In June 1980, two women in Kerala tried to end their lives to fulfil a pact they had made. Twenty-year-old Mallika and 17-year-old Lalithambika jumped off a ferry into a channel near Kochi because they were about to be separated by their families. The women were lovers who wanted to spend their lives as a couple, but had the misfortune of being born into a society that had sealed their fate at birth. Their desperate act, which made headlines, sent out a tragic message of defiance that resonates after 40 years; that too in a country where the law doesn’t treat same-sex couples as criminals any longer. But in the eyes of the government, couples like Mallika and Lalithambika are an anomaly, if not an aberration, not to be granted the same rights and privileges that other couples have.
The story of Mallika and Lalithambika appears in Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriages In Modern India, a book by academic and writer Ruth Vanita. First published in 2005, it was reissued in 2021 with a new preface after the Supreme Court read down the draconian Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in 2018. But here we are, five years since the law decriminalised the LGBTQ+ community, back to an inflection point, as the right to same-sex marriage is being hotly contested in the Supreme Court. As the lawyers spar, Vanita’s magisterial work allows the rest of us a glimpse into the storied history of Indian sexualities, as well as the absurdity of the case against marriage equality.
From the onset, Love’s Ritejuggles the religious, legal and social attitudes to marriage with a delicate mastery. The Introduction is framed by two powerful epigraphs, the first of which is a quote from Vanita’s conversation with a Hindu priest in 2002. “Marriage is a union of two spirits," the unnamed priest says, “and the spirit is not male or female." Later Vanita goes on to mention Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of the Art of Living, as a supporter of gay rights, though his views on the subject have been far from uncontroversial.
Nonetheless, the fact of same-sex unions, and their acceptance, is well-documented in a range of ancient texts—from the story of King Bhagirath’s birth from two mothers, told, among others, by Krittivas in his version of the Bengali Ramayan in the 15th century, to sections in the Kamasutra that take a pragmatic and non-judgmental view on same-sex love. Accounts like these, which have embarrassed and enraged religious leaders to no end, are not, Vanita argues, exceptions. On the contrary, these attitudes to sexual expression and freedom were very much in synchrony with the tenor of classical Indian thought, before the colonial era disrupted our links with the ancients.
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Modern homophobia, as Vanita goes on to write, is a toxic hangover from the British era, enshrined by the colonisers in Section 377 of the IPC, which then became the benchmark for 150-odd years. At present, despite the legal erasure in 2018, homophobia is still “entwined with modern nationalism," used as a tool for political gain. Ironically, opponents of marriage equality who bemoan the end of sanskar actually end up signalling their continued allegiance to the values of the sahibs, who oppressed our ancestors and imposed prohibitions to keep them locked into a perpetual civil war of beliefs and practices. Instead of coming in the way of social progress, a truly proud Indian ought to draw heart from the rich diversity of practices that once enabled and empowered their predecessors to express their whole selves before the world.
Vanita’s arguments become poignant as she brings current and historical references seamlessly into the fold of the narrative. Even as she revisits the epics to remind us of the androgynous Shikhandini and her marriage to a woman, she juxtaposes, a few pages later, the fate of Mamata and Monalisa, a young couple who died together by suicide. The poisoned rhetoric of present-day religious leaders comes into sharp relief when Vanita quotes Swami Prabhavananda of the Ramakrishna Mission telling his disciple, the British-American writer Christopher Isherwood, to think of his male lover “as the young Lord Krishna". With these subtle touches, Vanita sets up a dialogue between the past and present to trace how far contemporary Indian politics and society have regressed in the last 200 years.
Another striking feature of Love’s Riteis the inclusive lens through which it views the institution of marriage as a whole—all the social, political and institutional biases that lie at its core. Although the subtitle of the book refers to same-sex marriages, Vanita returns, again and again, to the plight of cross-sex unions that go against the grain of convention. To this day, inter-caste, inter-religion, and intergenerational marriages between men and women are routinely met with familial and social resistance, violence and, in some cases, death. The harsh reality of orthodox Indian society puts paid to the assumption that all heterosexual marriages are made equal. The primary driver of resistance to marriage equality, heterosexual or otherwise, is prejudice that’s rooted deeply in clannish notions of sameness and difference.
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There is a counterargument, among a section of the LGBTQ+ community and beyond, that marriage is a patriarchal institution and, therefore, best shunned. While the idea holds its appeal in theory, modern nation-states confer several fundamental rights and privileges to married couples. From reduced tax liability to the right to inherit property on the death of a partner, from joint ownership of property to the right to claim alimony, from custody or visitation rights of children to be simply allowed to attend the funerary rites of a partner—these are the fundamental facts of life that make each of us human and whole. As Vanita explains, “Abolishing marriage will not dismantle patriarchy or heterosexism, but institutional empowerment of women and gay people is a move towards such dismantling."
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If the 2018 Supreme Court ruling salvaged the Indian state’s reputation of being a regressive and homophobic institution, the current debates go on to expose the fragile edifice on which that judgement stands. Equal citizenship counts for very little if it isn’t bolstered by a robust belief in equity. A democratic state doesn’t reward its citizens based on its whims and preferences. It has no business to decide that one kind of love and companionship is superior to another, and therefore worthy of legal, political and institutional recognition.
Somak Ghoshal is a writer and an editor based in Delhi.
Rereadings is monthly column on backlisted books that have much to offer in contemporary times