Sunday, June 23, 2024

Many facets of love


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By Shweta Patwardhan

The exchange that we saw recently between Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi and minister of state for human resource development Shashi Tharoor was highly revealing about a facet of our social existence that rarely gets a mention.

To Modi’s comment that he had a Rs. 50 crore girlfriend, Tharoor had replied that his wife was priceless, though one needed to love somebody to appreciate this fact. It was a fitting reply by a man who is quite evidently in love, but it provoked Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi to say that Tharoor should be made the “minister of love affairs”.

This instinctive remark says the world about traditional India’s attitude towards romantic or conjugal love. One can’t miss the sneer directed at a man who dares to love a woman openly, not being embarrassed about it in the least degree. And it is no coincidence that Naqvi belongs to the BJP which sets great store by swadeshi values, in which romantic love has no place.

Actually, the love that Tharoor has professed for his wife and the displays he has made of it in the public domain is alien to our social set up notwithstanding the stories of Laila- Majnu or Heer- Ranjha one has heard. The foundation on which Indian society rests allows little room for it. The inequality between the sexes is clearly the most prominent aspect of this social system. Tharoor may share his life with his wife on equal terms but he can be sure that most of the politicians of his generation — whether belonging to the Sangh Parivar or any other political party — don’t. In this they merely represent the larger Indian social order which grants the woman a distinctly subservient position in a marital relationship. She is more often than not economically dependent on her spouse and has grown up being taught that the woman must accommodate herself to the needs of her husband and his family rather than the other way round. So she puts up with everything, from domestic violence to the husband’s extra marital liaisons.

Love of the kind Tharoor professes is held in contempt or opposed because it threatens to overturn this inegalitarian order. For, as the West has seen or as Indians of the younger generation know, marrying for love brings in its wake equality in relations between the sexes.

But this is not the only factor at work in the Indian context. Perhaps as important are misconceptions about the nature of romantic love. To many in this country romantic love is basically about attraction and sex. A boy and a girl meet and get attracted to each other, giving it the name of love. While sexual attraction may play an important role in romantic relationships, the fact that they cannot be reduced to sex is something traditional India cannot understand — notwithstanding the fact that for two people of opposite sexes to be drawn to each other is as natural as having friends or feeling love for one’s siblings.

So when a father in Haryana kills his daughter and her husband for defying gotra norms, he is not just punishing them for giving his family a bad name, he is also denying their relationship as having any meaning or value.

Quite obviously, the fragmentation of our society on caste lines plays a significant role here. In a system which practises endogamy, allowing young people to marry each other of their own will is a recipe for the caste order being turned upside down. For, it is in the very nature of love to be unmindful of the caste or religion of the person it is directed at — interestingly, it is quite regular for parents who think themselves progressive to allow their children to fall in love so long as their partner belongs to the same caste!

Traditional India’s contempt for romantic love also has to do with its community — based nature. Conjugal love is the pivot of social existence in the individual — centric societies that you see in the west. But in societies like ours, where the individual is a part of a larger social system, romantic love can be seen to work against the social order. Women break families (ie the larger family), is the refrain you will get to hear often in India’s hinterland. A man who is too deeply attached to his spouse is seen as limiting himself to her and his children, with his parents and siblings and the larger family feeling neglected.

You are not going to hear feminists ever take it up, but this is an issue that needs to be debated. The biological urges of the woman to protect her children, with the man being a partner in this effort, can sometimes lead to her being more focused in her worldview than is the case with men — though often this can be a reaction to the stepmotherly treatment accorded to her by her husband’s family or the lack of concern shown by the man towards her own family.

There is also a need to debate the transition India is witnessing with large extended families giving way to nuclear ones. There is reason to ask the question if this must be yielded to unreservedly or if India must give this unavoidable change its own direction. As in several other domains, the East is slowly becoming like the West and while much of this is desirable there is also the attendant danger of inheriting all that ails western civilisation. Conversely, we could end up losing the virtues of our social set- up where the community- oriented system served as a cushion against adversity and loneliness.

To return to Tharoor, while he may look like the oddball romantic to colleagues from his own generation, he can take heart from the fact that the youth in the Union Council of Ministers understand his sentiments, as do the citizens who constitute the increasingly young India. INAV


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