What can Elizabeth Flock, a white American journalist, tell us about about love and marriage in Mumbai that we don’t already know? In Love and Marriage in Mumbai, Flock presents three middle-class couples in Mumbai to demonstrate the complexities of India’s most important social institution.

In her introduction to the book, Flock writes, “I had regularly questioned whether I was fit to write a book about Indian marriages. I wasn’t Indian, or married. But as the years passed, I saw that the book I wanted to read about India – that I wanted Americans to read about India – did not exist. Ultimately I decided to approach the subject the only way, as a reporter, I knew how: to go back to Mumbai armed with a dozen notebooks, a laptop, and a recorder.” For Indian readers, this book is the literary equivalent of eavesdropping on other people’s marriages. Through a decade’s worth of interviews, Flock is able to draw cumulative portraits of their lives, feelings of love and loss, dreams and aspirations – and some pretty thrilling/sordid details.

In some ways, these are ordinary couples, and their stories are familiar. They are all culturally homogeneous: Maya and Veer are Marwari, Sabeena and Shahzad are Sunni Muslim, and Parvati and Ashok are Tamil Brahmin. Their extended families play prominent roles in their lives. Their aspirations are pretty standard: love, money, children, happiness. But they are not, Flock says, representative in any way – not of Mumbai, not of the middle class and certainly not of India. “I’m hesitant to make people into arguments in any way.”

Marrying for love

Maya and Veer – the only couple in the book to marry for love – are trapped in a loveless marriage. Her father, whose opposition to their relationship forced them to elope, had “warned her about marrying another Marwari. Marwaris were money-driven. Marwaris cared about nothing but their work.” Years later, as Veer continues to be consumed with his business, Maya begins to have an affair.

Except this isn’t a clandestine relationship – Maya and Subal shower each other with presents, go away on trips together, she gets a backward S tattooed on her arm, he even spends time with Veer and their son. Veer is indifferent to the whole affair – and to their marriage. A decade later, they’re still unable to work out their differences, and yet, unable to split up.

Flock, who had moved to India after her father’s third divorce, was particularly intrigued by the kind of love and loyalty she had seen in India. “With Maya and Veer, I always worried about them and thought things had gone really wrong for them and there was no recovering, but they always proved me wrong,” she says. “I don’t think it’s just the stigma of divorce that’s keeping them together. In the end – even during their worst moments – there were a lot of moments of grace and that taught me a lot about marriage.”

The childless marriage

Shahzad and Sabeena’s is the story of a childless marriage. During the interview process, Flock says her characters would point out important parts of their stories. Shahzad especially “totally saw his narrative arc, like, ‘this is the climax, this is when the crowd will go crazy’.” And so Shahzad and Sabeena’s sections of the book are the most vivid.

“Shahzad went to the clinic later, in secret, to drop off his semen sample. He hoped no one had seen him go. He waited anxiously for the results. After what felt like hours, the lab technician reappeared.

‘Kuch bhi nahi,’ the technician said. ‘Nothing is there.’

Shahzad rejoiced. Nothing is wrong with me after all. It was just taking Sabeena time to conceive. There was no problem. No reason for worry or shame. A son or a daughter would eventually arrive.

Later, a doctor clarified the results. The technician had meant no sperm was there. There was nothing in the semen. Shunya. Zero.”

Over the years, Shahzad visits hospitals and hakims, getting numerous treatments despite being told that there is nothing to be done. Sabeena, on the other hand, was content helping raise their nieces and nephew. Inevitably, their story also delineates what it means to be Muslim in India – being bullied in school, the 1992 Bombay riots and eventually the 2014 election, when “Shahzad and Sabeena felt fearful in a way they hadn’t in years. Even if Modi didn’t institute anti-Muslim initiatives, they knew his legions of bhakts, or devotees, would do his work.”

A decade ago, when Flock moved to India for two years, she lived with half a dozen families – trying to save money on rent – including some of the people in the book. She began asking them questions out of curiosity, and decided she wanted to write about how Indian marriages worked. When she returned five years later – she had kept in touch with her characters – she noticed a tangible difference in their lives. She spent several months living with each of them in 2014 and 2015. “Sometimes, I would be at one couple’s house and something really dramatic would happen at another couple’s house,” she says, “so I would race across town.”

Marriage by arrangement

Ashok and Parvati are the youngest couple, they’ve only been married a few years. Flock had known Ashok for years, so he was comfortable talking to her. But she met Parvati for the first time while working on the book. His is a story about the elusiveness of love for many young Indians – and about the awkwardness of inexperienced men. At 28, when he moved to Mumbai, he’d never kissed anyone – his parents, who had married for love, were surprised at his inability to find a partner. Hers is about the impossibility of transgressing caste and religion barriers for love. She isn’t allowed to marry her Catholic boyfriend. This section, which could very well have been about the modern arranged marriage, underscores something much more important: India’s continuing heritage of conservatism.

Their two Brahmin families come together to arrange this marriage and ensure it works out. The ease with which Ashok and Parvati’s fathers inhabit their upper caste odiousness is disquieting. More unsettling still is Parvati’s transformation into her father. In the end, trying to conceive, she says she wouldn’t want her child to marry a Muslim. She also tells her ex-boyfriend that she wouldn’t let her daughter marry a Christian. She thought that her child “should marry someone who shared the same background; it was easier that way.”

Learning about marriage

When Flock first moved to Mumbai, her American friends would ask her about the caste system. Her reply? “I would just sort of say, I don’t ever hear references to the caste system in an urban cosmopolitan environment… That’s not entirely true. The more I say it, the more I realise, it’s still so entrenched in so many ways. And if you don’t ask about it, you’re not going to see it. But it is there underneath.”

Flock’s ability to excavate layers of social construction is impressive, especially as a foreign writer. The things she found underneath the surface are what holds up a mirror to Indian society. She acknowledges that she realised her knowledge about India was limited and so she used it as an advantage in her interviews. “The benefit of being an outsider in a way is I literally know nothing, so we’re starting from zero so they had to tell me everything.”

She wanted to write about India “through the intimacies of these stories. I felt that mirrored the way I learnt about Mumbai or India. I learnt about marriage from what they told me about their marriages, I learnt about politics from the things they told me about their politics…I felt that was an experience that I had learned so much, and it was through these windows you could access the whole world in a way.”

Flock decided to remove herself entirely because she was more interested in what the couples had to say about a changing India and because “readers might be more likely to fall in love with them and their story if they could just really fall into the narrative.” The names of all her characters have been changed to protect their anonymity. She doesn’t disclose how she met them. It took some time to convince Sabeena, she says, who at first thought the whole project was silly. With Veer, says Flock, “it was extremely hard to break through to him” and understand how he felt emotionally. “It was only after eight years of knowing each other that he finally opened up to me about his emotions, about things like his mother [who died when he was young] or the other Maya [his ex-girlfriend] or loss.”

The candour with which her characters discuss their feelings is also remarkable – to talk about sexual desire and frustrations, marital discontent and longing for former lovers, knowing that their partners would read about all of it. Flock interviewed both partners separately and together. “A lot of times, I think, by virtue of my doing an interview with them, they would talk to their spouse about whatever we talked about. I know when the book came out, Ashok and Parvati read the book together, in tandem, and were talking about it as they were reading it.”

It was hard, she admits, to be a mere chronicler, to not give direct advice, especially when things weren’t going well in the marriages. “I’ve known them for a decade, I care very deeply about all of them.” She says she had to constantly check herself by reminder herself that ultimately, “it’s their life, not my life.”

Flock went with her characters to work, travelled with them, met and interviewed their parents. And so while the characters remain anonymous to readers in general, they may be easily identified by their close friends or families. “That’s something we’ve talked about a lot. A lot of them had notified or had longer conversations with people in their family who aren’t already aware of the book to tell them it’s coming, a lot of them are involved in the book process as well. They’ve had conversations about what’s in the book. I would lie if I said that’s not something I’m worried about…” she says.