Why love doesn’t set you free, especially in this country

In broad daylight, a young man was killed in front of his pregnant wife. The murder was planned by his own father-in-law, to avenge the ‘dishonour’ he felt because his daughter married this man, who was a Dalit. Events like this are not rare, but they stun and silence us. This is how caste violently disfigures ordinary human bonds. It’s plain to see, and impossible to deny.

Romantic love can be dangerous business in many parts of India — step over the line of your gotra or caste or religious community, and the sirens and alarms go off. The border patrol gets you — whether in the form of practical counsel from extended family, or with brutal force, as happened with Shankar and Kousalya, Ilavarasan and Divya, Babli and Manoj, Pranay and Amrutha, and so many others.

But suppose you’re one of the lucky few who’s never been actually told to stay within any bounds. That you grew up thinking you would choose your own romantic fate, through trial and error if necessary.

Still, similar pressures and barriers gently shape our choices, however faraway they seem. If people like us were truly free, would we fall in love so cautiously? In this country of teeming possibilities, it’s remarkable how we end up with people just like us. All these decades after B R Ambedkar spoke of intermarriage dissolving caste, barely 5-6 percent of Indian marriages are inter-caste.

Love is often billed as the one liberating thing, the utopian force that jumps us out of our social tracks, surprises us. In the Bombay cinema of the 50s, romantic love was the fantasy of modernity itself. Its heroes and heroines roamed free, flirted, broke a few social boundaries, though few people watching the movie had such options.

But in India, ‘love marriage’ tends to stick within the confines of a matrimonial ad. People from ‘professional families’ and ‘business families’ are wary of mixing, we are alert to each other’s accents, and our social walls are disguised as judgments of taste like “he doesn’t read enough” or “she’s not my type”.

And if you’re being honest, physical attraction also follows some social/aesthetic conventions. It’s not easy to escape what philosopher Amia Srinivasan called the “discriminatory grooves along which our sexual desires move”. The heart has its reasons indeed.

Nobody has to tell us to not love the wrong sort of man or woman, we have our own unsaid checklists. The border patrol isn’t just out there, it’s in here, we erect the safety railings in our own minds. Recently, I was watching the movie Manmarziyaan, it was clear how relieved the audience was that the female lead ends up with the suitable boy, the banker with prospects who also happens to be ‘understanding’ of her youthful follies. We are all Mrs Bennetts and Rupa Mehras, when it comes to a woman “marrying down”.

Of course some people do mix freely, within their own social orbits — Kareena Kapoor married Saif Ali Khan, a Mangalorean academic in your acquaintance might marry a doctor of Kashmiri origin, a Sikh startup guy might marry a Tamilian Hindu colleague. Big cities can scramble the lines. My mother’s caste was “higher” than my father’s, for instance, which made for some harmless dinner-table sociology. There are many people who marry across region, a few even across religion.

But we’re making a big deal about small differences here; no real hierarchy is unsettled in these unions. We rarely mix across class and ‘type’ (which encodes caste). “The culture is too different”, says someone I know about a prospective son-in-law whose caste is a couple of rungs ‘below’ hers, though cultural differences seem to evaporate for many parents when their children marry white people.

Seeking familiarity is not an exclusively Indian attitude, ‘like marries like’ everywhere in the world. But it feels like there’s less latitude, less social mobility, and people of different origins are treated like different species here. My sister’s colleague at her London law firm was married to a plumber — a pairing that would boggle the mind if they were Indian.

How do the few brave, normbending love affairs happen then? Sexual desire can overwrite the social code. And sometimes, you do have more in common with the cool, clever guy in your college or workplace than with your family. Sometimes there’s a flash of mutual connection that feels more real than the prejudices you’ve imbibed. Things may perhaps be more fluid for sexual subcultures — one of my friends, who’s gay, is negotiating a crossclass relationship, and it’s been a process of discovery and effort for both people.

Of course, romance is a thing between two individuals, not a grand political project. We can’t help liking the people we do, it’s not a selfaware calculation. Love doesn’t melt any structures of domination either. But at an individual level, it’s the one chance we have to smudge divisions and deeply understand someone unlike us.