Reading Elizabeth Flock’s nonfiction book, “The Heart is a Shifting Sea,” is a revelation in myriad ways. The book is a look into the institution of marriage in modern-day India and is an intimate look at the lives of three couples who live in Mumbai, the city where blockbusters are made. Maya and Veer, Sabeena and Shahzad, Parvati and Ashok are the three couples whose lives are explored by Flock’s discerning eye.
With every turn of the page, a growing appreciation took hold in me for the cultural sensitivity displayed by Flock. How can an American writer understand and write with such sensitivity about the dynamics that exist between Maya and her in-laws? How can she write with such sympathy about Maya’s decision to break the laws of fidelity? How can she understand the decision by Parvati to assent to the practice of registering on matrimonial websites to have an arranged marriage in spite of being in love with her classmate from college? How can she write about Shahzad’s innermost thoughts as he grapples with his life where he realizes his inability to have children?
Even couples when asked to talk about the nature of their relationship will find it hard to verbalize how they stay connected with each other – the inner motivations of the heart can feel amorphous, full of gray areas, with actions that defy logic and feelings that cannot be articulated. To take this difficult subject and then to add a layer of “otherness” by talking about couples from a different culture is indeed a literary feat achieved through keen observation and cultural sensitivity.
When I spoke with Flock, she told me – “I moved to India when I was 21. it was a country I loved from afar, and I wanted to experience it for myself. Family lore has it that my great grandmother had traveled there by herself, and I wanted to do the same.” Flock lived in India for extended periods of time and her book is based on the countless hours she spent with each couple. The book is broken into segments and navigates between the lives of the three couples in a way that keeps the reader’s interest throughout. Flock continues to say,”In the Western world there is a great fascination with the institution of arranged marriages. Many don’t realize that marriage as it exists in Western society today is only 150 years old. I was interested in looking at marriages in India today as an indication of broader social change. It is a way to also understand how much agency and independence Indian women are gaining – women watching pornography, women initiating divorces – these are happenings that were previously unheard of. I also learnt the dynamics that exist in a joint family – the tremendous pressures placed to make things work when there are many individuals involved. And, I did focus on middle-class families because like in every other society they don’t have the moral freedom of the very rich or the very poor – ‘What will people say about you?’ becomes a mantra that dictates so many decisions.”
The more I spoke to Flock the more I understood why the book works beautifully at so many levels – it takes astuteness, but it also takes an openness of heart and mind to be able to say – there are many “right” ways of being. Her ability to soak in Indian culture with an openness of heart and mind along with her virtuosity with words in expressing the patently inexpressible feelings of the heart make this book a tour-de-force.
A must-read – I could not put it down till I reached the last page and you will not be able to do so either!
Elizabeth Flock will appear at Book Passage, Marin on February 28th at 7 pm. and at Books Inc. in Mountainview on March 1st at 7 pm.
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the editor of India Currents magazine.