The Danger Of The “Protective” Older Sibling.

We do many things in the name of protecting our young, but the most dangerous thing we do is disallowing them from growing up. In a country where the mechanisms of control and moral-policing as so vast and pervasive, the “protective” older sibling is sometimes an enforcement mechanism, but what do we lose when sibling-relationships are governed by that sentiment? We discuss, in our latest piece.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

I used to say that my sisters are like my children but they’ve since grown up into adults and it feels a bit odd to refer to them as children now. Regardless, I am the oldest, and the two of them are four and ten years younger than I am, and as a result, our relationships when we were growing up were governed by that hierarchy. I took care of them. I helped them with homework and projects. I drove them to birthday parties and took them for ice cream. I spent hours of my life playing “fashion show” with the youngest and she still hasn’t stopped playing that game, she just plays it in real-life now. Being the older sibling automatically means you have to take more household and familial responsibility from a younger age. When your siblings are still children, it also means taking on the responsibility of protection. You know the song ‘Dumb Ways To Die”? My younger sister could actually be the subject of that song, and it takes more than just parents to stop a creature like her from accidentally killing herself. You have to protect your young.

However, there is a danger to that sentiment as well.

Let me tell you a different story. I know a woman. Well, I don’t know her, as much as we existed in the same social settings for a period of time. When she was twenty-three, her younger sister moved to the city she was living in for college. Her sister wanted to live in the hostel and then later move into a flat with the friends she would make there, but her parents (and sister) insisted that she live with her sister for her “safety”. This wasn’t a financial concern at all, these people are rich, they didn’t want their young out and too free. I met the younger sister several times and then one evening I was in my neighborhood cafe, getting coffee to take with me while I ran my errands, and I saw her sitting with a man at a table outside. I went up to her and said hello. She was a little awkward but I was only planning to stay a few seconds. I was just about to take my leave when she asked me to step aside with het for me moment.

“Please don’t tell didi that I was here,” she explained in a sorry tone of voice, “She won’t let me go out if she knows I am with..a guy.”

I assured her I wouldn’t say anything but I was very disturbed by the event. A nineteen year old girl in college in a big city shouldn’t be disallowed from leaving a house because she was seen with a boy. No one should. And therein lies the problem with the protective older sibling. Before you know it, they become agents for control and moral policing. Protection morphs into control and suddenly the girl who used to take you for ice cream and sneak you candy becomes an object of fear. Protection doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t allow our young to grow up.

And I acknowledge the struggle.

When my sisters were younger, our relationship was different. I had to take care of them and sometimes that involved telling them what to do. However when they started to grow up, two clear yet divergent paths appeared before me: I could start controlling them (by telling them not to go out, see boys, have sex, drink alcohol) or I could be there for their growth and participate in their lives. I remember the first time I realised my younger sister was growing up. She was sixteen, I was home from college for winter break, I had just arrived with my luggage and I was going upstairs to my room to put it away, and when I opened my door, she was inside with her boyfriend and they were kissing. They were freaked out, and they jumped apart, and I immediately told them it was okay, but they were still a little uncomfortable. Honestly, I was a little uncomfortable too. It’s not that I have an issue with sexual expression, at all, it’s that when you have known someone as the tiny creature with the terrible haircut who only cares about chocolate and playtime, it’s a little bit jarring when you see them embody a grown woman’s body for the first time. It’s not even that we hadn’t talked about it. In my family we rally the responsibility of having “the talk”. My mom talked to me about sex and sexuality, I talked to my younger sister about it, and my younger sister talked to the youngest one about it, but it’s different when you talk about it, and when you see them/know of them acting on the talk.

However, that’s not what was important. What was important was what came after that. For a moment I may have been surprised, but once it passed, I realised she was growing up and it was okay. That’s what kids do, they grow up, and they change. Their needs change, their priorities change, their emotions change and their bodies change. My sister and I talked about how our relationship would change as a result of that as well. One of the first changes was that instead of being the presence in her life that always asked about her and took care of her needs, I needed to become a presence in her life that was equally communicative about herself. She demanded it. She demanded that I share my life with her as well and that was fair, because when she was younger there may have been things I couldn’t talk to her about just yet, but once she became an adult, the adult world was as much her purview as it was mine. She demanded that I share my life, my stresses, my feelings and my thoughts with her as well. Once I started to do that, we became equals, and that process was extremely important.

That didn’t mean that she wouldn’t come to me for help or advice, she still does that, but it meant that I could go to her as well. It didn’t mean that when shit hit the fan I wouldn’t take care of it for her, it meant that I recognised that her journey was not mine and I could not dictate actions to her. I could not condemn her. I could not use “protection” as an excuse to stop her from doing things that made me uncomfortable. Instead, I was just there for her life. I was there for her first drink, and shortly afterwards her first thorough projectile vomiting. I was there for her first kiss, her first heartbreak, her first cigarette, her first interview, her first move, her first apartment, the first time she had sex. I wasn’t there to tell her what to do, I wasn’t even there to clean up the mess when it inevitably all went wrong (because it didn’t and it doesn’t), I was just there to do it with her. And the alarmingly positive consequence of that was that I rediscovered her as complete person. An amazing person. A person whose presence in my life is vital, entertaining, positive, inspiring and loving. Between the five years from when she was sixteen to twenty-one, our relationship changed completely and it was a great thing that it did. She is no longer my child, she is my peer and that’s a wonderful thing.

Because of that experience, it was much easier when the youngest one started to grow up. Given that she is ten-years younger than I am, it should have been harder but by then I had learnt that there is a time for protection, and a time to take a backseat and allow them to grow up. With her it started the day she stopped calling me “didi” (a respectful title for an older sister). I told her very early on that she didn’t need to call her that, but respect titles are a deep part of Indian culture and she continued to do it for many years. One day, on her own, she addressed me by my name. She was fourteen. I remember it quite clearly, she said my name, she watched my face to see if I would say something, and when I didn’t, she just went on with her day. She never called me “didi” again. It was her way of telling me that she was ready to grow up a little, and start a new relationship with me. We did. A relationship where she could discuss her accomplishments, her growth, her relationships and her budding interest in boys with judgement, condemnation or disapproval. I had to let her do that, because the alternative would be to not have her be honest with me about her life and the things that excite her, and that is unacceptable to me.

This year she turned twenty and she told me I shouldn’t be at her “entire” party because I (and my 40-year old husband) would scare her friends (and I’m never letting her live it down) but deep inside that seemingly bitchy request (it’s not, they’re kids, they want to be sloppy drunk and I’m too old for that shit) was a comfort. She’s comfortable telling me when she needs space for her own life that doesn’t need to be chaperoned and it shouldn’t be. If we continue to chaperone and coddle adults, we end up with grown ups who cannot handle themselves, and we have a lot of those already. Adults who are codependent on their families and cannot make independent decisions, and it’s, sad. Ultimately seeing my sister’s flourish as independent and dependable members of society was far more important than controlling them in the name of protection. I am not responsible for their protection anymore and accepting that change in roles was necessary to sustaining our relationship. I will always be there for them, but not to tell them what to do, just to listen and share my life experience should it be relevant.

The result of that? My sisters and I have excellent relationships with each other. Unfiltered and open relationships in which we can say anything, and more importantly, we enjoy each other’s company tremendously. We love spending time with each other. We look forward to seeing each other. We help each other tear down our boundaries and develop further. It also means that they are wonderful human being who contribute to society and inspire other women around them, and they do it by being distinctive, authentic individuals. We are not all the same person, all three of us are very different from one another, but it doesn’t matter at all. We don’t have to have the same views or personalities to enjoy each other, and it’s very important to learn that in life. And all it took was for me to shed the connotations of being “older”. It doesn’t matter that I am older, all that really means now is that my knees will give out sooner than theirs (and that I am not allowed at the parties of 20-year olds who need me to roll for them still). It doesn’t matter because I am not their protector. I am an active spectator in their journey and that is a much better thing because it allows me to love my sisters without controlling them, and it’s glorious.

Sisters can be an amazing thing, but you have to let them grow up.

Promise Me, You Won’t Have Sex.

Often when we are young, we have an older sibling or a parent concerned about whether we might be having sex, and sometimes promises not to do it are extracted from us under the garb of deep concern about our well-being. I believe there is something sinister at the heart of these promises, and these concerns. In this week’s sex-column, we discuss the hypocrisy of the Indian attitude towards sex (and I make a few gynaecologist jokes).

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.

Be whoever you want to be,
Do whatever you want to do,
Get a car and drive it too fast,
Run a race and finish dead last.
Climb a mountain, I’ll pay for a guide,
Travel across the globe for a wild ride,
Bribe a cop on the way back from school,
Worship at the altar that makes you cool,
Pass around a bunch of bad cheques,
But promise me, you won’t have sex.’

We’ve all had a variation of this conversation. Sometimes it is with a friend or perhaps an older sibling or maybe it’s with a parent (or similar authority figure). I’ve had it several times in my life, admittedly a lot more frequently when I was younger, and somewhat differently after I grew up. The first time you have it is probably the most distinctive. Mine was a with a well-intentioned cousin who knew I was in a relationship with a young man, and I suppose she felt, being 10-years older than I am, that she should guide me. Inherently, there is no flaw in that. She was concerned, I was young, and she asked me to promise that no matter what I did, I wouldn’t go as far as to have sex with the boy.

I made the promise.

A very small incident of no consequence to the world, but when I made the promise, I had already broken it. I made the promise even though I had already had sex with the boy, and until that moment, it hadn’t occured to me to decide whether that was right or wrong. The moment I experienced concern on the part of someone who cared about me, I started to wonder whether what I had done was actually scary or wrong. Concern is one of the most common cautionary associations we make while participating in discourse designed to discourage young people from having sex. Man, that was a tedious sentence. It is, though. Concern is the primary reason we tell young people not to have sex. It’s multi-layered, so let’s slowly peel back this onion and cry a disproportionate amount of tears (as is fitting).

There’s concern that’s rooted in physical harm that may come to your ward if they have sex. Part of it is medical and part of it is social. Let’s say medical fears are totally justified, but easily allayed if you teach and promote safe-sex practises (and portray a teenaged girl who accidentally got pregnant on a TV show having a termination instead of life-changing baby every once in a while). There’s the social fear of someone you care about having sex. Sex is viewed as a dangerous thing, especially for women. The guy you are with may take advantage of you and not respect your boundaries. He may take pictures of you. People will find out and think you are a slut. You might get raped. The list is endless, and perhaps the validity of these fears is evident but we send our loved ones out into a dangerous world everyday. How do we know they won’t just walk into traffic? How do we know they won’t stick their fork in a socket? How do we know they won’t lick a toilet to prove they won’t get covid? Either we teach them to navigate the world, or trust they know how to do it (based on how old they are and what your relationship with them is). It’s the same with sexual relationships, if we teach people to navigate them safely, they will know how to judge a situation, and if we trust them to do it, they will learn better.

That being said, ideologically, I do think that the onus of responsibility for raping, revenge porn and consent violation is on the people doing these things, but I realise an ideology doesn’t keep you safe. There’s also the concern of pregnancy and on this front I can absolutely confirm that if my foremothers had spent more time learning about contraception, and more research had been conducted into safe methods of contraception, I wouldn’t be here today, almost 30, and still trying to figure out a method that works and doesn’t try to kill me (or is slimy latex). You don’t eat prawns with the vein still in, and teaching a lot more about taking the vein out would benefit everyone. Contraception should be taught as a rigorous discipline akin to physics and tested more severely than IIT aspirants. There have been enough “it just happened” babies. Physical concerns, as I said, are easily allayed.

But I don’t believe that is the primary concern anyway. For one thing, if people were so concerned about the physical welfare of the havers of sex, arranged marriages would include STD panels but they don’t, instead we live in a country where 9 out of 10 gynaecologists judge you for opting to have an STD panel (and I am not pulling this statistic out of my ass, I have been to a lot of gynaecologists, in a lot of different cities, you’d think it was a hobby for me to have my insides peered into). From where I am standing, there is no sexual behaviour more risky than an arranged marriage. Maybe the modern set-up allows for more communication between the parties involved but ultimately it involves having sex with someone you don’t know well, and certainly don’t know well medically-speaking.

So physical safety, then, is not as much of a concern as they would like us to believe, so perhaps it is emotional concern? The one I hear most often, especially when the conversation is focused on young people, is that they are not emotionally ready or mature enough to have sex. Sex is a big deal, not just in India, but in many of the world, but does it need to be? Indian parents except children to display maturity on a vast array of subject’s from a very young age. You are supposed to display financial maturity and take into account your family’s income before you desire things. If you are a girl, you are quickly taught the concepts of sacrifice and compromise, and groomed for a life spent in service of the patriarchy. You are expected to participate in religious ritualism, with children as young as ten fasting for Lent or Ramadan or Navratras. We do not see our children as too emotionally immature when we expect them to understand familial circumstances, sexism or spiritualism. We do not think they need to be protected from the “realities” of the world like powerlessness, bribery, rape or other crimes, we think they should have a realistic view of the world when it comes to these things, but when it comes to sex, the same children are suddenly too young to understand pleasure, or be able to handle it. I smell a rat.

So it’s not emotional concern then, it’s just a dead rat, which leaves only one thing, and it’s the one thing that unfortunately determines everything in India: Social Concern. After all, what will people think if my child has sex and then talks about it? What will people think if everyone found out? What will happen if my daughter sleeps with a man and they don’t get married to each other? There is an equivocation between morality and sexuality that encompasses perhaps all of time and most of religion. Sex is dirty and unclean, and acceptable only when done in service of the propagation of the species. Fundamentally, India is a country that is suspicious of pleasure, and there is only one reason to have sex outside of wedlock when not trying to have a baby, and that reason is that it feels good. We do not want our wards to feel good in this way. So we teach a horrific style of mythology associated with sex: If you have sex before marriage no one will marry you, if you do it god will punish you for the sin, if you do it you will fall sick and get pregnant, if you do it everyone will talk about your character, if you even so much as hold the hand of a person of the opposite gender you will get pregnant. My favourite one was when someone told me that oral sex would get me pregnant (and as an adult I wish I could find this person and inform them that for decades even the strongest hormones couldn’t get me pregnant). We spread this misinformation and we believe that we are doing the youth a favour, but we are not, because we are not trained to think analytically or determine the consequences of our actions. So let me lay them out for you.

We have created a nation that is so sexually frustrated, bound by the dichotomy of morality and desire, and focused on marriage as a solution to this problem, that people are now getting married (and have been for decades) just so that they can have sex. Given that our marital laws have no room for consent (basically you marry the man, you consent to letting him have sex with you forever, anytime he likes), we have created a hot-bed for sexual abuse within marriages and given that a majority of women do not have access to reproductive health or agency when it comes to reproductive decisions, they are forced into having an unhealthy number of children or unsupervised abortions. Treating sex like it’s a thing we need to actively keep people away from has also created an untenable amount of shame surrounding the subject, and a large number of issues with self-esteem stem from the alienation of oneself from their body, from blaming your body for its needs.

Aside from all of that there’s the way the image of sex itself leads to problems. When we discourage sex, we also define it as peno-vaginal, and like my cousin, who said it’s okay to do other things but not have a penis in my vagina, there are many people who believe that having sex has only to do with penises in vaginas and this heteronormative and (straight) male-pleasure centred view of sex is terrible for everyone else. Sex is about connection and pleasure, it’s not about the one act, and limiting it, and creating a fear-based mythology around just that one act makes it unlikely that others will ever discover their pleasure. Especially in a society where the bearer of the penis gets so much of a say in sexual matters (including whether you are consenting to them or not).

So when you build an entire generation’s foundation of sex on guilt-based, emotionally-extracted promises not to do it because it may impact the abstract and imagined concept of your honour or expresses the selfish nature of your concern (however well-intentioned that concern may be), what you’re really doing is raising a generation that is sexually stunted, and sexuality is an extremely fundamental part of human nature, it influences a lot of who you are in life. Medically and biologically-speaking, sex is good for you, it makes you a happier person (provided you’re not asexual). Emotionally speaking, sex teaches you a lot about yourself. Relationships do not need to be centred on sex, but it is only when you have a great sexual relationship with your partner that works for both of you, that you are able to focus on those other things that make you happy. Please, stop asking people to promise not have sex, instead, maybe start asking them to do it for themselves instead of the expectations of other people. That’s better advice.

Do Women Sleep Their Way To The Top?

If you are a successful and possibly intimidating woman, the chances are that at some point in your career someone has accused you (to your face or behind your back) of sleeping your way to the top. This reduction of a woman’s professional accumen to sexual privilege is just another male fantasy, why then do we never discuss the male behaviour that causes it to come up so often?

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

We’ve all worked in an office where someone seems to have defied the Peter Principle, right? The Peter Principle dictates that people rise through the ranks only to the level of their incompetence but there’s always a person, here and there, who seems to have risen way past their incompetence and is somehow placed in a role they seem completely unable to manage. A person who makes us wonder — How did you get that job? For me this happened in my very first job. There was a woman in-charge of production and while I wouldn’t say that she was not bright, I would say she was extremely indecisive and inefficient and those are traits that should not be found in someone heading production. She couldn’t make a decision to save her life and was constantly changing her mind, often when we had already started acting on her previous instructions. She was everyone’s favorite subject of exasperation and we often ended our rants wondering how she got the job.

One theory was suggested more often and with more relish than any other: She was sleeping her way to the top.

At the time I didn’t realise the extent to which that was problematic as a suggestion, I just didn’t engage with it, but over the years I noticed a lot of women’s success being explained away as sexual prowess. In the case of my former colleague, she was incompetent, but a lot of the women I heard this about since then were quite brilliant. The accusation that they were there because they had gotten undressed in front of the right person was indiscriminate when it came to competence. You didn’t have to be good or bad at your job for people to begin suggesting that you had gotten it by sleeping around, you just had to be a woman. On the face of it, that seems like the disgruntled ravings of a person who is bitter about losing the competitive but there’s a lot more to it than that.

First of all, let me say that morally-speaking I take no issue with a person using their sexuality to get ahead in a world where they are solicited to do that and promised rewards for it. It may be a jaded position, but the truth is that the meek shall not inherit the earth, honesty doesn’t always win the day and integrity doesn’t mean shit to most people. A lot of times when people are competing for a position, and it comes to the final round, they are all equally qualified (on paper), and if the person handing out the job is basing their decision on whose pants they can get into, that’s on them (even legally-speaking, they are in a position of power and able to coerce the applicant), if I am willing to take my pants off to give myself an edge, I don’t see the lack of morality in that. That being said my position on morality comes from the cutthroat, brutally-ambitious girl that lives inside me, I tried to sedate her by running, doing yoga and drinking chamomile tea but it only made her stronger (and more expensive to sustain). However, I feel, all too often, we discuss this issue from the vantage point of the morality of the person who was willing to sleep their way to the top, and never from the place of the person who demanded it. We never discuss why we are so comfortable with believing that about any successful woman.

I mean, there is the obvious reason, the need to justify keeping women out of the workforce and paying us less by proving that we don’t compete on merit but on wiles and preference. Society is threatened by successfull women because they are unable to put them in a box and while a man must manage family and work as well, he is often lauded for giving more time to work, a woman who does that is judged by a different yardstick. The most threatening creature is a woman who actually manages to have a successful career, a thriving social life and a happy family, that creature is most often at the receiving end of allegations of using their sexuality to get ahead. The way many people see it is that a man’s desire for a woman is an unfair advantage given to women however there are plenty of unfair advantages given to men as well. When a man goes into an interview and talks about his children, the odds are skewed in their favour because we believe, still, that a man is the one supporting the family. It is not without reason that men’s careers experience growth after they have children (otherwise known as the Fatherhood Bonus) whereas women’s careers often tank after they have children (otherwise known as the motherhood penalty).

But all of that misses the key point. The heart of this issue is still that a woman in a position of power being viewed as an evil seductress plays into a male fantasy; a fantasy that enables them to ignore the skill and intelligence a woman may possess and reduce her to a sexual tool. That is the sinister plot that is actually at play here. A successful woman is decidedly immoral because most men still have a lot of difficulty letting women into the boy’s club of professionalism and acknowledging that they lost out to a woman because of her professional accumen is a lot harder to do than saying it was the unfair advantage of her sexuality that got her there. However, that approach still scrutinizes the women, and the fact that women can (whether they do or not is irrelevant to this point) get ahead by bartering sex means that most of the people making those decisions are still heterosexual men. The environment that enables sexual favours is created by the people at the top and when someone is fundamentally disadvantaged they can be compelled to take that path.

See, women are professionally disadvantaged in almost every field. While corporate set-ups have an even ratio of men and women at entry-level positions, the number of men in managerial positions is much higher. There are astoundingly few female surgeons. While many women go to law school, most litigating lawyers are men. And professions that are female-dominated like teaching and nursing are alarmingly unpaid. Add to the fact that asking a woman about her reproductive plans is common at interviews, and rejecting her based on that is acceptable. Women have to work twice as hard to get the same recognition as men and even when we do get it, criticism of our character is muttered quietly behind our backs. Women are paid less than men for doing the same job and there still many professions like civil engineering and taxi-driving where women are just not welcome. There is a culture of disadvantage, and in that environment if a woman sees the opportunity to use her body to advance herself, what is so terrible about that? You left her no other way to do it.

And most importantly, the reason it works is not because of the women, the reason it works is because men are making professional decisions based on masturbatory fantasies. If you want to give me a job because you think I am hot, that’s on you, I came to this interview with a resume and a portfolio. If all you want to assess are my legs, don’t accuse me of sleeping my way to the top when I did it in your bed.

A Letter To My Daughter.

I don’t have a daughter, though I’ve often said my sisters are my children, but if I did have a daughter, I would want to talk to her about womanhood. This is what I would say. (PS: I write this letter regularly, not because I am pining for a daughter but because it helps me navigate how my understanding of gender changes and grows over the years, I highly recommend it).

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

To my daughter,

What being a woman means to me should always be completely irrelevant to your definition of it. As should what being a woman means to any other woman around you. Never try to emulate someone else’s definition of your own spirit. Be whoever it is that you want to be even if that’s something you have never ever heard of someone being before. Nothing you do in life, will ever make you any less of a woman.

But remember, being a woman in spirit and being a woman in society are two different things. One is personal and will hopefully bring you joy while the other is political and hopefully you realize that being a woman in society means being visible and being a fighter. You cannot choose not to represent your gender, even if you really just want to identify as a person, and when you do remember these things that I tell you.

Never let any injustice stand even if you have to bear a personal cost for it. People will try to beat you down along the way but that’s only because your power scares them and they worry about what might happen if you do succeed.

Always be available to other women because we’re all in this together; the temptation to hate on other women can be strong but remember this is something we have been taught so that we never realize our strength. Hating on other women puts you down and it puts down women. It’s counterproductive.

Remember and learn about the struggle we’ve been through in past centuries, it will help you see right and wrong more clearly. Before you pass judgment on anyone, see their whole life and where they came from. A lot of us act more out of the chips on our shoulders than our characters, and the only way to bridge the gap of communication is to see where everyone is coming from. People respond a lot better when they believe you understand their struggles as well.

Always ask why when someone tells you to do something that you can’t quite understand. So many times we unwittingly participate in activities and rituals that demean us because we don’t know any better. Never do something that you don’t understand. Even if it hurts someone’s feelings and even if it impacts your relationships. Never do something just because they tell you “it’s tradition”.

Never do anything just because someone told you “that’s what girls do” and never stop yourself from doing something you want to do because someone says “doing that makes you unfeminist“. You can do anything you want, so long as you cause no harm to anyone around you.

Be active in your community. Be visible and proud. Let people reach out to you and let them know that they can depend on you. Community is important, it is the first step on the road to civilization. People don’t have to believe what you believe for you to show them respect. But you must never stand for bigoted beliefs, call them out and don’t be afraid if no one is standing next to you when you do. You don’t need company when you have right on your side.

Respect your body and remember that includes being honest about its sexuality. No one has the right to shame you for having sexual needs and no one has the right to stop you from fulfilling them. Take care of your body because while it is unimportant how you look, your body is the only tool you have to get through life. If you neglect your body to the point where it is no longer able to support you, you will have taken yourself out of the fight.

Don’t be afraid of your emotions. People will shame you for them and tell you that having emotions automatically makes you less reliable as a human being. Shut that shit down. Cry when you want. Laugh when you like. Breakdown should you feel the need to. Use your emotions, cater to them and take care of them. If you don’t, you’ll have a heart attack because those kill women too.

Don’t be afraid to be strong and powerful. Don’t be afraid to be homely and soft spoken either. Just be afraid of dishonesty. Nothing else stands a chance against you. Because you are a woman and while you may lack the upper body strength to lift with your shoulders, you have all the resilience in the world to make up for that.

You were not born a liability or with a chip on your shoulder. You were born with the opportunity to make the world a better place. No matter how naive they call you, never stop believing that.

Love,

Aarushi Ahluwalia

I Was Going To Be A Tree.

A Poem by Aarushi Ahluwalia.

I used to wonder, so often—

Am I no good?

Trouble seems to follow me around.

I disguise myself in respectability and all shades of green, but it finds me.

Pries me out of the parched crusted Earth with a rainstorm.

Exposing the dirt and filth; washing it all away, until nothing remains.

Just a trace of me.

Unowned.

Unchained.

Unfettered, and useless.

A piece of me that wonders.

Do I really even deserve any better?

Maybe not.

But strays need love too.

I may be no good.

Sometimes I see it reflected back at me from the people I love.

Their eyes telling me that I could never be that one thing they always hoped I’d be.

Instead, a stray with a master

An orphan with a mother.

A lost map-reader.

A whore with virtue.

A professional without any.

A lover who hurts you.

And answers without questions.

None of the branches I ever expected to sprout.

Maybe this is what I’m supposed to have.

The oppressive home for the liberal.

The desert for the water-girl.

The dance in my step without any music in my soul.

A rainstorm that washes me away each time I sprout.

Do I really deserve any better?

Maybe not.

But,

Even weeds need water to grow.

They Teach You Pain.

A freestyle poem about learning pain as a young girl and unwittingly teaching it forward once you grow up.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

I must have been a very young girl because I remember it seeming horrific;

that my mother would pay someone to pluck out the hair from her eyebrows, one by one.

Until they looked like they were drawn on perfectly.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” I asked her.

I can’t even feel it.‘ She said casually.

Because they teach you pain.

They tell you the importance of being beautiful and show you how beauty involves ripping the hair out of your skin.

My mother taught me how to eat at parties so I could be thin and still social.

She taught me how to squeeze into shoes that hurt and smile through the evening.

Because they teach you pain.

And if you refuse to learn,

They use these words to describe you.

Bossy. Arrogant. Overconfident.

Because you’re guilty of speaking your mind as a girl.

They tell you not to be too smart.

Or the boys won’t like you.

People won’t like you.

Use your eyelashes more than your voice.

They teach you silence.

They tell you that sex is going to hurt and feel terrible; they scare you with it so you wouldn’t think to desire it.

I remember I was twelve and I asked my aunt about her first time,

“It hurt so much I screamed,” she said.

I never could forget those words. We’d all heard them. My friends, my sisters and I, all young women dreading the idea of sex.

Because they teach you to expect pain.

They caution you to build boundaries around yourself so strong you alienate yourself from your own body.

Before you know what you were protected, you already know there is something to protect. I knew rape was something that could happen to me before I knew what sex was.

And before it ever could happen, I already knew of the shame.

The shame you’re supposed to be silence about.

And persevere.

Because they teach you to bear the pain.

My former partner’s mother once sat next to me on a warm afternoon,

And while she sipped tea out of the white china, she told me:

Women are like the sky, they subsume everything. They take everything. To be a woman is to persevere.

They teach you your strength comes from how much you can bear in silence.

That’s really why she gave me that little speech; she knew her son was beating me and she wanted me to see that as being a martyr in the name of womanhood and hold my silence in the prestige of that position.

Because they teach you pain is a virtue.

And bearing it makes you special.

They cast you in these roles.

The goddess.

The martyr.

The mother.

The meek.

The object of beauty.

And before you know it you’re bound inside these boxes and beating yourself up for not fitting into any of the ideals they picked out for you.

You still go on about your life.

You do the things you are meant to do.

Work. Life. Love.

One day you’re sitting in front of a lighted mirror at the salon and a lady is plucking your eyebrows.

Your mind is preoccupied by that e-mail you have to send, that payment that still hasn’t come in and those mushrooms you have to prepare.

You lean back in the chair.

And you see a child staring at you in horror.

A little girl.

So little that the sight of having your hair torn out of your face must seem horrific to her.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” She asks..

I can’t even feel it.‘ I tell her without even thinking about it.

Because they teach you pain.

And sooner or later, you learn it.

It’s Not Radical To Recognise A Woman’s Intelligence.

Women are praised for being beautiful, sensitive, socially-skilled and gentle all the time, but throughout our lives we are discouraged from brandishing our intelligence. With the wage-gap and self-esteem crises facing a disproportionate amount of women, why is it such a radical idea to value a woman’s intelligence?

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

I was an argumentative child, or at least that is what I was told, it was only when I was older that I realised that an analytical, critical conversation about a particular subject is not an argument, it’s a valuable intellectual exercise. The point is that I had a lot to say in general, and about everything. A lot of my discussions with people were related to poltics and oppression, and most of them occurred at home with my parents’ friends and family. This was before the time that ignorance could be presented as “alternate facts” and some of the discussions got impassioned and heated, but never personal or offensive. Still, my mother did not like this. She started telling me, each time people came over, that I shouldn’t discuss politics with my dad’s friends. When that didn’t quite work, she redirected me into helping out in the kitchen. I would volunteer my opinion on something being discussed and she would immediately give me a task.

By the time I was a teenager, I was spending most of my time at soirées coordinating kitchen activities and bring out platters of food. Everyone loved this! I heard an endless stream of compliments: You’re so mature for your age, you help out so much at home, you’re such a sensible young girl, you’re so socially skilled, you’re already trained to be a great hostess. It bothered me. The compliments bothered me because they were casting me into the role of an ideal woman, but also because that role had been given to me to keep me from talking politics with men. That concerned people in my life enough to find a solution, and discuss it with one another. It bothered me also because alongside this negative tag of being an argumentative, headstrong young woman, I was also pressured to always have outstanding grades. It never made sense to me why I had to be great at school, when using my knowledge only seemed to upset people around me. This dichotomy seemed sinister and it continued to be unexplained.

Of course, I understand it now. Women cannot be too smart lest it make the men feel less smart. It’s a ripple effect of the perceived inferiority of women, more commonly known in the noxious upper middle-class drawing-rooms du jour as the “men-and-women-are-equal-but-different syndrome”, as perceived by the patriarchy. When I was a child I didn’t understand why I was told not to disagree with my father or any other men, I didn’t realise that a girl disagreeing with a man could be perceived as an offence. I didn’t understand why I was told it was important to be intelligent, but not to brandish that intelligence. I wasn’t told why the people around me discussed the possibility of their daughters earning more money than their future husbands as a potential problem in the hypothetical marriage.

I didn’t understand it fully until I grew up and started to experience it. It started with a man I was in a relationship with for many years. He loved spending my money but he hated my ambition. He constantly fought with me for wanting to do well in school and then college. When I got into prestigious programs he chided me for trying to show off. When I got good job offers, he lost his temper and accused me of being “too available” to get those jobs. When I achieved goals and had professional success, he often said to me, “What do you think of youself? You think you’re so smart but you’re nothing. You don’t even know how to be a woman.” Harsh, and unnecessary, but it taught me that a lot of men, and people, cannot handle a woman’s pride in her intelligence or accomplishments. You can be as smart, accomplished, skilled or ambitious as you like but all of that just counts against you, especially when you don’t know how to accessorize, match drapes and tapestry or dress meat. In that entire relationship, I never felt like my partner was proud of me, I never felt like he appreciated anything about my brain and because of the generally abusive dysfunction in the relationship, I became scared of my own accomplishments. I kept them to myself. I didn’t share them with my family or my friends or my partner, I didn’t even use social media until this year, because I was taught that brandishing my intelligence in any way was showing off and it caused friction in my relationships.

However, romantic or familial relationships aren’t the only way in which we devalue and refuse to recognise the intelligence of women. We do it socially as well. Once I was with a group of my husband’s friends on my balcony. My husband is a decade older than me and some of his colleagues are a decade older than him, and as a result I sometimes have to socialize in circles that are strange to me. My world, with my heathen friends, my seditionist colleagues, my strange pets, my brutally-honest family and my radical books is very, very different from his world of uniform-wearing certified patriots. They take offence at me asking them to call me by my own name and don’t understand why I am being such a pain about my legal identity. There is no overlap in our worlds. While on the balcony I was talking to someone about carbon taxes, and several men were talking over me about segregation of garbage as the radical idea that will save the planet (I cannot, I swear, I just can’t). At a certain point someone interrupted the man who was speaking to alert him to the fact that I was talking.

“I think she’s saying something,” this man said to the one speaking over me.

“She’s hot,” the guy speaking over me said.

Now, this man is over twenty-years older than I am but let’s say that’s not an issue because I like em old. He didn’t want to hear from me because I am not a brain to him, I am red lips and low-cut tops, and therefore hot (which, really? I think he meant he thinks I’m easy). Nothing I could have said had any potential value to him because I have a vagina and to him that meant that purpose is mere aestheticism. Similarly in my husband’s circle, there is a systematic segregation, they encourage women to hang out with women and men to hang out with men. When they encourage women to hang out with women it is often explained by saying that men have no interest in womanly discussions about sarees, jewellery and household help. No one ever asked if women were actually interested in these discussions, or why men couldn’t be. It’s just how it is.

“It’s just how it is,” is one of those bullshit tautologies that shut off further questioning without explaining themselves. It has no meaning and under its garb we teach young women that they must not expect to be valued for their intelligence as much as the men. That’s at the heart of the wage gap as well. Women can be intelligent, we’re okay with that, but if they wish to be decorated and socially-liked they just be gracious, beautiful, not-arrogant and strategically quiet. That’s part of why the industry of beauty and vanity targets women like it does, because it knows, as do we, that women are much more likely to seek approval and appreciation for their beauty. That’s why homemakers are forced into a competition of whose house is the cleanest and shiniest, because they know that no one is sitting around waiting to laud their dazzling intellect. That’s why no matter how successful you might you be as a woman, when your company goes public (talking about you, Vimeo), you’ll be photographed with your child and covered from that angle.

Women aren’t appreciated for their intelligence. It’s pretty shitty to live in a world where that is a radical idea.

While Acquitting Tarun Tejpal, India Convicted All Its Women.

The Sessions Court in Goa acquitted Tarun Tejpal of all charges in an 8-year old case of sexual assault. As part of the proceedings the victim was put on trial, her sexual history and lifestyle choices were all put on trial. To be a worthy victim in India, you must be immaculate or dead, and I wonder, what is India telling its victims with that?

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

Tarun Tejpal was acquitted of all charges. As far as the news cycle goes, this is old-news now and we’ve moved on to op-ed pieces about it. I remember when this first started eight years ago. I remember the day the news broke that Tarun Tejpal had been accused of rape and sexual assault. I loved Tehelka. I read every issue and amongst my limited possessions was a stack of them that I took from city-to-city. There were many issues I re-read on lazy Sunday afternoons and those I referenced repeatedly for my own research. My favourite thing about Tehelka back then was that they were out there covering the epidemic of rape in our country before Nirbhaya ever happened. There weren’t many people doing that back then, it wasn’t the hot-button issue it is now. When this happened I was halfway through journalism school and it was very clear to me what I wanted to do with that degree. I wanted to work for Tehelka and cover rape. That day I learnt the danger of having idols, which is not to say there weren’t other excellent journalists working for that organisation that exists even today, but it still shook me. I didn’t want to believe it. How could the person whose organisation was instrumental in teaching me about the injustice of sexual violence in our country be another (alleged) predator?

Of course it isn’t my job to acquit or convict but as far as sexual violence goes I’ve always had a simple philosophy: I believe the victim. There are cases where I am wrong to do that but in the grand scheme of things those cases are far fewer than the ones where I am right. Still, we had to wait for the judicial process to play out, and now it has. The judicial process has spoken and acquitted Tejpal of all charges. Now, I am not a lawyer though I am fairly well-versed the laws governing rape and sexual violence in India, and I understand that it’s not my place to speak for the guilt or innocence of a person, so I won’t. According to the court, Tejpal is innocent. I can’t say anything about that. However, I would like to talk about the process that determined his innocence. The finding of the court was based on reasonable doubt and that is, I suppose, reasonable but it is not reasonable to say that this was a fair trial, because from all accounts of the proceedings, it isn’t clear who exactly was on trial.

It is the position of the court that the victim did not behave like a victim. That her behaviour did not exhibit that she had undergone any trauma. Further it is the contention of the court that because of her position as an expert on rape law and the coverage of rape, she would have been easily able to fabricate a believable story. Ironic, since they didn’t believe it. The trial court even revealed her identity in their judgement, which is against Indian law. They questioned her solidarity with other victims of rape, presenting it as a bias, and her alleged that her knowledge, writing, independence and communication skills made her testimony unreliable. They also discussed her sexual history, fantasies and admitted gossip about her sexuality into the judgement. She is blamed for just saying no and not screaming instead. She was asked to qualify her morality by declaring whether she believes sex with multiple partners, smoking and consuming alcohol to be immoral acts. They asked her how long her dress was and whether she got on her knees. Finally, she is characterized as someone who twists and manipulates the truth.

Can someone say preposterous? Honestly, I cannot speak to whether Tejpal is innocent or not, but I do wonder, why weren’t all these questions asked of him instead? Surely the sexual fantasies or history of an alleged predator might be more telling than those of the victim, and that’s what it is really about, it’s about how we treat victims in India and you can harp on about how things have gotten so much better but they haven’t. The truth is and I say this often, that there is only one kind of rape victim in India that sees justice, and that is a dead victim. Short of that, you have to be immaculate to be qualified as sanskari enough for justice. The process by which the court arrived at its judgement in this case is telling and it is telling a terrible tale.

It is saying that you have to exhibit your trauma in a prescribed format if you want to qualify as a victim. This comes up regularly, it came up a while ago when a judge refused to believe a rape-claim because the victim went to sleep before she filed a complaint and apparently no Indian woman would do that. If you are a woman whose response to being assaulted is not breaking down publically, seeking therapy, exhibiting dysfunctional behaviour, crying throughout the testimony then you are not believable. If you are a woman who hopes to find healing by acquiring justice instead of cutting yourself, you are not believable. That’s what this process is saying.

It is saying that your sexual history is indicative of how truthful you are about alleged sexual assault. If you have fantasies, fantasies of force or restraint, then it’s not possible for you to be raped. This is a tale as old as time, only virgins are raped after all. It never occurs to Indian society that we endanger sexually liberated women even more by repeatedly refusing to believe they could be raped because they’ve had sex before, indicating to predators that it legally better to take advantage of a “loose” woman because no one will believe her anyway. A woman who does not pass the purity test does not deserve justice because no one sent the courts the memo on agni pariksha being a thing of mythology and misguided fiction which is not admissible in the process of justice. It’s saying that it’s best we teach our daughters not to have premarital sex because if they do they won’t be believed when they are raped. That’s what it is saying.

It is saying that women who are experts, well-spoken, independent and professional cannot be trusted. There isn’t even a veil here, it outrightly states that the Indian sensibility cannot bring itself to trust an intelligent, articulate woman. This line of questioning is nothing but a witch-hunt for westernised women who speak English and wear dresses, because we hate that. We hate women who don’t succumb and learn silence. We hate women who assert their accomplishments and speak their expertise. I can guarantee if instead of a woman there was a man who was an expert on rape law on trial it would work in his favour instead. Women who speak their mind, stand up for the truth and do so while refusing to embody any visibly “Indian” indicators of culture are not trustworthy. You can condemn that but think about it, when you tell your kids not to talk to someone too much, what does that woman look like?

It is saying that if you accuse someone of rape, it is perfectly reasonable for the court to put your behaviour and life choices up for trial. If you drink, smoke, have sex, wear short dresses or date openly, you are not moral enough for our society to protect. We all love to say we don’t shame victims but most of us do it everyday, a woman doesn’t have to be a victim of rape to not be condemned for her choices, and if you see a woman smoking in the street and think of her as immoral, she doesn’t need to be raped for you to be part of the problem. Legal questioning such as this only enforces the idea that women’s behaviour needs to be policed.

As far as I am concerned, Tehelka died many years ago. My hero fell almost a decade ago. Today, all I lost was another piece of my faith in another bastion I hold dear, the Indian judicial system. We may as well replace it with a group of middle aged uncles who stare at your boobs in the park and aunties who tell you to lose weight so you can get married, because that is how it is behaving. India is not here for its women. We’re on our own.

I Will Not Teach My Stepson To Hide His Parents’ Divorce.

While preparing an introduction for an event at school my stepson was told not to reference his stepmother because it is “inappropriate” to do so. In India we encourage secrecy about everything that deviates from the norm but teaching children to hide divorce hurts them more than you realise.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

I have a ten-year old stepson. While the arrangement is rare, my husband has had permanent custody of the child since he was seven. For the most part, in India, custody is retained by and favoured to the mother but in their case, she chose to hand it over and my partner wanted it. So a few years into our relationship, his son came to live with us. There are no Bollywood-style twists in this story; I didn’t have to overcome my anger to “accept” the child, he didn’t hate me and then start to like me a little, I didn’t dislike him and then start to feel concern when he was sick one time. None of that stuff happened. None of that stuff is an accurate or real representation of anyone who might find themselves in this situation. That’s not what we have to protect our children from.

Let me tell you what kind of situation may arise in real life.

A year or so ago, right before the pandemic hit, my stepson was graduating from junior school. I don’t think that’s actually referred to as a graduation but I don’t know what else to call it. As part of the process, their school organised a farewell party. At this party each child was required to say a few words about themselves. The kid wrote his introduction. It read,

‘My name is Slow Eater (named changed). I am 9-years old. I live in Hell on Earth (name changed to be more accurate) with my father and my stepmother. In my holidays, I enjoy visiting my mother on the farm. I like football, cycling and playing with my cats. My favourite book so far is the St. Claires series by Enid Blyton (because I am young, and I don’t see the racism in it yet : that wasn’t actually part of it but warrants saying).

According to him, what he had written was extremely ordinary, and I agree. I corrected the grammar for him and helped him practise his introduction. The next day he was supposed to practice it at school with his classmates and teachers. When he came back he told me that his teacher had asked him to re-write his introduction because it was “not appropriate”. Apparently she had told him there was no need to mention his stepparent because that was private. He asked me why having a mother or father wasn’t private, but having a stepmother was, and to be perfectly honest, I do not have an answer to that question that makes an iota of rational sense. Until that point we had been raising him to understand divorce but never feel like it made him less than others. We talked about why marriages end and how sometimes that is the better path than an unhappy life for all involved. We taught him that love was most important when it came to marriage and without that, it’s not worth the lifetime of unhappiness. Most importantly we taught him that it was normal, and the legal process to attain a divorce existed because it was normal to want to end a marriage that wasn’t working. We wanted to shelter him from the stigma but also to remove the stigma. We decided right at the beginning that we would never hide any of this as many people encouraged us to do. I would never “pretend” to be his mother and we would never keep our lives so secret it starts to control us entirely. We thought that was a solid strategy aimed at ending the shame and healing from the trauma.

That day, however, we had to teach him something different.

Obviously, our first response was to contact the school and the teacher. See, I get it, she isn’t used to this. I get it. I get that even today in India the divorce rate is 1% and having a classmate with divorced parents (and auxillary parents) is extremely rare outside of urban clusters, and even when it isn’t, people hide that information and teach their children to do the same. I understand that she may have been taken aback by my stepson’s shame-free admission of his parental situation. She expected him to know he should hide that, and maybe she assumed he hadn’t run it past an adult who would have taught him why to hide that, and she believed it fell to her to teach him the shame. She apologized immediately once we explained that we had a problem with what she had done. We explained that she had introduced to the child a feeling that he wasn’t normal, and that his living situation wasn’t normal either. By telling him that admitting to his parents divorce was inappropriate, she had made him feel like his existence was inappropriate. Her reception was generally kind, compassionate and apologetic, however her explanation was less so. She said,

“I understand you want to protect your child, but we also have to protect the other children.”

Now, our kid isn’t doing drugs, he isn’t acting violently, he isn’t bullying other students, all he did was say he has a stepmother. She wanted to protect other students from that information. That’s part of the agenda of the conformist nature of Indian normalcy. We love to believe that things like divorce, pre-marital sex and live-in relationships only happen in the West. That is “Western” culture and it is in direct contradiction to Indian culture. When faced with real-life Indian examples of these things we feel a moral responsibility to hide them because we believe in doing so we are preserving indian culture and keeping the outliers where they belong, in the fringes of society. It didn’t go so well when I explained that to the teacher, but when I suggested we speak to the principal she agreed to let our kid do his speech as prepared. The next day he went to school ready to practice his speech, when he came back I asked how it went and he informed me that they had cancelled that part of the event.

I don’t know for sure that they cancelled it to avoid the situation of letting him refer to his divorced parents in his speech, I cannot prove that they did, but I would believe it. It’s very Indian to call the whole thing off because one tiny detail offends our sensibilities. That’s not the point though. The point is that in real life, where we often say that partners who are unhappy with their marriages should stay together for the sake of the children, we also conspire to make things worse for the children who do actually find themselves with divorced parents. The social punishment is applicable to all and is often applied so thoughtlessly. Other times, it is applied as concern. For instance, at our wedding. My partner and I got married several years after we started living together, and eight months after we started living with the child. It just made sense to us that everyone involved have the opportunity to really get to know each other. It’s not just a lifetime commitment between the two of us when there is a child involved, you’re also making thay promise to the child, and that shouldn’t blindside them. Of course, as a result of him knowing me well and living with us by the time we got married, he was at the wedding. People were concerned. My family is extraordinarily familiar with me and they know anything can turn into a socio-political rally on the spot so they would never say things to me outrightly. Instead I heard,

“There’s no need to go out of your way to tell people that is your husband’s child. He’ll be there, he’s a member of our family, but you don’t need to broadcast it to everyone.”

See my thing is that I never broadcast things, I reference them too casually for the people of our country. That’s not okay with people. If I presented my stepchild as a shameful revelation it would gain me more sympathy than how I reference him like he’s real, actual part of my life on a daily basis. If I kept him secret, more people would understand than they do now. However, the one who suffers there is the child. We pretend we do this because we care about the child but children internalise how people treat them, and when a child feels like they or their parental unit ought to be secret, they feel ashamed of themselves. That shame grows up with them alongside a longing for a detrimental normalcy. I could never do that to a child. You shouldn’t be able to do that either. The truth doesn’t hurt, deception does, and persevering the Indian sensibility is not worth hurting my child. If that’s inappropriate to you, close your ears to the world around you and continue hating on the West. See if that protects you.

India Hates Love A Lot More Than It Hates Sex.

We have all heard that India is a sex-negative country but it also has the much more dangerous distinction of being a love-negative country. The right to fall in love in India is shrouded in constrains of religion, caste, lifestyle and wealth, and even when we aren’t forced to marry within the norm, we do it. Why do we do it?

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

My friend once told me about something that baffled him so immensely he rolled over in my meticulously-made, ash-covered bed for a full minute before I could respond. It was something he had come across on a Tamil debate series. A young man, arguing in the favour of a hybridised version of arranged and love marriages, said that he could choose to marry anyone but if it was someone outside of his caste, he couldn’t even imagine being attracted to her in the first place. He saw this set-up as a free-decision based on love, whereas my friend saw it as an arranged marriage where you could choose out of a series of pre-approved women, and you may like one of them more than the other but it’s not free love. In their own mind, I suppose they are both right, but overall, I see a fundamental flaw in their equivocation. Marriage in India is not about love. Nothing in India is about love.

In the deeply insulated leftist schisms of liberalism that we populate, we often talk about the struggle of living in a country that is so fundamentally sex-negative, and don’t get me wrong, it really is. When I was a teenager and starting to date (I made a series of truly spectacular choices in terms of men, a real who’s who of human garbage), a cousin I was close to told me that it was fine to date, even though she insisted that I was too young to date, but she would lose respect for me if i had sex, she made me promise that no matter what I did, I wouldn’t have penetrative sex. I broke the promise, but what’s important is that I made it in the first place. It’s important that sexual knowledge is imparted in this guilt-based format from trusted sources and that teaches all of us that having sex is inherently wrong because it makes a comment on our morality. This example I cite is very tame, prissy and privileged but evidence of our sex-negative attitude is all around us all the time: from hotels that wont rent rooms to unmarried couples, to the violent responses to a woman who may have had sex, to all the virtue-signalling, to our responses to the depiction of sex on screen, to the complete lack of sexual education in our schools. Its all around us. India is, indeed, a sex-negative country.

But is also, and perhaps more so, it is a love-negative country.

At the heart of this is an equivocation of sex and love, but not in the way that is obvious. The liberal school often teaches the young ones that sex is okay but only if you are in love with the person you do it with, but that is not what I mean. What I mean is that sex and love in India are painted with the same brush. Sex is wrong and dirty ipso facto, love is wrong and dirty. Whether you tell your mother that you had sex with someone or that you are in love with someone, the potential for the response to be dire is equally high. A part of that is exactly what my friend was talking about, because unlike an arranged marriage which is governed by societal constraints (like caste, income, religion, attitude towards working women), love is governed (at least in theory) by free-will, and when i am attracted to a person, I don’t make that decision based on their ethnicity or religion or caste, I’m just attracted to the person. If I fall in love, it wont be because of or despite their caste, it will just be. That love is governed by free-will is a large part of the case against it. After all if your daughter has sex with someone, it’s nothing a hymenoplasty, a severe beating and an ipill wont fix, but if she falls in love with someone, there is so much that could be wrong with her choice that is non-negotiable.

I know we all love to behave like we are in an era of liberalism and India is becoming a progressive country but if you wish to see the truth of people’s social liberalism, look no further than the industrial complex of marriage-making in India. Not only is the only acceptable form of love the love that leads to marriage but it’s deeply heteronormative, nothing outside of that registers as anything less than perversion. All the people who “don’t even know their caste” are looking for matches in very specific sub-sections. Heck we’re so afraid of inter-religious marriage we created the concept of love-jihad and then instituted laws against it despite a total lack of evidence of its prevalence in the projected numbers. Sex has the potential to flout the norms of social decency, but love has the potential to shake the fabric of Indian society because norms of marriage is how we uphold social stability here and love opens the door to marriage that doesn’t make sense to our norms. It’s not without reason that even in 2021, only 3% of Indians have “love marriages” and even that number is not fairly representative of the culture of love in India. There is something important that needs to be understood: love is for fun and marriage is for settling down. While the most “progressive” of our families are open to us having fun for a while, when it comes time to settle down they want us to think differently about finding a partner. Just like the man who was told to find love, but within his own caste, many conditions are placed on many of us and even when we make decisions of love “freely”, we’re really dating within the confines set by the marriage police. It’s not a coincidence that so many people end up falling in love with people of their caste, religion, tax bracket, age or socio-economic status. We sow our wild oats wherever we may like but when it comes time to “settle down”, we police ourselves into whittling our dating-pool down to an acceptable set of variables. It’s quite similar to the way in which arranged marriages are made.

And it get, arranged marries *can* work. I agree, but they are not about love. Indians scoff at love. Love is a stupid, tawdry thing and the only acceptable form of it is the guilty, grateful love children are supposed to feel for their parents. Romantic love in India is portrayed as painful, sacrificial or unrequited. To see that we needn’t look any further than our cinema or television, the only forms in which love is displayed as successful is when the lovers have to lose each other, their lives or their families to achieve it. We are taught to romanticise pining for love throughout our lives but also to realise that ultimately taking the dutiful and responsible route is the mature and Indian thing to do. Sacrificing the possibility of self-chosen happiness for society and duty towards family is the happy ending in our love-stories, and they often actively work to display how that is where true actualization is found.

Sacrifice and compromise are taught as virtue, love as a dirty thing and unhappiness in marriage as an acceptable condition for it. The right to love is absent, unacceptable and too much to ask for, the best you can ask for is a love marriage that is true to acceptable norms. That’s the best case scenario, the worst is falling in love with whoever you want and being killed for it. Love doesn’t matter in India, not when it is competing against the abstract concept of honour. Honour always wins, and it makes sense too, when the loss of love is taught to us as the ultimate form of romance.