It is at this ramshackle office, with news clippings from impressive national and international publications adorning most of the bruise-coloured walls, that I meet the corpulent Harsh Malhotra and the diminutive Sanjoy Sachdev, the chief coordination officer and chairman of the Commandos – a veritable Laurel-and-Hardy pair.
Nestling in the ancient maze-like alleys of Paharganj, a central Delhi marketplace known for cheap hotels and backpackers (though at one point it was 18th century Delhi’s principal grain market) is the office of the Love Commandos.
Established in 2010, the main agenda of the Love Commandos is to rescue runaway couples in love from the wrath of their families, and communities, and bring them to their shelter in Delhi, where they offer protection – often from death threats.
Harsh and Sanjoy claim to have helped and housed over 5,000 couples in love across the country, and receive over 200 phone calls on their six helplines every day and they have more than 10,000 “commandos” who volunteer, rescuing at-risk couples.
In the loft above the office, I meet the new arrivals Mamta and Karan, a newly married couple, flush with love. Mamta (19) and Karan (22) met three years ago while attending college in Rohtak, Haryana, and fell in love. Mamta is a Rajput, and Karan is a Dalit.
They have run away because Mamta’s family found out about their love, and threatened to kill them both if they continued to speak to each other. That is when they decided to get married, run away and seek protection at the Love Commandos shelter – a dismal honeymoon if there ever was one.
The young couple though seems full of optimism about the future. They know that if they return to Rohtak, they will be killed – if not by their families, then by the khap panchayats. So, they hope to remain cloaked in the anonymity of a big city and to start afresh.
Mamta plans to finish her degree in computer science and become a teacher, while Karan hopes to find a job as an engineer. They tell me, gripping each other’s hands, that they only have each other now – they have left their family, their village and their past behind.
Or take for example Priya, a young woman from a small town in Tamil Nadu, who moved to Bangalore to work at a BPO. She met and fell in love with a colleague, Kartikey, but her parents refused the match and told Priya to leave her job immediately and return to her hometown so they could find a suitable man to marry her off to. But Priya chose to follow her heart. She married Kartikey, after which her family ostracised her completely.
Mamta and Priya are not alone in their choices. Across the country, young women are choosing to assert their will, especially when it comes to love, sex and marriage. But in a patriarchal country like India, this doesn’t come without trouble.
Studies show that resistance to inter-religious and inter-caste marriage typically comes from the girl’s family, who risk losing respect or “honour” in their communities since their daughter making her own choices shows her family’s apparent lack of control over her. According to reports, 94 per cent of honour killings are carried out by the girl’s family.
As I travelled to 15 cities across India, over four years, writing my book India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century, conducting over five hundred interviews, I found that across cities, both big and small, millions of young Indians are breaking age-old barriers – they are falling in love, marrying partners of their choice and disregarding social norms to make their own sexual choices.
As I came across these narratives, I began wondering what was at the root of the change. Why was it that I found couples like Mamta and Karan everywhere I looked, at every turn, nursing their love stories in the nooks and crannies of cities – in burgeoning coffee shops, in public parks, in crowded malls?As I researched, I found that the reason was apparent– in 2014, India, is going through a sexual revolution much like that of the US in the 1950s.
India is at the first stage of this revolution. In India’s case, the emancipation of women, the redefinition of sexual mores, the shift from arranged marriage to love marriage, is all happening at the very same time, and relationships between men and women in this country have changed more in the past ten years than they have in the previous three thousand.
Love matches have risen from just five per cent of Indian marriages to 30 per cent in the past decade. Even arranged marriage has changed form.
My grandparents did not meet until the day of their wedding, my parents met once before they got married; as for me, as for many of my generation, it is unthinkable to get married in this way. Arranged marriage is still very much alive and kicking, in fact it is still how the majority of India gets married, but the process has taken a 360-degree turn.
As I found out from the numerous marriage brokers that I interviewed – “chemistry” trumps all, even in the arranged marriage process, a major change from just a decade ago, where caste, wealth, family background and education were the main criteria.
The other major change in arranged marriage is the increased jurisdiction of the to-be-married – there are couples who often take charge of the process themselves, creating profiles on matrimonial sites, calling in marriage brokers, and taking weeks, months, sometimes even years to date, before they make their final decision.
The choices, freedom, attitudes and experiences of today’s youth have been radically different from everything that has preceded them, and today’s young Indians have a very different set of experiences than their parents, grandparents, and generations before them.
Couples like Mamta and Karan are willing to break caste boundaries, have pre-marital sex and run away from traditions which keep them shackled to the past. And they are not alone. India is the world’s youngest country, and India’s large youth population is embracing the revolution.
On a short drive through urban India, one is bombarded with titillating sexual images. The same overt sexuality is present in Bollywood movies.
Sex scenes are common on the same screen that even a decade ago censored French kisses. Pornography is widely available, with a recent Google survey declaring that six Indians cities are ranked highest in the world for online porn views.
Homosexuality is out in the public and legal domain and there is a flagrant gay party scene in the bars and bathhouses of metro cities.
Sex for sale, for both men and women, is easily available, including a new host of sex workers from Indian college girls to middle-aged housewives.
While sexual mores are changing, the move towards marriage based on love, rather than caste, community or wealth, represents another part of the revolution – a love revolution that will forever change family life and social structures. Yet no revolution comes without its challenges.
As young India falls in love, there is a strong backlash from traditional forces. Whether it is khap panchayats, politicians, lawmakers, or, most commonly, families themselves, there are challengers to India’s revolution.
Amongst many other retrograde suggestions, the khaps have advocated child marriage, saying that if it is instituted, the natural sexual desires arising when the child hits puberty will be avoided.
Another group has said that girls should be married at the age of sixteen as it will help young people satisfy their sexual needs and will also help reduce rape cases. Some politicians have suggested banning phones and jeans for women as a way to avoid titillation and rape, while others have said that women should not go out at night as it instigates men to rape.
In many cases, like that of Mamta and Karan, it is often families themselves who threaten to kill their kin, if they make their own marital choices.
The reason why we see so much conflict, especially the disturbing conservative backlash, is because patriarchy is being questioned at a fundamental level.
India is stuck between two worlds – and as the old guard loses control over women’s choices, especially sexual choices, it tries to go back to the “old culture”. But what is the “old culture” exactly?Culture, by definition, is constantly changing with the time, and in India we have two cultures coexisting with each other. An old, repressive, patriarchal culture which is trying to control the marriage and sexual choices of its women in an attempt to maintain social order. And then we have the new – a young and restless India – willing to follow her heart and make non-traditional choices.
The world that we exist in today makes all this possible. Education, jobs and opportunities actually allow a young India to do this. For the first time, couples like Mamta and Karan, like Priya and Kartikey, have the ability to take their own decisions because the world that we live in today allows it.
According to India’s first sexologist Prakash Kothari, who, over the course of his sixty-year career, has been a first-hand observer of India’s sexual revolution, there has been a sea change in sexual attitudes over the past decade, particularly for Indian women. In the past, mostly all his patients were men, but today more than half his patients are women, who come to him enquiring about their sexual satisfaction.
Perhaps the biggest changes are visible on college campuses where young people, independent of parental control, are able to mingle freely with the opposite sex, perhaps for the first time in their lives. At these campuses, I met young men and women who had fallen in love, dated and mated without inhibition.
According to the principal of a leading university in Mumbai (who preferred not having her name used) girls are leading the change. According to the principal, while in the olden days, women used to study at college with the prime agenda of getting married, today this is hardly the goal.
Today’s young women are eager to date and explore their sexuality when they arrive at college. In fact, for many girls, this is the number one agenda of coming to college.
India’s women are rising to the challenge. As I explored India’s sexual revolution, I found that it was her women who were leading it. For the first time in the history of the country, an entire generation of women is working alongside their male counterparts in the corporate and public sectors.
For most young women whom I meet today, it is important to do something beyond just marriage – this was not the case with their mothers, whose careers (and often lives) were second to their husbands’. Today’s Indian women are not ready to accept this, they value their independence – in education, at work, and in their love and sex lives – and are willing to fight for it.
At the moment though, India is at an important crossroads. While one generation has not fully let go of our conservative and traditional past, another has embraced a new culture of love, sex and marriage. In this sort of muddled state of affairs, there is bound to be conflict, and it is often the young – people like Mamta and Karan – who suffer the consequences.
Despite all the barriers that they face, India’s young, particularly the women, are making their own choices, forging the way and leading the revolution. There are barriers, often-insurmountable ones, along the way, and at times women (and even men for that matter) have to risk even their lives to make their choices.
The only thing one can hope for is that we can find a balance, between the old and the new, between tradition and modernity, between the past and present, between parents and children. While India tries to find the balance that we need for the future, one thing is for certain – India is going through a sexual revolution and like a shy, but eager newlywed bride, is slowly shedding her chastity belt.
We are never going back to the India of our past. India’s revolution has begun, it is gaining pace, and nothing can stop it.
The writer is the author of India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century.
Follow her @iratrivedi
From HT Brunch, September 7
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