Once, there were only two options for marital status on application forms: Single / Married. They divided the world into the child and the grown up. The free and the bound. How simple things were.
Then, less than a decade ago, society changed. Organisations began giving more options in their forms: Single / Married / Divorced / Widowed. Now there could be grey areas too. You could be the virgin, the never-tasted-headiness ingénue. You could be the righteous householder, with kids perhaps or even if not, having done your dharma and blissfully adopted holy matrimony. You could be the villain in the narrative of a broken marriage, a wicked divorcee. Or a sob story and a victim of fate who’s lost a spouse. In that one instant of reading the form, the reader could figure out all your life values, moral codes, your upbringing and – who knows – what hairstyle your mother must have worn.
Now there are even more options: Being simply ‘single’ is passe. You have choose between Never Married / Divorced / Widowed. Married could be Married or Separated, and often asks who has custody of the kids. Suddenly filling out a simple form has become intrusive. It’s the reader’s overt right to moralise, judge and mark you as per their own beliefs. If your reader is conservative, she will read your being separated as someone who didn’t work hard enough to make things work but it’s alright because you’ve still kept the ‘marriage’ tag. If the reader is open-minded, he will read ‘divorced’ as a sign of freedom from the past. Who you are suddenly becomes dependant on who’s counting the tick marks in a form. School admissions and Mahindra Club Holidays have been declined for less.
But what about the subtext underlying these options: What if you are single and have adopted a child? Or married but unhappy – can you tick 'single' because you feel alone in your head? What if you are divorced not out of choice, but because your husband had an affair and left you? Or separated not because you are ineffectual but because the court case is taking so long? What if you are married twice, or thrice or four times – are you still the humble, dutiful householder that falls under category two? What if you are recently married but have never lived with your partner because he’s a green-card holder and hasn’t managed to get you a US visa yet – do you mark ‘married’ or ‘separated’? Or what if your husband lives in Chandigarh and you in Delhi because your kids go to school here and it was too much of a bother to move? What if you’ve been divorced but start living with your husband again so that your 30-something daughter can finally get married? What if you murdered your partner – are you a victim of fate? What if you were drugged on the day of your wedding, and ran away a week later? What if the man you loved faithfully for 27 years over phone calls and letters and emails died – can you call yourself his widow?
How do you fit all those options on a form?
It is the nature of Life to evolve towards complexity, and social structures are bound to follow the code. We can no longer just have two options for marital status on a form, we agree on that. But we also then need to stop judging a person based on what they tick. Until that happens, we’ll lose precious opportunities of discovering bright new worlds in a deceptive cloud of blame and praise.