Love has undergone many moods in the great Indian story. It is equal parts censured as it is revered – but it is still there, underpinning all else. In contemporary India, it is often treated as a side-effect to a greater purpose. It’s an ever-present part of the Indian narrative, intertwined as it is, with the oldest of tales. But perhaps never in its thousand years of history has it undergone as much of a revolution in India as it does today.
India’s demographic dividend, half the population being under the age of 26, makes it ripe for an economic revolution. We know that the workforce will reach record numbers, that the youth will power the economic engine. But we seldom discuss the effect that love and youth will have in tandem. For young people do not live the prime of their lives without seeking true love.
We know how many will be unemployed, but not how many will experience love. And to find a metric, tragically, India’s 131,666 suicides in 2014 become a revealing statistic.
The National Crime Records Bureau categorizes suicides by their cause – the suicide rate over ‘love affairs’ is nearly double that of ‘unemployment’ and more than double that of ‘poverty’. There are bigger problems than love, unemployment and poverty when it comes to motivating suicide, but it is surprising nonetheless that love and the failure thereof beats poverty by such a wide margin.
For long, most Indians had little choice over their choice of life partner. But with economic liberalization came hopes of social liberalization. The death of the arranged marriage was predicted but greatly exaggerated. As Gita Aravamudan wrote in “Voices in my Blood”:
The arranged marriage is an institution which, in our society, has proved to be remarkably resilient. It has survived the potentially disruptive impact of various very powerful forces.
A study conducted by the Taj Wedding Barometer estimated in 2010 that up to 75 percent of Indians preferred an arranged marriage. This, even as movies, Western sitcoms, advertisements and a whole new generation of erotica sold the concept of live-in relations and free-for-all sex.
Not that the latter doesn’t exist. In fact, that may be the real revolution. Author Ira Trivedi travelled across India in a quest to find the state of love in the country. In her book, “India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century” she finds a country in confused transition. Pre-marital sex is on the rise, evident everywhere from the capital city to the small towns. Homosexuality is experiencing its new wave, and for many, it’s an era of acting out a liberation.
But in the background, always, lurks a conservative India. Women hesitate to ask their parents for money to fund an abortion – and perform the act themselves. Their partners desert them on finding out about their pregnancy, leaving them alone and loveless. Understanding of sex is hit-and-miss, and safe practices are seldom followed. For pointing all of this out, Ira even received hate mail.
And despite this large-scale embrace of ‘love’ relations, the divorce rate has shot up by a factor of ten in ten years. In the land of the Kama Sutra, love remains as complicated as ever to understand. Is it no wonder that we turn to media to interpret it?
Love is absent in our politics. A political party in Tamil Nadu, the Indian Lovers Party, is one of the only attempts to ‘heal the wounds inflicted in the hearts of lovers by society’. It was trounced in the state elections. Indeed, political figures seldom express their love to their own spouses (being a single politician is seen as a virtue, in fact). When Arvind Kejriwal hugged his wife after winning the 2015 Delhi elections, it was seen as a political statement – perhaps even one of hope for a more inclusive politics.
But in our media – our books, films and social networks – love is everywhere. Two of the top male and female authors in the country by readership, Chetan Bhagat and Shobhaa De, made their millions selling racy novels to a young and increasingly racy audience. But where Shobhaa first wrote for a cosmopolitan Bombay audience, it is Bhagat who has tapped the sexual frustration of millions of engineering-bound students in the country.
Love is deeper than sex, but it is hard to separate the two. And sex in India is a tale of contrasts.
For every challenge thrown in the way of a sexual relationship, a solution is offered. A government ban on pornography in 2015 only ended up being revoked – ironically then serving as a list of over a hundred porn websites for those who knew only a few. Though only ten percent of its monuments involve sex, the Khajuharo temple remains a symbol for India’s sexual underpinnings. Popular e-tailer Snapdeal was taken to court for selling sex toys – but the outcome was far from a chilling effect. The sale of sex toys, in fact, has never been higher. Unverified reports suggest that as the smartphone revolution replaces feature phones, the latter are being used as vibrators.
Indians are bold, and experimenting with love and sex and gender and relationships. A recent article in a digital magazine wrote of a global movement to have sex in forests, and the author’s plan to enact it with her boyfriend across India. New urban Indians are no longer afraid to be provocative.
Is India on the cusp of a free love revolution? Unlikely. But it would be unwise to say that a great sexual energy is not bubbling away beneath the surface. Spreading a movement on love might be the most powerful tool in tackling the omnipresent rape culture. India has never before been this young, or unfulfilled.
An understanding of love, to be able to see it in more than just a relationship but in everyday encounters, could give India a real demographic transition. The same 1.4 billion faces, but lit up with a different kind of energy.
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