Intimate Others is a well-researched and well documented work produced by the Jadavpur Uiversity’s School of Women’s Studies. The School deserves to be congratulated for having motivated the contributors to bring together this volume on a subject on which very little has been written. Male sexuality has been discussed often enough; one immediately thinks of Sudhir Kakar’s two works: Inner World and Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality but both project the male at the centre. Works on women’s perspectives are rare. Feminist scholarship in India concentrates largely on caste, economics or religion. One could mention Uma Chakravarti’s Gendering Caste and the Kali for Women series on feminism.. There are others focusing on the social problems of the girl-child, the dalit, or the Muslim woman. SNDT Women’s Studies Centre has produced a number of such useful studies. The present collection goes further than them, primarily because it takes up marriage as a social institution and explores it in different contexts. It recognizes the multiple garbs that marriage dons ranging from romance, love, oppression, polygamy to simply a sex relation-ship, working both within normative patterns and outside them.
The seventeen essays divided into four sections are introduced by the editors locating them in our times. The three essays in the first section provide a historical perspective and bring the reader to the early years of the twentieth century. The writers-Aishika Chakrabarty, Samita Sen and Aparna Bandyopadhyay-discuss the rationality or otherwise of Kulin marriages, convict marriages and their emotional and legal outfall in the Andamans and elopements. The last of these is an interesting study of elopements and their legal and social reprisals. This is a thought-provoking and an unusual section as it draws our attention to the peripheries of society and provides an interesting play of balance between bodily needs, social norms and legal interventions. They expanded my own area of inquiry and interest and led me to think in different directions. Elopements are now a subject of serious research and legitimately so as they do not merely represent adolescent romance but are instead escape routes from family and social pressures, normally resorted to as an extreme measure when all other options have been exhausted. Another essay (in the next section), which I found enlightening, was on choice and agency in the question of marriage. This links up with the essay on elopements connecting the act with the whole question of women’s subjectivity. It also contemporizes the issue as it directs the discussion towards patriarchal pressure and the violence which follows it, as it did in the case of Rizwanur Rehman and Priyanka Todi, a fallout which brought death and coercion in its trail. Elopements are a comment on the closed social structures which fail to evolve or change themselves or regress further into narrow rigidities due to ideological and political pressures. Prem Chowdhry has a full-length work on Contentious Marriage, Eloping Couples: Gender, Caste and Patriarchy in Northern India (2007), which places it in multiple contexts. I wonder whether social scientists need also to focus on forced relationships following abductions.
The six essays in the second section focus on marriage, with the first four locating themselves in Bengal and, within it, chiefly in Kolkata, leading one to suspect a narrow parochialism but the next two take us to other parts of India with both Ranjana Padhi and Prem Chowdhry shifting focus to Punjab and Haryana and contextualizing marriage and women in agrarian economics and male sexuality. It is natural that social scientists will work on the area where both field work and the interpretation of the data/interviews does not go awry, an area which they have gone through over and over again with a fine comb. This in itself provides enough justification for the dominant focus on Bengali society, culture and urban space as the Centre is located in Kolkata. Each of these essays focuses the discussion on a specific issue: Madhurima Mukhopadhyay is concern-ed about the individual agency and the element of choice and their links with marital decisions while Nandita Dhawan examines the conflicts between law and social norms. The role of the family-the famous Indian joint family-is discussed by Diya Dutta and Nilanjana Sengupta in their essays. Sengupta shifts the ground to the households of domes-tic workers thereby expan-ding the idea of family to include working households in lower income groups. Ranjana Padhi’s essay on the agrarian crisis and the farmers’ suicides is a study of the impact on the widows of these men and the difficulties they face. The two writers also refer to the unequal gender ratio and the various socio-economic factors that bring it about. Prem Chowdhry highlights the negative roles of the caste panchayats and honour deaths. These are the transgressive acts of an irresponsible masculinity, constructed by an aggressive ideology, which has chosen to opt out of social and familial roles with the result that the gender ratio is skewed. Anant Patwardhan’s documentary Father, Son and Holy War where religion, nation, and sexuality end up by being tied together in an unholy mix supports this interpretation.
No social or private happening, least of all marriage and/or pornography can escape the video, the film or the print media. Sex scandals abound in media and emotional memories are stowed away in marriage videos. Technology has brought it all right into our homes, invading alike the sacred and the profane. Necessarily there is a section on them, though there is no essay on representation in films or on the urban phenomenon of live-in relationships. To make up for this lapse, we have a very interesting essay by Geeta Bapna, which looks at both Hindu and Islamic religious tracts where conjugality and the ideal marriage are foregrounded. The essay works against a background of philosophical discourse, social norms and the actual impact on the readers. Janaki Abraham’s essay focuses on Kerala and the surfeit of the video representations while Hardik Brata Biswas has an essay on porno-graphy, ‘For Adults Only’ where she looks at the interaction between the female body and male desire and the sway between the erotic and the vulgar.
One is amazed at the centrality of the subject as much as by the range it has provoked the researchers to command. The final section works with romance and marriage and seeks to redefine the institution of marriage. Rekha Pappu questions the idea of marriage being obligatory for women and foregrounds the single unmarried woman. Swati Ghosh explores motherhood and domesticity while lesbianism is the subject of both Navaneetha Miokkil’s and Ranjita Biswas’s essays, though the latter’s inquiry is concerned with their functioning within kinship. We have a final discussion on intimacy and its complexities by Nishi Mitra and Pooja Nair in the form of letters.
Intimate Others deals comprehensively with the institution of marriage, its deviations, transgressions and evolving patterns which are now being recognized widely. It is not only meant for scholars but also for the lay reader, men and women alike. We need to know ourselves better.