Of India's 1.4 billion people, less than 5% live in the most developed, most "modern" cities such as Mumbai and Delhi. The rest of the population resides in rural and semi-rural areas, and "still-developing" cities. In "The Newlyweds," journalist Mansi Choksi focuses on the lives and loves in this 95% of the country where ancient hierarchies, traditions and belief systems persist alongside the growing ubiquity of mobile phones and social media.
Over half a decade, Choksi follows three couples who oppose their community-enforced systems of caste, religion and heteronormativity to be with their chosen partners. They endanger not only their own lives but also those of their families. In the end, some of these family members also become their worst enemies.
All three couples are under the age of 35, which, as Choksi reminds us, is the case for two in every three Indians. That her project coincides with the rise of Hindu fundamentalism since the 2014 election of Narendra Modi as the country's prime minister is no accident. As she tracks the highs and lows of these young lives, we see how, despite changes such as the strikedown of Section 377 (the British-era penal code that criminalized homosexuality), fundamentalism is rooted deep within all parts of the country.
Neetu and Dawinder go against their caste-clan rules to elope. Not only do they get robbed and cheated by the so-called "Love Commando" who promises to help them, but Neetu's family engages in such violent warfare against Dawinder's family that the latter is forced to leave their ancestral land and home.
Monica and Arif reach across the ever-deepening Hindu-Muslim divide to be together. Pregnant Monica even converts to Islam so they can be married legally, only to find Arif accused of "love jihad" — an Islamophobic conspiracy theory that has caused countless violent assaults and murders — and that married life isn't the romance she had envisioned.
Distant cousins Reshma and Preethi give in happily to their desires for each other. Yet, though they gain independence and even find support from a lesbian community, their own insecurities, shame and guilt take deadly hold of them like many-tentacled, poisonous beasts.
Choksi's narrative structure braids the three couple strands cleverly so that, as the stakes keep rising, the tension escalates through cinematic jumps and cuts. Her scenes are alive with singular details, vivid language and crisp dialogue. The net effect is that we become so vested in the lives of these six people — and the collateral damage they leave in their wake — that they linger with us long after reading. This very quality might leave a reader feeling like the stories end too soon or without satisfying resolutions. But, as she writes in her introduction, her aim was to discover whether love could endure with dignity if it became tainted with shame.
And the learning she presents throughout is that, though love is powerful, when it comes at great cost, it turns into a need for acceptance. "The process of reconciliation with our choices can be both beautiful and terrible. ... Growing can look a lot like suffering and it happens when our expectations and reality collide."
Prime Minister Modi has talked often about India's unique 3-D advantage: democracy, demography and demand. With the grim journeys of these three young, aspiring couples, Choksi reminds us of the ever-growing F of Hindu fundamentalism severely handicapping those three D's.
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, book critic, instructor at Writing Workshops Dallas and PEN America, and the founder of Desi Books.
By: Mansi Choksi.
Publisher: Atria, 272 pages, $25.