When Elizabeth Flock first moved to India in 2008, she was pretty skeptical about arranged marriages. Her time in Mumbai led her to know couples who were in both happy and unhappy arranged marriages. “I learned that it’s really not whether a marriage is arranged or joined by love that makes it successful. A happy relationship is about so many other things: expectations, values, energy, time, money, openness of heart,” contemplates the author and journalist.
The authenticity of love in India struck Flock when she first arrived in the country. The “showy, imaginative displays of love” she saw from couples in stead of the “long tradition of obsessive love” seen in many of India’s myths felt to her like Indian people in love were being more upfront about how they felt – especially those lovers who couldn’t be together. She doesn’t argue that love in India is more authentic. “Love can be authentic or inauthentic in Mumbai, New York or Tokyo,” she relates.
SheThePeople.TV converses with Elizabeth Flock about her book Love and Marriage in Mumbai, and the changing notion of love and relationships in the face of the metropolis’ multiplicity of culture, feeling and expression.
Love and marriage interested the journalist at a sociological level as she saw the social and cultural changes in the country affect the couples she had grown to know. In retrospect, Elizabeth also came to realise that her interest was a personal one, brought forth by a period of deep pain. Growing up, the author witnessed multiple divorces in her family and having moved to Mumbai just after her father’s third divorce, she had “a lot of questions about why marriages work or fail”. Veer and Maya, Shahzad and Sabeena and Ashok and Parvati – the couples whose lives find focus in Flock’s account of love and marriage – had answers, advice and lessons, and Elizabeth was to explore their journeys consensually and extensively.
Growing up, the author witnessed multiple divorces in her family and having moved to Mumbai just after her father’s third divorce, she had “a lot of questions about why marriages work or fail”.
She chose their stories because she saw the couples as “both romantics and rule breakers”. They were ordinary middle-class Mumbaikars, but they were also people testing the boundaries of what was acceptable and navigating that in their marriages. They came from different backgrounds and are at different stages of marriages – Veer and Maya are a Marwari couple that eloped, Shahzad and Sabeena are Sunni Muslims who had an arranged marriage, Ashok and Parvati are a couple whose marriage was arranged through the internet – providing a range of experiences for the book. “But of course they aren’t representative of all of love in Mumbai. They are just three love stories amid millions,” emphasises Elizabeth Flock.
Building Trust With The Couples
“I think they opened up in large part because I was changing names and leaving out locations, which would protect anonymity. I also think there’s a lot that people don’t talk about in middle-class Mumbai. So, often when I came in with questions, the floodgates would open and we would end up talking for hours and hours,” reveals the author about building trust with the couples. It was difficult to balance telling the true, unvarnished stories of people’s marriages while also respecting that people don’t want every intimate detail in a book. In some cases, this took a lot of conversation in order to figure out what would be included and what wouldn’t. Another challenge the author faced was maintaining structure – while telling the stories of six people, over the decades, in three tight narratives.
Elizabeth Flock thinks that there will continue to be upheaval in Indian marriages. “I think women, in particular, will continue to test the boundaries, whether that’s through working outside the home, asking for companionship instead of just financial support from a marriage, watching pornography, choosing to not live in a joint home, filing for divorce (or being unfaithful) when in an unhappy marriage, getting a better education, or marrying someone from a different community,” she observes. Flock maintains that this magnitude of change can be confusing for a partner, but it can be even more dangerous for women when old and entrenched attitudes don’t accept these changes.
While writing Love and Marriage in Mumbai, Elizabeth did some historical research and interviews with experts, but mostly she listened to people. Readers will find no gaps in understanding the social, cultural and political contexts of situations within the narrative. She navigates the lovers’ lives through the 1992 Communal riots, 26/11 Terror attacks, the 2014 General Elections, the Beef ban, the annual monsoon rains, the religious rituals and marriage ceremonies – to mention a few events. “These couples really were my window in – both when I first moved to India and in writing this book. They were constantly sending me WhatsApps or emails with information on things like the beef ban or a religious ritual I might not know. I learned so much from them and tried to listen as much as I could.
India is so incredibly complicated that you have to go in with an incredible amount of humility about what you don’t know,” shares the author.
Someone recently pointed out to the journalist that in both Bollywood and Hollywood movies, we often never see what happens after the marriage. The happy ending in the film is usually at the point when two people get together. Flock finds this to be both damaging and isolating for society because it leads people to think that they are the only ones who face difficulties after marriage. “I believe the institution of marriage will only improve through real, raw conversations about what love and marriage is like, warts and all,” she suggests.
The author originally wrote the book with herself in it, but didn’t feel that she was adding that to the narrative which the couples could tell readers better themselves. “I wanted them to narrate the changes they saw in the city instead of me as some kind of outside narrator,” explains Elizabeth. She took hundreds of pages of notes and did hundreds of hours of interviews so that she could rely on the couples’ voices instead of her own. “But this is still me telling the story, and I’m quite sure they’d tell their own stories differently,” notes Elizabeth Flock.
Love and Marriage in Mumbai would not have been possible without a reporting travel grant that helped Elizabeth return to Mumbai in 2014. After years spent learning how to be a reporter, the journalist wanted to come back to the city and pursue a non-fiction project about the couples’ marriages. “I went back to India with the idea that I’d write a pretty romantic book about the couples I met. But once I got back and started doing interviews, I saw that there would be romanticism but also harsh reality. So, it became a very different project,” recalls Flock. She tried to capture both in the book.
I went back to India with the idea that I’d write a pretty romantic book about the couples I met. But once I got back and started doing interviews, I saw that there would be romanticism but also harsh reality.
Elizabeth Flock hopes that her book starts conversations about love, sex and marriage, the growing agency of women, and the persistence of patriarchal attitudes. She wishes for dialogues which engage with how the country is changing and not changing: from religious conservatism to casteism to sexual abuse – everything. And she hopes people take away that marriage can be, as Maya says in the book, “both magic and illusion”.
“I suppose love is where the magic comes in…,” she signs off.
Feature Image Credit: Bloomsbury Publishing India
Love and Marriage in Mumbai, by Elizabeth Flock, has been published by Bloomsbury Publishing India. It is priced at Rs. 499, and is available online and in bookstores.
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