February is the designated month of love for businesses around the world. As I write this column, millions are gearing up to celebrate Valentine’s Day. The sales of teddy bears and flowers, chocolates and everything mushy, is on the rise. But beneath all the brouhaha, some ghastly truths about love remain conveniently buried, stuff we would gladly overlook to make the most of the offers and discounts on various items.
Here’s an example: Last September, The Times Of India reported that a staggering 30 people are killed daily in India owing to crimes related to love. That’s one in 10 murders every day. If you look at reported cases of domestic violence, the number is even higher. Finally, factor in all the love-policing we have in this country—by government bodies, kangaroo courts, every WhatsApp uncle and patriarchal family—and you will be left wondering what the fuss is about anyway.
This dismal state of affairs is hardly surprising. Over a century ago, Sigmund Freud wisely pointed out passion’s destructive potential when he said, “One is very crazy when in love.” It’s a feeling that is resonant years later. If some of us like to hum Beyoncé’s Crazy In Love in the throes of passion, others resort to questionable means to vent their feelings.
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On a serious note, the cruel irony is that Indian society, fuelled by regressive beliefs and pop culture narratives, has long normalised the correlation between love and violence. Bollywood movies and OTT platforms thrive on the stereotypes of masculine and feminine behaviour. Be it physical and verbal abuse, or stalking and emotional torture, a whole spectrum of bad behaviour that dehumanises people (overwhelmingly, women) is still valorised as proof of deep expressions of love.
It’s for this reason that I picked All About Love: New Visions by American cultural theorist bell hooks (pen name for Gloria Jean Watkins) as my book for this month. In 250-odd pages, it debunks some of the most pervasively toxic myths in which our cultural perception of love is still mired. It’s necessary reading for our times, where communities have declared jihad on love, and much worse.
Published in 1999, All About Love presents an odd conundrum. On the one hand, it has dated somewhat, having bypassed 9/11, the war on terror and MeToo movement in its overarching thesis (hooks does have an updated preface in the 2001 edition, though). On the other hand, everything that hooks writes about has tremendous resonance in our increasingly desperate times, where the search for love leads us into the labyrinths of the dark web and, sometimes, into the arms of scammers or, worst still, serial killers.
Although hooks writes as a scholar, theorist and teacher, harvesting her academic rigour, she remains disarmingly vulnerable throughout. “I want to know love’s truths as we live them,” she states early on, setting the tone of the book. From the first page, it is clear that this book isn’t just another academic study riddled with jargon. Rather, it is a deeply personal take on love, as hooks has experienced it in her body and mind, through all the stages of her life. It is a clarion call to the rest of us to shed our reservations and confront the truth of love, however messy and painful it may be for each of us.
When we buy into the narratives of love perpetuated by society—narratives that play off on the inequality of sexes and the erotics of power—we opt for the easy route. That is to say, we turn ourselves away from complexity and knowledge. “We are simply afraid the desire to know too much about love will lead us closer and closer to the abyss of lovelessness,” hooks writes with piercing acuity. Hers is an intellectual quest that must lead us back to everything we want to protect ourselves from. Her very idea is to remove the film of confusion from the word “love” and allow it to reveal itself in its full fearsomeness.
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Love is fearsome because, counterintuitive as it may sound, it is easy to misidentify love. Our earliest encounter with love, if we are lucky enough, starts in our families. But how valid is such an assumption? Seen under the keen microscopic gaze of hooks, “Care is a dimension of love, but simply giving care does not mean we are loving.” Yet, we are led to believe that a caring and protective childhood is a loving childhood. Any aberrations of family life—verbal or physical reprimand from parents or caregivers, often bordering on abuse, for instance—are dismissed as loving violence. It’s meant to be accepted as what it is, a paradox—that of benevolent cruelty.
But hooks has an unconventional take on the subject. “There can be no love without justice,” she writes defiantly, “the private family dwelling is the one institutionalised sphere of power that can easily be autocratic and fascistic.” Although this conclusion is drawn from her lived experience, having grown up on the see-saw of parental love and oppression as a young girl, there is more than a ring of universal truth in this sentiment. How many of us can look back on our early years and see love unclouded by darkness? Even as the standards of parenting have evolved in the 21st century, there are emotional burdens that generations still carry and hand down the line.
Family baggage weighs down not only the individual but also the network of relationships they form in their own lifetimes—be it romantic, professional or familial. That’s why hooks is adamant about pitching her thesis of love far beyond the narrow ambits of sexual desire or amorous longing. Her chosen lens of analysis is that of the “love ethic”, which, in her words, is a truly enabling condition that “presupposes that everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and well”. This is a classic restatement of the politics of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr or M.K. Gandhi. In our fractured times, the same principle is echoed in the work done by activists like Malala Yousafzai or Harsh Mander.
It’s unlikely that you will agree with all the positions that hooks takes, especially her spiritual beliefs. And yet, reading her is like whetting the argumentative bone in your brain, a sobering and clarifying exercise that helps you understand why so much of the public’s cynicism and scorn is directed at public discourses of love—be it at an activist’s peace yatra or a politician’s initiative to bring together a broken country.
The work of love is always in progress. And it’s a hard and scary ride, not meant for those without the stomach for hard truths.
Somak Ghoshal is a writer and editor based in Delhi
Rereadings is a monthly column on backlisted books that have much to offer in contemporary times