Scenes from a marriage
Elizabeth Flock's 'Love And Marriage In Mumbai' is an intimate and insightful portrait of three middle-class couples in the city
American journalist Elizabeth Flock’s debut non-fiction book Love And Marriage In Mumbai (Bloomsbury India) attempts to make no grand revelations about love and marriage in Mumbai. Instead, it offers a focused and uniquely intimate portrait of three middle-class marriages set against a changing city. For nearly a decade, Flock kept up with every quarrel and development in the lives of these couples—by living with them, poring over their text messages and Gchats, and conducting Skype interviews while she was away in New York. Each couple, by choice or circumstance, married within their community. Maya and Veer eloped despite the warnings of their Marwari families, Tamil Brahmins Ashok and Parvati were matched through an online matrimony site, and Shahzad and Sabeena, a Sunni Muslim couple, were introduced by family. The distance travelled by these couples is packed into a narrative that remains even-handed in its reporting of infidelity, impotency and abuse. Like Katherine Boo in Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, And Hope In A Mumbai Undercity, Flock absents herself from the narrative.
We caught up with Flock during her visit to Mumbai to talk about her interest in middle-class morality, the challenges of reconstructing memory and the consequences of stepping inside a marriage. Edited excerpts:
What’s striking about the book is the access you gained into these couples’ marriages, and their openness with subjects like infidelity and sexual dysfunction. How did you identify these couples and approach them for the book?
I moved to Mumbai right out of college in 2008. I started working for an Indian magazine, and I met most of the couples then, for a variety of circumstances. I lived with some families and also met others while interviewing people for stories, and just daily life. I chose (to write about) the middle class because they don’t have the moral freedom of the very rich or the very poor. They face a lot more judgement and pressure.
I had also moved here after my dad’s third divorce. In hindsight, I can say that was a time of great pain for me. These people came into my life at a time when I had a million questions about marriage; it did not matter where I was in the world. It started informally; I was asking them questions and journalling about it. But I never got their stories out of my head.
That’s when I said I would like to write a book about your three marriages. Here’s what it will entail. Can I live with you for a month at a time, travel with you, eat with you, carry my tape recorder and do formal and informal interviews? It’s going to be very intrusive, is that okay? And they all said yes. But from the beginning I was changing their names, leaving out locations and some details. I thought it was important that there aren’t repercussions for them once the book is out.
Every book is driven by a question, and I think the question for me was, why do marriages work and fail anywhere? I don’t think I got a satisfactory answer to that. My agent’s still like can you come up with something that you learnt?
Do you think that by following these relationships for close to a decade, you also had an impact on their marriages?
The thing I keep thinking about is that just by asking people questions about their marriage, you’re changing it. Because you’re making them think about things they wouldn’t necessarily have addressed otherwise. Journalists love to say I was just a neutral observer, I had no impact—that’s bullshit. I know that I had an impact on their marriage but I hope it was a positive one. I probably made them examine their marriages more closely, and maybe sometimes that wasn’t a good thing...I don’t know.
How did you address inconsistencies and gaps in memory for the reconstructed portions of the book?
I would often run over the same stories again to have every detail. For example, when Ashok told me about being sexually abused the first time, and he told me about it as a very traumatic event. Then he told me about it later, and said it was not traumatic at all. I found that interesting because he might have felt another way as time went by.
Memories change, and the stories we tell can often be vastly different. I tried to flag what memories didn’t match up, as much as possible, for the reader. I also relied hugely on their photographs, journal entries, medical documents, legal documents, and used them to fact-check things. That said, I know that almost everything that’s told in the book from recollection is probably not exactly how it happened. I also feel that how people remember things is almost as important because that’s the reality they’re living with.
Did you have to keep information from one partner while reporting, like Maya’s infidelity?
I found out about that in 2014. I grew up around a lot of infidelity so I always find this topic difficult to wrap my head around. There is a lot of moralizing and judgement. In general, with this book, I felt the most important thing was to not judge.
In terms of sharing information, I was just following the other person’s lead. If Maya didn’t want me to share something, I wasn’t going to. Obviously, there’s an awareness in their marriage about what’s going on, even if it isn’t talked about. They have a unique arrangement that I think is more common than people would let on, here and anywhere in the world. There were times when I was certain that Maya and Veer were going to get a divorce, and then I came back a year later to find them laughing at each other’s jokes. How do we make sense of that...I wanted the same experience for the reader.
Why did you choose to be absent from the narrative?
I was originally in the book, and it was just not good. And I think that was because I didn’t have a lot to add as a third party. I didn’t really find my feelings on what was happening that important. I thought there were enough books by Westerners giving their hot take on how India’s changing. I chose to report narrowly on the lives of these six people. I’m sure there are a lot of other people living vastly different lives, but I couldn’t tell a broader story.
At what point did the couples read the book? How did they react to it?
I sent the book to all the couples before it came out in India. I don’t think everyone’s read it—I know Sabeena hasn’t. She didn’t see the point of it. I don’t think Veer’s read it entirely, I don’t think he wants to, and I didn’t want to force him. There are people who don’t want to think deeply about every single thing.