In the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting, the protagonist, Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon) is a 20-year-old mathematical autodidact, and an undiscovered genius with a neurological philosopher’s stone – an eidetic memory.
He remembers everything he has ever read and everything he has ever said. He understands advanced technical details in multiple subjects, as also nuances in art, which makes him a polymath.
Despite his considerable prodigy, he has difficulty forming mature relationships with people, because he was abused by his dad as a child. He breaks up with the girl who loves him when she asks him to move with her to a different State because he fears that after getting close to him, she will leave him, upon learning about his imperfections.
His therapist Sean (played by the late Robin Williams) explains to him, how his reluctance to trust people makes him sabotage any chance of forming stable, fulfilling relationships with them, and also of doing something that truly fulfils him. “Do you have a soulmate?”, Sean asks Will at one point.
Asked to explain what ‘soulmate’ means, Sean answers, “Someone who challenges you… someone who opens things up for you, touches your soul.” Will falls silent. The movie ends with Will driving off in a fixed-up station wagon, to find the girl he believes he loves, presumably his soulmate.
While the plot of the movie is fictional, it is probably trying to deliver a real message: The best thing one can do in life is find a soulmate, someone who both challenges you and loves you; who forces you to examine your weaknesses and insecurities while respecting you; who accepts your imperfections and sets you free; who commands loyalty without explicitly demanding any.
Someone who understands the beautiful, chaotic mess that you might be as a human being, and who might still find something of value in you, that you have never seen in yourself. Someone who is the missing piece in the puzzle of your life and helps you see the full picture.
Someone who helps you find yourself. Someone you can trust, and one who trusts you. You complement each other. As Sean says to Will, “You’re not perfect, sport. And let me save you the suspense. This girl you met, she isn’t perfect either. But the question is whether or not you are perfect for each other. That’s the whole deal. That’s what intimacy is all about.”
This question has inspired a lot of art, literature and philosophy over centuries. Attempts to define and depict what is understood to be love have shaped substantial parts of most cultures.
From a purely etymological point of view, the word “love” comes from a Germanic root word lubo, which shares its origins with the early Sanskrit root word lubhyati, meaning “desire”.
The dominant image that the word “love” conjures up in the mind of the average social person is a heterosexual couple enjoying each other’s presence. There are different words in different Indian languages, that convey a similar meaning.
Although attitudes are changing, it is also mostly assumed, at least in India, that this couple is married. An offspring is believed to ‘complete’ this picture. These are exactly the images we see representing ‘love’ in mass media.
It is always assumed that there is a story that brought our hypothetical heterosexual couple together. You may or may not get to know this story. But you may assume that they are married to each other, and hence must love each other. A match made in heaven, love made on earth, a janmo-janmo ka hitch. Perfect for each other.
Cynics might note a few things here. One, a ‘perfect’ couple is almost always heterosexual.
Two, ‘soulmates’, notwithstanding the level of understanding they have between each other, are or implicitly ought to be, in a sexual relationship.
Three, although any given definition of ‘soulmate’ in the context of ‘love’ theoretically implies that there can be multiple such people, the ideal picture is always that of a couple committed to each other.
Four, components of the dominant image of ‘soulmates’ almost never sees too many cultural barriers crossed.
Finally, the perfect couple is almost always ‘healthy’, ‘good-looking’ and visibly able-bodied. For Indian ‘soulmates’, as noted earlier, they need to be married as well.
All this suggests that there is an element of the sacred cow (no pun intended) to the dominant concept of ‘love’. Why must a soulmate be of the opposite sex?
Why is it necessary for a soulmate who understands you well, to also have a nookie with you every now and then? Also, if one must accept these conditions, why is it not possible to have multiple soulmates?
How can arbitrary, hateful and violent cultural barriers decide who can be soulmates and who cannot? Why, for example, is it considered taboo for an Indian woman to choose to either Tinder-match or soul-match with a Burundian or a Nahua man? Forget that, why are inter-caste couples violently terminated by their own families?
Before we attempt to answer all these questions, let us take a look at the outsize role marriage plays in shaping Indian society. Most Indian parents tend to spend significant amounts of their life savings on their daughter’s marriages.
Matchmaking and weddings are huge industries in India. Weddings, in particular, tend to be a nauseating show of opulence and pageantries in conspicuous consumption. A fixation on gold for weddings costs India as much as ₹80,000 crore in imports.
Regardless, let’s take a look at more relevant data. Census 2011 data suggest that the total percentage of the population above 10 years of age that was married/widowed/divorced/separated was 64.4%.
For females, that becomes 70.1%. The significance of marriage is to be found not just in these numbers, but also in the implication of official data that people, especially girls, as young as 10 could be married in India.
NFHS-4 data have suggested that the rate of child marriages has decreased from 58% in the 1970s to 21% in 2015-16. But that is still a very high rate of prevalence. Socioeconomic background and education play a big role.
Women from poor households tend to marry earlier. Poverty forces a lot of families to consider early marriage of girl children, who in India are typically not seen as self-sufficient human capital regardless of socioeconomic background.
While more than 30% of women from the lowest two wealth quintiles are married by the age of 18, the corresponding figure in the richest quintile is 8%. Consequently, A one year increase in education of a girl child delays her marriage by 0.4 years.
According to 2011 census data, a rural girl child is three times as likely to be married as an urban girl child. Also, the overwhelming majority of urban women marry after they turn 21, while a minority of rural women seem to do the same (68.7% vs 46.1%).
As can be deduced from all the data presented here, child marriages are more prevalent in rural areas and among Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. For females aged 15 and above, the percentage of married/divorced/widowed/separated rises to 80.2. The corresponding number for the entire US population aged 15 and above is 61.2%.
While considering the US, however, it is important to remember that homosexual marriage is legal there, something yet to be realised in India. Clearly, marriage is a big deal in India, and the marriage of women an even bigger deal. The fewer choices a woman seems to have, the earlier and the more likely she is to be married.
Let’s veer to an analysis of the prevalent types of marriages in India. The predominant form of marriage in India is an arranged marriage. For Hindus, the origins of this form of marriage are to be found in the prajapatya form of marriage prescribed in the Vedic Grihya Sutras.
A 2013 survey by the Taj Wedding Barometer revealed that around 75 percent of young people in India preferred this ancient form of marriage. The sample surveyed was representative only of the middle-class urban population between 18 and 35 years of age.
More women (around 82 percent) than men (around 68 percent) cleaved to the idea of arranged marriage, according to the survey. So what about ‘love marriage’? As Pia said to Rancho in 3 Idiots, “Aisa sirf filmon mein hota hai, real life mein nahin.”
A CNN story suggests that, apparently, one of the major reasons middle-class Indian women preferred arranged marriage was “stability”. Another evident reason was that the patriarchal social superstructure compelled such women to conform to the norm (we’ll come back to this).
Shalini Grover in her study on working-class women in Delhi found that both “arranged marriages’ and ‘love marriages’ “elicit complex and heterogeneous responses from [their] natal kin.”
So it appears that both, for lowe/ lower-middle-class women, and for upper-middle-class women, the reactions of their natal families to how they choose their partners, matter more often than not.
Now that we know that marriages are a big deal in India, and arranged marriages a bigger deal, let us now examine how caste influences choices made in the marriage markets.
In a 1916 address, to an anthropology seminar, at Columbia University, Dr. Ambedkar tried to present an ingenious picture of how caste operated in Indian Hindu society as also insights into its origins.
He argued that “the superposition of endogamy on exogamy means the creation of caste“. In other words, in order to maintain a viable large marriage pool, the system of gotras or clans was invented within castes, so that one gotra would necessarily marry another gotra within the same caste, thus maintaining caste ‘purity’.
Ambedkar also provided in his thesis, ingenious explanations for why child marriage and punitive lifelong widowhood, might have been imposed on women, in order to preserve caste purity.
More recent investigations into cases of child marriage by Fuller and Narasimhan show how the sophistry to justify the system evolved over time; until it was given up on completely, in some upper-caste Tamil communities.
The system has perhaps eased somewhat since the time of Ambedkar, but one look at any Hindu matrimonial ad would reveal how caste still plays a big role in the marriage markets in India.
We frequently see, how couples who violate rigid caste boundaries, in marrying for love, face the wrath of their kith and kin. Although nominally inter-caste ‘love’ marriages have been tolerated in certain societies, like the Bengali society, as discovered by Lauren Corwin in the 1970s, it was more because the partners belonged to the same economic classes than due to any rejection of the strictly endogamous caste order.
A detailed, more recent study by Banerjee, Duflo (the Nobel winners) et al of Bengali matrimonial preferences, demonstrates the predominance of caste remains as a factor in mate selection, albeit diminishing in its importance.
Be that as it may, the bias against Dalits everywhere remains particularly strong. As a 2016 study by Ahuja reveals, although upper-caste middle-class women are willing to break free of caste strictures in choosing their mates in order to marry wealthier men belonging to lower castes than themselves, “among upper caste women, 52.1 percent responded to an interest from a backward caste groom and only 28.7 percent responded to an interest from a Dalit groom with an almost identical profile”, in the study.
In comparison, 71 percent of Dalit women were willing to marry someone from a different caste – probably due to a combination of the desire to “marry up”, in imitating their upper-caste counterparts and the fact that those most victimised by an irrationally violent system tend to see its intellectual emptiness most clearly.
Violent dominant-caste men in some of the Indian hinterlands tend to exercise a perverse and lifelong ‘droit du seigneur’ (right of the lord) over Dalit women. Brutal rape of and sexual violence against Dalit women by dominant caste men is not uncommon in such places. But inter-caste love and marriage remain taboo.
All this betrays the violent origins of the caste order, and how matrimony plays a role in maintaining and consolidating the strict hierarchies of caste.
We are, therefore, far from having matured into a society that can consider more open-minded questions regarding the subject of love.
Do we have the guts, as a society, to give our adolescents comprehensive sexuality education and to let them figure out for themselves what love means to them?
If we care about love and marriage so much, can we campaign to legalise homosexual marriage and to enact provisions for the same under the Special Marriage Act and any eventual Uniform Civil Code?
If we care about offspring, can we push our lawmakers to extend the same legal benefits and recognition to live-in couples and single parents with children that married couples with children are entitled to? Can we stop calling children “illegitimate”?
Can asexual people find love and intimacy in a patriarchal society hardwired to believe that love culminates with consummation after marriage?
Can we convince ourselves that there can be multiple soulmates who challenge you and enhance you, and who are not necessarily ‘life partners’? Or can we call out the institution of marriage for what it is, an instrument of Brahminical patriarchy to control society, and especially women, and refuse to acknowledge it as relevant to the modern era or reinvent it to suit the tastes and sensibilities of the modern enlightened human?
If ever all this happens in India – unlikely to be very soon – it will require to begin with an abolition of the caste system and with a massive change in socio-moral pedagogy where the choice of mates, is seen as an individual choice, rather than as a social/familial choice.
People must be encouraged to think of future possibilities of conflict in a partnership, and to vote against marriage to a partner who might seem ‘perfect’ at present to avoid the legal hassles that inevitably follow a divorce, if they so wish.
Considering the fact that ‘love marriages‘, or marriages where partners select each other without social/familial interference are only around 20% of all Indian marriages, there is little opportunity for Indians at present to ‘find love’ in relationships.
Most are just making compromises, and getting used to telling themselves that ‘love’ is independent of all rationality, that it is just the hormone-driven nonsense that we see in the saccharine potboilers and throwaways of ’90s Bollywood, that considerations of compatibility, maturity, financial stability etc., do not comprise love.
As one of the women interviewed for the aforementioned CNN story said, love is not all that important when making ‘lifelong’ mate choices in India. Perhaps it is not important at all. As we saw with how caste operates in India, if there is any love in Indian society, it’s a very straitjacketed form of love, inspired by and cohabiting with a lyricised and normalised visceral hatred of the “other”.