When I was in college I enrolled in Anthropology “101” and bought all the required books. Before the class had even begun, I started reading them, beginning with one called Top of the World (by Hans Ruesch). I learned that traditional Eskimo husbands “shared” their wives with visitors just to be polite and that women washed their faces with seal urine. I was enthralled.
Then, on the first day of class, the professor announced that we were absolutely never to make moral judgments about any practice we read about. I had to accept just anything another culture might do. I was not enthralled. In fact, I dropped the class.
I still can’t go along with cultural relativism, but I can go along with the idea that we should be slow to judge, and thoroughly understand before we judge. Confronting another culture should make us think, not just mindlessly approve. And it ought to make us think about our own ways, not just about distant people.
The American journalist Elizabeth Flock creates just this sort of thought-provoking confrontation in her new book The Heart is a Shifting Sea: Love and Marriage in Mumbai. Based on several years she spent embedded in several Indian households, the book follows three marriages in intimate detail. We find out the private thoughts of each partner, getting to know the hidden side of a relationship in a way that’s usually impossible. The stories are can’t-put-it-down fascinating.
One thing westerners reading the book will be tempted to judge (if they’re like me) is the fact that the adults in these marriages have lives under the control of their parents. For the most part the young adults defer to their parents about who to marry (though “arranged marriage” allows for far more choice than westerners imagine). They defer on where to live, whether to start a family, and how to raise their children. They defer on what career to pursue.
One of the husbands refrains from marrying the woman he loves because his parents disapprove, and then, for years and years, withholds love and companionship from his wonderful wife. Westerners will be perplexed by all the deference to parental preferences about one’s spouse’s caste, religion, and even astrological chart.
One of the husbands desperately wants children but finds himself infertile. He would love to adopt, but doesn’t, because his father won’t allow it. By the time he’s liberated from his father’s authority, after the father dies, he’s too old to become a parent. One of the wives wants to be an artist more than anything, but tolerates going to an engineering college to please her father.
The authority of parents in this cultural setting – actually, mostly the authority of fathers – challenges western preconceptions about the parent-child relationship. We assume that a child’s capacities, or incapacities, determine the parent’s duties and prerogatives. If offspring are permanently child-like, then a parent might have to be permanently paternalistic. But in the usual case, once children can run their own lives, we expect parents to step aside.
In the traditional Indian family, it seems to be completely different. Fathers (primarily) seem to have authority simply because it’s presumed to be in the order of things that parents are to be obeyed. That never changes, no matter how much children become capable of making their own decisions.
The three marriages all wind up being troubled, though in different ways. And the way they are troubled does have a direct connection with each person’s shortage of freedom and autonomy. Westerners are sure to think they know how to do it better: “Live your own life, beyond the control of your parents!” most of us are likely to think.
Why hesitate to immediately reach that conclusion? For one, because the book so vividly raises the question as to what forms of autonomy a person must have, to live a good life. In the West we believe we know, but mostly we just never think about it.
For another, Flock makes us see a mixed picture. These people are never lonely, never directionless and never alienated. Their marriages persist, despite challenges and miseries. Sometimes a marriage gets better – and wouldn’t have if a network of family relationships hadn’t held it firmly in place.
While reading this book I was also running a Bollywood film/food series (in my living room), with the guidance of the delightful new book Bollywood Kitchen: Home-cooked Indian Meals Paired with Great Bollywood Films (by Sri Rao) as my guide. A constant theme in Bollywood movies – “The Three Idiots” and “Kapoor and Sons (Since 1921)”, for example – is the control parents have over their children’s lives, for better and for worse.
It’s not just American journalists who worry about the role of parents in the lives of adult children. Indian film makers are enamoured of family bonds, but also worried about the way parents can prevent their children from living their own lives – sometimes with tragic consequences. The moral of Flock’s book is much the same, and very convincing: to live a good life, we must be allowed to grow up and make our own choices.