Following the publication of a new revised edition of her book Marriage, Love, Caste and Kinship Support Shalini Grover discusses her study of conjugal relationships and love among New Delhi’s urban poor. She highlights how the research challenges common stereotypes relating to marriage and local arbitration, and how the new edition engages with debates around how India’s modernising impulses are impacting relationships and women’s agency.

Whilst undertaking doctoral anthropological research in 2000-5, I found it striking that there was a paucity of scholarship on the subjects of marriage and love from the ethnographic angle of ‘lived experiences.’ Library sections on South Asia, whether in the United Kingdom or India, where stacked with texts pertaining to formal rules in non-western contexts. Prominent monographs of the 1970s would magisterially impart the norms of kinship systems, neglecting the fluidity, dynamism and diversity of arrangements inherent in everyday marital relations. My book Marriage, Love, Caste and Kinship Support, first published in 2011 by Social Science Press, New Delhi, therefore presents a theoretical shift from the functionalist approach, offering a close scrutiny of ‘arranged marriages,’ ‘love marriages,’ ‘secondary unions’ (informal remarriages) and ‘widow relationships.’ It explores women’s (and men’s) embodied experiences of conjugal relationships, love, commitment and intimacy. The post-marriage phase is textured to reveal the emotional depth, longevity and quality of marital unions.

Photo 1: Picture of the Resettlement Colonies

The book’s focus is on New Delhi’s urban poor, mostly Scheduled Castes (SC), formerly known as ‘untouchables.’ A large proportion of my Scheduled Caste respondents belong to the sweeper caste community (i.e. Balmikis). The ethnographic weaving of marriage with caste, poverty and gender reveals how Balmiki intimate relationships are distinct from those of other Scheduled Castes. In unions that involve Balmiki women and upper-caste men, the latter have to renegotiate their domestic lives in more drastic, complicated, and unequal ways. Balmiki youth too have to mediate much harder to gain parental approval for inter-caste primary marriages. The Balmiki caste are a stigmitised urban group, and their caste loyalty has engendered a rigid ideology of endogamy. Yet, despite their peculiar socio-economic situation, I emphasise for all my respondents a ‘marginal modernity position.’ Balmikis, like other Scheduled Castes, reside and work in resettlement colonies that are connected to process of social change and globalisation. It is this ‘marginal modernity position’ that is of notable interest in connecting the ethnographic findings with provocative debates on South Asian and global modernity.

The book’s chapters set out to disentangle women’s subjectivities of the relationships they enter into and draws out contrasts and parallels. Crucially, the analytical scrutiny is on the egalitarian potential of the institution of Hindu marriage or which form of marriage serves women’s interests best and why. The findings run counter to pan-Indian assumptions, for example, the popular perception that alliances based on courtship are less stable than family-arranged unions. Accordingly, the book provides a corrective to a plethora of stereotypes; firstly regarding the stability of arranged alliances, and secondly the depiction of Scheduled Caste gender relations as more egalitarian in the social sciences.

Furthermore, a significant contribution lies in documenting women-led informal courts or ‘mahila panchayats’ in the resettlement colonies and their influence in conflict resolution. The mahila panchayat courts represent a community-based dispute settlement structure that offer personalised services to women. Mahila panchayat counsellors in the resettlement colonies articulate conservative discourses on marriage, and yet instil confidence in women, albeit in highly contradictory ways. For example, their agreements actively revolve around bargaining with patriarchy i.e. creating new spaces of symmetries for women without disrupting the status quo. In one instance, women were admonished to forgo rights pertaining to natal kin support, in exchange of other negotiated male assurances such as the elimination of domestic violence. Hitherto, for the wider resettlement community, women’s courts remain functional, successful and useful because they distance themselves from progressive ideas of gender equality. Their unique strategies of local arbitration and highly atypical court rulings will prompt readers, particularly middle-class feminists and civil society, to re-think meaning(s) of marriage and love in low-income settings.

Photo 2: Arbitration at the mahila panchayats

The 2011 imprint of my book now features as a new revised edition with Routledge and Social Science Press. I was motivated to amalgamate perspectives on both change and structural continuity, especially in light of India’s celebrated economic growth story. The present edition, with a new preface and epilogue coalesces erstwhile fieldwork reflections with the contemporary moment (2000-16). It integrates to some extent fresh data from state-run Family Courts and Crime Against Women cells (CAW cells).

Photo 3: Crime Against Women’s cell

India’s projection as a rising global economy (‘shining India’) has bolstered perceptions whereby marriage is being allied with portentous social transformations.  The advent of mixed-sex urban spaces, labour-market opportunities, the augmentation of CAW cells and Family Courts point to novel developments in New Delhi. Correspondingly, over the last 15 years the shifting aspirations in the low-income setting I conducted fieldwork in have been conspicuous. Nonetheless, what is quite telling is that a large majority of my urban respondents have not gained from India’s economic reforms. Chronic and enduring poverty, grave illnesses and the state’s failure to assist vulnerable citizens remains the reality. Thus everyday vulnerabilities continue to foster inter-generational dependencies within nuclear and joint families. This in turn explains the continued preference for family-arranged marriage that guarantee substantial post-marital entitlements. This finding is crucial for the book’s over-arching theme i.e. the materiality of support structures central to the lives of poor women, young and old.

The epilogue in the revised edition invokes gendered discourses at the Family Courts, legal-aid services and women’s grievance cells. Do these mixed-state institutional spaces support women’s choices with regard to kinship support, post-divorce arrangements and marriage preference? It suffices that given the current milieu of India’s modernising impulses, women across the social divide are being viewed by counsellors and judicial authorities as new liberal subjects. But this ideology is double-edged; women are meant to account for their own choices (e.g. opting for a love marriage) through a re-negotiation of domestic hierarchies and protracted judicial processes. The first edition made a plea to scholars and activists for furthering democracy across the diverse conjugal unions and varied pairings that women find themselves in over the life course. Despite a decade gap from earlier fieldwork, it is time once again to reinforce the plea of democratising marriage and relationships.

New Revised Edition (2017) Marriage, Love, Caste and Kinship Support: Lived Experiences of the Urban Poor in India. Routledge and Social Science Press. Taylor and Francis: United Kingdom. Available here.

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About the Author

Dr Shalini Grover is an alumna of the Gender Institute (GI), where she received her MA in 1997. She has a BA from the University of Cambridge and University of Delhi. Post her Ph.D. from the Department of Anthropology, Sussex University, she has worked at the Institute of Economic Growth (IEG), University of Delhi. She has published widely on marriage, love, kinship, legal pluralisms, formal divorce rates and labour relations. Her research can be viewed on www.drshalinigrover.com

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