Even in the so-called romantic cultures that celebrate passionate entanglements in its literature, films, and mythology — acting “out of love” is not always an equal experience. After the past two (almost) academic posts, today (while lying in my bed, sick with flu) I have realised that it’s time to unpack the condensed ideas that I tried putting through in my previous posts.
I’ve always wondered what if love didn’t have to be based on behaviour? What if “love” isn’t put up on a pedestal and/or worshiped like some divine entity? What if love isn’t instrumentalised for gain even with the rhetoric of “oh, but that’s just tradition!” What if love is that unconditional passion full of respect and consent that doesn’t require societal validation? What if… So many what-ifs! And always, I find myself revolving around the realisation that romantic involvement is just that one range of human interact in dire need of analysis. To be analysed with regard to the habitus of the person (particularly women) in love, along side cultures’ passionate “love”-affect expressed through its variety of nonverbal expressions. Ethnographers seldom study these expressions, and of course a general unwillingness of the West when it came to learning non-European local languages and cultures, made “love” an even more elusive empathy.
Ok… I don’t want to get into the spiral of academic language again. So, let me try to just go with the flow and explain what I mean with the help of popular Hindu magniloquence of “love”, with reference to Bollywood.
Last time I wrote about the Bollywood movie ‘Heropanti’, where male-inclusive feminism (quite a Bolly-trend these days) is used as a tactic to validate female rebellion; i.e. the men tell us women what is right to fight for. Remember Bablu? His famous lines: “(…) In your family women are tied up like a cow to the stem, ever charged them with your horns? Fight at least!” [trans.] Although it is absolutely adorable, the analogy of cows to women and horns to rebellion (kudos to the script writer) – it is worth noting that cows are also pretty faithful to their owner. So are Indian women. Thus, this discursively prized possession of your average Indian household (although in practice the female commodity is quite differently “priced”), is also a matter of honour through ownership. The likes of this mentality is deeply drilled through centuries of domestic taste development. So what’s the secret of domestic taste development for our average Indian cows? Er… I mean… average Indian women?
Entertainment through oral storytelling, theatricals, and songs historically has always been a medium of diversion from reality for the Indian public. So, more often than not, I would blame the abundance of folklore, centuries of brainwashing. The Ramayana, for example, is an ancient Hindu folksong lyricism that revolves around a young girl’s description of the kind of husband she wants. “Set off to north, to south, or search out for me a groom from the east, but don’t ever go westwards.” The song belongs to the region of Mithila, where Sita, daughter of Earth and adopted daughter of King Janaka, of the epic Ramayana was born. Incidentally, her husband, Prince Rama, the personification of the perfect man, was from Ajodhya, that lies to the west of Mithila.
The lyric is actually saying that a girl from this province would not desire to have a groom like Rama, a person (quite ironically) considering the ‘perfect man’ in the chronicles of Indian beliefs. We hear the terms, “He is a son like Rama”, “He is a brother like Rama”, “He is a King like Rama” — yet we never hear, even under similar circumstances, “He is a husband like Rama.” Intriguing as this phenomenon is, reasons for these omnipresent sentiments are readily understood when we recall the life adventures of this couple: Sita and Rama.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, in short:
Due to a plot by his stepmother, Rama had to abduct his throne in favour of his younger brothers, and in addition was banished to the forest for fourteen years. His newlywed wife, Sita, the perfect incarnation of an Indian woman, pleads to her husband, “Oh son of a distinguished monarch! A father, a mother, a brother, a son, even a daughter-in-law, — all enjoy the fruit of their virtues and obtain what befits them. But, it is the wife who truly shares the fortunes of her husband. Thus when you depart for the dense forests, which are thorny and difficult to infiltrate, I shall walk ahead of you crushing under my feet, all the thorns that lie on your way.” Obviously, Sita felt privileged to share Rama’s calamity and suffered the consequential predicament in more than equal measure during this exile in the forest. There was no equal to Sita’s beauty and pretty soon Ravana, King of Lanka, abducted her to exact vengeance on Rama and his brother Lakshmana for having cut off the nose of his sister, Surpanakha. Rama became aware of this as he found battle wounded Jatayu — a demi-god in the form of a vulture and an old friend of Rama’s father. Jatayu recalled that he attacked Ravana when Sita was being abducted and flown away to Lanka in Ravana’s flying chariot. In fact, not even her kidnapping by Ravana could break Sita’s immeasurable will power, continually encouraged by her memories of her beloved husband. Ravana too, fearing the many virtues of a chaste woman, did not dare touch her; however he did try to make advances. What was Sita’s reaction to his proposals? Author of Ramayana, the sage poet Valmiki wrote that in her acutely shameful conditions, through a series of inspired similes, she banished Ravana with aloofness.
Quite like a typical Bollywood movie, this ancient-ancient-ancient (cannot emphasise enough how ancient it is…!!) folklore ends up in an epic battle of good vs. evil, love vs. lust, and finally Rama (who loved his wife dearly, and started the battle to rescue her) rescued his dear wife Sita.
But here’s the twist (where the cow and horn and cow and oh dear!… all that horn-y cow analogy comes back again)…
Like a good wife, Sita remained chaste but Rama… he, like a good Indian male, wasn’t convinced. Sita’s imprisonment in Ravana-palace caused emotional trauma and humiliation for her. Which was further heightened, when Rama himself subjected her to further trials. In a bitter irony, her moment of deliverance turned out to be the beginning of another persecution. “Today, I have avenged the insult to my honour and fulfilled my promise. You stand unabashed before I, even though suspicion has arisen with regard to your character. Today you seem extremely disagreeable to me, even as a light to one who is suffering from sore eyes, you bring me pain. Therefore go wherever you like, O Janaka’s daughter, the ten directions are open to you. What man born in a noble family would take back with an eager mind a woman who has dwelt in another’s house, simply because she has been kindly disposed towards him in the past? How can I accept you, who were squeezed into the arms of Ravana while being borne away by him and who regarded you with a lustful eye? There is no more attachment for you in my heart. You may therefore go wherever you like.”
And so starts our great discourse of taming the wife. Good wife vs. bad wife. It’s the victim’s fault!! (And oh my favourite –) You are my wife, my property. I don’t share my property. Even if it is abduction (forceful acquiring) against my wife (property)s’ will, I refuse to keep that property as it is tainted now. – Even if the other person didn’t touch you, you were acquaintance by proximity (talking, sitting in his garden, being polite/ impolite, being miserably musing about your husband/ fiancée/ boyfriend/ owner… generally anything you do is against you as a woman cause you are the man’s property. (How dare thee talk-th with him the other man!!!!!???).
So when a random movie, comes up with a discourse of “in your family women are tied up like a cow to the stem, ever charged them with your horns? Fight at least!” and then anyway ends up acquiring the female commodity through marriage… It is Ramayana all over again!
Basically, love and the discourse of love (and the lover) is reduced to a simple featured subject, whose voice is dreamlike and at the same time – mulish. There is no meta-language of love, but the primary language is the simulation or performativity of “love” discourse focusing on a primary actor – let’s say, here in the story of Ramayana it is Sita the primary actor – and how that primary actor authenticates what “love” truly is. Sita, much like (most) Indian women (even today), becomes a psychological portrait; where instead of the fundamental mise-en-scène which offers the observer a pensive space: here someone is engaged in a monologue with self, amorously, confronting the other (the loved one – Rama) who doesn’t speak, and is perpetually absent.
Seriously, how can you unravel the work of one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India ? Forget the attempts to unravel the epic’s historical growth and compositional layers, how can you unstitch the mark it has already left on Indian culture (and psyche) when it comes to validating wife/ female behaviour in the face of husband/ male dominance? Where dominance too is no doubt validated by the entire discourse of honour and what is honourable for a manly-man (the capital bringer) to do, there is no escape for the manly-man’s little wife from playing house and remaining satisfied with her status of being domesticated. Just like a tamed-house-wife.
Here, the very validation of love comes from the obedient cow that remains tied to the stem never to charge her owner/ master/ lover with her horns. And unlike real cattle, this domesticated woman’s chores around the house are not even considered valuable or value producing. For the housewife is that under-class poor labour-force whose work is unpaid in reference to the time and effort spent in keeping home, raising children, feeding husband, and on rare occasions even making diplomatic play to keep peace at home and status-security outside home.
Remember, the cow will do anything for love, oh she would do anything for love, she would do anything for love, – but she won’t fight back, no she won’t fight back!
Bandyopadhyay, D. D. (De.B. Dubois), Chapter 14.2, in The girl child: Untold, unheard stories of many unknown women going through similar life experience in India, 2nd ed., Ser. 1 (Kolkata: 2015).
Barthes, R., A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, pp. 2-79 (Tel Aviv, 1981).
 With various recent scholars’ estimating the earliest stage of the text to range between 7th to 4th centuries BCE, with later stages extending up to the 3rd century CE).