In Love is Not a Word, a collection of essays explores historical, cultural and gendered politics fuelling the emotion
Despite being such a dominant, powerful force shaping society, Dhar noticed that there are very few books that engage with love in a serious, studied way, attempting to understand it in all its nuances.
In the introduction to Love is Not a Word: The Culture and Politics of Desire, a collection of 12 essays about love, editor Debotri Dhar details love as: “Love: at once art, insight, event, encounter, aporia, utopia, ethic. In literature, culture, history, metaphysics, politics, and their interstices, ideas about love abound. Love has been a central mood and metaphor in fiction, poetry, and drama around the world…”. Although it is such a dominant, powerful force shaping society, the writer and teacher noticed that there are very few books that engage with love in a serious, studied way, attempting to understand it in all its nuances.
The collection is Dhar’s step towards filling that lacuna. The essays in the book offer historical and cultural perspectives on Indian love and its development, through covering a wide range of topics — from contemplating the frustration of trying to sprout a romance with a tree, to understanding the inseparable relationship between love and the physical space it occupies; and from looking at Urdu love poetry to assessing political campaigns like Love Jihad, among others. And engaging as the experience has been, she is already thinking about putting together a second volume to address some of the themes that this one does not.
In an interview with Firstpost, Dhar discusses ideas of love and marriage in India, of reading and writing as deeply political acts, seeing trees as lovers, and more.
Could you talk about the title Love Is Not A Word: The Culture and Politics of Desire? How do you define love? In setting out to discuss their culture and politics, how do you decode the differences between love and desire?
Popular definitions of love have often pointed to its constancy, its transcendental power: Shakespeare’s “love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,” for instance, or Roland Barthes’ understanding of romantic love as an artful un-anchoring that makes anything possible. We tend to see love as a personal choice made by individuals.
Yet, love is as political as it is personal.
Who we can love, and how, and how much, is shaped as much by overt and covert societal sanctions. Love that crosses race, class, nationality, caste, language, and other boundary markers, or challenges the (un)spoken gendered codes of a community in other ways, is seen as more threatening. Individuals and communities have sought to punish these “transgressions” through formal laws and informal norms. Hence, the title Love is Not a Word. In theory, love is perhaps more politico-cultural, and desire more the sexual-embodied, psychological aspect – but in lived experience, I see them as fellow-travellers, sometimes journeying together, and at other times apart.
How do I define love? When I was in my teens, I suppose I thought of romantic love much like Shakespeare says. Now I think of it more in terms of deep awareness: of the self, the other, and everything in-between that blurs that binary. Love is a journey – perhaps even pilgrimage. Remember those lovely lines by Yeats? “How many loved your moments of glad grace, and loved your beauty with love false or true, but one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, and loved the sorrows of your changing face.”
I also think more of the political and ethical dimensions of love now. Rabindranath Tagore’s Bangla poem ‘Bhalobashi bhalobashi’ (I love, I love) is a compelling idea, because it challenges English language’s requirement that love needs a narrowly-defined object. To love, across space and time, humanity and nature and the divine, can be freeing. Love as art, insight, ethic, and yes, utopia. I am an idealist…that much has not changed.
You mention in the introduction that you have attempted to make sure the volume is “in conversation with ‘Western’ and transnational ideas and discourses.” Why was this important? Could you point to some instances from the book where such a cross-dialogue has proved enriching?
For one, I simply cannot think of the “local” except in conversation with the “global". My work, and my own life’s journeys also attest to that. But hopefully, it’s more than just an editor’s whim, and that this cross-dialogue, as you so aptly term it, does prove enriching for the reader. There are many examples from the book, so let me share just two.
The first is from the essay on arranged marriage in this volume. Given our colonial world history, there is a tendency for the Western gaze to see “third world” cultural practices in a paternalistic way, with everyone having arranged marriages, which is then erroneously equated to forced marriage. When I first started teaching at an American university, the first question I was asked by a very concerned student was this: are you “promised” to someone back home? (Here I must tell you that in my own family, not just my parents but even my grandparents, both paternal and maternal, had love marriages!) The essay draws from diverse sources – religious epics, literary works by women writers in India and from the Indian diaspora in America, and Bollywood films – to ask if from ancient to modern times, the principle of a woman’s choice in love and marriage has ever been entirely absent any more than it has ever been fully realised. Rather than monolithically posit the ‘powerlessness’ of Indian women against the colonial assumption of complete ‘freedom’ of her Western counterpart, the essay draws attention to the diversity that constitutes modern India’s material and cultural spectrum — international designer wedding ensembles for the rich and child marriages among the very poor, the stark portrayals of love in a consumerist global media versus the textured layers of everyday life. The cross-dialogues allow for these nuances, you know.
My second example is from the essay on the romantic experiences of Dalit women. This important work critiques the Savarna gaze of Indian cultural iconography for its stereotyping of Dalit identities on one hand, and elite feminist sex-positive cultural politics on the other, to highlight how liberal lifestyle alternatives practiced by feminists from privileged social locations could potentially be more exploitative for Dalit women. My introduction to the volume points out how this double burden of caste and gender borne by Dalit women in India is similar to the race and gender burden borne by women of colour in the United States where, during periods of racial segregation, there were laws penalising ‘miscegenation.’ Interracial marriage may be more acceptable now, at least in some spaces, but it is not the norm.
Marriage, in other words, has often functioned as a tool, not just in India but transnationally, to enforce group “purity” and endogamy, and to maintain hierarchy.
Three chapters – ‘Swipe Me Left, I’m Dalit’ about the romantic experiences of Dalit women; ‘Love Jihad’ about the political campaign and its impact on women; and ‘Same-sex Love in India’ about the paradoxical nature of romantic love in the public-private spaces – talk about navigating love in a larger culture of hate and discrimination.
While working on this book about love, how often did you have to tackle the idea of hate? Why and how do you think hate sits parallel to love?
The essay on inter-caste love, the essay on love jihad that tackles the question of the far-right political backlash against inter-religious marriages, and the sensitive and exquisite essay by Parvati Sharma, who draws from her personal experience alongside literary writings, LGBTQ+ activist material, and recent judicial judgments to write of private love, despair — and always, hope — against the public backdrop of the decades-old legal battle around the colonial Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which finally resulted in homosexuality being decriminalised, all speak to the challenges of navigating love within a larger culture of discrimination.
I do see hate as a shadow-self of love – shall we say love that is yet to define itself maturely, except by excluding the other? So it is perhaps unsurprising how often hate, as directed towards a different racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, or sexual group, presents itself as love for one’s own group.
The chapter ‘Radha, Divine Paramour’ traces the historical context of her development and popularity in theological imagination. ‘Love, Longing, and Desire: A Nayika’s Tale,’ in the voice of the famed courtesan Amrapali, engages with the Kamasutra.
How can understanding such concepts challenge the contemporary Hindu ideas of purity and correctness, and its related policing?
I spoke, earlier, of the past and present impact of colonialism on our collective psyche; well, Hindu respectability politics is, in large part, a response to India’s painful history. Otherwise, the purushartha chatushtham – dharma, artha, kama, moksha – does recognise kama or desire as intrinsic to the social order. This is not to deny gender, caste or other oppressions, but simply to point out the simultaneous presence of goddess-cults, and that there wasn’t as much of a rigid, puritanical distinction between the sacred and the profane in some early traditions before the Dharmashastras.
So the essay on the erotic and holy goddess presents a compelling theological study of the metamorphosis of Radha’s love under the puritanical gaze of colonial modernity. This theme of the cultural erasure of sexuality is also carried forward in the essay that re-engages with Vatsayana’s Kamasutra in the voice of Amrapali, the famous nayika/nagarvadhu or courtesan, who chose her men while living her life independently.
In the United States, universities like Harvard and Yale have religious studies departments and divinity schools, where scholars of faith as well as others come together to study diverse religious ideas and practices, texts and contexts, and how they came to be. So for the scholar in me, these critical discussions do not fall outside of the ambit of meaningful scholarship, even as the writer in me enjoys creative re-engagements with mythic imaginations.
You mention in your essay ‘Single Women, Self-love, and the Gender of Waiting’ that historically, when representing the trope of the heteronormative waiting lover in literature, it’s mostly the woman waiting for the man. You end the essay with “there have been very few words as profoundly gendered as the word ‘love’.”
Could you elaborate on the idea of writing and reading being political acts? What impact do gendered literary representations have on lived realities of experiencing love?
You know, I want to reply to your second question first: the impact of gendered literary representations on lived realities of experiencing love. I think they do have an impact – even subconsciously, where their influence is perhaps more insidious. From fairy tales and fables to poetry and prose, written as well as oral, the waiting lover in heteronormative literatures and popular culture has, some exceptions notwithstanding, mostly been a woman. She is the one who gives up an education or cuts back on her career. My essay in the book gives several examples of these. While this may be what some women want, it is not true for all. In fact, independent women from all segments of society, including single women travellers, have existed more in real life than in literature!
So, coming to your first question, reading and writing then become profoundly political acts through which we can contest or confirm the status-quo. In my 2015 novel The Courtesans of Karim Street, and as in my shorter fiction as well as the short stories of my sole-authored collection, the women make bold, independent choices. I grew up in tiny apartments on the peripheries of big cities, but I wanted to see the world beyond and to have my own identity. So my writing – including this new essay – often mirrors my own journeys of pursuing work, vocation, art as a single woman.
Three essays in the book talk about love poetry: ‘Ghalib’s Poetic Beloved: Cruel, Willful, and Elusive’ about ghazals; ‘Love, Society, Polity: Urdu Poetry from Khusro to Faiz’ about shayari and Urdu poets more generally; and ‘Barahmasa: Songs for the Seasons of Love and Separation’ about the counter-culture.
These reflect not just what love was like during that time in that place, but also offer insight on the socio-cultural and political fabric of that moment. How does contextualising historic poetry enrich our understanding of love today? When we understand the evolution of love poetry, what lessons can be gleaned about the meaning of love and what it should look like?
Well, I don’t think of Ghalib or Khusro or Faiz as historical poetry in the sense of belonging only to the past; instead, like history, they shape our understanding of the present and offer pluralistic visions for the future. Like Khusro’s evocative coupling of Persian and Hindi in “Zehal-e-miskeen makun taghaful duraye naina banaye batiyaan, sakhi piya ko jo main na dekhun toh kaise kaatoon andheri ratiyaan.” My friends and I will often rebut each other’s arguments with shayari. Just this week, I said to a friend, who was complaining that I hadn’t been in touch: 'Duniya ne teri taad se begana kar diya, tujhse bhi dil-fareb hain gham rozgar ke!' We laughed for a long time.
And of course, the counter-cultures within poetry remind us how the urban, classical, masculine, and textual traditions of love poetry have been counterpoised by rural, oral, feminine traditions such as the barahmasa.
From monogamy to expecting reciprocity, ‘How to Write A Love Letter to A Tree’ challenges several ideas that are generally expectations in human love. Are such concepts essential for human beings? What can one learn about love from inter-species romances or that of other species in the natural world more generally?
Yes, I can see how ideas such as reciprocity might not always be essential for all human beings, or even for all kinds of love (unrequited love, for instance, has a place in literature), but I do think the larger point of the essay is important. I want to tell you about this new course on ‘Women and Well Being in Literature’ that I introduced for the Women’s and Gender Studies program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where I am a core faculty member. Some interesting material I’ve just added for our fall semester is on “psychoterratica,” a term coined by the Australian sustainability expert Glenn Albrecht to describe the trauma caused due to distance from nature. Albrecht, in fact, has thought up a whole new lexicon to describe the relationship between mental health and the environment, with words such as “solastalgia,” or the psychic pain of climate change, and missing a home that is transforming before your eyes. It reminded me of my grandmother’s distress when she found that a large construction project meant she could no longer see her beloved palash fields from her tiny balcony in Kolkata; she is movement-impaired, and wrote a poignant poem on it in Bangla.
How to balance development with respect and appreciation for nature is certainly a core question facing us, globally, so wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could bring/plant trees in our lives as lovers, as this essay so delightfully does?
— Love Is Not A Word: The Culture and Politics of Desire, edited by Debotri Dhar, is published by Speaking Tiger Books.
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