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LOVE’S RITE: SAME-SEX MARRIAGE IN INDIA AND THE WEST by Ruth Vanita. Palgrave Macmillan, October 2005. Hardcover, 288 pages. $65.00.

“Meerut furious over lesbian ‘marriage’” reads a headline as I begin writing this review. Two women married each other at a Meerut temple. Outraged, the family of one of them locked her in a room and thrashed her; she “attempted suicide and had to be hospitalized.” The usual suspects held a demonstration, saying: “This is against our culture and we can’t tolerate it.”

Ho hum, twiddle a thumb: another day, another brutal defense of our great Indian culture, this against the evil designs of two young women who dare to love each other. Note that even the headline not-so-subtly questions the marriage, by putting the word in quotes.
Okay, let’s beat up the lesbians. But do the questions go away? For example, what culture are we talking about? Do we protect it by thrashing young women and driving them to kill themselves? And if those are questions you think you’ve heard before, try this: exactly what is it about this marriage that deserves the quotes?

Ruth Vanita actually asks that last question in this book. Especially after reading this appalling news from Meerut, this is perhaps the essence of the book. What is it that makes us imagine some kinds of marriages—or even relationships—are somehow different? After all, as she observes very early, the “only core component [in a marriage] is commitment.” After all, as she also observes, various societies at various times have outlawed various kinds of marriages, like “widow and divorcee remarriage [or] inter-caste and inter-racial marriage.” Some of those societies have evolved to where they would now consider these prohibitions absurd and laughable. In much the same way, there will come a time when we’ll find it incredible that we once wrapped same-sex marriages in quotes. Because commitment, whether across or within sexes, remains commitment.

But if Love’s Rite is about that less-prejudiced future, it is also about a less-prejudiced past, and that’s the reality check that the “against our culture” vultures need. Vanita shows how same-sex love has entrenched roots in traditions that we revere even today. The example that she weaves into this book is the absolutely delightful account of the birth of Rama’s ancestor Bhagiratha in the Krittivasa Ramayana, commonly read in West Bengal. (Vanita says there are “half-a-dozen editions available in Calcutta book markets.”)

In this version of the great epic, Dilipa’s two queens are grief-stricken when he dies, leaving them childless and the kingdom heirless. With blessings from the gods, they turn to each other in love; in fact, Shiva assures them that their love-making will actually produce a “lovely child.” And the description of what happens could hardly be more tender or telling:

bhage bhage sambhog je tathe upagata
brahmadev thuilen nam bhagiratha

“Born of mutual enjoyment between two vulvas, He was named Bhagiratha by God Brahma.” That is, Bhagiratha’s name itself is a tribute to the love his parents shared.

That mention of “mutual enjoyment” brought to mind another common perception: that same-sex relationships are only about sex; that that is itself disgusting; and that gay sex is somehow repulsive.

Where does all this come from? There is nothing that same-sex couples do in the privacy of their homes that heterosexual couples do not also do in the privacy of their homes. Why then the horror of gay sex? And after all, when we see a woman and man together we don’t presume that their relationship is entirely and only sexual; or if it is, that that’s disgusting. Why is it hard to offer same-sex couples the same respect, or maybe the same indifference?

Vanita draws an interesting and thought-provoking analogy here. “Like Leonardo da Vinci imagining the airplane long before it could be constructed,” she writes, “the Bhagiratha narratives imagine women producing a child together.” Airplanes are, of course, so commonplace today that even my 2-year-old is bored of pointing them out. Even if it remains biologically impossible for two women to actually produce a child sexually, will there come a time when we will be just as bored of pointing in wonder at women in love, or men in love? At the children they rear, the parents they are?

Though consider: if that story of Bhagiratha and his queenly parents was reported today, perhaps the newspapers would use quotes.

As in “parents.” —Dilip D’Souza

This review was first published in the Jan. 29, 2006 issue of Daily News & Analysis (DNA).