Very rarely does a book appear as if it was written just for you, as if every word and line had been carefully crafted to help you make sense of your life. Shrayana Bhattacharya’s book, ‘Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh’ is one of them. The title might suggest that the book is about Shah Rukh and how a generation of women are hopelessly looking out for him. But going through the detailed interviews carried out by Bhattacharya of female fans of Shah Rukh, spread out across class, caste, professions and religion, one realises that the actor is, in fact, a myth, a symbol of a particular kind of romance these women are seeking. Despite the multifaceted backgrounds, a few things are common among all her interviewees. One, of course, that they love Shah Rukh and everything he represents, two, that they grew up in a post-liberalised India, and three, that they desire a life of economic independence in which men are desired for companionship and not for financial security.
Last year, I turned 31. In a locked-down year with my family, conversations around marriage and “settling down” became harder to dodge and, pragmatically, though unhappily, I settled for the idea of an arranged marriage. A matrimonial agency was found and a profile created. What followed is a saga best forgotten. Men with illustrious degrees, stable and high paying jobs and from “good families” were put on display. One MBA graduate from an Australian university told me that he wants a career woman, but spending too much time on my job means I am a failure at time management. Another researcher based in San Francisco rejected me with the explanation that while he appreciated my career aspirations, he wanted someone whose only priority would be to make a family.
I was unable to articulate to my parents what exactly I was looking for. I wanted someone to woo me, hear me out, acknowledge my aspirations, appreciate my independence, and be proud of my accomplishments. I wanted the Shah Rukh Khan of the movies I had grown up watching, one who would talk to the women in the films at length, look into their eyes, open his heart and arms to them, valiantly and unabashedly professing his love and admiring them for who they were. If I told this to my mother, I imagine she would roll her eyes in despair and ignore my words for their impracticality. “Marriage is about compromise” she would tell me, as she has, so many times in the past.
Yet, as Bhattacharya’s book shows, I am not alone in craving for a partner of the kind that SRK represented. Through hard data and long conversations with women, she has established their struggles to find a unique combination of independence and intimacy in a post-liberalised India. Unique, because despite the many leaps and bounds made by the Indian economy after the historic reforms of 1991, gender relations in the country continue to be steeped in inequality. Bhattarcharya puts it most accurately as she writes, “somehow, we ensure that men and women inhale what society expects of them, and magically, most of us play out our respective gender identities and idioms. Men must earn money and women must earn love.”
Money and love and the interaction between the two in the lives of women is the running theme of Bhattacharya’s book. Interestingly, as she shows, while more money ensures more love for men, for women it plays out in an opposite manner. “Women feel more loved when they toe the patriarchal line, when they prop up powerful men,” writes Bhattacharya. And so, many quit their jobs and the money it brings them, in the hope of finding love through taking care of the home and children. The numbers put together by Bhattacharya testifies to this sad reality. “As the Indian economy grew at an average of seven per cent between 2004 and 2011, the share of women in the labour force fell to 33 per cent before plunging even further between 2011 and 2017 to a historic low of 23.3 per cent,” she writes. This, despite the fact that in post-liberalised India there has been a sharp increase in the numbers of educated women.
Then there are those like Vidya, a Delhi-based engineer MBA graduate from an IIT, IIM and an Ivy League. When Bhattacharya interviewed her, Vidya was working for a hefty pay package at a private foundation. Vidya’s boyfriend of nine years had broken up with her on the grounds that she was too arrogant. In the ensuing years, she kept meeting marriage prospects who were just as disappointing. Vidya belongs to a minority of women, the true beneficiaries of economic liberalisation, who choose to remain defiant, opting their monetary independence over settling down for love from a man who is far from their dreams. “Blame the Shah Rukh movies, the books I’ve read, but I just wont do it! I’d rather be alone than settle down with someone who I’m not drawn to. My standards are as high as Shah Rukh,” says Vidya.
The relationship between love and money plays out differently for women as one moves down the class ladder. The women of agarbatti colony in Ahmedabad, who have created a revolution in contributing wages to their families, have benefitted from the emergence of home-based jobs of making incense sticks. But they realise the precariousness of their newfound independence. Most are married to men with unstable incomes and raging temperaments. They are fearful of losing their love as a result of their ability to earn, and, hence, have learned to tolerate the wrath of their husbands. They silently endure violence at home and find respite in Shah Rukh Khan movies.
Bhattacharya’s approach to gender is unique. As she explores fandom for Shah Rukh Khan, she reveals why Indian women continue to struggle in the workplace, the kitchen and the bedroom. Economic theories and data blend beautifully with her anthropological approach. Her writing stirs up emotions in a way that is hard for an academic book to do. For instance, she writes about a East Delhi accountant who had spent years of arduous labour to find employment in a government job. Her parents finally stopped looking for a suitable groom for her in her mid-30s when a prospective groom and his family complained about her complexion, suggesting that all the travel to office and back was tiring her out and making her dark. That day, the accountant had cried on her mother’s shoulders. “These matches were always insulting my hard work and everything I had done in life,” she says to Bhattacharya. My heart went out to her. Aren’t we all seeking for the same things in love — to be seen, acknowledged and appreciated?