City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Ex Factor

It takes only 15 days to get over a break-up, said a young heroine on a celebrity chat show on television recently, shrugging off her most recent relationship. Another television campaign, popular among the youth, urges us to ‘move on’. We have a reality show on a youth channel exclusively focused on inducing break-ups that goes under the name Splitsvilla. And of course, it is now routine for celebrities to talk of relationships in the plural and publicly trade up and down in their choice of partners. Now, celebrity hook-ups are not by any means a new phenomenon and do not normally indicate much about social change at large, but the very public comfort with the notion of multiple relationships does point to something that is changing at a fundamental level.

There was a time when the idea of any relationship in one’s past was enough to mark the individual for life. One was seen to possess A Past, a device that made all ones yesterdays into a unified black cloud of sordid shame. The words used to describe a past relationship used metaphors of twisted entanglement-a ‘lafda’ here, a ‘chakkar’ there. Overcoming one’s past usually involved paying a price, usually by way of having to marry beneath oneself. Even celebrity affairs were seldom made public and the idea of living together openly was something that very few dared to contemplate.

In some ways, the gradual acceptance of the notion of serial relationships, points to the growing inability of the community to play the role of matchmakers any more. The classified ad-fuelled arranged marriage with its impersonal, almost transactional view of marriage is already a far cry from the intimacy of a traditional matchmaker. Although in adapting to the changed circumstances by giving the individuals more room for personal preferences, the institution of the arranged marriage has managed to retain its robustness, it is inevitable that more young people will take to finding their own mates. This move is likely both because traditional modes of matchmaking are weakening as well as because the emphasis on the individual has made both the boy and girl much more specific about their requirements from a partner. The man and woman can increasingly no longer be summed up by their families and stations in life alone. The idea of personal compatibility, a variable that has been curiously absent from marital calculations so far, is beginning to take ground.

In a larger sense, the idea that we lead single lives where all significant milestones happen once- we take up one occupation and work in a single job, have one relationship which we enjoy or endure for life, buy things like a house and a vehicle once and die once is being replaced by the notion leading by lives in sequence as well as in parallel. The mental model of life is now that a series of journeys each marked by their own rhythm, their own beginnings and ends. So life becomes a serialised succession of births, deaths and re-births, full of occasions where we dump others or are dumped in turn, we break-up either with our partners or employers and we keep moving on in quest to move up.

In order to navigate this new kind of life, we need above all to develop an ability to make choices and to know when something is worth investing in and when it is time to set off on a new journey. In the last few years, an underlying theme of a lot of what we see in popular culture be it through cinema, television or advertising is to provide us with training in how to make choices that suit us best. This involves both the construction of the idea of an individual complete with a sense of personal taste and likes and dislikes (think of the kind of celebrity one-page interviews we typically see on the last page of magazines or the ‘rapid-fire’ round of Karan Johar’s chat show) and occasions where we can rehearse our new found ability to make choices. Shopping at malls is one way in which we learn to attach significance to our choices as a universe of options becomes directly available to us to pass judgement on. The reality show is another theatre constructed to stimulate in a game-like environment our skill at making choices. The reality shows works by creating a high pressure and highly public zone of competitive choice making where one votes in or out others and actively manipulates the self in order to achieve victory.

In doing so, we are perhaps replacing the idea of a unified singular past with that of a fragmented personal history, full of anecdotes and encounters, near-misses and happy accidents. It is possible to view what is happening with alarm and bemoan the loss of meaning in relationships and in our lives and perhaps there is some merit in that view just as it possible to see this as an inevitable sign of greater personal freedom. But regardless of how we choose to view this new comfort with the cycle of letting go and finding anew, too many things are conspiring for this change to be wished away.