It is so difficult to live in Mumbai, an old Bollywood song about Mumbai goes, for there is everything here – cars, trams, mills – everything except a heart. Perhaps it is because of this absence that the heart is invoked in so many ways in countless songs and love stories set in the city. Dil Dhadakne Do: Let the heart be. Dil toh Pagal Hai: The heart is mad. Dil tera deewana: This heart is crazy about you.
American journalist Elizabeth Flock’s The Heart is a Shifting Sea: Love and Marriage in Mumbai gives a twist to the existing clichés about love and the heart. This is a book about three real married couples living in Mumbai, a book with a journalistic-creative take on what tests marriages in Mumbai and what keeps them from falling apart. It comes out of the author’s interactions with married couples while she worked as a journalist in India. She stayed with them and was present for most of the incidents that she has written about. To reconstruct the past events, she relies on legal and medical documents, journal entries, and formal and informal interviews with the couples.
Though she is not married or Indian, Flock felt compelled to write about the subject because she says, the book that she wanted to read about India, the book that she wanted Americans to read about India, did not exist.
Americans know of India only in limited ways as exotic or pitiful, for instance. Hers is an attempt to create opportunities for new perspectives on how unpredictable, nuanced India is.
Mumbai, the place that she seems to be most familiar with, is also a very crucial spot in this psychological and geographical territory. Because it is one of the most distinct sites encountering and adapting to modernity, Westernisation, political and cultural revolutions on the subcontinent, one can turn to the condition of interpersonal relationships in the city and the kind of vulnerability these relationships are subject to.
The institution of marriage makes an interesting point of focus: it has a tradition of being arranged by elders in the family and it must go through the fierce test of their approval also when two individuals fall in love and decide to get married. Flock finds it amazing that married couples manage to stay together instead of parting ways. They keep at it in spite of the overwhelming influences of what plague marital relationships elsewhere: interference from relatives and friends, incompatibilities, lack or presence of children, other relationships – past or present.
The three stories give Flock an answer as to how marriages in India survive:
In Mumbai, people seemed to practice a showy, imaginative kind of love, with an eye toward spectacle. Relationships were often characterised by devotion, even obsession, especially if two people could not be together. This kind of love played out on the movie screens, but it was also deep in the bones of India’s stories, in the Hindu scriptures and the Bhakti and Sufi devotional poems.
The couples – Maya and Veer, Shahzad and Sabeena, and Ashok and Parvati – give the author ample of material to think about.
Though she does not claim that these couples are representative of all marriages in India, she is certain that they are “not alone in their pain, or in their dreaming.”
Mumbai is not a mere background in the way Flock narrates these stories. At different points in the stories of the couples, she invokes the city in various ways as a city of dreams, the most permissive of cities, a city of spontaneous combustion, to connect the events in these lives to the way the city is perceived. The weather, especially the monsoon, the festivals and the traffic keep appearing at different points and Flock draws a parallel between the moods of the situation of these “characters” and the happenings of the city. Here is one example:
In Mumbai, people say the monsoons make everyone fall in love. But this year the rains are late and the June nights are hot. So are tempers. Maya and Veer fight in the early mornings inside the bedroom of their eleventh-floor apartment...In the days that follow, Veer and Maya hold their tempers in check. On cooler days, it is easier. And on a Sunday morning not long after, when several fragile clouds arrive to mercifully block out the sun, Veer surprises his wife and tells her he won’t go to work that Sunday.
Shahzad and Sabeena, the Muslims, make for the most relevant story here, in terms of how the city affects their lives.
They witness the 1992 communal riots, the 2008 Taj attacks and the recent ban on eating beef. They are the closest to the reality of the city: festivals like the Navratri are private moments for the others, but when the Muslim festival Bakri Eid falls on one of the days of the Hindu festival of the Ganesh Chaturthi, celebration takes a different tone for them – not of happiness, but of caution. Flock writes:
The night before the cutting, the goats bleated and cried so loudly that they could be heard upstairs. They stomped their hooves. They swivelled their heads back and forth nervously in the wind. There were more than a dozen goats tied up in the courtyard, all with different-patterned coats: splotched tan and white, black with white spots, white with black spots, or the colour of café au lait. They had straight horns and curled ones, big eyes and small ones, thick beards or no beards at all. They were almost a little fat. As they cried through the night, Shahzad thought it was as if the goats knew what was going to happen. He was glad they lived in a Muslim neighbourhood, so that the Hindus could not hear. Their crying lasted all the way until morning.
Songs and dialogues from the Bollywood films add color and perspective to these lives as they unfold. The Muslim couple watch a Hindi classic film, Mughal-e-Azam, together:
Almost three hours later, after the emperor had gone to war with the prince over his love of Anarkali, Shahzad and Sabeena watched as father and son confronted each other. It was the film’s most quoted scene. “I am bound by my empire,” the emperor told his son. “And I am bound by my love,” the prince responded. Shahzad inhaled sharply. Sabeena leaned in close. Neither of them spoke. The emperor would let Anarkali live, but she and the prince could never be together.
It is interesting to note one of the absences in the book. None of the marriages that Flock chooses to write about, in what is often tagged as a cosmopolitan city, are an interfaith or inter-caste marriage. One can imagine that the author’s struggle to document these possibilities would have been much more complex. However, there is a good variety: one is a love marriage (Veer and Maya – the Marwari Hindus), one arranged by families (Shahzad and Sabeena – the Muslims), and one is matched by a matrimony website (Ashok and Veer – the Tamil Brahmins).
The book is peppered with several stock phrases that work as descriptions of the institution of marriage in different Indian languages: shaadi barbadi (marriage is ruin), a scorpion’s sting which starts as a painful pleasure but “as the poison begins to seep in you feel the pain more”, a laddoo or a heavy sweet, “if you eat it, you’ll cry. If you don’t eat, you’ll cry too.” The wisdom about marriage comes from one of the minor “characters”: that marriage is about small things, that when you marry you are young or unthinking or both and not aware of the many problems you will face together. Money. Time. And that you will always desire more than you have.
These men and women all go through several phases of doubt in which they question their relationships and express the gaps between their expectations and what they get.
But the questioning stops there because they choose to stay together. “People will talk” or “What you dream, you don’t get” are the reasons these husbands and wives cling on to. They must like or live with what they get.
Mumbai and the institution of marriage in the city are at an interesting cusp of conservatism and progressiveness. The various nuances that Flock captures in these stories seem to confirm that there are no happy endings but going through a phase of challenging this sacred thing called marriage is necessary, but enough already for now.
It is an achievement in itself in the reactionary Indian society. Outside of these gestures in rebellion, these are matters of love and the heart too, one must remember. There is only this much. But contentment is an inexhaustible treasure, one of the characters in the book remembers.
Soni Wadhwa is a research scholar based in Mumbai.
This article first appeared on Asian Review of Books.
The Heart Is a Shifting Sea: Love and Marriage in Mumbai, Elizabeth Flock, HarperCollins.