Jonny Auping | Longreads | March 2018 | 16 minutes (4,156 words)
In her recently published book, The Heart Is a Shifting Sea, Elizabeth Flock aims to tell authentic stories of love in the city of Mumbai. But in a place where the notion of flashy Bollywood romance is ubiquitous, Flock went about her mission as a diligent reporter, spending close to a decade observing the daily lives of married couples in the eighth largest city in the world — interviewing them, living with them — even sleeping on their bedroom floors.
Flock, who spent two years in Mumbai in her early twenties, returned in 2014 to embed with her book’s subjects — three couples she had previously met. “I liked them because they were romantics and rule breakers,” Flock writes. “They dreamed of being married for seven lifetimes, but they didn’t follow convention.”
The deeply reported chronicles of these middle-class Mumbai couples depict the sometimes painful push and pull between love, breaking convention, and the ingrained duty to generations of tradition.
True to the diversity of the city, the book follows three couples from different religious and cultural backgrounds: Maya and Veer are Marwari Hindus, Shahzad and Sabeena are Sunni Muslims, and Ashok and Parvati are Tamil Brahmin Hindus.
But as Flock’s writing illustrates, these backgrounds were contextual and monumentally significant to their circumstances, but not even close to wholly representative of their identities.
Although Flock removes herself from these narratives, the stories feel complete and candid in a way that seems remarkable considering they are told by an outsider. The years worth of trust she built with her subjects — at times even babysitting their children — led to revealed secrets and emotions that take the accounts from ordinary to captivating.
Some of the obstacles these six people face — religious restrictions, gender expectations, antiquated laws and practices — are unique to their cultural environment. But what all of them are after — a successful marriage — is universally relatable.
Flock took the time to speak with Longreads about her reporting process, the state of marriage in India, and how love does or does not transcend culture and region.
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Jonny Auping: You mention in the author’s note that you moved from Chicago to Mumbai at the age of 22 “in search of adventure and a job.” Why Mumbai? Was there something specific that drew you there?
Elizabeth Flock: I’d studied and read about India for years, but I think it was Mumbai in particular that attracted me because it’s this incredibly frenetic, fast-changing, romantic, but also really difficult city. It’s sort of a city of extremes. I was really interested to find out more.
There’s also this apocryphal tale of my great grandmother moving to India by herself that I’d grown up hearing so maybe that had a part in it.
The common experience of people who love Mumbai is that when they’re not there, they’re having dreams about it and want to get back, and the second they’re back they hate it, and they can’t wait to get out.
Has that been the case for you?
Very much so. And it plays out in the realities of everyday life. It’s this incredibly romantic city. It’s called the City of Gold and it’s wrapped up in Bollywood romance. People go there with the idea that you can be anything in Mumbai. You can come as a street sweeper and become a Bollywood star or a CEO or politician or whatever it is you want to be and that dream can be made overnight. But at the same time, it’s this incredibly harsh city with a huge divide between rich and poor. It’s incredibly difficult to live there. It’s incredibly polluted. Communal violence can break out at any time.
I think for me, I’ve always been fascinated by this collision between our romantic ideals and real life. That’s very much a part of Mumbai.
There were a lot of generous families that took me in…. Only when you’re behind closed doors do you start to actually understand what’s going on in a marriage. I started to see the realities of that and I had a million questions.
Did you find work there? Aside from the reporting that constituted this book, what was your life like in Mumbai?
I worked for Forbes India as young reporter learning how to report. I didn’t make much money, so I did dubbing for Bollywood films. And a whole lot of side jobs for money, some of them really embarrassing. I was a beer girl. I dressed up for rich Indian family parties. Really absurd things. But the main one was dubbing for Bollywood films where I was often the white girl voice. That paid more in an hour than my reporter job did in like a month.
I’m actually glad that I wasn’t getting paid a lot. There are a lot of ex-pats that come to India and they get an air-conditioned car and make a lot of money, and they’re just miserable because they’re looking at Mumbai through their car window and seeing the poverty and all the really difficult things about Mumbai through an outsider’s gaze. So they want to leave Mumbai. I felt like, because journalists are really underpaid, I was sort of forced into the thick of it. In hindsight I’m grateful for it. At the time, it was really difficult.
How did you come in contact with the six people who were chronicled in this book? Were they all pure happenstance or had you set your mind to writing a project about marriage in Mumbai and you were looking for the right subjects?
No, very much not the latter. I lived with Indian families — a whole bunch of them because I didn’t have much money, and there were a lot of generous families that took me in.
It was only after living with those families that I started getting interested in the Indian marriage. Of course, only when you’re behind closed doors do you start to actually understand what’s going on in a marriage. So I started to see the realities of that and I had a million questions.
But at first it was a very informal. I was just curious. I was [thinking] ‘Maybe I’ll write a novel about India. Maybe I’ll try to write a script.’ So it was a long process towards this becoming a more formal project. Years later, I [said] ‘I want to sit down and do formal interviews with these people,’ and I narrowed down the many couples I’d met to these three. That was because I had stayed in touch with them, and I kept going back to them, and I was having dreams about them. I was really compelled by them and their stories and their marriages.
How did you convince them to agree to this project and open up their lives to you to the extent that they did?
I think the main thing was time. I met them a decade ago, and I’m still hanging around. That builds trust that you aren’t just going to parachute in and try to tell their story without a lot of information.
One of them texted me the other week asking who I thought would play him in a movie [laughing]. So I think some of them were motivated by the excitement of it, but I think others really just trusted me, and I hope I honored that trust.
At times, I felt like a therapist, and there really isn’t a form of common therapy in India. Unfortunately it’s still really taboo and there’s a huge crisis of people with mental health issues that aren’t getting help. It’s not like I’m qualified to be a therapist, but I do think a lot of people want to talk about their stories and their issues.
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Tell me a little bit about the interview process. How much of the process was formal interviewing versus just being around them and picking up as many stories as you could?
It was a combination of many things. We did formal sit-down interviews with the couples together and separately over hours and hours.
You mean each individual spouse separately?
Yeah. I definitely wanted to ask them questions together and apart. And more, to be honest, apart. Because I wanted to know how they really felt about a particular situation. On each reporting trip I would spend a month living with each couple and go to work with them, travel with them, take care of the kids, whatever I could do to spend as much time with them as humanly possible. I would be like, ‘Hey, can I sleep in your room?’
It was a mix of that and the art of hanging out. I just tried to be present in their lives as much as they would allow me to be. Then sometimes something would happen, like they would get into a big fight. The next morning I would try to interview them separately about it, and ask, “What was going on? What were you thinking?” Whenever someone’s [dialogue] is in italics in the book that’s because they told me, at the time, they were thinking I hate you. Or I want to divorce you.
I know memory is fallible. Parts of the book were reconstructed. There are parts that took place in the seventies and eighties and nineties and I wasn’t there for it. I’m totally aware, of course, that the way I reconstructed that scene is probably not exactly the way it really happened. But I think the narratives that these people, and all of us, tell ourselves are really important, particularly with marriage. However you remember that fight happening affects how you’re going to act towards your spouse going forward.
It does read like you were there reporting from the day they met. In the reconstruction, there really were so many details, from the weather to what they were feeling or wearing. Were you surprised by the depths of their memories at times?
I had some things that helped me out. Some of them kept diaries and journals. I used a lot of photographs so I could really accurately say what they were wearing or what was happening in the room as much as I could. And medical documents and legal documents and sometimes I interviewed a dozen people at an event.
Sometimes something would happen, like they would get into a big fight. The next morning I would try to interview them separately about it, and ask, ‘What was going on? What were you thinking?’
There are some extremely personal accounts in this book: sexual anxieties, religious doubts, impotence, even molestation. People in any culture are hesitant to talk about these things. It requires a level of trust that would seem very hard to attain to get people to open up about.
I think one of the more difficult ones was, one of the people in the book, Shahzad, is a really conservative Muslim man and he has struggled with impotence, and just talking about sex and Islam and his community in the same sentence was really difficult to begin with. I think it was something that I worried about; how to write about that without upsetting him and his community. But this was also on his mind and dictated every day of his life. He wanted desperately to have a child and then couldn’t.
Where did anonymity come into play? The characters’ names were changed. Was that decision made as soon as you started the project?
Not immediately, but as soon as I found out that there was more happening than I anticipated. I said, “I will change your name for this project. Would that make you more comfortable?” Nothing else has been changed in the text, but I left out very specific locations where I could to try to protect their anonymity as well.
That’s so important because I was following the middle class, and there’s this idea of middle class morality where people will talk. The wider community will talk. Your neighbors will talk. Your in-laws will talk. People out in the general world could know who you are and know that you’re an Indian woman who had an extra-marital affair. There will be consequences for you.
Bollywood films are a recurring point of reference for all of these couples. What role does Bollywood have in India’s, or specifically Mumbai’s, image of love?
Oh my God, it’s huge. It’s everything.
I asked Suketu Mehta, the author of Maximum City, “What books do you think are most essential to read about love and marriage in India?” He said, “Forget books. You don’t need to read books. Just watch every Bollywood movie and you’re fine.” I think he’s right.
Movies are such a part of everyday life. The expectations that are in Bollywood movies and the high level of romance — this showy imaginative kind of love, the idea of obsessive love, the idea of over-the-top displays of affection — are so ingrained in Bollywood, and I think [it impacts] how people love. The idea of love where you can’t be with the one you love is such a huge part of love and marriage in India because there still is such a stigma to inter-faith and inter-caste marriages. Bollywood shows how difficult that can be, how people defy those expectations, and how important family is in the end.
But there is also, more problematically, in Bollywood, this long history of no means yes. Where the heroine says no no no to the man and in the end she says yes. People have written theses about how this encourages sexual assault. Just try hard enough and eventually the girl gives in.
So anyway, yes, in every possible way Bollywood has a huge influence on it.
You also have this Western influence seeping through. There’s Pavarti, who’s an engineering student who passes the time drawing “Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Watson, and the cast of Friends.” Do you think this book would look drastically different if written about three couples in Mumbai 10 years in the future?
It’s hard to really know because there’s such a rapid pace of social, political, and economical change in India. I was actually just talking to a CNN India reporter about this and she said, “There’s all these Indian women who are watching Friends, they’re maybe watching pornography, they are consuming social media like American teenagers, but then they’re getting into these really traditional marriages.” So I think it’s really hard to say because it can be two steps in one direction and one step in the other.
There’s this rapid change happening, but ideas of how love and sex and marriage happen are so entrenched in India. Anytime I would expect the images that they’re seeing from the West are going to change things super rapidly I would be proven wrong. Like Pavarti: After desperately wanting to have a ‘”love marriage” and her parents forced her not to do that, in the end she wants her own daughter to have an arranged marriage. I was shocked by that. In the space of five years you went from the person who was going to defy your parents and run away with the person you loved and now you’re pregnant and you’re going to force your daughter to have an arranged marriage. That just shows that this change is happening, but not as quickly as people think it is.
The idea of love where you can’t be with the one you love is such a huge part of love and marriage in India because there still is such a stigma to inter-faith and inter-caste marriages.
It felt like that push and pull was at the core of the book. One ironic story was of Ashok, whose father encouraged him to find love on his own. It almost seemed, in those first few paragraphs, sweet and romantic. He even set him up on a dating site. But then he insisted Ashok list himself on the site as a member of the privileged caste and ultimately just ran the site for him, setting him up on dates. It was, for all intents and purposes, an arranged situation. It seems like these characters might be part of a generation that are ready for those progressive steps that might give them more freedom, but they’re ultimately tied to their duty to older traditions. Would you say the difficulty of striking that balance is at the core of their most personal struggles?
Yeah. Absolutely. 100 percent.
And that’s really confusing for people who are growing up or trying to navigate their way through this stuff. You have these desires, and maybe you’re seeing certain images and feeling certain ways, but then you get pushed back by boundaries. Whatever expectations you have aren’t met. I just think it’s an incredibly confusing time to navigate love and sex and marriage in India. For anyone.
One thing that struck me was how rarely it felt like you were forcing story arcs into these couples’ lives. Maybe that’s just a credit to your writing, but it also felt like these couples so often did that work for you. They attached self-narrative to their own lives. They compared their situations to Bollywood or Western films or novels or religious anecdotes. At times, that fantasizing felt hopeful or inspiring. Then sometimes it was sad, like they were dreaming of escapes or justifications for situations they didn’t want to be in. Does storytelling in Mumbai have a greater emphasis towards applying directly to the audience’s lives?
I think that was part of what made me want to write about India because, kind of like Ireland, storytelling is so embedded in the culture. I do think certain cultures do tend to be more storytelling cultures.
People grow up [in India] reading religious epics that stretch thousands of pages. And these Bollywood narratives that are like four hours long. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say stories and narratives are so embedded and engrained in the culture. There’s a long history of storytelling: from the Vedas to Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and Islam’s Quran, from Qawwali music to Bollywood.
People certainly extract stories and lessons from all of those texts to try to understand their own lives. I think definitely more than we do. They look back to those historical texts more than we do and will directly compare their lives to [the Hindu gods] Krishna and Radha for example. Everyone actually grows up on these cartoon books that are basically representations of religious epics called Amar Chitra Katha. It’s a hugely selling comic book series that every kid grows up reading. It has something like 90 million copies sold in 20 different Indian languages. So every kid grows up on these stories in a way that I can’t think of an equivalent here.
I’m sure you have some insight on the common thought of arranged marriage in Mumbai in 2018. It seemed like the most prominent difference from Western culture, though, is the absence of casual dating. What is dating in Mumbai now and how is it changing?
The absence of casual dating is really important to pick up on. Every date is Are you going to marry this person or not? But of course that’s changing in certain segments of the population. I have Indian friends who are dating a different person every night and having casual sex the same way maybe your friend is on Tinder [in the U.S.].
I just think parents still play such a huge role in most young people’s lives in India that [casual dating] is just so hard to pull off. That’s still such a huge influence. A lot of people live in joint families. There’s not only your parents that are playing a role, but there’s your aunts and your cousins and cousins’ cousins that play a role.
Family is probably the most consistent point of conflict in these stories. The looming father or mother-in-law is a constant presence. They seemed to represent the literal enforcement of cultural and religious traditions. Even if well intentioned, is that level of pressure coming from family nearly too much for any modern relationship?
It’s extremely difficult. I interviewed a therapist in India who said that something like 90 percent of people that came to see him with mental health difficulties were there because of joint family stress. He said it’s incredibly stressful to have the overlay of parents and family members and in-laws. In-laws are difficult in any culture, of course. The mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship in India has historically been extra fraught.
This is coming from a Western perspective, but I think some people seek out relationships because they want their lives to hit all the traditional milestones like job, marriage, kids, etc. But a lot of other people see the basic expected structure of society explained to them and then they become drawn to partners who are willing to break out of or circumvent that structure with them. Do you think there’s something in people’s lives that leads them to being in one category or the other?
That’s an interesting question.
If I think about the people in the book, there are characters who go from one category to the other within the space of a few years, like Pavarti maybe. If I think anecdotally about my friends here; there’s an idea in the U.S. that I hear people say and that’s that when we look for someone, it’s not really about them, but it’s about the us that we see reflected in that person when we’re with them. And that’s what we’re looking for: Someone who will make us into our best self or the self that we want to become.
I think that idea is not as prevalent in India. One thing I noticed in India is that the pronouns I and me are not in people’s vocabulary the way they are in the U.S. People in the U.S. will say I’m tired. I’m hungry. I’m upset. I want to do this. I want to do that. Obviously, India is a much more communal culture and less individualistic, and I think that seeps into relationships as well. It’s less about finding a person that will reflect your best self or make you into your best self and more about fulfilling the expectation of the community. But that is changing.
If you think about Maya in the book, she very much looked for someone who could push her past those boundaries and she found the opposite.
The relationship expert Ester Perel always talks about how the desire for freedom and the desire for security are in inherent conflict. That’s true in varying degrees in every relationship in India and here.
That’s kind of scary to think about, actually.
Yeah, it’s actually really scary [laughing].
Marriage is a product of cultural expectation and love is a rebellion against it.
The strains put on these couples — the expectation of children, anxiety over sex, demanding in-laws, financial burdens, feeling a spark for someone other than your spouse — all of those things are the same kind of strains that are on Western relationships. In the process of writing it, did you get the sense that all relationships are the same?
Yeah, I think a lot of this stuff is universal. There are obviously particular problems that exist for Indian relationships that don’t exist here.
But part of the motivation for writing this book was because the stories we read out of India are a very particular brand. They’re either really salacious or they’re about Bollywood or about a gang rape. They’re just making India exotic or fantasizing about it. That wasn’t my experience of India at all. Yes, all that stuff is there. It’s real, for sure. But it’s also ordinary people trying to make it and trying to love and how hard that is. The problems that I saw within their relationships were the same reasons that my dad got divorced three times. To me, it was really important to tell the mundane, the universal, and the extreme all together.
In your opinion, is love a product of cultural expectation or a rebellion against it?
Marriage is a product of cultural expectation and love is a rebellion against it.
In the author’s note, you mentioned that your parents divorced when you were young. You wrote, “When I arrived in Mumbai after my dad’s third divorce, this city seemed to hold some answers.” Did that ultimately ring true? Did it provide those answers?
I’m not sure, because I think love is really difficult to pin down. It’s very slippery, so I’m not sure I got any closer than when I began. But I do think I learned some things about why marriages work or fail. I learned about how many expectations we place on partners in the U.S., which I think is not as much in India. That’s something we could probably learn from: not demanding that a person fits exactly our perception of what that person should be. Instead, meeting them where they’re at. That’s the kind of thing I learned and took away.
In the end, marriage is incredibly complicated and love is incredibly slippery.
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Jonny Auping is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas. His work has been featured in Texas Monthly, The New Yorker, VICE, New York Magazine, Slate, and McSweeney’s.
Editor: Dana Snitzky
This interview was edited for length and clarity.