Even by Tamil Nadu’s dyed-in-the-wool Dravidian standards, the wedding invitation came as a shocker. From a small town in the state’s southern hinterland the invitation sought your presence for a triangular wedding—one bridegroom and two brides.
G. Ramamurthy, a farmer’s son from Virudhunagar district in south Tamil Nadu was to marry two of his cousins on September 4 with the complete consent of his parents and the brides’ mothers. The logic the family offered for the attempt at polygamy, banned under the Hindu Marriage Act, was that it was difficult to find grooms for the two girls and the family was unable to afford the steep dowry demanded by outsiders. They followed it up by citing that the family astrologer had predicted that the boy would anyway have two wives so, ‘better play it safe from the beginning’.
The wedding invitation (in pic), that had Ramamurthy as the groom and Renukadevi and Gayathri as the brides, was shared in close circles. But the family had an unwelcome guest in the form of the local social welfare officer who made it clear that bigamy would attract punishment under the law. So finally, Ramamurthy married only Renukadevi. Gayathri, most likely, will be formally roped into this matrimonial triangle once the ‘heat’ dies down, as has been a long-standing practice in the southern state.
Thereby hangs a tale of the state’s obsession with chinna veedu (literally meaning a smaller house)—where the husband keeps a mistress, secretly at first and in public once the family is squared up. “It is strange but true that when Periyar—the reformist leader—presided over the first ever ‘self-respected’ wedding near Arupukottai in February 1929, he was surprised to find that the groom was marrying two women—also cousins. Periyar said that as long as the wedding does not involve a Brahmin purohit, he was fine with the arrangement and blessed the trio,” recalls writer Gnani, who has made a documentary on Periyar.
In a state that saw its foremost reformer bless a three way marriage, which has seen its chief ministers not hiding the other woman in their lives and film icons count their spouses, the objection to Ramamurthy’s wedding marks the beginning of a new attitude.
“The chinna veedu concept is fading away,” says psychiatrist Vijay Nagaswami. “Greater awareness among women is the major contributory factor. If the man wants to have a second woman, he is now expected to divorce his first and marry the new lover. Even his wife wants him to choose between the two rather than adjust with the new entrant, even if the latter lives in a different house away from the family,” he adds.
Even as chief minister, DMK president M. Karunanidhi was known to spend the day at Gopalapuram (where his second wife Dayalu lived) and the night at CIT Colony (where the third wife Rajathi resided). Because of his well known routine, what was supposed to be a discreetly kept truth in Tamil society became an open exercise. The two houses—less than half a kilometre apart—soon came to be identified as power centres in the DMK. To this day, the police continue to provide security to both the homes.
The legitimacy, acceptance and recognition gained by the second house in this hyper-patriarchal set up could be gauged by the fact that Rajathi, whom Karunanidhi had in the 1970s grudgingly acknowledged as “the mother of my daughter Kanimozhi”, could openly share the dais with Karunanidhi at public functions in 2006. The posters and invites would describe her as “thunaiviyar” (companion) while Dayalu continued to be the “manaiviyar” (wife). “Karunanidhi was a trail blazer that way as many DMK leaders chose to follow his example, even considering it a necessary qualification to have a chinna veedu. It even became a joke that one cannot get an MLA ticket in the DMK if he has only one wife,” admits a former DMK Minister, who has himself followed in his leader’s footsteps.
MGR, like Karunanidhi, also married thrice (only third wife Janaki saw him become CM and later survived him). The photo of him famously flanked by Janaki and Jayalalitha at the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi generated much interest in Tamil society.
Unlike Karunanidhi, MGR did not inspire his lieutenants to set up a second home. Barring Su. Thirunvukarasar, who was a minister in MGR’s cabinet and is presently the TNCC president, the AIADMK rarely celebrates a two-wife man. “One reason could be that Jayalalitha frowned upon any such transgressions when brought to her knowledge. She punished a senior minister by dropping him from the ministry after his wife complained of an outsider ‘playing havoc’ with her married life,” noted an AIADMK MP.
Tamil Nadu has seen its leading reformer bless a three-way wedding and its politicos not hiding the other woman in their lives.
According to Gnani, the practice of chinna veedu was confined to those born between 1900 and 1950 and hence only the older politicians considered it to be a medal of honour. “You will not find the present day leaders of the DMK following in the footsteps of their fathers,” he said. Lawyer Sudha Ramalingam says that in the present day it is not economically viable to support a chinna veedu. “Legally too, with laws against domestic violence and exploitation of women getting more teeth, women are refusing to get cowed down. The wife and two daughters of a deputy director in the state agriculture department did not hesitate to sue him when they found he had another family just 10 km from their home in Chennai. He retired before his department could act against him,” she recalls.
Actor Kavithalaya Krishnan does not find a problem with the concept of chinna veedu saying that the man who had a relationship with another woman at least gave her social status by marrying her and declaring her presence to the world. “Rather than leave her to fend for herself after fathering children, he had the ethical courage to provide her a roof, income and acknowledge the children as his own,” he argues. “A shared father is still a father, which was important in a close knit, less urbanised society,” observes Nagaswami.
Where a child is not involved, economic security becomes paramount. For example, a top industrialist of the Chettinad family, who had two sisters as his mistresses, admitted them in a retirement home a couple of years before his demise and made sure that they would be taken care for the rest of their lives.
But for most families involving two wives, it is a delicate balancing act that often comes at a price. “My father took care of my mother, educated me and my sister, helped us settle down in life. He was next to my mom when she died in hospital. But since he had promised his first wife that he would not give us away in marriage (as Hindu fathers normally do during the ceremony) both me and my sister had to settle for registered marriages. As children we had to compromise for our parents’ sake,” says a Chennai-based engineer.
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai