29 September 2022
A Reality Check for Indian Love
India’s relationship with modernisation continues to pose challenges. Wider access to the internet, social media and a global youth culture has changed the rules of what it means to be young and in love, in the subcontinent today. After five years of immersing herself in the lives of three young couples, author and journalist Mansi Choksi asks the question, “Is it worth risking it all for love?” Perspectives spoke to the author about her first book.
How open to romance is India’s youth?
Two in every three Indians are under 35; no other country has more young people. Yet, we are torn about whether it is acceptable to experience the thrills and adventures of youth,specifically, the experience of falling in love.
A generation of Indian youth has grown up believing we are in an ascendant part of the world. We were born when the economy was liberalising in the 1990s, and came of age when it was experiencing significant economic growth. There were more of us who got an education; and we learned that independent India was founded on radical ideas of equality and liberty, not on the preservation of millennia-old prejudices of caste, class, religion, region, colour, language, and gender.
We were the first Indians who grew connected to the rest of the world through
television, internet and mobile phones. A recent survey revealed that half our young people consider caste and religion to be the defining aspect of our identity. A third of us believe inter-caste marriages will destroy Indian society. Less than six percent of us chose our own partners. Only one in seven of us approves of dating before marriage. Most of us, it turns out, think exactly like our parents.
Where does romantic love fit in with the Indian sense of duty and marriage?
Our generation and our parents' generation came of age in a vastly different country, but the one thing that binds us, is a deep sense of filial duty. The worldviews of a lot of young people in India are defined by grand portrayals of love stories in pop-culture, especially Bollywood and daily soaps. We grow up internalising the idea of romantic love as a subversive force that can bridge caste and community divides. Real life is, of course, messier. As a result, the hum of daily life often drowns out the grandeur of this subversive love. Many of us have watched enough Bollywood movies to know that love is always followed by ruin. So in the end, we make our calculations between tradition and rebellion and arrive at our own truths about Indian modernity.
Marriage has a special place in Indian society, and in many ways, it is the only intended outcome of growing up. The real goal of marriage is to ensure the survival of power
hierarchies because we are a society that places greater emphasis on collectivism rather than individualism. We derive our identity from the groups we belong to; our daily lives and our politics are arranged around them. It is considered selfish and stupid to think of marriage as a personal choice.
You’ve said that Newlyweds explores relationships 'after the happily ever after.'
I wanted to write a book that dwells in the afterlife of the love stories we consume. What does grand love look like when it is reassigned into the smallness of daily life? When the love story has fizzled out.
When Monika, for instance, meets Arif's parents for the first time, she is shocked at how lower middle-class they are. This couple slowly and painfully learns that romantic love may not always bridge divides. Sometimes it is defeated by those same divides and there is a particular peace in that.
What was it like being so immersed in your subjects’ lives for this book?
A moment that will stay with me for a long time was from a time when Reshma and Preethi were struggling with their heternormative ideas of what a respectable relationship should look like. Reshma suspected that Preethi was growing close to a male colleague. So she picked up a knife and lopped off Preethi's braid in a fit of rage. It was a moment that was a terrifying reminder of how love can make us do cruel things.
What was the starkest transformation these couples experienced?
Over the course of reporting, all six young men and women became more serious, less playful, more cautious and less spontaneous. It was a result of them growing up but it was also a consequence of continuously grappling with the idea of whether it was worth it. To live in a constant state of suspension between thrill and guilt, navigating tradition and rebellion to arrive at one’s own truth, can be tiring.
There is a spectre of violence that looms large over these narratives. In Neetu and Dawinder’s case, it’s the very real threat of an honour killing. Dawinder’s mother is assaulted by her family and their home is destroyed. In Arif and Monika’s case, it’s an entanglement with a violent militia. In Reshma and Preethi’s case, the violence is private, but their circumstances make them act in cruel ways.
What are the challenges of writing a documentary book over five years?
The stories in this book are a result of hundreds of hours of interviews that took place over half a decade. I spoke to more than a hundred and fifty people between 2016 and 2021. Sometimes it was impossible to record people, such as when a police officer objected to recording a conversation between himself and Dawinder’s father. I took handwritten notes and emailed myself to describe the mood of the interview that day. The facts in this book are corroborated with court records, first information reports, official documents, and forensic results that I gathered from courthouses in Nagpur, Chandigarh, New Delhi and Mumbai. They are also supplemented with news reports, videos and chat transcripts.
I also wrote most of this book after giving birth. I taught myself to write late at night, early at dawn, in fifteen-minute instalments and in the waiting rooms of doctors’ surgeries. All the while, feeding, diapering, cooking and cleaning.
Where does your book leave readers in terms of 'clean endings?'
This book does not have a clean ending because it portrays the lived experiences of real people. The book is not just a reflection of how young love forms and falls apart, but of India as a society in transition. My hope is that readers see that love is not a static experience; that it grows and shrinks with us and our circumstances. I wouldn’t advocate that people stop dreaming about love marriages but make room for the shades and shapes it can take.
Mansi Choksi is a journalist who has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, National Geographic and The Atlantic. She is a two-time Livingston Award Finalist. Newlyweds (2022) is her first book.