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Romantic Love in India

Of everlasting bonds, sacrifice, and not living together

Published onMar 26, 2022
Romantic Love in India

What is love, in that, romantic love? Is it possible to provide a universal definition of love? Is the essence of love, relative to differing societies and cultures? If so, how does one define love in the context of South Asia? While it will be foolhardy for me to attempt answering these questions at all and certainly not in this short piece, what I can attempt here is to bring attention to certain expressions of romantic love that have been less researched. Romantic love is an important trope to map societies and to understand a sense of self. Most importantly, it is an important motivation to live together, albeit in the union of marriage or cohabitation. However, there are also times when romantic love and marriage are in tension with each other, when cohabitation is not possible, and when romantic love and its desire to transform into marriage challenges the social cohesion of society.

Here, it is important to note that these experiences of romantic love are in fact diverse and different for the heterogeneous caste, class, gender identities of India. Therefore, the responses to challenges of social cohesion may differ considerably ranging from khap panchayat diktats to panic of love-jihad. In this piece however, my intention is not so much to provide a comprehensive account of what romantic love is, or how this emotion is shaped by society or how society shapes it, or how it champions social factions (caste, religion, community), as much as it is to discuss the experience and meanings of romantic love when it remains unfulfilled or is unable to convert into a situation of living together.

The many shades of romantic love

In the Indian context, this approach to study romantic love is less explored for typically scholarship tends to study love either in the context of whether it determines individualistic desire or will and if it can be seen as an an unapologetic and unfailing path to experience the modern[Bhandari 2020][Parry 2001][Hirsch and Wardlaw 2006]. Scholarship also tends to study love in how it is embedded in webs of family, kinship, and community [Donner 2002][Donner and Santos 2016][Dwyer 2000][Kapur 2009] or can unsettle kinship and community ties, at times leading to ‘honour’ killings[Chowdhry 1997][Chowdhry 2009][Chakravarti 2005]. Moving discussions beyond questions on whether and to what extent romantic love is individualistic and how it may contest or challenge more collective values and duties, scholarship[Mahmood 2005][Maqsood, 2021a][Maqsood 2021b] has also explained how love or desire is not strictly about outright rejection or liberation from these structures (of family, kinship, community) and instead can be a means of pursuing ‘self-liberation’ within these structures [Maqsood 2021a].

To that extent, love in India, has been studied in these frameworks of family, kinship, and modernity, and scholarship has convincingly explained that the meanings and externalisations of romantic love are far more complex and nuanced than what the more straight-forward western understandings of love as championing individual will, would like us to believe. It has also been pointed out that romantic love is not simply a consequence of recent modernity (post-liberalisation of the 1990’s), though of course this era does promote a particular narrative of romantic love. Rather, historians and experts of Indian mythology have brought our attention to how Indian history is replete of stories of romantic love, as popularised in folklores, fables, great epics (Mahabharata and Ramayana), and other traditions from across religions.

Upon adopting such an expansive and nuanced understanding of romantic love, one that is not tethered to individualism or modernity or progress, it becomes all the more invigorating and revealing to study the meanings attached to romantic love, especially the ones that do not translate to the couple living together. This approach significantly helps us understand how gender is constructed, and how the language of duty and obligation interspersed with individual desires, and how even romantic love caters to collective identities not just individualistic ones.

A sociological and anthropological enquiry into what happens when romantic desires that are more individualistic in nature intersect with conflicting ideals of community/kinship/family duty and identities, leading the couple to not live together, is crucially revealing of the nature of love. The tendency, in these situations, is to declare that the love was not ‘strong enough’ to overcome societal pressures. Or love is then analysed and described in the context of sacrifice — sacrifice of not living together and/or of ceasing to love. According to me, however, these meanings of love as unfulfilled are not as convincing. To address this, therefore, is important to expand one’s approach to study romantic love and not view it only as adjustment [Uberoi and Tyagi Singh 2006] or sacrifice. If we begin to understand the subjective experiences of love that has not transformed to coupled, we will be acquainted with the many meanings and essence of love.

Undying love

In explaining the feelings of such romantic love, my interlocutors discussed that love does not die with time; that even if they are unable to ‘be together’, the purity of their love cannot be questioned. Indeed, their decision to give primacy to duty and obligation must be seen in tandem to love rather than in opposition to it.1 To them, these situations of not living together despite being in love are not situations where love has been sacrificed. Rather, it can be seen as an uncontrolled and undesired outcome but not one that has the ability to question their love, for love does not require a ‘a proof’ in the form of a marriage certificate or physically living together. Love is transient of these structures and everlasting [Vanita 2009][Menon 2018 ]. And while it would have been preferable and fortuitous if love could transform into marriage or physical togetherness, simply because it is not being socially sanctioned does not mean it ceases to exist. It continues to live even without social approval, status, or sanction. An oft-quoted couplet in these conversations was of Ghalib: 

 इश्क़ पर ज़ोर नहीं है ये वो आतिश ‘ग़ालिब’ 

कि लगाए न लगे और बुझाए न बने

 (Love is a flame that cannot be controlled, O Ghalib 

You cannot force the flame to be lit, nor can you forcefully extinguish it)

 These conversations made me see that modern India does not operate with only one rendition of love. Therefore, to put forth one definition or understanding of love would be unfair to the incredible complexity and richness of love in India. At the same time, while scholarship has so far concerned itself with the ‘in betweens’ of love: as agency, duty, structure and desire, I turn my attention to understand that particular meaning of love when it is unable to physically bring two people together, especially in bonds of marriage. What do we make of the feeling of love then? Does it position itself as contrary to collective identities and forever contesting it, or does it signify a failure of romantic love, or is it a narrative of ‘sacrifice’? To put it in another way, do we always have to celebrate romantic love through the lens of a ‘success story’ [Titzmann 2013][Bhandari 2020]? The Indian youth carries with them experiences of unsuccessful stories too and the meanings of love are hidden in these experiences as much as they are in celebrations of agency, marriage, and romance.


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