One would expect love to be this ephemeral thing which sweeps you off your feet and fills you with a sense of longing and purpose. Most romantic stories that we enjoy reading or films that we like watching make us want to aspire for that transient love which lives and thrives at that moment. They always fall one step short at the dubious juncture of a ‘happily ever after’. What happens after that?
This is where Elizabeth Flock’s book, Love and Marriage In Mumbai, comes in.
Flock introduces the real-life stories of three married couples, whose relationships are challenged by the dramatic cultural shifts in the city of Mumbai. The commercial capital of the country, the book’s only consistent character, is visceral and tangible. It is also a unique dichotomy in itself. Because where else do the poorest rub shoulders with the city’s richest, where else does tradition collide so closely with western culture, and where else is ethnicity, class and religion still deciding the nation’s development alongside pop culture and an increasing influx of technology?
When journalist and documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Flock moved to Mumbai for the first time in 2008, she had endless questions. She writes in her book, “I moved from Chicago to Mumbai in search of adventure and a job, knowing no one in the city. I lived there for nearly two years. During that time—because I was restless and homesick—I stayed with half a dozen couples and families across the city and met many more. This is where my interest in the Indian love story began.”
As India is ‘a tremendously diverse and complicated place’, Flock started understanding it through the people she met and the stories they shared. After she left India in 2010 and went back to the US, she couldn’t get a few people out of her head, they are the three couples in the book.
“I thought their three very specific, sometimes every day and sometimes dramatic love stories, could shed light on the larger picture of love and marriage in India right now… I was also always obsessed with the topic of marriage having grown up a child of divorce. I thought by interviewing married couples I could learn more about what makes a marriage work or fail – anywhere in the world. I’m not sure I got the answer to that, but I got closer,” she says.
And so you have Veer and Maya, a progressive professional couple whose relationship is tested by Maya’s desire for independence; Shahzad and Sabeena, whose desperation for a child becomes entwined with the changing face of Islam; and Ashok and Parvati, whose arranged marriage through an online matchmaker, blossoms into true love.
Flock had met many more couples during this time. She adds, “I met a jewellery seller on the train who fell in love with a Nigerian millionaire. I met two yogis who escaped over the walls of an ashram to be in love. But I chose the three couples in this book in part because they were seemingly normal, everyday, middle-class people. And yet their stories often veered toward the extraordinary.”
Flock feels that working on this project for close to a decade has actually made it better. That there are topics broached in the book – about sexual abuse, loss, and hidden dreams – which the protagonists wouldn’t share if she hadn’t been around for this long. It also helped her understand Mumbai better.
“I gathered details like a hoarder – about what toys are being sold outside Churchgate station, the precise taste of sugarcane juice, how exactly the heat felt on my skin. And then I’d come home to the U.S. to actually write it.”
She asserts that this book couldn’t be set anywhere else, because she was really keen on exploring India’s most permissive city, where people were breaking the most rules – “For example. how women are watching pornography, or refusing to live with their in-laws, or having affairs, or simply not living the lives their mothers would have. I’d also say that Mumbai is a city that can be both incredibly romantic and incredibly cruel. That to me is how love is.”
Was it difficult to keep her judgement aside when she documented decisions of any of the protagonists that she might not have agreed with? How was she able to become a ‘fly on the wall’ so to speak in trying to paint an authentic picture of these lives?
Flock informs, “Of course, there were times when I had opinions or made judgements in my head. But I tried to keep that out of the writing as much as I could because you never know why people are behaving the way they do… That’s why I wrote the book in the third person. It didn’t add much to have me there as a first-person narrator telling the reader how I felt about things. There’s enough judgement in this world as it is.”
Her advice to aspiring non-fiction writers is to write what one is obsessed with, to have a question one is desperate to answer.
“Interview people who fascinate you. Take more notes than you need to. Go to a place you know very well or don’t know at all, so long as it makes you curious. Note down how people speak, how they laugh, what they wear, what they dream about. Don’t think you ever know it all. Let people edit you, but listen to your own voice most.”
If you want to read real-life intimate stories of love, loss, longing and most of all, hope, Love and Marriage In Mumbai will transport you to the lives of people you could have very well known all your lives.