City City Bang Bang, Columns

Of young love in small town India

A few weeks back, one was on a research project in small-town North India and not surprisingly found that while like most other parts of India, it was seeing some signs of change, gender certainly wasn’t one of those areas. Attitudes continue to be fixed, and the space granted to young girls, in particular, continue to be extremely limited. Co-ed colleges are often formally segregated on the lines of gender; in some cases, common canteens are also not allowed. A boy found talking to a girl is liable to be reported to his parents. Amongst this overall picture of stasis, lay a small but unexpected sign of change.

While the young women that we spoke were quite clear that they had no control over who they would get married to (indeed as were the young men), they were not averse to talking about their crushes. They showed a certain amount of freedom in confessing to having crushes. The crushes that were admitted to comprised both the fantasy figures that lay safely tucked away in the recesses of their social media pages as well as some in their immediate neighbourhood. Names were not mentioned, but the subject was discussed freely and with discernible excitement.

The crush allowed these young girls to experience the headiness of falling in love without any of the cumbersome consequences that would inevitably follow in the social milieu that they are part of. While the crush, this idea of a one-sided innocent yearning that need not have an address, is a universally experienced emotion, in these parts of India, there is a certain additional poignancy brought about by the fact the graduation to the real thing, will in almost all cases, never happen. The crush is not a prelude to the real thing, it is the only thing that can possibly exist. The acceptance of this reality is so complete, the consequences that would follow are considered to be so dire that even wistfulness is rarely expressed.

Indeed, what is a big mark of change is that the crush can be so freely admitted to in such cloistered conditions. It allows the mind to explore possibilities that the body cannot and in doing so, it opens up pathways in the imagination that might otherwise have been stifled completely. The presence of a crush or several crushes has almost become an institution, in the sense that it has come to be accepted that everyone will have their own crushes. But it is equally true that these fantasies can be admitted to only because they are considered to be explicitly out of bounds of possibility.

The crush lives in an intermediate space between fantasy and experience, the commonplace and the taboo, the inconceivable and the impossible. The crush is pre-ordained to be crushed, which is why it is allowed to live briefly- the implicit cultural legitimacy enjoyed by the crush has a lot to do with the self-denying nature of the idea. The digital world is part of the package, for it enables feelings from afar. It permits several intermediate degrees of familiarity, and in doing so vastly multiplies the range of possibilities that can be imagined without being acted upon. On the flip side, it also opens up young girls to the possibility of harassment and stalking, but in the main, it is seen as a solitary window in their otherwise airtight lives.

That does not mean that young romances do not exist at all in these parts of the country. Some of these romances go the distance, while others have less happy endings, as recent newspaper headlines show. Most small towns have a few designated spots where young couples hang out. Even in the college romance, new notes of a more contemporary kind can be detected. In some cases, the couple goes around while in college with the explicit understanding on both sides that nothing more permanent is on the table. The college romance is in these cases, seen as a lifestyle choice, one that multiplies one’s capacity to squeeze the more freedom out of the few years where life comes without the constraining responsibilities of settled adulthood. For young women, in particular, this period evokes nostalgia even as it happens, so deep is their sense of its briefness and transience. The nature of the relationship between the boy and the girl too has newer elements. There is a matter-of-factness about it all- old gender codes are changing. Presents need to be reciprocated equally, and it is not unusual to see the girl paying for their outings, far more than was the case earlier.

Of course, there are many parts of the country where the young enjoy considerably greater freedoms, and the crush here is a way of entering the world of romance on tiptoe. This is the classical idea of the crush- the unripe phase where the intensity of feelings does not quite translate into anything material in real life.

There is an India where for a girl to admit to any romantic feelings outside the institution of marriage is considered dangerous. The frequent anger that seems to erupt against young couples across several parts of the country is a sign that as a society, the idea that the young have the freedom to make life choices based on their feelings as individuals rather than as social beings, is one that produces resentment and fear. Like many other things in India, change comes slowly, and in a covert and muted form. The radical comes hidden within the apparently mundane. Changing a system that is intricately organised so as to keep things in place requires stealth and time. In doing so, both sides find their own victories- things change while they remain the same. The sight of young girls speaking about their crushes with shiny eyes and singing hearts, without any expectation that their desires could come true, represents this kind of change, which is simultaneously heart-warming and heart-breaking.

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