Retrobrowsings: Splitzvilla Extravaganza

Neelum revisits the August 19, 1956, issue of The Illustrated Weekly of India, to bring to us some of the rare gems about the divorce codes from various parts of the world. It would be wrong to say that the scale was tipped in favour of the men. In many parts of the world, women had an upper hand. Here’s an erudite, enchanting and illuminating article, in her weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

In recent weeks I have found myself a reluctant audience to this TV show called Splitzvilla that seems to be such a big draw for viewers under the age of forty. Not that, by any means, do I qualify to belong to this happy age-slot. My presence at the telecast of this highly charged show is always accidental. I am, you might say, an interloper, a trespasser, a mental alien who chances to wander into the sacred space of the living room when the younger generation is sitting engrossed in it, and once in the room I am constrained to remain, both by virtue of the show’s utter craziness as by the excitement and exclamations of my junior family pointing out the finer details of idiocy that my prehistoric brain might have missed. Words like ‘connection’ and ‘dumping ground ’now form part of my updated vocabulary and the intricacies of sexual politics, attraction, cheating, two-timing, breaking-off and moving on have left me, alas too late in life, considerably more relationship-savvy than ever before. For this week I have chosen a fascinating piece by Subhash J. Rele about Splitzvilla down the ages in different cultures. It’s taken from The Illustrated Weekly of India, August 19, 1956. The author has these jewels of information and insight to offer:

“The unpredictability of marriage is vastly intriguing. In some cases marriage has the disconcerting habit of turning into a misadventure as soon as it takes place.”(What? In the sober nineteen-fifties? Let us proceed…) “Thus it is not surprising that from time immemorial divorce codes and customs have fascinated mankind. The idiosyncrasies of various divorce codes, moreover, reflect the eccentricities of our ways of life.”

After a preamble of such dire gravitas you might expect some further solemnities from the author’s pen. You couldn’t be wronger – if we tweak the word a wee syllable .You would be wrongest if you were preparing yourself for a learned socio-legal exposition. For the article that follows is pure fun, coupled (an unfortunate word here, considering we’re dealing with the distressing circumstance of uncoupling) with a heap of amazing detail. The Romans, informs the author “had a very queer method of obtaining divorces: plotting against the regime in power was a common ground for divorce. The majority of petitions came to nothing, but if a husband or a wife could prove that the other had taken part in a plot, divorce was automatic.”

You’ve got to give it to the Chinese for sheer practical thoroughness. “The divorce codes of China were infinitely beguiling and the Chinese had them for more than two thousand years. Under them a wife could be unobtrusively divorced for any of the following causes: barrenness, lasciviousness, inattention to parents-in- law, loquacity, thievishness, ill-temper and inveterate infirmity…. It is interesting to know that divorce for any other reason was legally punished by eighty blows of the bamboo. In Japan a husband could divorce his wife for the same reasons as in China, but the privilege was seldom used.

“Tahitians have a character all their own. It was more frequent for them to cast off their first wives and take a more youthful partner than it was for them to live with two wives. In some parts of Malaya a man, without a second thought, turns away his wife as soon as she becomes ugly from hard work and maternal cares. In Tonga a bizarre and vexatious marriage custom prevails. A husband dismisses a wife by simply telling her that she may go; a Chinook husband can disown his wife according to his caprice; most Australian aborigines could drive a wife away at any time and a simple word from a Caribbean husband serves to terminate the union.… It is a curious phenomenon that husbands and wives among the Indians of Guatemala and the Moxos of South America frequently part from mere whim.”

Just as marrying has its own ritual and ceremony, so does divorce. Here are some incredible cultural patterns:

“Among the colourful aboriginals of Australia, divorce ritual is elaborately primitive and nebulous. The little aboriginal to be divorced stands alone at the foot of a tree. The whole tribe gather in a circle, watch closely and carefully, for they will be both judge and jury. Forty paces away from the perplexed girl stands her husband, enigmatically armed with ten spears – he has ten chances to prove his case. At a given signal the man throws his spears deliberately, one by one. The girl, though breathless and battling, does not run away but with all the cunning at her disposal she wriggles about dodging the spear. If the husband misses all the ten aims the girl is free and divorced.

“Among certain native tribes of Central Africa a man has only to carry his wife out of his hut and place her on the ground in front of it and he is divorced…. But more fantastic and unbelievable are the divorce customs in some other parts of the world. In Siberia a husband has to do no more than tear off his wife’s veil in the street and they are divorced. In Indo-China food is taken with the help of a pair of chopsticks. A marriage can be dissolved if a husband breaks a pair of three chopsticks in the presence of a couple of witnesses. There is an analogous ritual among certain Red Indian tribes of America. They too dissolve their marriages by breaking some sticks which are tied significantly in a bundle at the time of marriage and preserved in the household as a symbol of the marital union. The Maldivians are so fond of changes that a man frequently marries and divorces the same woman three or four times in the course of his life.”

Outlandish and bizarre, and in our time not funny. We are not amused. What stops the little Australian aboriginal woman from smartly catching the spears and aiming back? – asks my indignant dissenting voice, of which the stronger sex has been known to cite the Bard’s words – “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.” But there is the other side of the coin:

“Don’t ever think,” informs the author, “that the laws of divorce operate everywhere in favour of the male species alone. There may be several who are inclined to laugh at the idea but the half naked jungle tribes of East Africa recognise the right of a woman to break the nuptial tie if the husband fails to sew her clothes. Stranger are the divorce codes prevalent among the Shans of Burma, where a drunkard can be turned out of the house by his wife. Oddly enough, not only does she thereby become free to wed a second time but she is entitled to retain all the cash and chattels of the divorced husband.”

Here the enlightened author interrupts with a cogent aside which warms the cockles of my heart: “The law,” he writes, “is impudently effective. It leaves one wondering as to why the same code is not applied in India. It could make Prohibition a success!”

Possibly, the vast cost of arranging alternative housing for poor, unoffending, drunken destitute is too challenging a prospect for any welfare state! But let us away to Tibet where, the author tells us, “Divorce codes …are strangely lackadaisical. They have provided for equal rights for the sexes in the matter of divorce. Both parties to a marriage have to agree if there is a dissolution. Another unusual Tibetan code is that a divorced person cannot remarry.”

Finally, this mind-boggling one: “Some divorce laws are loquaciously vague and have more terminological ornamentation about them. The law governing divorce among the Jews, recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy, is eerily fascinating. It stipulates that, “when a man hath taken a wife and married her, and it comes to pass that she finds no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her, then let him write a bill of divorcement and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house and when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife….”

Simple, what?

©Neelum Saran Gour

Pix sourced by author and Net.


Neelum S. Gour

Neelum S. Gour

Neelum Saran Gour is a well known IndianEnglish fiction writer and academic. She has been an active book reviewer, critic, translator, humour columnist, creative writing guide and jury member in the award of national literary prizes. She works as Professor of English Literature at the University of Allahabad.
Neelum S. Gour