In the 1970s, Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker postulated a theory of marriage using the market as a metaphor. People marry to gain comparative advantage, he said. Partners divide labour: If men make more money in the job market and women provide better care, they pair up. “A person decides to marry when the utility expected from marriage exceeds that expected from remaining single or from additional search for a more suitable mate,” he wrote.
The primary motivating factor driving human action in Becker’s utility-maximising model is self-interest. Feelings — love and desire, dignity and aspiration — remain secondary.
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These reductionist economic models, by definition, discount the complexity of the human condition. Social science literature is stuffed with such grand theories offering answers to big questions. They satisfy our urge to seek big picture explanations but often miss the essence of what’s going on underneath. A deeper look into our own selves reveals their deficiency.
In her remarkable book, Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence, development economist Shrayana Bhattacharya does exactly the opposite.
At its most basic, this book is about the challenges faced by Indian women. We know it’s a struggle. All statistics show it. Bhattacharya takes that idea and adds so many layers to show it’s not just a story of struggle: it’s a story of aspiration and competing interpretations of freedom which is sometimes won through incremental negotiation and compromise and sometimes through rebellion. Some can be complicit in their own discrimination. What she shows subtly is a point economists like Becker ignore: love and desire are not variables to be ignored. They are central to our understanding of the economy.
Bhattacharya dives into the world of women who are “divided by caste and class” but “united by paid employment and their fandom” of Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan. The book’s narrative emerges from these individual stories.
Each story follows a similar structure: she sketches the world the character lives in to show where they stand in India’s socio-economic hierarchy before delving inside their intimate lives. What holds these disparate stories together is her choice to bring in Shah Rukh Khan. Each woman in the book uses his movies, songs and interviews to talk about their aspirations and frustration.
The aspiration is rooted in the characters SRK plays on screen and his persona offscreen who treats “women in a dignified and respectful way” and helps “women with housework and in the kitchen”. They dream of building a life with a man like him.
But the reality is frustrating: “few experienced emotional equality or domestic parity in their relationships with men” which Khan’s characters show on the screen. “I watch his songs online every night. But his films are all lies, there are no men like that in the world,” one woman says.
The details reflect complexity. Each woman in the book experiences daily struggles differently and handles them differently. There is no neat pattern. This leads to a classic social science problem: how do you explain macro phenomena involving a large number of people by observing micro choices of individuals?
The standard practice — routinely visible in magazine journalism and popular non-fiction writing — is to find a “representative individual” whose choices and conditions substitute to reflect the behaviour of the collective. While that technique can be useful, the representative story may not capture the complexity of the everyday interactions where the action is happening.
Bhattacharya’s work is refreshing because she avoids that: characters are carefully chosen to represent India’s economic diversity but the stories do the rest. They reveal the messiness that defines the lived experience of Indian women. A framework is not forced for the sake of it.
The book’s engaging writing derives strength from the author embracing her vulnerabilities. She does not pretend to be an academic studying Indian women from the outside: she is part of the story. The inward-looking narrative reveals emotional self-awareness. That leads to empathy. She builds a bridge with her subjects and gets them to reveal their most intimate details. Bhattacharya is there to listen and understand how her fellow women experience India, where their ideas come from and why they feel the way they do. What she picks up from these stories helps her refine and develop a more nuanced model of feminism.
For instance, look at a discussion around the 1995 hit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. “Many of DDLJ’s critics single out an exchange in which Raj refuses to accept Simran’s plea for them to run away together” as he would “rather work to gain the support of her family”. Like many others, Bhattacharya thought Raj had conceded to oppressive patriarchy until she met Manju who saw it as a sign of courage.
“She [Manju] insisted that running away was the easier choice for men, more so when their families supported the match, as was the case in DDLJ. … I started to realize that the act of rebellion can look very different when women are rendered dependent on the family for protection and provision,” Bhattacharya writes, highlighting the varying personal calculus of risk and reward. “What the film shows is that freedom is won through incremental negotiation, that dialogue amongst loved ones can be a path towards social change,” she writes. “Compromise is not necessarily cowardice.”
Social science helps us make sense of the world. It reveals truths we can’t see in the tunnelled vision of our singular experiences. But it has potential beyond explanation. It can guide us to think about our lives. It can inform our choices. Bhattacharya’s book does that. I entered the book to learn about the opposite sex but I also learnt a lot more about myself. If nothing else, the book will make you think.
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Samarth Bansal is a Landour-based journalist