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29.06.2018

Marriage can be stranger than romance. There’s the guy who recently rescued his girlfriend from a forced wedding by riding past her mandap on a motorbike, hurling a varmala at her with perfect aim. There’s the Dalit-Brahmin lesbian couple who got married at a mass wedding and were hauled up to the police, only for the cops to have no idea what to do with them. Apart, transman Ishan and transwoman Surya each battled a lifetime of prejudice; together, they wed in a joyous and unimpeachably legal ceremony last month.

Yet these radical acts of hope and defiance don’t typify the Indian marriage at all. It’s the others, taking place in thousands every day, between young men and women restricted by social status, economic prospects and their parents’ wishes - and ever more likely to remain so. The American journalist Elizabeth Flock tracks three such marriages over the course of several years in her thoughtful new book, Love And Marriage In Mumbai.

Ashok and Parvati are a young Tamil Brahmin couple, each from a small-city background, introduced online via their families. Shahzad and Sabeena are from old middle-class Bhendi Bazaar families whose fathers chose them for each other. Maya and Veer are Marwaris, married after she spots him at a wedding and pursues him, even though he’s in love with someone else. Flock traces each person’s life to the point of their meeting their spouse, and then plunges into the push and pull of what, in each case, is a life partnership with a sort-of stranger.

The result is a subtle illumination of the private, unexamined aspects of marriage in a society where marriage, as they say, happens between families and not individuals. It’s also the first good journalistic account of the bonkers reality-show quality of many arranged marriages, in which two people who may have a great deal in common (caste, religion, education) get the rest of their lives together to figure out that they don’t know anything about each other, and have never been taught how to find out more.

Naturally, this doesn’t preclude happiness. Flock’s reportage functions gently and non-judgementally as she uncovers stories of infidelity, sexual dysfunction, and awful loneliness from each of the six people she follows, as well as pragmatism, compromise, and moments of sweet equilibrium. In a Katherine Boo-like trick, she absents herself from the narrative: with her firm grasp of atmosphere and cultural realities, Flock can afford to. Her broad, deft sweeps of description and setting explain the context to unfamiliar readers, but also form a solid frame of reasoning for familiar ones.

The editorial irritants are minor (Flock clearly knows that caste Hindus are forbidden from marrying within a gotra, but a typographical error implies that they do; a line from the ‘saptapadi’ marriage mantras is quoted in gratingly New-Agey translation). Perhaps, in a bit to avoid signposting any part of her narrative as absurd and weird to her non-Indian readers, Flock even dials back on drama that her Indian readers may be interested in.

There’s a moment in which Sabeena, re-united with Shahzad after they’re separated during the Babri riots, tells him that the police in their neighbourhood broke bottles and made families walk on their knees over the shards. Perhaps Flock thought this would seem par for the course in Naipaul country to her western readers; to some of us, whether truth or lie, this is a moment of exceptional crisis in our history. (There’s subtle, and there’s subdued!)

But it’s Flock’s careful, sympathetic ear for the two separate heartbeats in a union of souls that largely characterises Love and Marriage In Mumbai. It offers not only a very satisfying, often poignant argument about the Indian family - but also a way forward for other journalists thinking about the same thing. Perhaps we’ve been too hesitant to deal with an aspect of Indian life that’s so rarely given serious intellectual attention; perhaps daunted by how much depth there is to plumb in the subject.

In any case, Flock has left the field wide open, raising many more questions than she answers. What does money mean in a nuclear Indian family? What about violence and the protection of marital rape by law? What happened to Maya’s domestic worker and her husband? And when will more young Indians marry their partners by aiming a garland at them from the back of a speeding motorbike?

Getting there: Love And Marriage In Mumbai is available here.

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