About ten years ago, on the campus of Ahmedabad’s Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Punjabi boy Chetan Bhagat fell in love with Tamilian girl Anusha. But unlike a typical ‘Western’ love story, theirs wasn’t a simple three-step process of boy-loves-girl, girl-loves-boy, and they-got-married.
Instead, they had to survive the multi-step obstacle course of an ‘Indian love marriage’. The invite to the launch function of his latest potboiler, 2 States: The Story Of My Marriage, enumerates all the steps: “Boy loves girl. Girl loves boy. Girl’s family has to love boy. Boy’s family has to love girl. Girl’s family has to love boy’s family. Boy’s family has to love girl’s family. Girl and boy still love each other. They get married.” And adds Bhagat, on the back flap, “Yes, if you live through all these steps, then you too can have a love marriage. Like I did.”
Bhagat’s latest novel — his best so far — is a cunning combination of wish-fulfillment fantasy and matrimonial voyeurism. Much as he protests that this is purely a work of fiction, he doesn’t mind holding out the promise of a peep into the travails he and his girlfriend underwent, trying to ‘convince’ their respective families, before they became man and wife. The “Like I did” is a friendly, encouraging wink at India’s mass of lovelorn youngsters confronted with a choice between parental wrath (in smaller towns, much more than wrath) and broken heart.
Recalling his own experience, Bhagat says, “For my parents, the number one sticking point was that she is South Indian.” As a ‘South Indian’ myself, I can’t help but gag at this all-too-familiar clumping of four states into one. “Did they have a problem with her being a South Indian or with her being a Tamilian?” I ask. “They didn’t care. For them, it was all the same. Madrasi hai to sab same hai.” And the hostility was duly reciprocated by his wife’s family. “From her side also, the biggest reservation was that I was not a Brahmin and I was not a Tamilian.”
Bhagat laughs as he remembers how both their families felt their child had been ‘trapped’ by the other. “We were the quintessential, over-achieving middle-class kids. Both of us went to IIM, held lucrative jobs. Our parents should’ve been okay with whatever we did because we had done a lot of things right! Instead it made them feel worse — they felt that because their child has done so well, he/she deserved someone ‘good’ from their own community. In my case, my family had the additional chip of being the boy’s side.
And a very well-qualified boy, too, who had a great market — it’s rare to find a Punjabi boy who’s IIT-IIM.”
Considering that they were both financially independent, couldn’t they have easily gone ahead and married against their families’ wishes? “We could have,” admits Bhagat. “But we didn’t want to shove the decision down their throats. It’s easy to fight but very hard to convince.”
And his novel, too, he adds, is about winning people over. And overcoming prejudices. Thanks to his marriage to a Tamilian, Bhagat was forced to confront his own preconceptions about ‘South Indians’ and accept cultural differences. His biggest ‘problem’ was that he found Tamil Brahmins to be “puritanical and closed.” Closed to what? “Closed to emotions, unlike Punjabis, who like to express themselves, and do so boisterously.” He illustrates his claim with an example.
“Tamilians will discuss the nuclear non-proliferation treaty within the family. But they won’t openly express their feelings for each other. Even dancing among Punjabis is for fun. But for Tamils, it’s Bharatnatyam, which is serious business. You don’t laugh when you’re doing it. I used to find all this strange, but now I’ve accepted that this is just the way they are.”
Given that this novel is autobiographical, did his wife have any reservations about his portrayal of ‘her family’ or ‘invasion of privacy’ issues? “Yes, she did make a few cuts,” admits Bhagat. . “At places I got a bit too romantic, and she told me, ‘I go to office, I work in a bank, and even though you say it is fiction, people are going to guess.’ Also, when making fun of stereotypes, I went over-board; she made me tone it down.” Like for example? “For example, when Krish [the boy character] lands at Chennai airport, he finds that everyone is dark, compared to Delhi airport. I didn’t think it was offensive, it’s just an observation: some people are dark, some people are fairer. But apparently, it’s not good to say that some people are dark.”
Bhagat’s wife Anusha admits that she did have certain reservations. “On his portrayal of the girl’s family, and of the Tamil community, I told him, you have to be more sensitive here.” She also played the censor on the privacy front.
“I gave him feedback about certain things I was not comfortable with,” she says, and adds quickly, half in panic, “Please understand, the plot is fictionalised, this is not about my marriage.” And she takes pains to explain she doesn’t want people to assume that the events in the book actually happened in their lives. “The real takeaway for me, from my own experience of an inter-state marriage, is that it’s all about people going for the qualities that they have, and not about other things we have no control over — such as our community of birth.”
Yet when a family does oppose a marriage, more than individual reservations, the core issue is often the question of what ‘society’, or the extended family of relatives will say.
“Even when they realise that the boy or girl is good, their fear of social censure is greater,” observes Bhagat. But he believes, true to his chosen vocation of dream-peddler (Bhagat is now full-time into screenplay writing) that true love will conquer all. “I hope my novel will inspire more and more inter-state marriages. It’s the best strategy for national integration.”