Why you should care
The nation that gave us the Kama Sutra can also be rather prudish about sex. Ira Trivedi takes an intimate look at how India is grappling with its own gritty sexual revolution.
Ira Trivedi wants to shock, and shock she does. The 29-year-old New Delhi native holds an MBA from Columbia University — but she has used her education not for spreadsheets and stocks but to chronicle the glitz and glamor of youth in modern India.
Her latest, and her first venture into nonfiction, India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century (available May 1), might sound like the title of a term paper, but it’s a gritty, provocative, sexy look at how the next generation is mating and making it in India today. The book comes after four years of conducting nearly 600 interviews and reading reams of academic papers on marriage and sexuality in India, where much is changing. As Trivedi notes in the book, citing a study about marriage demographics, “77 percent of unmarried women think they should be able to [make] their own decisions about marriage.” Which marks a shift — not just in the thinking of young men, or wealthy women: but in the youth of India more generally.
Trivedi takes us along for the ride as she journeys through this changing India, attending swinger parties, wandering around red light neighborhoods; meeting marriage brokers, prostitutes and members of matrilineal families, to pen a colorful portrait of how love, sex and marriage are being practiced in contemporary India. Trivedi told OZY about the role of dharma, or duty, in Indian concepts of marriage — and the million reasons it’s tough to be single in India — tougher, we’ll venture, than most other places on earth.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Excerpts taken from the book India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century, published by Aleph Book Company.
You’re a young, single woman, and it seems like you’re frustrated by sex and love. Aren’t we all — no matter where we live? So what makes you want to sit down and write several hundred pages about this instead of just ranting about it to your friends like anyone else?
I’d written three novels previously … dark satires of love stories. I was getting a lot of requests to write about various love-related topics and relationships. [My publisher and I] decided that India was going through a time of change and nobody had really documented about what was happening in love, sex and marriage.
I didn’t know whether this was going to be one book or more because love, sex and marriage is a huge topic, especially in a country like India. So I spent six full months just researching if there was a book in this. What I found was a huge amount of change … [not] just in urban Indian cities like Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, but across the board. And as I started writing, I found that there was a dark underbelly to the whole sexual revolution.
So, you did some crazy, crazy stuff in the book — for research. You write about everything from vajazzling to swingers’ parties. India doesn’t have the most open attitudes about sex. Did you ever worry about this?
I was perfectly fine. After talking to sex workers, to students about their sex lives, and to sexologists about orgasms, I became very comfortable with these topics.… There was a point when we were thinking of putting [the word] sex on the cover of the book, and of course there’s it’s there in the blurb. And I was like, what do we do? There were a lot of moments of fear, but I had to work through them.
An excerpt from Trivedi’s experience at a swinger party
There are three couples in the small living room. … Vishal is demonstrating the grope wall to Isha and Dilip. He encourages Dilip to take off his pants and stand behind the wall, while Isha closes her eyes and reaches out through the holes to touch Dilip. Vishal is urging the older couple to join Isha and Dilip but they just look on with disdain. Suddenly, I noticed them looking in my direction. At one point, ‘Tom,’ as the man introduced himself, unfurls a glowing smile at me, inviting me to join him at the lick chair. I quickly excuse myself and go into the kitchen. The older couple have two beers each and leave the party prematurely.
There’s a striking part where you meet a group called the Love Commandos — a voluntary organization in New Delhi that helps couples who want to get married but face opposition from families, and even right-wing Hindu groups who fancy themselves the “moral police.” The group is a perfect example of how … well, difficult it is to be in love in India these days. Is it getting harder — or is it just me?
It’s become easier and also more challenging. It’s become easier to have a relationship now with phones and Facebook and it’s easier to keep things anonymous [or private].… Everyone wants a girlfriend or a boyfriend — that’s what 2014 is all about. It’s young people wanting freedom not just economically but also personally. But I also think that [people falling in love] is causing a backlash against them — from parents, grandparents and even khap panchayats.
khap panchayats – In some villages in India, these ruling bodies in the village can oppose romantic relationships between two young people because of caste-based objections. The Hindu caste system divides people into hierarchies ranging from the elite priest caste to “untouchables.” For many young people in India, Trivedi notes, caste plays a huge role in their romantic lives.
Do you think choosing a partner is a privilege that’s enjoyed by a certain class of society?
I think you’re right. If you’re an urban, educated Indian it is easier. But on the flip side it’s also becoming more difficult — because there’s more choice and more change. I say this over and over again: that in 2014, being an Indian woman is really hard, because not only do you have to keep in mind your career, but also the old problems of parents, in-laws and being a young mother. It’s really difficult and that’s projected on relationships so for women and men both. It’s like, ‘what kind of partner do we want to choose?’ We’re the first generations that [have] gone through love marriages on a large scale and I think that is a definite change, and I think that’s why relationships are much harder to conduct than before.
You write a lot about dharma , the Hindu concept of duty, but it’s always juxtaposed against selfishness. One of your subjects, Shiny, gets married twice, and he doesn’t think of it as a choice but as part of his Hindu responsibility to his family. Or Shammi and Sugandha, the couple who are in an open marriage. I get the sense they married each other out of a sense of duty.
Well, yes. I chose Shiny because … he’d gone and married for love [the first time], and also for pure personal selfishness [the second time]. That time, even the girl didn’t want to marry. He went against his family, she was older than him, but he convinced his parents and everyone was like ‘let him do what he wants to.’ But the second time he was, like, ‘I’m going to do it for my family, marry the right girl and have a kid within 9 months.’
In [the open] marriage, ironically, there was a certain amount of love. In their case, there was also a sense of curiosity which they couldn’t develop when they were younger, because they didn’t have an adolescence, given their circumstances. So I do think that the problem in India is that there’s both: a sense of dharma and a sense of selfishness — and how do you fulfill both of them? I look at my own self and think, ‘How do I keep my parents happy by marrying someone who fits the bills of caste, looks, society?’
But then how do I fit my own bill of the kind of guy who I should be with? I’m adventurous, curious and want my life to be full of freedom and exploration — whereas my parents think there should be stability.