For an emotion that drives the plot of most books and movies, there are few works analysing love, its many meanings and contexts. This lacuna motivated Debotri Dhar to compile the anthology Love is Not a Word: The Politics and Culture of Desire. Through the lens of literature, politics and personal narratives, the essays here flit from the Kama Sutra to Tinder, Gita Govinda to Ghalib, love amid the landmines of caste and religion to how cities anchor love and even, how to love trees. They focus on India, though their references are cosmopolitan.
Makarand Paranjape’s essay is a masterful portrait of Radha and her unparalleled rise in the Hindu divine pantheon, which defies the “whore v/s virgin mother dichotomy”. Rakshanda Jalil foregrounds the multicultural roots of ‘Barahmasa’—songs incorporating seasonal and natural elements—to harp on separation and longing.
In ‘Single Women, Self-love and the Gender of Waiting’, Debotri Dhar brilliantly dissects the baggage of gender that love bears. She quotes Barthes’ identification of the lover as “one who waits” and poses the question, “What is the gender of love’s waiting?” Traditionally, it was the woman who waited for the man “to return from work or war”. She delves into the exceptions to this trend—the “un-gendered” waiting in Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy and a male reader’s expectations of the female protagonist in her novel, The Courtesans of Karim Street, to illustrate how love is constructed across the fault lines of gender.
In same-sex ‘Love in India’, Parvati Sharma poetically explores perspectives on privacy, tolerance, non-conformity and identity against the backdrop of her experiences as a woman with “lesbian written all over her face” and the legal struggle against Section 377. She revels in the unsettling potential of “love without the trappings that turn private ecstasy into social routine—marriage, family, children”.
Mehr Farooqui’s ‘Ghalib’s Poetic Beloved’ succinctly surveys the idioms and imagery of his ghazals. The genre, she points out, “is not a typical ‘love poem’ but an engagement with the idea of love and loving”. For Ghalib and other Urdu poets, this idea invariably includes pain and suffering.While all the essays seem interesting at first glance, a few fail to live up to their promise. ‘Love Jihad’ by Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay pithily sums up the prejudices against inter-faith relationships, but fails to provide any insight beyond what has already appeared in the news. ‘Love, Society, Polity: Urdu Poetry from Khusro to Faiz’ casts too wide a net, which perhaps explains its sketchy account of Urdu poetry.
‘Love, Longing, and Desire: A Nayika’s Tale’ has an alluring premise—author Alka Pande writes in the voice of celebrated courtesan Amrapali, who is thought to have lived around 500 BCE, to describe her life and times. It, however, merely stamps feminist ideals and female agency on a dreary description of the Kama Sutra, squandering the opportunity for a fascinating reimagining of the past.
It is beyond any book to do justice to the multitudes that love encompasses, but these essays present a medley of perspectives that underline universal feelings and experiences. As Parvati Sharma says, “You live and you love as a human being, not a category, and while nobody’s love is particularly original, everybody’s love is unique; our chinks, our kinks, our fumblings are as particular to us as our dreams.”
Through the lens of literature, politics and personal narratives, the essays here flit from the Kama Sutra to Tinder