Editor’s Note: This month, that is December 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Modern Love and Relationships, where we invite various articles to highlight how love has been fundamental in our lifeworlds and how these experiences and perceptions around love are shaped by our identities in a modern Indian context. If you’d like to share your article, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Hey, what are you doing?” a friend asked me one winter to which I had replied, “Nothing, just binge watching The Breaking Bad.” I remember the encounter so well because it was then that he replied, “Oh, do girls watch shows like that? I thought you people only watch The Vampire Diaries and stuff like that.” He said this so casually, so nonchalantly, that I could not even process it at first. How can even a TV show that people watch for entertainment bring in sexism was beyond me! I let it go then, just like most things that we are taught to let go. We were talking a few days back on the phone when Ritwika, one of the co-authors here, shared this personal experience.
While sexism is present even in the entertainment we consume, this made us think of a different point. Ours has been a generation which watches these great Western shows on Netflix or Amazon Prime, preach about equality and modern values, act high and mighty and believe that we are indeed the future. So it is only plausible that even our ideas of love have been largely influenced by the Western media or the books that we read.
“Yes, we are dating”, “No, we have only been going out for a few days”, “He asked me out”, and so on—we have become oriented in using the language just like we see in these fancy movies or series. Naturally, we’d expect the Indian youth to come out of the issues of ethnicity, caste, religion or language when it comes to love. Similarly, we’d expect the youth to come out of the notions of fairness, beauty or class when it comes to choosing their partners.
But is it really the case?
According to a survey by Lok Foundation and Oxford University, as many as 93% of respondents in Urban India said they had an arranged marriage. Less than 10% of the respondents said someone in their family married outside their caste. Only less than 5% of the respondents said someone in their family married outside their religion. We could go on—data shows that young Indians still marry very much according to their class, caste, ethnicity and religion. Our exposure to the modern ideas of love makes these findings look counter-intuitive but it seems the cultural dominance over how individuals choose love and companionship runs deeper in the Indian society than we imagine it to be.
The 21st century is undoubtedly the age of social media and Indians are definitely not shying away from declaring their “achievements” of finding their “soulmates” on these platforms. Ours is a country where romantic relationships which turn into marriage—either “love or arranged”, give people the ultimate approval. Marriage intrinsically is not just the dominant institution that has a monopoly over how the society views romantic relationships, but also the marital union of two people in India is an extravagant affair.
The Indian “wedding industry” is the second largest in the world valued at $50 billion behind the $70 billion in the US. This is in startling contrast with the low middle income status of India in the per capita income rankings of the World Bank. Therefore, the socio-economic importance of marriage tends to deeply influence the lives of Indians. But this influence has different implications and consequences for different people depending on their religion, class, caste, gender and sexual orientation, greatly separating their de facto life experiences as Indians from the de jure ideals of equality granted by the Indian constitution.
For example, homosexuality in India was decriminalised in India as late as 2018 and same-sex marriage in India is still illegal. Legality aside, the dominant culture in India continues to discriminate against marital or romantic unions on the basis of religion, caste, class and sexual orientation and people continue to struggle for acceptance in a society which interferes in a choice as personal as who they want to love. For example, the Uttar Pradesh Government has started cracking down on inter-faith marriages under their “theory” of love-jihad.
These socio-cultural norms very much affect and reinforce the way cisgender individuals seek romantic partnerships. Individuals tend to gravitate towards finding partners who their social milieu finds acceptable. There is also a psychological angle to this. According to the psychologist Dr. Nicole LePera, the household environment/childhood experiences profoundly influences the way people act and behave to be loved and accepted.
In India, finding a successful romantic union is seen not only as an important aspect of social existence but also as an achievement. Chaitanya, one of the co-authors here, based on his personal experience, expresses that he always felt compelled in his head for validation for the people he dated based on the ideas he subconsciously picked up from his family, friends and the social milieu. This was an important source of deriving self worth and acceptance. While awareness of this helped him redefine these ideas for himself, unlearning perverse ideas itself could be a painful process as it requires challenging hardened belief systems of oneself.
He says that in the North Indian set-up, especially in Delhi, his hometown, men are raised to desire or like certain “type” (as our society likes to put it) of women possessing characteristics like “physical beauty” and “chastity” and women who can generally fit into the patriarchal gender roles as future partners while it’s acceptable for men to continue dating “promiscuous women”, until they settle for the “right” partner. Afterall, dating and marriage are two different things and men are taught this very well! A woman can be “dateable” but not the “marriage type”, rather she does not have the family skills that a woman who has to run a family should have. Marriage means that she has to be approved by the family.
But there is another side to this story. Women are also taught to be more like the “marriage kind” than the “dateable” kind. “Don’t laugh so loud, you’ll repel all the men”, “pati ke dil ka rasta pet se hota hai (basically, learn how to cook or your husband will never love you), “dress in a more sanskari way”, etc. Is there even one woman who has not heard any of these comments?
Also read: Netflix’s Mismatched Review: Another Love Story That Tries Too Hard
So, what is modern love in India? Do we even have a modern love? The term modern love reminds us of the New York Times weekly column, selected stories from which have been adopted into a show, also called Modern Love on Amazon Prime. The phrase is a constant reminder of how modern love is of different hues traversing through tragedy, pain, serendipity and joy. Writers and poets have all romanticised modern love. It has captured our thoughts and imaginations as we experience it through the stories we hear or tell others. These stories give us hope that we have evolved to accept someone without their social identity—a belief that love is something to be sought, giving approval to its very existence.
Absurd conditioning of children has consequences for both the society and the mental health of individuals as they grow up. The individuals who don’t find themselves fit as desirable partners or are unable to find partners according to the perceived ideas of social validation, naturally suffer because of the discriminatory and stereotypical social structure. The true essence of modern love lies in the freedom to define, choose and experience love without being stifled by the social norms, strictures and perverse conditioning. We need love which requires the approval of just the lovers and nobody else. Modern love in India seems to be far away from this freedom and remains suffocated by cultural barriers. Hope lies in filling the imagination of our people with stories of love that shatter these cultural barriers. Let’s stop chasing social validation and mend our hearts with love.
As Raghav Meattle’s City Life rendition goes, it is indeed true, “While we all chase the love, we all chase the cars, we all chase the good life with broken hearts.”
Also read: Love Azad: A Rising Campaign Against ‘Love Jihad’
Chaitanya Talreja and Ritwika Patgiri are both PhD research scholars at the Faculty of Economics, South Asian University, New Delhi. You can find Chaitanya on Instagram and Ritwika on Twitter.