(Featured Image: Debotri Dhar and her book, Love Is Not A Word)
“In literature, culture, history, metaphysics, politics, and their interstices, ideas about love abound,” writes Debotri Dhar who teaches Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. The idea led her to thread together a book — Love Is Not a Word: The Culture and Politics of Desire — a unique collection consisting of twelve well-written essays by scholars, critics, storytellers, and journalists. The idea for the book first occurred to Dhar as a graduate student at Oxford University, and then again while teaching at Rutgers University in the US. It was while she was teaching at the University of Michigan that pieces of the book started finally falling in place.
The anthology consists of serious yet engaging essays on love, its many definitions, moods, themes, and interpretations. Each chapter is a detailed account of a different aspect of love—tracing both its historical background and contemporary relevance—making it a deeply researched and truly comprehensive read.
In ancient epics, through the practice of the Swayamvara, women such as Sita and Draupadi would review a number of suitors and select one as her husband. And yet, India is known for its arranged marriages and patriarchal attitudes towards matrimony. Marriage is a kind of business in India — thus, giving rise to a lucrative industry of matchmakers, astrologers, horoscope readers, matrimonial advertising, and wedding planners. What’s interesting is that in the same country, Bollywood dreams of romance and love marriages also thrive. In such a context, the living mythology of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata influences modern lives as much as mobile phones and Netflix, writes Malashri Lal, a retired professor at the Department of English at the University of Delhi.
In contrast to the chaste Ram-Sita and Shiva-Parvati pairings in Indian mythology, there is the secret love couple, Radha and Krishna. Then there is Amrapali, the legendary dancer—the most seductive and powerful courtesan in Pataliputra. While writing in Amrapali’s first-person, academic and museum curator Alka Pande traces the history of the Kamasutra, considered the mother of all erotic writing in India. The essay is enlightening as it debunks the myth of this sexual-yogic manual, giving it a much higher status—that of a handbook to help live life to its fullest.
The city has time and again become the backdrop for many a love story. For instance, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, much of the tale is influenced by Verona’s streets, piazzas, balconies, and dance halls. Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Bordeaux-Montaigne University, Didier Coste writes a literary, cultural, and global exploration of love and the city through space and time. “Only the stereotypes of light romantic comedy can perpetuate indefinitely the wonders of bumping into each other on Times Square or the Champs Elysees, or fighting for a cab and ending up in bed together for the weekend,” he writes.
The ghazal has always associated with love, and ideas of the beloved thrive in the ancient poetry of Urdu poetry’s famous exponent Mirza Ghalib. It is ironic then that in the present-day ideas of love, Jihad have negatively colored and taken over daily realities of interreligious love. Delhi-based print, television, and news media journalist, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay traces the politics of love in the aftermath of various historical movements, such as the Partition, the Babri Masjid demolition, and the 9/11 attacks. “Love and Jihad per se are incompatible words,” he writes.
While the tone of the in-depth essays in the book is mostly academic and scholarly, some are also personal. Through the larger debate around Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, Delhi-based author, Parvati Sharma writes about her personal experiences of being a young gay person in India. “When you love without the trappings that turn private ecstasy into social routine — marriage, family, children — when you insist on ‘living in’ or being flagrantly lesbian, when you harbor the kind of love that depends upon itself to survive, you do, of course, unsettle the world; and that is no bad thing at all,” writes Sharma.
Further, Christina Dhanaraj, a Christian Dalit woman, talks about her peculiar experiences in love as a Dalit woman. She argues that modern-day apps like Tinder only create an illusion of breaking barriers when it comes to caste and that it plays a huge role in one’s romantic relationship. It brings out the idea that love is, after all, a choice that one makes based on who we are and where we come from. “Loving and being loved, in all its glorified beauty, is a matter of privilege,” writes Dhanaraj.
Overall, the book provides some insightful perspectives on various dimensions of love. We can’t wait for Volume 2!
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer and editor based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul’ and ‘Bombay Memory Box’.