A conversation with Elizabeth Flock, an American journalist who has chronicled the marriages of three middle class couples in India, on the forces that are reshaping this institution.
Why did you choose to write about Indian marriages?
In 2008, I moved from Chicago to Mumbai looking for adventure and a job. During my time there – I was there for two years – I stayed with half a dozen couples and families across the city and met many more. This is where my interest in the Indian love story began.
I was young (I had just turned twenty-two that year) and naive and had a lot of questions about the nature of long-term relationships In India, where love – at least the kind portrayed in Bollywood movies – seemed almost showy; a spectacle of sorts. But there was also a certain honesty and vulnerability in many of these real life relationships that made me want to understand their essence better.
As any person from the West who’s not acquainted with arranged marriage as a concept, I was both interested and curious about this model. But I wanted to approach it with an open mind as opposed to skepticism. I had seen many marriages fail within my circle of family and friends in the US and I felt that perhaps there were aspects of Indian marriages that needed to be studied and written about.
That conviction was largely the impetus for my book ‘Love and Marriage in Mumbai’ which tracks the marriages of three middle class couples over almost a decade, with the bulk of the interactions taking place in 2014 and 2015.
I also had a bigger reason for wanting to chronicle these unions. Although I never intended for these couples to be representative of Indian marriages as a whole, I believe that their experiences shed light on the push and pull forces that are currently working on Indian society – primarily in its cities.
How do you think the middle class view of marriage is changing?
As historian Ramachandra Guha said, India is going through revolutions on multiple fronts: political, economic, urban and cultural. These shifts are happening faster in metropolises such as Mumbai. And the group that is most affected by many of these changes is the middle class which does not have the moral freedom of the very rich or very poor.
When such large-scale shifts happened in societies in Europe and America, they were staggered, allowing for people to gradually adapt to them. In India, on the other hand, these changes in cities and their residents are happening all at once. And they are impacting institutions such as marriage in a deep and often immeasurable way.
Several liberalizing factors have led to a big shift in the attitudes and aspirations of women –across income levels as well as the rural-urban divide. But the change is particularly dramatic for the urban middle class. These are the women that are demanding to work more, pursue higher education, choose their own spouse, and so on. They are not averse to watching pornography, engaging in premarital sex, or even having an extramarital fling, for that matter.
Such behaviors and choices may have existed in the past but they are now out in the open. And they are placing pressure on the traditional marriage model.
However, although more women now have a college degree, their participation in the workforce is falling and, in many cases, marriage is a reason for opting out. And so, while women are dreaming bigger, they often sacrifice these dreams after marriage due to family pressure and expectations. The result is a mixed picture when it comes to the status of women in modern middle class marriages. In many other ways, the push and pull continues — between old and new, East and West, parents’ ideas of marriage and one’s own views, media depictions of romance and one’s own limited version of it, access to pornography and feeling unable to hold a partner’s hand in public…the list goes on.
What is/are the biggest area(s) of conflict in marriages – between tradition and modernity?
Given all the mixed signals out there for couples, it is perhaps not surprising that the biggest source of both conflict and confusion in many marriages is sex. There are religious dictates and social norms that have long held sway over this rarely discussed topic for many Indian communities. And now there are depictions in shows, movies and all the content that is now available for streaming. Caught between rigid traditional views and unrealistic expectations set by new media, couples are trying to make sense of it all and not necessarily succeeding at this. As a result, the topic of sex in a marriage or relationship is the least understood, the least chronicled and often the source of a lot of unhappiness.
To a large extent, the behaviour patterns I saw in the couples I followed mirrored those in any middle class morality play anywhere in the world. They made certain surprising choices – one woman’s extramarital affair for instance – that was likely to get them socially ostracized but they went about it as secretly as possible. This just goes to show that socially repressing people is not a solution.
Any concluding thoughts on your project – and on the notion of marriage in general?
If there’s one clear takeaway for me at the end of the project, it is this: worldwide, we seem to be bad at picking partners for ourselves, as are our parents.
I started this project with rose coloured glasses but at the end, I was somewhat saddened by what I found. However, the final take on these marriages depends on the lens you put on them. Admittedly, there was stress and unhappiness in them but there were also moments of grace, joy, silliness, warmth and love. These small moments are important because a marriage is made up of them. And they may ultimately be what salvage it in the long run.