Forego the Foreplay

An account of sex and sexuality in contemporary India takes a while to hit the sweet spot.

Published: May 24, 2014 12:08 am

India In Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century
Author: Ira Trivedi
Publisher: Aleph
Rs: 595

By: Indrajit Hazra

Size clearly matters to Ira Trivedi. The intentions behind her writing India In Love, in which she delves into various aspects of marriage and sexuality in the 21st century, are quite licit. In an enterprising mix of reportage and research, she aims to tell the parallel story of post-liberalised India as measured by hormonal and sexual parameters.
But with the reviewer’s advantage of hindsight, I recommend that the reader start on page 171 of this 400-plus page book. The disjointed foreplay that makes for the first part of the book under the title ‘Sex and Sexuality’ is a debilitating turn-off.

Trivedi betrays performance anxiety as she tries to impress the reader by starting off with a cross-stitched narrative of scholarly references to ancient Hindu accounts and temple depictions of the erotic and a case study of a 20-year-old from Nagpur studying in an engineering college in Delhi. All I get is a very bad date with Trivedi, with Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar cheering on from under the dinner table.

Trivedi explores the contemporary pornography scene and its consumers, does her bit in “mainstreamising” the LGBT landscape, shares with us her notes as she makes mandatory forays into the world of kothi-to-escorts prostitution, leading us clinically to the chapter ‘The Dark Side’ (“contributed by Anjani Trivedi” the footnote mysteriously notes) that ticks all the boxes of the culture of sexual violence, men-women demographics, sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV, and alley-side abortions.

But at the risk of mirroring the main fault of this book — not starting with the good bits  — I must insist that you forego the foreplay and go straight into the second section on ‘Love & Marriage’. Trivedi hits the spot suddenly in the book’s second half, making me convinced that India In Love, even with its subtitle intact, should have been 246-odd pages long.

She encounters the Love Commandos, a two-man organisation whose main agenda is to rescue endangered couples from the wrath of families and bring them to the safety of their cash-strapped shelter in Paharganj. We are given solid reasons (and examples) of why honour killings and the diktats of khap panchayats go beyond caste.

“It is essentially about patriarchy and control,” Trivedi duly notes after listening to a couple from the same caste. Via this route of learning about love and its discontents, we learn why 21st century India not only needs “urbanisation” but also desires it. “The countryside!” exclaims a young Dalit-Rajput couple with visible disgust when Trivedi suggests that instead of moving to difficult, teeming Mumbai, they settle down somewhere in the countryside. Chastised, she writes, “Why would they go there? That is where they came from. It is a place of horrors and atrocities, of khaps and of families who kill.”

We also encounter the various blurrings of lines between “arranged”, “love” and “arranged-love” marriages. And learn that marriage, unlike non-procreative sex, in India is still overwhelmingly a filial contract — “Because Papa says so.”

The phenomenon of divorce is deftly explored through case studies, including a double divorce case in which the explanation of “she could not adjust” refers to two diametrically opposite causes. Trivedi herself becomes a character in her own narrative a few times. These add to the veracity of her exploration rather than coming in its way.

Once after coming out of a meeting with a Qazi in Bhopal, kohl-eyed henna-bearded “agents” who “offer husbands to newly divorced women” ask one of the Qazi’s bookeepers whether she was “on the market and how much [her] mehr was”. On another occasion, the organiser of a “swinger’s club” — one participant certainly will make me look at managers in Delhi McDonald’s outlets in a new light — tells Trivedi, “I love you… I think you love me too.”

Trivedi astutely takes us up close and personal to Shillong where Khasi matrilineal society not only goes a long way to explain why there are no signs of gender segregation or stigma to sex in Meghalaya, but also how in a curious-to-us “mainlander” twist, men have started to question the dogma of tradition to demand “dignity and respect”.

“When they arrive on the Indian mainland, Northeastern women act like they do back home, freely and openly interacting with men, conducting sexual affairs, and this often leads to teasing and harassment.” There’s a nail that Trivedi has hit here.

The real book from page 171 onwards is genuinely illuminating, entertaining and revealing, making it neither lightweight nor a plodding affair. Skipping the disastrous “beginning” will ensure satisfaction.

Indrajit Hazra is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist

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