In 2008, when Elizabeth Flock was 22, she moved from Chicago to Mumbai, where she wrote for a business magazine and came to terms with India. “People seemed to practice a showy, imaginative kind of love, with an eye toward spectacle,” she observes. The filmi ardour appealed to the reporter, who had been witness to her parents’ multiple divorces. “I thought that perhaps this devotional quality was what they’d been missing,” she writes.
Three sets of “romantics and rule breakers” drew Flock’s attention. Passionate Maya and cool-headed Veer had eloped after her father swore to stop them marrying; shopkeeper Shahzad entered into an arranged marriage with Sabeena of the Madhubala face, and journalist Ashok met IIT student Parvati online, asking to marry her even though she tried to fob him off with details of previous – rather anodyne – crushes. Over a span of several years, Flock pursued the couples, hoping to create a portrait of marriage in modern India. The result of her deeply immersive reporting is much more ambitious and much more damning – it is a portrait of a country in which the exercise of personal choice, over virtually any matter of significance, is relentlessly obstructed.
Even urban, educated Indians, Flock shows us, don’t believe in the right to privacy. Religion, caste and sub-caste determine all major decisions. And of course love isn’t even a prerequisite for marriage. Greater scrutiny is reserved for the placement of the planets.
The author, who is now a reporter with PBS Newshour, has such an understated style, that readers may only see the book for what it appears to be: A set of intimate observations from inside a marriage.
Romantic curiosity satiated, money, babies and work pressures start to take their toll, playing their usual games and causing the usual frictions. Veer, a workaholic, reacts to his wife’s nightly flood of texts with exasperation. “Sometimes, it felt like she was a flame that needed constant oxygen to keep burning.” Waiting for her husband to return, “Maya wondered how, in the city of dreams, she could sometimes feel so alone.”
Over time, lust for each other turns into cravings for other things. Shahzad obsesses over fathering a child, throwing lakhs of rupees at the feet of quacks. Sabeena, his wife, binge watches Pakistani soaps. In another part of town, Parvati’s depression, triggered by memories of past infatuations, forces her to take a sabbatical from her studies; her crying jags take their toll on her husband Ashok who craves time to finish his novel. But as his wife unravels, Ashok realises that there is rarely just the one unhappy person in a marriage. In a relationship so deeply intimate, virtually all pleasure, and pain, is shared. He scolds his wife, “You have to consider that there are others living with you.”
As the years pass, the couples have to work harder at being happy, and the results vary. Maya gives up waiting for Veer and starts a series of emotional, and, at least one sexual affair. She bombards her lover with rich cakes and dazzling bouquets. Sabeena, meanwhile, dyes her hair, starts applying French creams. She becomes a tigress in bed, surprising her deeply grateful husband.
If an accumulation of observations was all there was to the book, it would still be sufficiently good. Non-fiction about intimate lives in India is a rare thing – people are reluctant to disclose private matters for fear of social ostracism. And Flock’s reportage is full of empathy and warmth. Her enthusiasm carries through even the oddly flat prose. Her real skill though is the ability to interrogate without judgment. She does this so quietly that the casual reader may miss just how much of a dogged reporter she is.
These are some of the things she shows us: Fathers who decide for their adult daughters what they will study, whom they will marry and when they will have babies. Mothers who dissuade daughters from standing up for themselves by saying, “thoda compromise karo (compromise a bit).” Mothers-in-law who tell daughters-in law what to wear (saris) and what time to wake up (sunrise). Fathers-in-laws who say, “After marriage, a girl belong(s) to her husband’s parents.” Who shout, “We don’t bring up daughters-in-law to use gadgets.”
Worn out, Sabeena wonders if it’s time to accept that “she would not get to be happy.” Parvati attempts suicide. Maya tries to kill herself, once, then twice. All the women, all their life, feel like prison inmates with no hope of digging their way out.
Of course, the infantilisation and subjugation of women is thoroughly normalised in India. Only last week the Supreme Court refused to examine the validity of a curfew imposed on female students at Banaras Hindu University. Women are expected to return to campus at 8 pm – around the time some toddlers go to bed – while the men may stay out till 10 pm. “These rules are for the safety of the girls,” said the court. And last year, Indian women watched in horror as a 25-year-old medical student named Hadiya was placed in the custody of her parents. Her marriage was annulled and her Muslim husband was accused of brainwashing her.
These events give Flock’s reportage a sense of immediacy. Inspired by love, what she really presents is a powerful quest for freedom.
Sonia Faleiro is the author of Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars.