Attempting to write a romance set in the 1970s in India posed a number of problems. For one, I am twenty-five years old. Even my parents were innocent preteens at the time, completely oblivious and indifferent to thoughts of love and marriage. On asking, my grandmother giggled and told me that she had never even seen the face of my grandfather before she married him. How exactly was I supposed to get material to find out what romance was like in the seventies?
But from hearsay, family stories and films, I was able to piece together a picture. In Once upon a Curfew, Indu is engaged to a suitor chosen by her parents, and then later falls in love with Rana, while the Emergency is imposed in the background.
What dating meant
The first, and most obvious, thing to think about was: What were the means through which a romance might have been carried out? While now of course there are hundreds of smartphone applications that can help two people keep in touch, share pictures, videos, and live streams – and make down-to-the-minute plans to meet, complete with Google Maps locations – the only means available then were letters. Which sometimes would take weeks to arrive. Can anyone imagine waiting so long now?
Then there was the sentimental value attached to those letters, especially if they arrived from far away. I wrote a scene in which Indu’s mother reprimands her daughter for not treasuring the letters she received from her fiancé enough. My professor in college also told me about aerograms – special, sky blue letters that were carried through air mail – which were top of the charts when it came to treasuring love missives.
A second, important part of my research was to understand what classic couple might do when out on a date on the weekend. Interestingly, it turned out not to be very different from what people would be doing today. Of course there were no bars or bowling alleys or a crippling variety of restaurants to eat out at, but couples went to the movies, though it was a bigger thing back then in the absence of other forms of entertainment. Indu was obsessed with Rajesh Khanna and his movies were a common source for banter between her and Rana.
“‘Why doesn’t Madhuri jump off the cliff then?’ Rana asks Indu, after they watched Kati Patang.
‘Because he sang her a song.’
‘So if I sang you song, you wouldn’t jump?’
‘If you sang me a song, I’d rather jump.’”
I imagine they went for strolls in the park, sitting by tea stalls, or running into photographers at tourist places and getting a picture taken – the print would be available hours later – instead of the many selfies that would be taken and posted online (unless it’s a secret relationship) today.
The inevitability of marriage
Public displays of affection were uncommon by present-day standards. People would stare at and judge a couple if they displayed a fondness for each other on the street or in a public park. Walking around holding hands would have been almost obscene. How was love shown then? There was no Valentine’s Day, no Archies to purchase big teddy bears and greeting cards. What were the little everyday gifts?
Another professor of mine told me that her husband bought her flowers, jasmines, to be precise, every single day from the day they were married. “My morning starts with putting flowers in my hair, there is no other way,” she smiled. That’s exactly what my characters ended up doing, with Rana bringing jasmines for Indu, which at one point Indu rejects. “It’s just flowers, it’s not my love,” he tells her.
I watched enough Hindi movies to know that falling in love, or rather mutual attraction, spelt certain marriage in the 1970s. If a woman was too impatient to wait her parents to arrange for a suitable partner, falling in love with a man with bright prospects (the equivalent of being a good homemaker for a woman) was at least tolerated, if not encouraged.
There was no dilly-dallying around dating and courtship, no testing the waters, and definitely no moving on from one boyfriend to the next. If you fell in love with someone in the decade of the Emergency, the respectable and decent thing to do was immediately seek permission from the respective parents, and marry with everyone’s blessings.
Marriage in itself was an inevitability for all women after their studies, or even during. While this is true now as well, the suitable age for marriage was much younger, the norms stricter, and there was no idle talk of going away to “find yourself” (or take a gap year).
Ideas about the past can, at best, approximations. And what was common wasn’t necessarily ubiquitous – there are always a few who break the norms in every age and generation, although many more abide by them.
So, to write a romance set in the past meant weaving the unlikely, but not impossible, into the framework of what was plausible by the standards of the 1970s, and that’s what made writing this novel so much more interesting. While love and marriage were generally hush-hush and arranged, respectively, who’s to say an already-engaged young woman couldn’t fall in love with a man she had recently met, kept up a romance with him for two years, and finally laughed at his joke that he was as close to Rajesh Khanna as a man she would ever get?