Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Love in the time of Prejudice and Cynicism

The title of this post is inspired by the famous Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, 'Love in the time of Cholera'.

Valentine's Day came and went by last week. For most of us in free, democratic countries and even some totalitarian states, it was an occasion to celebrate with our loved ones, to give and receive tokens of affection and in some cases, go through a wasteful ritual that felt more like duty than real love.

We should be thankful that we are able to freely express our feelings for another. Think of centuries past when gays were not allowed to show who they are, or for that matter transvestites or anybody else.
People of different races could not marry each other when slavery was commonplace.
Openly showing attraction for a person of the same gender could get you killed a few hundred years ago. Even today, homosexuality is a crime in many countries. [And then there are some countries where masturbation and sodomy are still punishable offenses in some countries because of religion or just because of archaic laws that have never undergone a modern revision.]

Sadly, even in places where the law is enlightened and truly values individual liberty, culture and societal restrictions still influence and limit expression of love. India, the country where I was born and raised, has a plethora of religions, languages and castes (among Hindus). While these differences do not make a difference in daily civic life or working life, it is a deal breaker when it comes to matrimony.

Things have changed in India, at least in the urban metro areas but a lot still remains the same. Arranged marriages typically are essentially matches made between couples who hail from the same caste, linguistic community and religion. A note about arranged marriages for my non-Indian readers though: arranged marriages are no longer just parents deciding whom their children marry, rather, it is more of a matchmaking carried out by family members and the potential bride and groom do date at least long distance over the phone or internet before they tie the knot. Whether this always results in true love is a moot point.
For many young people, though, there are obstacles to overcome such as parental opposition when they fall in love with someone who is not from their background. The law of the land does not impose any restrictions on whom one can date or marry but family sometimes does.

That is why there are umpteen Bollywood movies made with story lines that revolve around the theme of falling in love with someone whom one's parents or one's sweetheart's parents do not approve of.
For all its glamor and emotional dialogues, Bollywood rarely mentions the word 'caste'. Heck, even a movie like 'Bombay' that dealt with the romance of a Hindu guy with a Muslim girl against the backdrop of the Mumbai (then known as Bombay) blasts and riots in the years 1992-1993, rarely gets made. That movie did irk some people who went berserk claiming that it offended their religious sentiments.

So what you get is a rich boy-poor girl story or the girl being already pledged/betrothed to someone else as in 'Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge' or 'Dil To Pagal Hai' and the song-dance drama that follows with either the hero's charms winning hearts or just plain dumb luck.
However, things have come a long way now from the ultra-submissive to the ultra-rebellious with extra-marital affairs and the main characters leaving their marriage for someone else (Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna) and live-in relationships (Salaam Namaste). 
In real life, too, upper-crust and middle class Indians who live away from their parents have live-in relationships and love marriages have become more common in metro areas. However, in some villages, unfortunately, young lovers are murdered for dishonoring their families or going outside the status quo. Romeos and Juliets still exist, tragically...
That was about trying to merge love and the institution of marriage.

Then there is love that challenges every social norm.

Today, in progressive, enlightened societies such as in Western countries,  love outside the boundaries of marriage is condemned. People try to 'work it out' in their marriages, to affair-proof their unions but falling in love with someone else when still married is a taboo, a tragic situation which one just has to silently suffer or try to get over. I do think that cheating on your partner is wrong and one should be honest with one's significant other when something like this happens.

Is it really possible to make oneself so committed to one person that one does not even entertain the thought of another?
Are our relationships merely a reflection of our deepest needs or our religious beliefs and influences of popular culture?

On the other hand, I personally feel that there is an invisible, mysterious spark that binds two souls together. When that is present, people overcome even seemingly insurmountable obstacles such as addiction or family and economic issues.
Mira Kirschenbaum has explained this beautifully is her book, "Is He Mr. Right?". She calls this factor 'chemistry' based on different dimensions. As she says, when the chemistry is not present, no amount of compatibility will compensate.

Some people are now moving on to polyamory while still staying married to a single partner. Polygamy and polyandry are not legal in most places but no law or government can legislate whom the heart should open up to and how many people a person can love.

There is a saying in Urdu that is featured in one of the songs of the film 'Dil Se' that says,
"Ishq par zor nahin
Hai woh aatish ghalib,
Jo lagaaye na lage,
Jo bujhaaye na bujhe."

The translation is roughly: There is no force upon love, it is a spark that cannot be struck deliberately and cannot be extinguished deliberately.

Psychologists and scientists try to explain love in terms of DNA, evolution, brain chemistry and a whole lot of factors but they still have not been able to explain what that spark is, why we feel so powerfully for someone and how each love is so different. There are some loves that are sexually powerful, some that are intellectually potent, some that are emotionally soulful, some who are equal in every department. Some loves fade away with time, there are some that we can't let go of and they live in our hearts forever. In one of my previous posts, I compared each human being to a chemical element and the relationship between two people as a compound that is unique just like the people. It is really hard, probably impossible, to cook up a formula for everlasting love.
Relationships do take effort but good relationships and particularly those that are romantic, are not really so much hard work that it feels like work.

I was reading Paulo Coelho's novel, 'The Witch of Portobello' which is an eye-opening story based on spirituality and philosophy, somewhat in between 'The Da Vinci Code' and a biography.

In it, one of the characters says about love,
"... People either feel it or they don't, and there isn't a force in the world that can make them feel it. We can pretend that we love each other. We can get used to each other. We can live a whole lifetime of friendship and complicity, we can bring up children, have sex every night, reach orgasm, and still feel that there's a terrible emptiness about it all, that something important is missing... ".

That is why I feel that articles like those in Psychology Today, "Are you with the right mate?" that say that basically any decent husband/wife who is not abusive, habitually unfaithful or addicted to something can be Mr. or Ms. Right if you put in the effort and stop fantasizing about the ideal relationship, seem to be missing something. All our friendships are not equally close or deep so why expect that all romantic relationships that fit some criteria are equally loving, good and deep?

I am a cheerleader for lifelong marriages that are based on true intimacy - emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual but don't agree with the camp that says that hey, you did date this guy/girl so how come you did not find anything amiss/incompatible then? There are some issues that surface after living together for years, there are ways we change that we could have probably never imagined and life itself is unpredictable just like people.

The biggest struggle in a society that is free enough to allow everyone to choose their partners regardless of religion, race, ethnicity or even sexual orientation, is how to reconcile the fact that sometimes,  lifelong togetherness in love is shattered, with the idealistic notion that love conquers all.

We do not understand love fully just like we do not understand the Universe or the soul or that Divine consciousness called God.

May peace and true love be with you all throughout your lives...

"Ishq par zor nahin
Hai woh aatish ghalib,
Jo lagaaye na lage,
Jo bujhaaye na bujhe."

These are lines from the famous Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib, as explained on many sites on the Internet. I haven't provided a single reference because there are many.


Note:  There is a correction needed in this post. I mixed up the words, 'arcane' and 'archaic'. I meant to say outdated laws, so the correct word should have been 'archaic' instead of what I had typed in -'arcane'.

For further reference, please visit Dictionary.com:



Sorry for the inconvenience. Thanks.

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