marital relationships, sometimes shown as accepted by the wife. The trend is also backed by the all-new lifestyle amongst working women and moms—more travel, longer late-nights at work and a more personalised interaction with the opposite sex that naturally multiplies the straying enticement for a whole new generation of women.
Data from the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey revealed that American wives were almost 40% more likely to be cheating on their spouses in 2010 than in 1990. The number of husbands reporting infidelity, meanwhile, stayed constant at 21%, meaning wives are now cheating 70% as often, thus closing the gender gap. In 2013, a study conducted by America’s Journal of Marital and Family Therapy also claimed that 41% of marriages had one or both spouses admitting to either physical or emotional infidelity.
One can’t help wonder what such a survey could reveal about adultery in India, a country that demands sanctification of marriages, placing a grave socio-religious importance on a woman’s chastity and character. In 2015, a survey by Ashley Madison drew up some shocking statistics: 76% of Indian women and 61% of men don’t even consider infidelity as a sin or immoral anymore. Responses were collated from 75,321 respondents—80% being married—across ten cities. No less than 81% of men and 68% of women confessed that their affairs had a positive impact on their marriage. More than 80% were trapped in arranged marriages that functioned like business deals. The average age of those surveyed was 45 for men and 31 for women. In fact, around the same time—February 2014—India saw the launch of a popular extra-marital affairs ‘dating’ website. And the country’s women in predominantly arranged marriages thronged the portal—its slogan: ‘Life is short. Have an affair’. As many as 50,000 Indian women who primarily hailed from Delhi NCR signed up on the first day itself, representing, as a sex, more than half of the sign-ups.
Noel Biderman, founder and CEO of Ashley Madison, decrypted the adulteresses’ instinct: “It’s not so much a seven-year itch as a three- to four-year itch—that first bump in monogamy being post first child. At the heart of it all is desire…someone who tells you that you’re the greatest thing and wants to spend his life with you. Now they don’t even want to look at you, touch you, talk to you. But you have economic stability—a home, kids, family. You don’t want to walk away from it just because you feel less desired.... People think, ‘I’ll just put myself out there in an anonymous way.’ They want to rekindle that object of desire. You’ll often find women seeking this attention by Facebooking past lovers.”
Prominent sex counsellor Dr Rajan Bhonsle says he has “certainly seen” in his practice a rise in the number of women confessing to affairs as well as discussing them openly in the last three to five years. “I also sense that there seems to be less guilt attached to being in a relationship outside of marriage among Indian women today.”
Psychiatrist and author Dr Anjali Chhabria agrees that infidelity is more discussed, more straightforwardly confessed than earlier and hence it seems the numbers have increased. “Earlier, cheating was seen as a social disgrace, and swept under the carpet or otherwise dealt with by family elders. Now it’s seen as a matter pertaining purely to the relationship between the couple.”
However, Dr Chhabria believes that the nature of infidelity has always been the same. A person feels the deficiency of either affection or the novelty element of the relationship and comes across a situation where s/he find this value in another person they feel attracted to. Some people give in, for immediate gratification, others are able to think about the long-term consequences—this helps them to stop and stay faithful. “It is not necessary for the relationship to be at fault in order to justify the person’s infidelity,” she adds. “Sometimes, it’s just the person’s personality type.”
But all this is unfolding in a society that is still waist-deep in the bog of puritanism. Kissing is still taboo, child abuse is more common than sex education, pornography is illegal, and Indian couples still sexually clumsy with each other. Women, though dealing directly with the world in so many more ways than before, are still only beginning to shun the sexual purdah. From this tentative opening to actual promiscuity, being sexually experimental, taking on younger lovers, exploring bisexuality or even alternate sexual practices like BDSM is still a journey that’s left to be made. But women are surely no longer satisfied in existing as a boring asexual prop in the domestic space—or a dumbed-down showpiece without sexual agency. She wants to be lusted after. The guilt and consequent emotional baggage associated with casual/paid/cyber sex too is ebbing away with instant, no-strings-attached hook-ups, mostly forged online. ‘Doing shame’ was essential to the old beauty. Now, sexual daring is at last kosher.
Traditional gender ascriptions still float around though. For instance, counsellor- author P.V. Vaidyanathan hits a swarm of generalisations when he says, “for a man, an affair is purely for physical gratification, while for a woman it’s for emotional reasons and for some focused attention, caring, respect, self-esteem, self-worth and companionship.” His point of entry, of course, is the idea that the rising incidence of infidelity is a scathing comment on how something is seriously wrong in our traditional marriages. “Why are people of either gender not finding these in their marriage?” he asks.
But he makes allowances for the changing attitudes. The fact that women are looking at relationships in a new and more disposable light can be attributed to their emancipation from their traditional roles in the last 20-30 years, he says. “The education and bread-winner status of Indian men remains unchanged, while the role of woman from home-maker and mother to CEO of a company or a doctor or lawyer or other professional is relatively new here. Men used to satisfy their needs inside or outside the house always, no questions asked, whereas women’s needs were largely ignored and suppressed, especially where they had little or no education and means to support themselves. As the woman of today rises, she is willing to take a look at her own needs and, if necessary, honour them, be it inside or outside the house.”
Perhaps it’s the conditioning that produces the gender divide in attitudes to infidelity—or any relationship for that matter. Dr Chhabria too says men’s needs of physical comfort lead to them straying and enjoying one-night stands, while women are more prone to having an emotional affair. “Some call their relationship as ‘just being friends’ for a very long period of time, till the trust is built and more physical contact is experienced. Understandably, there are exceptions to this stereotype and it’s no longer true that only men are overt about their need for sex. Even women have realised that accepting this feeling is not an offence and hence they too have become very open about their sexual needs.”
That acceptance and openness, coupled with the Internet revolution and smartphones, is changing the dynamic drastically, Dr Vaidyanathan adds. “A lot of affairs owe their existence to electronic communications. The sheer ease and secrecy of mobile communication is an enabling factor. For example, uneducated women would not be using WhatsApp, so to speak.” With the married people’s dating apps such as Tinder and Woo, chat sites like Pollen and StrangerMeetUp, where you can converse while preserving your anonymity until you want to, and even attending events meant for singles, it seems fidelity is fast becoming fiction.
The other bogeys of the age—decreased attention span, the penchant for instant gratification—are often cited too in the current psychology of coupling. The culture of treating things as precious and taking special care of them is deemed to have moved on to a ‘use and throw’ attitude that is sadly today being applied to relationships as well. People don’t have the patience to work out a problem, discuss things in detail, bear consequences and find solutions. They seek perfection immediately and, if they find something lacking, they are fine to move on to someone who is perceived as better, hotter and more desirable. Be it a restaurant meal or your marriage, if it isn’t Instagram-worthy, it isn’t worth your time.
A 2011 study at Netherlands’ Tilburg University offers theoretical sanction for infidelity, as a function of greater economic and social power creating confidence and personal leverage for both genders. Women now use their power in ways that men have long been habituated to—and, in doing so, busting the age-old myth and cultural stereotype that only men cheat behind their spouse’s back.
So, is monogamy a myth? Is all the women’s lib talk boiling down to equal-ity between the sheets, and not just the sexes? Are we suffering from ‘infidelity overload’? Are arranged marriages, dead and done with? Akin to what the Indian counsellors say, the UK Adultery Survey 2012 too discovered that once women decide to cheat, they are more likely to play the field in search of love, as against cheating men, who report seeking sexual excitement as the top reason for being unfaithful, frustration in marriage and the need for an ego boost in their middle age being attendant factors.
But—and here is the crux of the difference between the majority of Indian women committing adultery and their counterparts in the rest of the world—they don’t want to leave their husbands and the social validation a marriage brings. Fashion blogger Miloni Shah, in a committed relationship, is witness to people straying around her all the time. “I have many married friends dating other men. Their husbands are either too busy or too unconcerned about this. Perhaps, at some level, they are even aware of it, but can’t be bothered to find out the truth,” she says. “Both are in a marriage of convenience and as long as the affairs don’t rock the boat, they’re okay to look the other way. The wives handle the household and kids, come through as beautiful companions for business and family functions and manage the relatives. The husbands, in turn, provide financial security, social status and the lifestyle. Earlier, it was more the men that felt entitled to such excesses. Now, the women are going for it too.”
Take the case of Aarti Mahajan, a successful PR professional, who had an arr-anged marriage eight years ago and a child soon after. After childbirth, postpartum depression and painful stitches, she lost interest in the physical aspect of her relationship with her husband. He, in turn, although quite hands-on in child-rearing, felt left out as she was always with the baby. “For almost two years,” she recalls, “we didn’t even touch each other in an affectionate way, let alone sexual. Now, Naisha is six and there’s nothing left of ‘us’ except being co-parents. Vicky (husband) doesn’t talk about his work or problems, isn’t interested in my life and often resents it when I tell him I had a good time doing something. He is going through depression, but he refuses to open up to me or see a counsellor. Because of all this, I feel no connection with him. If he comes close to me, I feel repulsed. Often, I force myself to go through the motions just so he doesn’t feel bad. My life has mostly been empty which I used to try to fill by spending time with Naisha, meeting my friends or indulging in activities I enjoy.”
Recently, through friends, Aarti met a man who pays attention to her and gives her the excitement and emotional anchor she’d been craving for. “It’s tempting to want him in my life forever. He’s heart-wrenchingly perfect for me and yet, I will probably have to cut off from him,” she rues, explaining, “I don’t think I have the strength to go through a divorce, put Naisha through the trauma, face society’s jibes, and start single life all over again, as I can’t count on him being there with me through all this.” Instead, the fulfilment she feels with the ‘other’ actually helps her cope with the emotional void and the Dead Bedroom Syndrome.
“It’s ironic, when I’ve had a good day having meaningful and entertaining conversation with him, felt the spark and come home in high spirits, I feel I can be more caring and polite with Vicky and my in-laws, more involved with life at home. It’s the only thing that keeps me going,” she adds, wistfully.
Is an affair on the side ever going to be seen as a sign of our modernism? Or is the Indian woman’s sexual dalliance the start of a sexual revolution that reflects a deeper cultural shift?
(Names changed to protect identities.)
The Cheat Chart
1. Nigeria 62% Nigerian women are unfaithful, a survey says
2. Thailand 59% women in Thailand admitted to cheating on their husbands. Many husbands are comfortable about their spouse having had sex outside marriage.
3. Britain 42% people have had sex outside marriage. The country experiences a high rate of women cheating.
4. Malaysia 33% of Malaysians are known to cheat, 39% of Malaysian women, in particular
5. Russia 33% of Russian women are known to be cheaters
6. Singapore 19% of women in Singapore are known to be unfaithful
7. France Women in France are 16.3% likely to commit adultery. Men are 22% likely.
8. America 61% of Americans believe adultery shouldn’t be a crime
9. Italy 14% of married women in Italy admitted to having an affair once during married life. 54% of the married men did not know about their spouse’s extramarital activities.
10. India Indian women are at the bottom of the survey. While they are also known to be adulterous, it’s mostly under wraps.
Priya Pathiyan is a former editor of Lifestyle. She is now an independent journalist who runs the popular site, thehungryhappyhippy.com.