September 2013: Why do traditional cultures so fear romantic love? For the same reasons we need to protect it.
Two articles in today’s paper caught my attention. The first quotes the father who killed his daughter and her boyfriend in the Rohtak district of Haryana for eloping as saying, “Whatever I did was right and for honour. If others also follow the same path, such things (love marriages) won’t take place.” The other article points out that more Dalits are marrying out of caste, “in the phenomenon long suggested by social reformers as the best tool to weaken the barriers of caste segregation.” Ironically, my mainstream newspaper carried these pieces on the same page.
Over lunch the other day, India’s most famous cinematographer Ravi K Chandran told me that he and Hema ran away and got married 23 years ago. “Why?” I asked, perched atop my urban liberal worldview, born of (at least) two generations of relatively easy love marriages. “Why are you surprised?” he asked. “In most of India, the only way to marry for love is to run away and do so.”
Most traditional societies and religions don’t like love. It is no surprise that in feudal, patriarchal states like Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan, this most basic of all emotions (and its sexual fallout and/or social culmination in marriage) is so scary. Love is blind, and deaf to reason, ‘honour’, society, status, money, norms. It beckons their young (daughters, in particular) away from their fold, un-enslaves them from ‘mummy-daddy’, and makes them—gasp—free-willed. It breeds in young, reckless minds and hearts, and feeds on Bollywood happily-ever-afters, romantic notions and lust. It grows in the generation gap like an insidious sapling in a wall crack. It is a subversive, idealistic idea, that disregards social, political, economic, religious, caste barriers like no preaching, media or education can achieve.
One would think that education and its spirit of questioning would rid people of some of these abstract, inconsequential and often preposterous notions. But when I found myself in conversation with a stately forty-something Rajput lady in the Udaipur palace a few years ago, I found that this is not always true.
“Of course we must marry only Rajputs,” she said.
“But why?” I asked.
“Because our bloodline has been pure for thousands of years!”
“Even if that were true and verifiable, how does it matter?!"
“It does matter!” she bristled. Hurrying away from an argument she would lose to rationality, she left me agape with her parting shot: “I tell my children: 'Have affairs on the side, that’s fine, just marry right.'”
Wealth—with the opportunities it provides to broaden horizons, travel, and be exposed to more world-views and cultures—can be a double-edged sword. Though successive generations tend to be less religious and rigid than the ones before, I’ve sometimes found that my wealthier peers have ended up surprisingly conformist when it comes to love, marriage and parents’ expectations… perhaps because they feel they have more to lose.
In Defence of PDA
A good love story makes for happy people, happy people make for happy citizens, neighbours, fathers, mothers… and in a culture of hate, one can see why that would be a problem.
And we are, globally, a culture of hate. A recent study found that anger is the fastest spreading emotion on social networks. We’re okay with Public Displays of Anger, Aggression, but—to quote a Facebook status update I recently read—“hold hands in public and the police gets its knickers in a twist!” Even in our movies: rarely does violence—senseless, stylised, raw, revolting—ever receive as much censure as the humble bedroom scene. Break that down, and one wonders what norms we’re setting: that love, lust, happy-making things are not okay, while anger, hate, dishoom-dishoom, yeah, they’re just fine, signs of masculinity, justice, society. I’m clearly not the only one up in arms against the lawyer who’d rather “burn his daughter alive” than let her have—horror of horrors!—pre-marital sex, or who notices the irony of his misplaced priorities.
Let’s Get Together & Feel All Right
For all its power, love needs to be actively supported. I was pleased to learn that the Centre pays up to Rs 50,000 to each inter-caste couple that has one spouse as Dalit. The Supreme Court has even ruled that the police should protect a legal inter-religious marriage, and has repeatedly upheld the rights of consenting adults.
In reality, though, the police and pseudo-judicial upholders of culture like the Khap Panchayats can be quite severely unsupportive of this ‘anarchy’. In the much-publicised 2007 tragedy, the police is believed to have forced Rizwanur Rahman to separate from his wife Priyanka (at the behest of her industrialist father), leading to his suicide. Kolkata’s then Police Commissioner Prasun Mukherjee infamously said that cases of eloping, even by adults, were morally unacceptable, so the police had always intervened in such cases in the past, and would continue to do so. The Khap and the police were complicit in the infamous Manoj-Babli honour killing… the examples are numerous.
This has got to stop. For a happier society, we need to let go of our prejudices, and prioritise people and happiness over ambiguous, archaic socioreligious diktats and divisions. We need to recognise, internalise and channelize the positives of love—of both, the Gandhian ‘turn the other cheek’ cultural kind, as well as the romantic heart-bursting-with-joy variety. Just as we need to take a foot off the violence that we proffer as a solution to small or big, perceived or real wrongs.
For the most part, our laws are clear and progressive, worthy of an evolved democracy, with an agenda to allow adults free will and choice. Our law enforcement needs to follow them, and deprioritise moral and cultural policing. Bob Marley had it right: “One love, one heart/ Let’s get together and feel all right.”
An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in September 2013.