Neerja and the the state of the marriage mentality of our society

Recently, after watching the fantastic and all-engrossing Neerja, there were some scenes that really stayed with me after the credits rolled. I’m sure this is true for most people who saw the film; it just is that kind of movie, where you not only watch it but also experience it. This isn’t a review of the film as such, but rather the random musings of a writer who couldn’t help shake the feeling of one particular, not especially significant scene.


Those who have seen the film will know that alongside the harrowing hijack ordeal of Neerja, the passengers and crew aboard the flight, we also see flashbacks of Neerja Bhanot’s life before, where she was in an abusive marriage. For me these flashback scenes were the hardest to watch, more so than the violence and murder. I know, must be something wrong with me, right?


In one particular such flashback scene, we see Neerja having come home to her parents, after months of enduring her abusive husband. We see her mother (played by the phenomenal Shabana Azmi), who doesn’t know the full extent of the situation at the time, tell Neerja that every marriage goes through turbulent times and every girl must learn to adjust. Adjust. It’s this word ‘adjust’ that we hear oh so often in the context of marriages that I wish to explore today. This scene wasn’t particularly significant to the wider plot of the film, far from it, but I thought it was very realistic in terms of how people typically deal with a situation of a girl showing any form of discomfort towards her marriage. Adjust. What is the real impact this word has on marriages?


So let’s look at what this word really means in our society because we hear it everywhere, it seems to be synonymous with marriage nowadays, particularly for women. What it essentially means is ‘suck it up, and tolerate your situation, you will get used to it’. It is important to note that Neerja’s case was an example of an abusive relationship, which is a more extreme situation, but we talk here generally about marriage. It is a word used toward anyone, any time they expresses any form of dissatisfaction or unhappiness, particularly in the initial phases of their marriage.


‘Suck it up and just get used to it, it will take time but you’ll get there, we all go through it.’ This is essentially what parents mean by this, they may not admit it or even realise it but this is essentially what they are saying. It means whatever comes your way, tolerate it and find a way to be okay with it, regardless of how it may affect your well-being or happiness. Moreover, people seem to be prioritising adjusting over their child’s happiness. Is that really the right message to be giving to our children, that at the first sign of something not feeling right, go into tolerate mode? Especially when the decision is a matter of their entire lives ahead.


Let’s look at just a few contexts in which it’s used. A girl comes home to her family after months of trying to make her marriage work and she seems unhappy, the common directive is again, adjust. That becomes the priority, above perhaps an attempt to fully understand the extent of the issue or source of the unhappiness, people, parents, family jump straight to adjust. Even if we ignore the extreme situations here, assume there’s no abuse involved, no evil mother in law, no crazy husband. Rather, something just isn’t clicking or working in the relationship and she just isn’t happy. Shouldn’t that be grounds for trying to understand the situation rather than pushing straight to adjustment mode? And why even deconstruct and over analyse why she’s unhappy? Why is it so important for these parents that the reason is acceptable to them? Is it not enough for them that their daughter just is unhappy?


Let’s look at another scenario where society demands adjustment. Arranged marriages, part of the lifeblood that drives our society and culture. The process of two people meeting through their families, getting to know each other over a period of time and then making a decision as to whether they are happy to go ahead with the marriage or not. In this context there’s another popular notion amongst the all-powerful, booming Indian aunty population. Here the man and woman are encouraged to minimise the ‘courtship’ period of getting to know each other to determine if they are happy with the fit,  and go straight into marriage into the ‘oh so great’ adjust phase. This time is encouraged to be minimal so neither one has time to develop second thoughts. That should be advice for bungee jumping, not marriage; this is their entire life we’re talking about here. So essentially, the advice is to seal the damn deal as fast as possible so any issues that crop up can do so later, post marriage so they can be adjusted to. Should those doubts not be given any form of importance? Shouldn’t any signs of unhappiness or distress from either party be looked into? But no, it is believed they need to get hitched before they have the chance to realise if they have problems because that is all to be addressed by the adjustment department, known for their superior ability in regret, unhappiness and resentment.


It’s like parents pushing their children to a job and career that they might not enjoy, and in some situations just hate, without giving them the time to properly assess whether its right for them. Then, when they express any form of dissatisfaction or unhappiness towards it, we tell them that all jobs are like that so suck it up, you get used to it.


I think this word ‘adjust’ is one of the most dangerous words and mindsets out there, in the context of marriage. Essentially what we are doing is forgoing people’s feelings, ignoring their happiness and informing them that those things don’t have value in making serious life decisions. Really?


Yes we should be encouraging the view that marriage is hard work and it will take a great deal of adjusting and compromise, yet this should be after we find someone we are happy or even mildly comfortable to marry. Not from the word go where anyone works, and you’re enforcing a lack of choice.


It is however important to note that the above opinions include a whole host of generalisations, and it would be wrong to say this represents our entire society; this is not as true for some, and far truer for others. However I believe it is a fair assessment of the dominating mindset in our society, which is that of adjusting.


It is also important to note that there’s a lot more at play here than a simple, annoying and destructive word, there are other societal factors which contribute to such situations. Such as the over importance parents have in their child’s life even in adulthood, in our society, or the almost ridiculous importance given to the notion of marriage in our culture. Not to mention the hate of divorce because that’s the worst thing that can happen to anyone, anywhere, ever.  Add to that the mindset that a woman’s life serves the primary purpose of being married off so she can serve another.  These are all pertinent issues which require an unending article of their own, which also contribute to a lot of these problems in our society.


Ultimately, it’s a question of priority and I believe the focus should be on that that person’s happiness and well-being, not on elders’ definition of marriage, which seems to involve more adjusting and less of being in a situation you’re accepting of and content with. But again happiness is subjective, has no clear definition and can be referred to as idealistic right? But freedom and choice are two things that are not. That is the big missing ingredient here, which is completely overshadowed by our society’s go-to word on the topic of marriage, adjust. That person should have the full freedom and choice to decide for themselves if things aren’t working, or if they need a longer courtship period, or if they’ve tried hard enough, or if it just plain isn’t working. Is that not their right in their own marriage, without their parents rushing to push them back into it because society states ‘marriage good divorce bad’?


If for whatever reasons things don’t turn out for the best, well then is there not value in the fact that it was their own decision? Rather than living a life because of what others made you adjust toward?


In my view words like happiness, satisfaction, fulfilment, companionship, comfort are all words we should prioritise miles above adjust. The chances are everyone has to adjust at some point of their marriage, it is hard work. But to get someone to do that or think like that going in, at the earliest signs something isn’t right, is dangerous and just plain wrong. These doubts should be given heed and a lot more importance than they are today.


In the end, what we are doing is actively encourage our sons and daughters to settle for varying ranges of mediocrity, unhappiness or in some cases just ill-treatment. Some do have the self-esteem or strength to realise they are in a situation that just isn’t right for them, and yet a lot of them don’t because they have brought up or treated to believe, because come what may, adjust.  Just adjust.


What should have happened in that scene from Neerja if it was playing out in real life,  is, before jumping on the over populated adjust bandwagon, Neerja’s mother should have recognised her daughters trauma or heard her out before unknowingly telling her to suck it up and ‘adjust, because we all had to.’

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