West indian literature

Beyond Arranged Marriages and Big Marriages: Romance in Indian Literature

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The portrayal of Indian love relationships in books and films rarely escapes the haunting shadow of the great Indian arranged marriage. The arranged marriage trope exoticizes a culture that has so much else to offer, and it glorifies the classism, sexism, and colorism inherent in this institution. While an arranged marriage might be a way for a few Diaspora Indians to reconnect with their culture, and some families and individuals might have made the process a bit wiser by excluding “just” from the list of attributes desired for a bride. or adding a note that says “caste no bar” at the end of a classified ad, the institution is still deeply problematic. It is the main force responsible for ensuring that people marry within their castes, ultimately perpetuating the caste system of exploitation.

It’s amazing that in our time, when social justice movements around the world are speaking out against systemic injustice, a show like Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking is done. To those outside the arranged marriage system, and to those privileged enough not to be affected by its draconian sayings, it may seem ridiculous enough to be a guilty pleasure. But it’s hard to enjoy it when you realize that the same bigoted nonsense that Aunt Seema spews on the show still robs many real people of their dignity and constitutionally guaranteed freedom to love. Although I haven’t read many Indian romance novels, I can’t help but notice that many of them deploy the arranged marriage as a cute trope.

We Indians living in India have many other things to do. The marriage market is not where all the considerable population of young Indians find their partners. We fall in love outside of our caste, class and religion. Like our parents. Like some of our grandparents. And we demand stories that represent us. Even Bollywood is taking notice, and recently there have been quite a few films that deviate from heteronormative, caste, classist and sexist norms, although there is still a long way to go in terms of representation. Here’s a scene from one of my recent favorites, Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhanwhich reimagines the iconic scene from the Bollywood classic Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge with a gay couple:

While we certainly need a more multi-dimensional treatment of Indian characters, here are a few books by Indian authors that offer nuanced and unique explorations of romantic relationships. Not all are romantic, so HEAs are not guaranteed.

blanket without onions or garlic by srividya natarajan

No onions or garlic By Srividya Natarajan

This is a romantic comedy and one of my favorite books of all time. The story is set around a university campus in Chennai, and it’s a viciously funny analysis of casteism and sexism in everyday life in academia, as well as the arranged marriage market, while featuring a very sweet inter-caste romance.

Cover of Battle for Bittora by Anuja Chauhan

Battle for Bittora by Anuja Chauhan

This book game combines interfaith romance with heady electoral competition in the small town of Bittora. Distant childhood friends, Sarojini and Zain are candidates for two rival political parties. Hilarity ensues and sparks fly as all is fair in this heated election battle, and Sarojini and Zain rediscover their feelings for each other.

Memory of Light cover art by Ruth Vanita

Memory of Light by Ruth Vanita

Located in 18th century Lucknow, Memory of Light is the story of a whirlwind romance between two courtesans, Nafis Bai and Chapla Bai. Atmospheric and rich in historical detail, this book breathes the central queer relationship in an India much more open to homosexual relationships.

Cover A Lived Window in the Wall by Vinod Kumar Shukla

A window lived in the wall by Vinod Kumar Shukla, translated from Hindi by Satti Khanna

Nothing really happens in this lyrical, strange and magical little book. Raghuvar Prasad is a college professor in a very small town and he sometimes rides an elephant to work. He lives in a small house with his wife, but a window in their house is the gateway to a beautiful and magical place where the young couple disappear from time to time. With whimsical detail, this book tells how two people make room for each other’s lives, with love and a mutual wonder for life.

The Dead Camel and Other Love Stories by Parvati Sharma

This is a collection of stories about love in all its forms in contemporary urban India. The stories are observant, witty, pointed and yet surprisingly tender.

Cover of the book Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar

cobalt blue by Sachin Kundalkar, translated from Marathi by Jerry Pinto

Siblings Tanay and Anuja fall in love with the same man, who is a paying guest in their home. When he leaves both of their lives, they must face heartbreak and rediscover each other through their failed loves.

A married woman by Manju Kapur

This book is set against the backdrop of rising religious tensions in the 1980s and 1990s. in art and activism. She meets Pip, who works at an NGO, and the two women develop a connection. The book is a thoughtful portrait of the relationship between two bisexual women, as well as a society on the brink of tumultuous change.

Cover of Kari by Amruta Patil

Kari by Amruta Patil

This lavishly illustrated graphic novel follows Kari as she lives in a crowded city after her “other” Ruth leaves. It’s a poignant exploration of loneliness, kindness, companionship and death, in modern city life set against Kari’s love and longing for Ruth.

To learn more about Indian literature, check out this list of Indian novels written in English or this list of Indian mythology books for children.

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