In Love Is Not A Word : The Culture and Politics of Desire, an anthology of essays curated by Debotri Dhar, love emerges in all its complexities, nuances and forms.
“Yet, love can be as much about passion as about power, about politics.” — Debotri Dhar, in the Introduction to Love Is Not A Word : The Culture and Politics of Desire
Love, if it had a physical presence, I imagine, would be a butterfly so light and quick, that it would vanish even before one could be certain of laying eyes on it. Which is why the collection of essays, Love Is Not A Word : The Culture and Politics of Desire, seems so ambitious. The cover itself holds promises, with the figures of two men holding hands, and another man hugging a tree, among the more intriguing ones.
In the Introduction to the book, the curator, Debotri Dhar, offers her personal insights and draws from other sources to comment on each of the essays. She suggests groupings in which they may be read, and ponders on what more the book could have included –a chapter on war, perhaps, which is the antithesis of love?
As each essay is standalone, Debotri has suggested that the reader can start from anywhere. However, even going in order, from start to end, one finds that the essays follow each other naturally, so that they are all strung together like pearls on a string.
It begins with Malashri Lal’s essay, Perspectives on Indian Love : Swayamvara, Arranged Marriage and Desi Romance, which questions the popular ideas about choice within the framework of arrange marriages, and discusses everything from Sita’s swayamvara in the Ramayana, to Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and movies like Monsoon Wedding, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, and Queen. It is a thought provoking read, and feels like a conversation one might have with friends. This conversation about the ‘desi’ ideas about love flows neatly into the next essay by Makarand Paranjape, about the divine lovers Radha and Krishna.
The essay, titled Radha, Divine Paramour, seemed familiar, and I realized that I’d read a version of it before in the book, Finding Radha, edited by Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale. The version in this book however, is a much longer and detailed one, and it sets up an interesting question in the beginning, for which the answer comes at the end –“what would Radharani say to Mahatma Gandhi if he were suddenly to encounter her in the vast landscapes of Hindu thought as he tried to purify himself and rid himself of all carnal desires?”
After investigating the essential eroticism of the Radha-Krishna love, which has been sanitized by conservativeness, the book then moves on to the quintessential text of eroticism, the Kamasutra. In Love, Longing, and Desire : A Nayika’s Tale, Alka Pande invokes the nagarvadhu of Pataliputra, Amrapali, who explains the history of the Kamasutra, its spiritual and societal significance, its contents and tell us the story of how she contributed to it. “The true understanding of the Kamasutra is impossible without drawing upon the history of its narrative. Once the reading of the Kamasutra is approached in a systematic manner, it is only then that it is understood to its fullest – not as a sexual-yogic manual but a handbook of living life to its fullest,” she writes.
And if love and sex are essential to a full life, then the next essay speaks about who is deprived of these essentials. Hinduism, even at its most “progressive” has systematically excluded people owing to the caste system, and in Swipe Me Left, I’m Dalit, Christina Dhanaraj writes honestly and powerfully about how love is difficult to find as a Dalit woman even in this modern world with modern apps that seemingly “erase” caste. “And love, contrary to what we have been taught, may not be the most sacred of all feelings, insulated from the world and pure in its expression; it is a choice that we make based on who we are and where we come from,” she says and goes on to explain how everything in the modern dating scene is still geared in favour of savarnas.
Now, that the book has entered a firmly political space, questioning to whom love is denied and how, the next essay on Love Jihad by Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay falls perfectly in place. Tracing the history of how the term came into being, and how it has been wielded to further marginalize both Muslims and women, he offers a scathing portrait of the political and social implications of ‘love,’ that make one question exactly how “free” we are as a people. He writes, “Because in the patriarchal Hindu viewpoint, women – though hallowed as mothers, sisters, daughters and of course, goddesses – were little more than sexual playfields and wombs to further the race, they were not considered as having the capacity – or the right – to enter into consensual relationships with Muslim men.”
Speaking then of “Muslim” expressions of love, the next essay quite aptly of the most famous love poet, Mirza Ghalib and his oeuvre. In Ghalib’s Poetic Beloved : Cruel, Wilfull and Beloved, Mehr Asfhan Farooqui explores Ghalib’s ghazals, and the idea and expression of the ‘beloved’ within it. Studded with poetry, this is a delightful read, and so is the next essay, Love Society, Polity : Urdu Poetry from Khusro to Faiz, by Zafar Anjum, which explores the work of poets other than Ghalib. From there, the book moves on from the courtly ghazals to exploring the less “highbrow” and more “of the people” barahmasas, in the essay, Barahmasa : Songs For the Seasons of Love and Separation.
I would sincerely suggest reading these three essays one after the other, as taken together they provide an insightful look at the landscape of love in poetry.
The idea of the female lover who waits, finds reflection in Debotri Dhar’s own essay which comes up next. In Single Women, Self-love, and the Gender of Waiting, she explores why the idea of ‘waiting’ for love in gendered. Through examinations of various novels, including her own, she speaks about the women who ‘leave’ and the men who ‘wait’ for them, and why those are a rarity. This essay is one of my favourites in the book.
It ties in neatly with the next essay, Same-Sex Love in India, in which Parvati Sharma engages with the ideas of homosexuality, especially lesbianism, in the context of Section 377, and the question of privacy. It is a deeply personal essay, which talks about her own journey with finding and losing love. “When you realize you’re not ‘normal,’ to live normally is always the first and most hopeless ambition; and yet, paradoxically, this choice – to extend your homosexuality beyond furtive groping to open squabbles about the milk – is interpreted as choosing to cast your makes sexuality over the humdrum decorum of the dining table, as choosing selfish pleasure over social duty – and makes homosexuality both incomprehensible and reprehensible to many,” she writes.
And from this natural love to a love of nature, in How To Write A Love Letter to a Tree, Sumama Roy writes, with exquisite beauty, about how writing a love letter to a tree is very unlike writing one to a human, and in the process engages with the languages of love, with the rituals of courting and with polyamory. “It is amazing,” she writes, “that there really is no way – no methodology, no ritual – of demonstrating one’s love to a favourite, a beloved tree.” It is both whimsical and perceptive, and is another favourite of mine from this anthology.
The last essay, Love and the City, by Didier Coste, takes from the idea of the ‘location’ of love to sightsee the city as a motif in love stories, and seeks to understand how the ‘city’ hampers or aids lovers, in contrast to less urban spaces. “The modern city (the city being modern by definition, even when it is ancient) anchors human love temporally and spatially in in very distinctive ways. Not only does it provide a backdrop for the amorous experience…, but it also determines the possibilities and impossibilities, the conditions and stages of an amorous pursuit, the opportunities that favour it and the obstacles to its durability and success.” Of all the essays, this is the one I found most scholarly, and most difficult to engage with on a personal level, but that is more a personal shortcoming rather than any fault in the writing.
These twelve essays then speak of various aspects of love, both the personal and the political. A mix of academic pieces and personal essays, they offer a wonderful variety. It certainly isn’t a quick, breezy read, like a romance novel. The book invites you in, offers you perspectives, and then sets you off on a thousand other journeys by referencing books, movies and other sources, that one is made curious enough to follow.
Love is ephemeral, ever changing and multi-faceted. The essays in Love Is Not A Word : The Culture and Politics of Desire, truly capture that. Love is a book, a poem, a painting, an action, and even a city. Love can be anything.
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