Oppressors, exes leave memories behind

"MONDAY was India's Independence Day. On Aug. 15, 1947, India broke free of the British Empire and became its own country. The date comes near the end of the summer wedding season, which doesn't quite fit since it marks the anniversary of India's great divorce, not just from Great Britain but also from Pakistan. "

If you aren't familiar with the history of the South Asian subcontinent, then you may not know that the current borders among Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh did not exist as national boundaries before the British pullout.

I'm oversimplifying here, of course, and would urge interested readers to at least skim an encyclopedia entry on the Partition. That's what historians and Indians call it.

The All India Muslim League and the Indian National Congress had irreconcilable differences, and the judge (Lord Mountbatten) struck his desk with a gavel and broke the country apart. (Basically.)

The India/Pakistan division in particular caused riots and great hardship. Millions of Hindus and Muslims fled their homes, where their families had lived for generations, taking only what they could carry to their new lives on the other, safer side of the border.

Right now, Pakistan and India are in something of a cold war. The enemies know each other well. India's leader, Manmohan Singh, was born in present-day Pakistan; Pakistan's leader, Pervez Musharraf, was born in New Delhi, India's capital.

It's like that with exes. They always leave something behind: an Everclear CD, a birthplace, what have you.

Perhaps Indian divorces fascinate me because Indians on the whole scorn divorce and because I've been to so many Indian weddings. Once your family's dragged you to a hundred convention halls, temples and hotel ballrooms to watch your father pronounce Indians husband and wife, the bloom is off the rose.

Well, for me it is. My sister adores huge Indian weddings. If you've ever seen the blockbuster Hindi film "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" you know the type of bash my sister will insist upon. All our relatives will converge for a week, women will squeal as they apply henna to their hands, and (if she's lucky) the participants will break out into spontaneous, choreographed song-and-dance numbers.

The more pomp I see in a ceremony, the more I suspect, darkly, that no genuine feeling lies behind the facade. Call me cynical. Or it could just be that I'm not good at nonverbal communication, and henna and tulle and camellias send messages that just fly over my head.

But words — now, words I understand.

The day before Indian Independence Day last year, two friends of mine committed to each other in a ceremony I perfectly understood, a ceremony full of words. They spoke vows they'd written, and they invited their friends and families to speak.

They chose to become domestic partners rather than wed, in solidarity with same-sex couples who can't legally marry. I hear their paper anniversary's been full of paperwork. For them, becoming a couple was less an annexation and more a treaty negotiation between equals, thoughtful and judicious and full to the brim with respect.

That's how I'll do it, if I get married. What else can a daughter of modernity do? I'll want to take care, protect myself, prepare for the worst eventuality. All Indians now are children of divorce, and for me, the shadow of every wedding is the possibility of that dark partition.

Like a branching Mandelbrot set, the world has put up more and more borders in the past hundred years. Empires relinquished their colonies, and ethnicities and languages and religions got their own states and countries. That trend isn't stopping; ask a Chechen, or a Basque, or a Kashmiri. In the future, everyone will live in a country of 15 people exactly like them.

They want independence, and they might get political independence, but they'll never get cultural independence. A piece of your ex always stays with you. You may as well stay on good terms, if you can.

Especially if he lives next door.

You can write to Sumana Harihareswara at sumana@crummy.com.