Journalist Elizabeth Flock explores love and marriage in Mumbai in a compelling new book
Containing vignettes from a decade of reportage, American journalist Elizabeth Flock’s debut book peeks into India’s oldest institution: marriage
An intimate, immersive and revelatory examination of love, marriage, and the state of modern India — as witnessed through the lives of three very different couples in today’s Mumbai, The Heart Is a Shifting Sea: Love and Marriage in Mumbai is a landmark work of narrative nonfiction. Containing vignettes from a decade of reportage, American journalist Elizabeth Flock’s debut book peeks into India’s oldest institution: marriage. Highlighting the vagaries of convenient love, the ceaselessness of fleeting expectations, and the weariness of responsibility, the book is a must-read for all those who want to know what really goes on in a marriage behind closed doors.
There have been great books and stories written about the coveting and realisation of the Great Indian Dream: marriage. What makes this book different from similar books on this theme?
Many books written about marriage — in India or the in the US — are written from the outside looking in. In Love and Marriage in Mumbai, I tried to really go inside marriages through immersion journalism in the lives of three couples I got to know over 10 years. We conducted hundreds of hours of interviews. I used medical and legal documents, photos, diary entries, Gchats and texts to inform my reporting. I lived with the couples, as well as ate, travelled, and went to work alongside them. I interviewed their families, in laws, friends. I was there when they woke up and when they slept. This project started because I lived with a number of couples when I first arrived in Mumbai and I was struck by how different marriage looks on the outside — what we present to the world — compared to what's really going on behind closed doors.
You took 10 years to write The Heart Is a Shifting Sea: Love and Marriage in Mumbai. Tell us about the kind of research that went into the book.
In addition to the immersion research I did with the couples themselves, I also did outside interviews with marriage counsellors, sociologists, Bollywood directors, historians— anyone in Mumbai I could think of, who would have something to say about how love and marriage is changing in the city. These interviews did not make it into the book. The book is entirely focused on the couples. But it helped me as a writer think about the broader social change that was going on that was putting pressure on these marriages.
For every man who says, 'Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?' there’s a woman who says, 'It's not worth buying an entire pig just to get a little sausage!' Is marriage — viewed by many as institutionalised love — even relevant today?
Marriage as an institution has undergone massive changes over the past several centuries. Of course, it was once all about transactions, often some kind of economic exchange, or bringing two families together for business reasons. It is only in more recent history that people have begun marrying for love. A love marriage, if you think about it, is inherently unstable, because it's based on a feeling that can change. But that doesn't mean it's not relevant. Marriage is relevant if two people see it that way. For all three couples in the book, marriage serves a very useful purpose in building a family unit, and providing happiness.
During your extensive research, did you see more happy marriages or unhappy ones in contemporary India?
This book is focused on three marriages that span different religions, age groups, stages of marriage and family backgrounds. One is a very traditionally arranged marriage (Shahzad and Sabeena), one is a love marriage/elopement against parental wishes (Maya and Veer), and one is a hybrid, somewhere in between, a marriage arranged online but with the couple's participation and consent (Ashok and Parvati). While these couples depict different experiences of love and marriage in the city, they are just three couples in a city of millions and a country of over a billion. So it's hard for me to generalise. It's also hard to say whether a marriage is "happy" or "unhappy". I think there are lots of marriages that occupy the space in between, or move from one to the other over time. I saw both dysfunction in marriages and moments of grace. I will say that I don't think either arranged marriages or love marriages are more successful. It seemed in my research that it wasn't about the kind of arrangement you had, but about simple compatibility.
Rising divorce rates have led to the dissolution of the Panglossian front that ruled most social interactions in India. Marriages are in a state of suspension between the old and new. The institution is recharging its batteries, reforming, reshaping, before it takes a decisive leap forward. Where do you think marriages in India will head after this pseudo interregnum?
I think divorce rates will continue to increase. Infidelity probably will too, as well as general sexual experimentation. That said, I'm talking on a long timeline. All of these things are still highly stigmatised. As you see in the book with Maya and Veer, they talk seriously about divorce but Maya does not do it in large part because of how stigmatised divorce remains. While many people, women in particular, may want to push the boundaries of what's allowed in a marriage, there are still tremendous social pressures and entrenched attitudes that will prevent that.
The challenges of writing this book, if any.
So many. One of the hardest was pulling hundreds of hours of interviews and thousands of pages of notes into three tight narratives. It was also hard to structure the book, though I ultimately decided to go back and forth between the three couples' stories to leave the reader wanting more. But I think the most challenging thing was reporting about marriage. For example, when I interviewed people about something, their memories would often diverge. I was physically present for about half of the scenes in this book, and the other half was done by reconstruction. So if I asked Shahzad, let's say, to reconstruct the day of his marriage, and then Sabeena to reconstruct it as well, I might get two totally different stories. One might say that it was raining, and the other not. Or that his mother was a terror, or that she was a joy to be around. It made me realise what different realities we are all living in. And how marriage can be difficult to sustain in part because of the different ways we see the world. It also was challenging as a writer to know how to present two different stories. There are times in the book when I went with what photographs told me instead of their memories, because these are more accurate. And there are other times when I wrote: Shahzad said it was raining, but Sabeena remembers otherwise.
What role does imagination play in your work? How do you reconcile this with your journalistic integrity to hard facts and the absolute truth?
Narrative nonfiction is a bit of an odd genre because it straddles both reporting and creativity. Everything in this book is reported and true except the names, which have been changed to protect the privacy and anonymity of the couples. Any creativity I added, the narrative arc of a chapter, a metaphor in describing a setting, I had to do within the bounds of the facts I had. Which I think is what makes narrative nonfiction both really fun and really challenging. For example, it took me forever to figure out how to open and close the book with scenes from the monsoons with the interviews I had with all three couples. I had to keep interviewing them until I finally got the stuff I needed.
Have you faced any issues as a female writer, or a foreign writer, while getting published in India?
In general I think female writers are still presented as less "serious" than male writers, but in India I haven't found this to be the case. As a foreign writer, I'm anticipating that I will get some criticism. There are a lot of questions right now about which communities get to tell which stories. All I can say is that I tried to put in the work — 10 years and countless hours — so that I did not fall into the category of bad foreign correspondent who doesn't understand what he/she's writing about. That's also why I focused on just three couples. That's all I felt qualified to write as an outsider, something very narrow and intimate.
How difficult was it to get narrative non-fiction published as a first-time writer?
I think it's actually easier to get reported work published than a novel as a first time writer. Writing a novel terrifies me.
What are you working on next?
I am working on a women-focused book. It's still a work in progress, though it's likely about many women, or one woman, who stood up to powerful institutions that have failed them.
Meghna Pant is an award-winning author, columnist, feminist and speaker. She has three forthcoming nonfiction books: Feminist Rani (Penguin Random House), How To Get Published (Bloomsbury) and Holy 100 (Rupa).
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