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Monday, October 25, 2021

Mumbai is like a bad lover, says Chicago journalist Elizabeth Flock

An American writer on why she documented the desires and disillusionments of marriage in Mumbai.

Written by Pooja Pillai | New Delhi |
Updated: June 11, 2018 11:47:30 pm
Chicago journalist Elizabeth Flock, mumbai, love for mumbai city, Maximum City (by Suketu Mehta, Flock’s debut novel, The Heart is a Shifting Sea: Love and Marriage in Mumbai, indian express Chicago journalist Elizabeth Flock talks about her love for Mumbai city.

A desire to write for Bollywood brought Elizabeth Flock to Mumbai a decade ago, but, instead, she landed a job with a news magazine in 2008. “I wanted to come to Mumbai after I read Maximum City (by Suketu Mehta) and other books about the city,” she says. During her two-year stay, the Chicago-bred journalist lived with many couples and was privy to their love stories. Flock’s debut novel, Love and Marriage in Mumbai (Bloomsbury) is the story of three couples — Maya and Veer, Shahzad and Sabeena, Ashok and Parvati — and their love and struggles in a city of big dreams and bigger heartaches.

These aren’t straightforward narratives, Flock, 32, writes in the book, “They dreamed of being married for seven lifetimes, but they didn’t follow convention. They seemed impatient with the old middle-class morals. And where the established rules for love did not fit in their lives, they made up new ones.” Edited excerpts from an email interview:

When did you decide to write a book about love and marriage in Mumbai?

It was an almost immediate interest after moving to Mumbai in 2008 — a difficult time for me personally. My dad was divorced for the third time then and I had a lot of questions about why marriages work or fail. Then I met these couples who started telling me their stories which I wanted to record.

In the book you write that you found a ‘showy, imaginative’ kind of love in Mumbai, one that seemed ‘honest and vulnerable’. Does that still feel true?

Yes and no. Some of that perception was certainly my naïveté at the time. I was young (at 22) when I moved to Mumbai. I felt, somehow, love in Mumbai was more romantic than love anywhere else. I no longer think that’s entirely true. But I do think Mumbai is particularly an apt place to examine love, a city where dreams and harsh reality collide. And love is often like that.

There is a kind of showiness to love in India that doesn’t quite exist in the West. You see it in the over-the-top gestures in filmi love stories and real life.

Since so many young lovers cannot be together (owing to parental or community objections, let’s say), you’re more likely to see them go to extreme lengths to be together. All of these were things I wanted to examine and understand.

Is the book’s structure — the cast of characters at the beginning, each couple’s story divided into three acts — meant as a reference to the cinematic scope of each story? Did it emerge organically?

I do see their love stories as very cinematic. But I also wanted the reader to be left in suspense each time I moved from one couple’s story to another: to wonder about the first couple, wanting to get back to them, and then be drawn into the next story. While these are three couples from different religious and cultural backgrounds, spanning different ages and stages in their marriage, I interwove them because they are all living in the same city at the same time, going through similar experiences.

At one point, I had written every scene in the book down on Post-it notes, hundreds of them, and madly rearranged them on the walls of my mother’s house.

So yes, structure was really a hard part. I think, it often is with writing. But it was especially difficult because I was trying to tell six people’s lives after a decade of knowing them, while employing hundreds of hours of interviews and reams of documents, and trying to fit that into three tight narratives.

Besides patience and perseverance, what does it take to report so deeply on such personal stories?

The generosity of people willing to share them. And, I think, sensitivity. I grew up around divorces and, thus, sensitive to how couples interact and behave as a result. That both helped and hurt in this process.

Writing about personal stories comes with its share of problems. What were your rules while working on this book?

My main rule was to protect the couples’ privacy. As you know there is an increasing culture of intolerance and moral vigilantism. So, names were changed and locations, obscured. That was very important from the start. Rules for myself: be open and curious, know that there is much you don’t know (especially when reporting on a country not your own), and follow the couples’ lead when it comes to how they want their story told.

How close were you to the three main couples in the book?

I think traditional journalistic objectivity appears different from when you are spending time with people for years, and especially when you are talking about problems as intimate and personal as, say, infertility. We knew each other already, and in the interview process we got closer. These days, we talk via WhatsApp or Skype when I’m in the US.

How did you maintain the emotional distance required to write objectively?

One of my main goals in writing this book was not to judge. It sometimes wasn’t easy hearing two sides of a story and not take a side. But the longer I reported, the more I understood why someone acted the way they did. So whatever judgement I came in with was wiped out. I wanted that to come across.

Our flaws are borne out of our experience. We bring those experiences to our marriages and relationships. But it’s much more productive to try and understand that rather than judge.

The same rule applied to writing about a community not my own, one I didn’t always understand. I might not want an arranged marriage for myself, but I’m not going to judge the institution because of that.

Your book is peppered with references of love stories from Indian mythology, poetry and Hindi cinema. Which are your favourites?

Krishna and Radha is a story that isn’t my favourite but one I am fascinated by. It’s a big part of Maya and Veer’s story. I’ve watched the love story of Anarkali and the prince (Salim) in Mughal-e-Azam a dozen times. I love the iconic Raj Kapoor-Nargis rain scene in Shree 420 and the song Dil toh baccha hai ji for its lyrics and unique half-Indian half-French sound.

Do you still miss Mumbai?

Desperately. But like a bad lover, I miss Mumbai terribly when away and always remember as soon as I’m back what her worst flaws are. I miss greasy foods wrapped in newspaper during the monsoons, posters and sayings inside rickshaws, Chor Bazaar, cutting chai along the sea, the coolness of the movie theatres on hot days, jackfruit, Alphonso mangoes, Rajasthani sandals, the closeness I had with my neighbours, pani puri, vada pav, the strays, soft kurtas and dupattas, jhumkis and wedding preparations, the sound of ghazals and qawwalis, homecooked rajma chawal, Crawford Market, sugarcane juice, Old Monk…I could go on.

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