You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

A post-election Elizabethan lament

LiveMint logoLiveMint 16-05-2014 Sohaila Abdulali

My daughter and nephew are both deep into Romeo And Juliet in their respective English classes. This morning, there’s a quiz. Before school my girl practised a few choice insults on me (“You greasy onion-eyed rabbit-sucker”) and then recited the entire prologue with great gusto. But she’s not buying it: “Those star-crossed lovers are so stupid! Why would anyone do that? Why would anyone die for love? That would never happen now.”

Hah. Just wait, little one, until you too are consumed by amaranthine passion for some totally unsuitable chap (or chap-ess) and your parents are tearing their hair out…as for that not happening now, no such luck.

I explained to the disdainful pre-teen that she’s actually grown up among some choice Shakespearean battles. Our family could give the Bard plenty of material on unreasonable parents, forbidden love, this phupi (aunt) falling for that mamoo (uncle), grandparents locking up adolescents in the throes of lust, boys setting back clocks so they could come in past curfew—this was back in the day before mobile telephones, when there was just the one loud clock in the house. And the fights, oh, the fights. A plague on both your houses!

Naturally, growing up in such a contentious clan, we unerringly developed teenage crushes on the people most likely to irritate our parents. It was an exciting and relatively safe way to experience adolescent rebellion. Then we grew up, and went on our merry way. But for too many Indians, it’s not all fun and games. We have far too many star-crossed lovers, and far too many of them do indeed die for love.

If you’re a boy and you love another boy, you’re a criminal.

If you’re a girl and you fall for another girl, you’re a criminal.

If you’re from caste Q and you want to marry into caste V, you might get acid thrown in your face.

If you find The Only Girl in the World but she has a BA and you only finished your matriculation, it doesn’t matter that you both want each other. Your father might not want to lose face and let you marry a “too smart” girl.

If you’re 17 and bursting with your adoration of boy A, and your parents make you marry boy B, you might go along, and then, a decade later, take so many pills that you nearly become a modern Juliet: One friend did just that. Luckily she vomited it all out and went on to salvage her life.

If you’re a teenage boy in a Haryana wheat field, and your heart starts knocking against your chest because of the way the sunlight falls on the downy cheek of that girl from the next village, that girl from a different community who has the most alluring arms, with beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!... take a lesson from Verona—walk the other way. If you don’t, you risk the wrath of the khap panchayat. Dying for love is not really romantic at all, when you’re the one being burned, hung or thrown in the well.

If you want to marry outside your caste, you are required by the Special Marriage Act to give the world 30 days notice. Because, really, what could be more dangerous than daring to love someone outside the rigid little lines drawn by mean little minds and enforced by desiccated little people? These violent delights have violent ends.

Yes, unfortunately star-crossed lovers remain firmly part of our cultural landscape, and it looks like we’re poised for some pain of epic Shakespearean proportions, thanks to the beliefs of many of our pillars of society and government. Beliefs such as the primacy of foreskins, which are apparently much more significant than love, commitment, values, fidelity.... That little flap of skin must really be powerful. And it cuts (literally) both ways—sometimes possessing the flap is equally problematic, depending on who’s pulling down your pants.

It is time for a “love jihad”, apparently. Just ask the vigilantes of the Hindu Rakshak Samiti (HRS) in Maharashtra, who have adopted this lovely name to describe the mission of their all-male squad to save Hindu women from Muslim men. They promise that such liaisons will have “consequences”.

Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word,

By thee, old Capulet, and Montague,

Have thrice disturb’d the quiet of our streets

Soon my daughter and nephew will be able to relate all too well to the angst-ridden teenagers in Romeo And Juliet. They might not literally moon about under scented balconies, but one can be equally lovelorn standing in line at the deli or crossing Broadway during rush hour. They’ll probably bring home some scurvy knaves and drive us crazy before they grow up. We’ll probably turn into intransigent ossified adults and there will be much slamming of doors and rolling of eyes. But I hope our quarrels will be based on taste and temperament and not on our preconceived notions about this group or that group.

In this instance, Shakespeare ultimately took the optimistic view. Romeo and Juliet died, but their families stopped fighting after they saw the bodies piled up in the lamp-lit vault. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen in India any time soon. Despite the recent decree by the Satrol khap panchayat in Hisar, Haryana, allowing some inter-caste marriages, Indian adolescents for the most part must restrict their moonstruck moments to very specific demographics, or pay a heavy price. More than 400 years after the fictional events in Verona, we live in a place where for too many people it is safer to hate than to love.

For never was a story of more woe

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

Also Read | Sohaila’s previous Lounge columns

More From LiveMint

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon