The Newlyweds: A rare insight into modern love in India
If you’re expecting a conventional tale of love where all ends happily and romance always wins, then Mansi Choksi’s debut non-fiction book The Newlyweds isn’t for you. If you want a more nuanced look at relationships, then yes, this is the book for you.
The Dubai-based Indian author spent around six years creating this astonishing and unforgettable literary investigation.
Published by Icon Books and out on September 1, she reveals the stories of three Indian couples whose love matches come with significant risks which play out against a backdrop of a volatile India.
"Choksi wants her storytelling to highlight what happens when an ordinary couple not involved in national politics or anything in the public eye suddenly find themselves embroiled in controversies they hadn’t even ever heard of"
In Haryana, Neetu Rani, a Hindu of the Panchal caste runs away with her neighbour, Sikh truck driver’s son Dawinder Singh. But when they seek assistance from a Love Commando shelter in New Delhi, their problems get more complicated and convoluted.
Choksi weaves in the tale of interfaith marriage by sharing the journey of Hindu Monika Ingle and her beau Muslim Mohammad Arif Dosani whose relationship blossoms in Maharashtra.
And finally, the focus moves to Telangana where the lesbian couple and distant relatives Reshma Mokenwar and Preeti Sarikela initially feel fire but as they pursue their desire to be together, they come up against legal, familial and many other obstacles. Can any of these relationships survive?
Her subject matter might be serious, but when I catch up with Choksi over a mid-afternoon video call, the impression I take away is of a vibrant observer whose ability lies in capturing the subtleties of life in a way that’s nuanced and purposeful. As well as understanding how the couples got together, Choksi had another plan for her reportage.
She said: “I was especially interested in writing about what happens after a love story ends in, like a natural end, in a marriage.
“And [it’s then] you know what this grand love that you fought for, and you defied everything to achieve looks like when it gets reassigned into the smallest of daily life.”
Well, for the couples, and the reader, Choksi shows that it’s not always pretty. She admits the start of each couple’s tale can be rather fast-paced with high stakes, family conflicts and more.
But as we head further into their lives, it was the point at which these relationships “settle into the harm of daily life” that she wanted to further explore as that was something that popular culture doesn’t always do. And she’s right.
“I wanted to spend time in that space – to understand what grand love can look like once you have it. And once you have it, it can look like a lot of different things. It can look like regret, it can look like pain, it can look like joy.”
"I wanted actually the big themes that were shaping India to be portrayed through the eyes of the people that it was affecting"
Choksi began exploring this world while researching a magazine article focusing on a ‘Love Commandos’ shelter in New Delhi – a place where couples in risky situations would run to as they thought they would find help. While it didn’t turn out to be quite what Choksi, or those staying there expected, it was there she met our first couple Neetu and Dawinder.
“I just loved Neetu from the moment I saw her. When she ran away, she ran away with four bags of things. When you think of someone eloping, you think of a lightness. You think of grabbing the most important things and running for your life.
“But she packed every single thing she owned. She knew after she had gone all her belongings would probably be burnt out of vengeance or anger or given away. But she packed her best things.”
Choksi referenced the backdrop of Bollywood romance and love that permeates the country’s culture and how the narratives of these big dramatic movies seeped into the lives and the themes the films offered to a hungry audience provided a rationale for these large decisions that sometimes those in love can make.
But what was the catalyst to move from magazine writer to author? Choksi said: “I thought I wanted to write a book that didn't only kind of dwell on how young love forms and falls apart, but also took a broader stroke about where India is today in terms of the big forces shaping the country at the moment.”
For Choksi that meant looking for other characters. Love Jihad was a conversation that media organisations would hang on to, and so when she spotted newspaper articles referencing the relationships of Monika and Arif, and then another one of Reshma and Preethi, she tracked these couples down and persuaded them to let her hang out with and chronicle their lives.
Choksi said she was particularly interested in Reshma and Preethi’s experiences because they reflected a key part of Indian society that rarely garnered attention. While stories of gay men would be heard a lot, she said, “we seldom hear about lesbians and lesbians that come from small villages and small towns” who were trying to create independent lives without much support.
Choksi stresses: “I wanted actually the big themes that were shaping India to be portrayed through the eyes of the people that it was affecting.”
Choksi wants her storytelling to highlight what happens when an ordinary couple not involved in national politics or anything in the public eye suddenly find themselves embroiled in controversies they hadn’t even ever heard of. How there’s a gap between themes shouted about on TV and social policy changes sweeping through the country and how they affect ordinary people not protected by power and money privileges.
It's something she does succeed at in a raw and vulnerable way.
But how? She would record the conversations whenever her subjects spoke, and the three couples knew she would be writing a book from the outset. So how did she persuade them to do this?
Choksi said a friendship of sorts developed and adds: “I think they kind of saw me as someone who was record keeping in a way that would not allow their stories to become anonymous, in the way that a lot of love stories, and a lot of stories of people from that section of society kind of disappear into the nothingness, right?”
Perhaps, Choksi mulls, that she was seen as a type of insurance – so if something bad were to happen, there was someone watching.
Dhruti Shah is an award-winning journalist, writer, producer and storyteller.
Follow her on Twitter: @dhrutishah