Minority report | The late shift


Minority report | The late shift

A fortnight ago, Clara Daniel became Heena Khan. An Andhra Christian, she converted to Islam to marry Khan, her childhood sweetheart of 23 years. That’s only a bit of the incredible story of Clara, a salaried beautician at the Hair & Shanti Salon at Delhi’s South Extension market.

Early last year, Clara’s first husband, the father of her two children, died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 45. There was a stony resilience and a lack of fuss in Clara’s manner after his death as she went about her work. I was struck by her matter-of-fact attitude and her passing comments on grief as self-indulgence. Clara is a well-mannered lady but appears emotionally distant. She is polite, never warm. At 42, she earns about 18,000 a month as salary. The rest comes from the handsome tips clients leave every day. “I manage (to get) 25,000 every month,” she said.

That veneer of distance looked newly cracked when I saw her recently. She was unusually upbeat. “I got married,” she said, giggling in a very grown-up way. In the next half-hour, she told me what appears to be a hard-to-believe story of optimism and love. Her second husband, a carpenter, was actually her childhood sweetheart. As neighbours in Delhi’s Madangir area, they had dated since they were in Class VII till their families found out and thrashed both of them. Khan was pulled out of school to assist his father in carpentry and Clara was forcibly married off before she turned 19.

Now, more than two decades later, and a few months after her husband died, Clara was told that Khan had got divorced after a brief marriage and two daughters. On the other hand, as soon as Khan realized that Clara had been widowed, he decided to bide his time till it was socially decent to send her a marriage proposal, one that was not meant to be 23 years back.

Clara’s former mother-in-law first threw angry tantrums about the man being a Muslim but later agreed on the condition that the two children—a 20-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl—would not follow their mother. In a bid to foil his insecurity, Clara’s young son got married a month before his mother’s remarriage and is now deeply angry with her for betraying his dead father’s memory.

But Khan’s mother, a devout Muslim, and Clara’s mother, a faithful Christian, decided to bury the hatchet finally, realizing that their respective gods must be on the same side to bless this union. “Conversion to Islam was non-negotiable but we had a court marriage under the Special Marriage Act to make me comfortable,” says Clara.

Many mini stories of India now seem entangled into Clara’s reality. An early heart attack of the first husband, widow remarriage of a Christian girl to a Muslim divorcee, religious conversion as well as a court marriage, a 20-year-old boy getting prematurely married and now the lurking issue whether Khan’s six-year-old daughter (one has been taken away by his ex-wife) can be raised by a Christian stepmother.

When I googled second marriages in India, I was taken aback at the number of sites and sections of information and anecdotes that open up. Thousands of divorced, widowed, separated men and women regularly put out their desire to get re-hitched.

At a recent edition of NDTV’s Big Fight on “Single in the City”, Siddharth Mangharam, one of my co-speakers, also the founder and chief executive officer of Floh.in, a national singles network, observed that both men and women seriously begin to feel the need for a committed partner after 35 years of age. Particularly men. Well-known Mumbai-based lawyer Mrinalini Deshmukh’s timely book, Breaking Up: Your Guide to Getting Divorced, gives worthy tips on the whole process, including the legalities.

Divorce has lost its sting in India with non-celebs and regular people boldly sharing first-person accounts of lessons learnt through divorce via blogs and networking sites.

They talk freely about second marriages, mostly inter-caste or inter-religion, adapting to older children of the new spouse, challenges of the new, post-divorce family—thus deconstructing a space that was formerly only about conspiratorial silence and social discomfort. Just last week, a friend going through a messy divorce called to ask how he could make his experience useful and “set up a support group for children who get victimized and hurt in bitter custody battles”.

Interestingly, Clara points out that her beauty parlour job helped in making her a broad-minded person, despite her minimal education. The confessional candour of many of her clients, the frequency with which the word divorce surfaces in conversations these days among “society women” made her decision to marry Khan easy despite her son’s opposition. Love was important but not instrumental.