How many of us would take the plunge into the depths of a cultural fabric of a foreign land to understand the nuances and complexities of that novice culture? Meet Elizabeth Flock who is a journalist, author and documentary filmmaker with a keen focus on women’s and social issues. Her work has been featured in PBS News Hour, The New York Times, The Atlantic and many other publications. She recently authored a book called Love and Marriage in Mumbai wherein she explores love, marriage and shifting cultural norms in India, specifically tracking three married couples through a span of about a decade.
Soul Cafe caught up with Ms Flock, to talk about her new book and also to get a cross cultural perspective on evolving Indian marriages.
Soul Cafe: From a western perspective, there is a stereotypical image about Indian marriages – the Bollywood style big fat colorful and loud Indian weddings. It’s very rare to have someone explore beyond it. Indeed, curious to know, what made you explore and write a book on the intricacies of Indian marriages?
Liz: I wrote this book because I wanted to look at marriages beyond the big fat Bollywood wedding. In India — and in much of the West — our stories often end with the couple getting married. But what happens afterwards? That reality is what I wanted to explore.
Soul Cafe: Over a span of several years, you pursued three distinct middle-class Mumbai couples, getting detailed account of their private lives – their dreams, frustrations and desires. In India, people are reluctant to disclose private matters, how did you manage to get them tell you their intimate stories?
Liz: Changing names was essential, to protect the couples’ anonymity and privacy. I also reported this book over a long period of time — almost 10 years — which I think really helped gain trust. As reporters, we are often required to parachute in somewhere for a very short period of time. Obviously people are going to be more reticent to share the intimacies of their lives with strangers. It was really important to me to keep going back.
Soul Cafe: As you mentioned, you followed the characters in your book for almost a decade – seeing their relationship equation transform from time to time. You have seen them stay put in their relationship even when the equation trends downhill. What did you think of it?
Liz: There were times when I was sure one couple or another was going to get divorced, but they never did. In part, I think that’s because of the continued stigma of divorce in India, particularly for women who want to initiate it. But I also think each of the couples has stayed together because there’s something about the partnership that works for them.
But I also think each of the couples has stayed together because there’s something about the partnership that works for them.
Soul Cafe: Have the expectations from a marriage drastically changed from the previous Indian generation for men and women? If so are they able to cope with it?
Liz: I think the societal expectations have remained the same — pretty rigid — while women’s aspirations for relationships have changed from their mother’s generation to now. This disconnect leads to a lot of confusion. There was a recent study that said 4 in 10 people who commit suicide globally are women, and that most of them are married. It attributed this to that disconnect between what society expects of them and what they dream of.
The societal expectations have remained the same — pretty rigid — while women’s aspirations for relationships have changed from their mother’s generation to now.
Soul Cafe: From being a collective choice to being an individual choice – do you see that transition happening in Indian marriages?
Liz: There are certainly more love marriages than there were before. But this is happening more slowly than you might think. And anecdotally I’d say it seems as if there are a lot more hybrid, part-love/part-arranged marriages, than there are marriages where it’s purely an individual choice.
Soul Cafe: Did you feel that the need for personal space is quite low in Indian marriage?
Liz : I think the need for personal space is high but the availability of it is low. There are more couples choosing to live in single family homes instead of join families, but again, this isn’t changing as fast as you’d think. The iconic image of couples at a beach under an umbrella is still around for a reason. In a city like Mumbai, there remains very little privacy for lovers.
I think the need for personal space is high but the availability of it is low.
Soul Cafe: You explored detailed accounts of infidelity, impotency and abuse in marriages. Any take-away/insight on how they managed to cope and continue to stick together?
Liz: I think that whether a marriage is a love marriage or arranged, at some point it becomes an arrangement and a partnership that is difficult to get out of. People will withstand a lot for the constancy of marriage, especially if divorce is still so stigmatized.
Soul Cafe: According to the latest market reports, the two most popular apps in India in terms of revenue on Android are Netflix and Tinder. Does that surprise you? With the technological advancements, do you foresee a change in the relationship equation?
Liz: Certainly technology and global influences are changing relationships. How does a young woman in Trivandrum, let’s say, make sense of the fact that she isn’t supposed to be holding hands out doors with her husband but then they she goes home to watch a show on Netflix about an open relationship or she hears friends talk about experimenting with premarital sex on Tinder? There is a disconnect there that would be confusing for anyone.
Soul Cafe : Soul Café is a platform for the Urban Indian singles that tries to build deeper relationships based on compatibility in life values, personality, interests and deeper conversation that are authentic. Your thoughts?
Liz : Relationships are always about compatibility in some fashion, and I think the elements you mention are good ones.
Soul Cafe: Tell us about your fond memories of Mumbai.
Liz: Like many people, I love Mumbai most in the rains. They’re inconvenient, they’re dirty, but they’re undeniably romantic and so much fun. It was monsooning the day I went for my job interview at Forbes India back in 2008 (I showed up to the interview completely soaked) and it was monsooning the last time I was in Mumbai in June, while a friend and I watched the new series “Lust Stories” in her apartment and drank fresh mango juice and discussed our own thoughts on love and marriage.
Thanks a lot for your insights Liz. India surely is a nation in transition with traditions, technological advancements and modernity thriving together. We wish you all the best with this book as well as for all your future endeavors.
Love and Marriage in Mumbai, is currently available on Amazon.
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