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Hearthless Homes

Divorce today signifies a changing reality—more and more men are at its receiving end

Hearthless Homes
Tribhuvan Tiwari
Hearthless Homes
Paranoia permeates the Arora household like foul air ever since Suresh Kumar Arora got his divorce this January. The Aroras lives in a cramped and ill-ventilated first-floor tenement in old Delhi's Chandni Chowk. A stone's throw away, in one of the area's pedestrian-only lanes, the mild-mannered Suresh runs his small saree shop. And it requires more than just observing him conduct his daily business normally to make out that what happened to him is something of a nightmare. This is evident in the way his elder brother, cousin and mother troop around him in a protective phalanx, as he talks of his brief marriage to Neeru. They have, as Suresh later clarifies, become suspicious of anyone who wants to talk of his messy five-year wedlock.

Sanjay Chaturvedi, a Delhi-based, 36-year-old ex-armyman, says: "The tragedy of living alone again is that you become dishonest with yourself." Till a year ago the former ipkf major was, on the surface of it, a merrily divorced and well-adjusted man, whose friends thought he was the proverbial footloose and fancy-free bachelor. Soon, he was also inclined to think that his friends may have been right, partially if not wholly. "I was drinking a lot, was extremely volatile—emotionally. I even flitted from one relationship to another." But beneath this macho posturing there was a sense of denial. Of stifling pain and sadness on being summarily quizzed on personal matters by strangers and, sometimes, friends. Of impenetrable loneliness when friends retired home to their hearths and homemakers. And of a sudden and glaring loss of marital status. "I used to cry inside whenever I'd have to talk about my marriage," says Chaturvedi, now suitably 'healed' of his phantom wounds of separation.

But for Suresh things have not been so simple. For, divorce is neither fashionable nor respectable in his part of the world. Says he embarressedly: "This is the first divorce in the family." In his immediate world it's been received with some suspicion and sniggering, by both neighbours and friends. There's also pressure from the family to tie the knot once again. But at 40 he is a marital liability (manglik).

As Suresh narrates his story, happy images of return to 'merry' singlehood or the merrier market of marriage proposals dissolve and out emerges a chiaroscuro of fear, loneliness, paranoia, anger and depression. Life after divorce is usually tough but for men it especially borders on silent torment, in the absence of support mechanisms and empathy—the kind women in a similar situation are almost always assured of. Added to this is the undeniably male need to fake strength and fortitude when in a crisis, and the new-found bias of a society that's straddling two worlds—one of tradition, the other of women getting even—where to be male, marriageable and divorced is frowned upon.

"My alleged impotence was thrown at me by my second wife's family. They called me a hijra," says Ranjeet Vichare, 30, and a communications executive with a Mumbai-based public relations outfit. Today, Vichare, who suffered a nervous breakdown after his second marriage failed, vows he'll never be in a relationship again. "I feel lonely sometimes but that's better than anything marriage has given me."

Facilitating a divorce in a climate of change and women's liberation is naturally a cardinal sin, no less. Ram Prakash Chugh has been on the chase for men with bad marriages for over 15 years but has received scant response. The libbers among women don't even recognise him as an activist. A Supreme Court lawyer, Chugh runs a unique organisation called Crime Against Man (sic) or Akhil Bharatiya Patni Atyachar Virodhi Morcha that aims to get redressal in cases where men have been wronged, harassed or treated unequally. Says a disappointed, battle-weary Chugh: "I get at least 10-15 calls a day from men who either refuse to identify themselves or say they are inquiring for a friend. And when I ask them to send in a written complaint they invariably chicken out." Chugh, who is living his third marriage, says the problem arises because men are socially unprepared to come out as victims.

The laws, as far are as marriage is concerned, seem to favour women. "It's all become a way of making money," says Suresh, as he recalls the strong-arm measures his former in-laws and their lawyers used to extort money from him. "The Crime Against Women cell too was on their side. They put forged signatures on their summouns and then claimed that we had ignored it," he recalls. Neeru's lawyers also threatened to invoke Section 498A of the ipc to put the Arora family behind bars if they didn't furnish an exorbitant settlement price of Rs 3 lakh. The paying up, lawyers reasoned, would settle the matter fast, by a decree of mutual consent. However, it would also mean that Neeru's family could still haunt them whenever they got greedy or vindictive in the future.

"Some of my friends have terrible marriages but when it comes to divorce they just develop cold feet. They say they don't have the guts to go ahead with it," says Rajesh Bhalla, 48, who was brave enough to opt out of his stagnating marriage. But such bravado, confesses Bhalla, isn't something he's hugely proud of. Therefore, he doesn't grudge his wife the fact that she now owns the garment export company he started while he's a mere employee at a drug rehabilitation ngo. "I'm a loser," he says wistfully looking at his 19-year-old daughter's framed picture that graces his table top.

As it happens in most divorces, the custody of the children goes to the mother because a father, it is generally assumed, isn't as responsible or attached a parent as a mother. But that too is a flawed construct. R. Radhakrishnan, 43, a Bangalore-based marketing professional, aches for his sons (aged 5 and 10). They're with his ex-wife, Maneesha. "I call and talk to them everyday." He doesn't do so out of a sense of fatherly duty but because of the extreme deprivation he had to endure during his divorce proceedings. "For two years after we began living separately, I was not given a chance to meet them," he says. What makes Radhakrishnan bitter today is the fact that his wife, who's married to the very marriage counsellor who was trying to mend theirs, has got the children's custody.

Others like Delhi-based bank assistant Pankaj Sachdev (name changed), 40, lost faith in women totally after a divorce. Sachdev got the custody of his son but he is still nursing the severing blow his former wife dealt him. His computer-programmer wife divorced him through a Florida court notice that required him to either be present in court on a specified date or be damned with a one-sided verdict. Faced with the sudden and inexplicable desperation of a woman with whom he had made grand plans of immigration, Sachdev had little choice but to accept the verdict. "She deceived me and totally ignored our son," says a dispirited Sachdev, single and middle-aged after 10 years of matrimony."I have lost faith in women," says the single father.

Married in 1991, Pankaj and Dolly had a son in 1992. Six years later, she went to the US to chase her IT dream while Pankaj stayed back with their son. "We had planned that once she was settled there I would join her with our son," he says on the verge of tears. But by September last year, their long-distance and so-far-happy marriage was over without even so much as an explanation or contest. Recently, he put in a matrimonial ad in one of the Sunday papers. "I want to marry because of my son," he says, "also because my right hand is disabled, so I do need a partner."

Theoretically, a second marriage is an attractive if a somewhat risk-laden proposition for bruised egos, broken hearts and injured souls. But the traditional marriage market and the society at large too aren't very sympathetic to "innocent divorcees". That's why Sachdev asked for his name to be changed and Suresh's family turned violently hostile at the very sight of our photographer.

Also, why a reputed Delhi-based matrimonial agency recommends a more expensive package for those seeking remarriage. At Sycorian, a marriage agency, where first-timers can find partners through packages costing Rs 3,200 and upwards to Rs 5,100, for those divorced it is diplomatically suggested that they take up a Rs 11,000 offer. Because finding mates for such 'rejects' means driving harder bargains: "People are not convinced just by looking at the papers in such cases."

"It's damn tough," says Rajesh Bhalla. "It's not that I am not the marrying kind but after a certain age it becomes very difficult." Today it's been two years since his divorce and 22 years since he got married—yet Bhalla finds himself lonely even in the company of supportive friends and his army of 22 dogs.

Are younger and mid-career men more equipped to pick up the snapped threads and move on? Not usually, says psychologist and marriage counsellor Rakhi Anand. "A lot of times, men who have been doing very well professionally may suddenly experience a slump in their career after a divorce". This may happen because social conditioning teaches its male members to be silent and strong and in the process makes them vulnerable to psychiatric crises like depression, guilt and in some cases, suicidal tendencies. "It was very difficult to manage without my kids and a companion. At work, I lost interest and became very lethargic," remembers Radhakrishnan.

A "hangover of marriage" is what Chaturvedi felt during his long-drawn separation that began in 1994. "I was carrying this huge guilt complex because I was concerned for her well-being—she had always been a housewife, now she was on her own," he remembers. But by the time the divorce happened it had become "difficult even to face each other".

"I still possess the disgust of those days," says Calcutta's well-known TV scriptwriter Shekhar Das. Das's "happy and exemplary" marriage came to a screeching halt when he discovered his wife's growing fondness for his good friend. His wife married this friend six months after their 1997 divorce. However, for her 48-year-old ex-husband, marriage was not something he would ever think of indulging in again. "We are not really the good friends that some people become after divorce," says a morose and defeated Das.

The underlying feeling of being wronged, points out Anand, exists because men are not prepared to extend their privilege of equality to their women.For, sometimes men too are victims. Delhi lawyer Ram Singh Nirwan filed a divorce petition on the basis of cruelty in 1997. Since then, he's been verbally assaulted, beaten up, threatened with dire consequences by his wife Gurbachan Kaur's family and jailed under the country's anti-dowry laws. And the reason why he's not fighting his own case is because somewhere in the depths of his heart he's still wondering why he ever got married.

Dhiraj SinghWith B.R. Srikanth in Bangalore and Manu Joseph in Mumbai
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