A writer from Mumbai, India, Mansi Choksi is known for her long-form literary journalism covering complex sociopolitical issues, from the women fighters of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka to a singing competition in Dubai’s labour camps to a lavender marriage in India.
Her first book, “The Newlyweds: Rearranging Marriage in Modern India,” is a literary investigation into India as a society in transition through the lens of forbidden love: intercaste, interfaith, and queer. “I wanted to know if love can endure with dignity if it becomes tainted with shame,” Choksi writes in the introduction. “I learned there is a great power in longing for love, but once we attain that love at the cost of moral injury, that space can become filled with a longing for acceptance.”
Through parallel stories of three young couples — Neetu and Dawinder, Arif and Monika, and Reshma and Preethi — Choksi explores the personal cost of pursuing love against the pervasive forces of casteism, religious bigotry, and homophobia.
In today’s India, stories of love as resistance are powerful, necessary and even brave. But Choksi resists facile narratives of “love conquers all.”
In “The Newlyweds,” nothing is black and white: the stories are messy, and don’t shy away from inconvenient truths in romantic relationships, even — if not especially — in subversive ones like these. “After they risk everything for the sake of love,” she reflects on the three couples, “each of them is tormented by one central question: Was it worth it?”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What drove you to write about forbidden love in India?
A few years ago on a reporting assignment, I stood inside a bedroom in rural Haryana where a young couple was shot dead in their sleep. The woman’s brother had pointed a gun into her pregnant stomach to take revenge for bringing dishonour with their elopement. Shortly after the murders, the assailant was arrested.
It made me think about how it was nearly impossible to create an environment for justice in a country that essentially runs on two parallel systems — one, the state and its laws seeking to protect the rights of individuals, and the other, an invisible system of collective morality that thrives on a competing set of values.
If you had to distill the essence of what “The Newlyweds” is about, what would you say?
In India, the idea of modernity is a moving frontline between the anarchy of freedom and the peaceful order of tradition. In my opinion, nowhere is this crisis of meaning deeper than in the choices young people make about who to love. In the end, we make our calculations between tradition and rebellion and arrive at our own truths about Indian modernity.
I wanted to write a book that dwells in the afterlife of the kind of love stories we consume in pop culture and use that space to investigate the larger forces that make us who we really are. What does grand love look like when it is reassigned into the smallness of daily life which is shaped by religious bigotry, homophobia, casteism and income inequality?
My hope for this book is that it will ultimately not just be a reflection on how young love forms and falls apart, but a portrayal of India as a society in transition.
In your introduction, you write that “the pursuit of love and its aftermath was ultimately a kind of displacement.” Can you talk a bit more about this phrase?
The sense of displacement I write about comes more from our internal frameworks of morality and our own ideas of right and wrong. Some of us are raised to think of romantic love as a corruptible force or a subversion of Indian values. Some of us think of romantic love as a great adventure against the tyranny of tradition.
Rural and lower caste-class stories are hugely underrepresented in mainstream narratives of love. Yet most of your characters come from this social strata — was this deliberate?
Yes, it was deliberate, because the stakes are greater when you are not protected by the privileges of power and money.
Normally, a love story ends when the couple overcomes their odds to arrive at a “happily ever after.” But your book complicates that narrative. What were you hoping the reader walks away with?
I wanted to report past the ending you talk about, after the dramatic power of the love story or romantic tragedy fizzles out. In the end, my hope is that the reader walks away thinking about the private life of love, which can be messy, small and unheroic, but is still worth fighting for.
“The Newlyweds” is out now. You can order it here.