Monday, May 25, 2009

Fellowship of the Ring

Seeing me twiddle my fingers rather aimlessly at a gathering of Burmese American dentists, my host must have caught sight of what might have looked like the onset of an OCD induced twitch. Momentarily out of sight, he reappeared with a copy of Time magazine and a solicitous suggestion that reading might help calm down my frenzied digits. After all, neither could I make sense of the conversations around me nor did I recognize any of the faces. But then again, a lone head slouched over a magazine amidst a reception hall abuzz with activity would do little to alleviate the sense of standing out in a crowd.

One article in particular got my attention primarily because I felt connected to the issue it addressed. Lisa Selin Davis’s “All but the Ring” is a very balanced overview of the emerging trend on this shore of the Atlantic, where couples and partners are increasingly opting to cohabit without getting married. Reasons given for this option are informative: legal, personal, political (solidarity with gay/lesbian couples), financial, popular trend (à la Brangelina), and so on. These were informative—I thought so—because they were more telling of the layers of human configurations that underlie a contract such as marriage. The underlying argument seemed to be the notion of mutual commitment and how “committed unmarrieds” seemed a more practicable and integral option than what might be inferred as “married un-committeds.”

Structured performances of marriage are written into our cultural canons. We embellish them with gender, legal, and religious overtones and then over time come to accept them as self evident components of our culture. Despite their normative-ness, these are not hermetically sealed canons that have never been breached. I can think of the Ladakhi Skus-te-Khyong-ches where marriages, primarily among the poorer sections, involve “stealing” partners to avoid the extravagant expenses of marriage ceremonies; or the unplanned pregnancies among friends that forced either an alternate church wedding or single-parenthood. With the increasing visibility of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual) community the world over, the resilience of these cultural canons on marriage/cohabitation is going to be stretched to its seams.

Lisa Davis’s article gripped me primarily because it stretched my own unarticulated sense of what it means to commit myself to cohabit with another person. On breaking the news of my decision on how I would chose to perform this commitment, my advisor asked whether my decision was driven by a Victorian impulse. Despite his veiled reference to Foucault, I chose to get married in church with friends and family as witnesses. Wryly compliant with Beyonce’s crooning: “If you like it, then you should have put a ring on it,” Kimi and I exchanged rings. Strangely enough, I developed a rash on my finger and had to take off the ring within a week. Even as I struggle to come to terms with acquaintances who desire to cohabit in non-normative arrangements, I hope to remain committed and married, with my ring-less finger to speak for it.