Uma and K.V. Sridharan are a lesson to those who believe that living together without going through the formalities of a marriage is something only Gen Y dares to do. They did it long before Lakshmi Pandit was born, writes BAGESHREE S.
Uma and Sridharan: `Really, why do people marry?' Photo: K. Gopinathan
"MAY I speak to Mrs. Uma?" I ask. "I'm Dr. Uma," says a polite, but firm voice on the other end. Dr. Uma has every reason to quarrel with the prefix I choose. It was precisely to break away from such slots and borrowed identities that she made the conscious decision to live with the man she fell in love, without getting into the institutional framework of a marriage. She and her friend, K.V. Sridharan, have stuck to that decision for 30 years, with no regrets.
Not that there were no pressures to "fit in". Over the last three decades, many have asked in exasperation: why can't you marry? And they have turned the question on its head: why should we marry?
"Really, why do people marry?" asks Dr. Uma. "It must be either because they want social acceptance or because they want security, isn't it?" The duo has lived in a tiny outhouse behind an unbelievably well-preserved, old structure on Lavelle Road all these 30 years. Dr. Uma, a doctor, and Dr. Sridharan, a distinguished social sciences scholar, have worked with various social service organisations. And insecurity has been the last thing on their minds. Not that their rebellion began with their decision to move in together. When they met, Dr. Sridharan was the director of a prestigious social science institute in Bangalore, and had earned "a bad name" (read great popularity among his students) for his liberal ways. And when the authorities cooked up a series of allegations to have him out of the institute, one was that he was "living with a concubine".
Dr. Uma, a general practitioner, was a notch higher in her unconventional ways. "A rebel without a cause," she says. The daughter of a doctor in Repalli in Guntur District in Andhra Pradesh, she always did "crazy things" like riding a bike, smoking in public, refusing to wear a bindi, and so on. And when she decided to drop her father's name that was attached to hers, people asked her why she was making a fuss about just everything. "Why, my poor mother has a name too," she retorted. No wonder they hit it off when they met. "When we went to dine at a Chinese restaurant, he asked me if I would want a glass a beer. I was impressed because those were days when women, if they drank at all, were expected to do it in secret," recalls Dr. Uma. And then, one day, she came over and stayed put with him for the night. "I asked him the next morning: `So, will you send me by the back door or the front door?' and he asked: `Why would I want to send you by the back door?'"
And so began their life together. People raised eyebrows, asked questions, and spoke behind their back. But the duo turned their back on it all and led their lives on their own terms. "I would sometime wonder how to introduce her since she didn't like being called `wife'," smiles a mild-mannered Dr. Sridharan. "You could introduce me as Dr. Uma, a friend," she suggested and he has stuck to that manner of introduction since.
"One important thing that has kept us together may be that we have shared a lot of work," says Dr. Uma. As consultants for various NGOs across the country, they have travelled extensively and spent most of their time working together on various projects. "Probably there isn't such thing as a soulmate, but you could do a lot of things together," says Dr. Uma. Someone once asked her: "He is slippery. How did you pin him down?" Says Dr. Uma: "The point is precisely that we didn't pin each other down."
But does not being married ensure that gender and role stereotypes of a marriage are kept at bay? Dr. Uma thinks for a while and says: "Maybe it's not just a matter of not being married. It's also one's temperament. I am, by nature, the kind of person who abhors stereotypes. Sri now doesn't keep too well and I take care of him. Not as a dutiful wife, but as a friend."
Dr. Uma is envious of youngsters for they have many more opportunities today. She, who loves making terracotta sculptures, would have chosen to be a full-fledged artist if she had a choice back in her growing up years.
"But I don't know if the world is any more open to ideas like mine than it was 30 years ago," she says. "Many stereotypes have remained the same. A woman still goes to her husband's house when she marries, she still considers home a priority over profession..."
What about the hullabaloo about the now-decrowned Miss India World Lakshmi Pandit's marital status? She may have told a harmless lie just to get a place to stay. "Yes, but tell me why there should be a rule about marital status in a beauty pageant? Are we talking about virginity here? I think we should ask these more fundamental questions," says Uma.
As I get ready to leave their beautiful little home amidst pomegranate and mango trees, Dr. Uma says with a laugh: "No other man would have, perhaps put up with me... Specially because I didn't want to have children." And then she turns to Dr. Sridharan, and an interesting banter follows:
"Tell me Sri, didn't you ever want to pack your bag and leave?"
"Not even when I was very nasty?"
"It's part of life... And `nasty' isn't a suitable label."
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