The journalist Elizabeth Flock was in her early 20s when she moved to Mumbai. Though she was wary of overromanticising India, she was immediately taken with what appeared to be an Indian attitude toward romance itself. “In Mumbai, people seemed to practice a showy, imaginative kind of love,” she writes in The Heart Is a Shifting Sea. She wondered if there was wisdom to this brand of passion: “When I arrived in Mumbai after my dad’s third divorce, the city seemed to hold some answers.” The Heart Is a Shifting Sea is the culmination of Ms Flock’s search for those answers: a heavily reported work of nonfiction centred on three couples. There’s Maya and Veer, Marwari Hindus; Sabeena and Shahzad, Sunni Muslims; and Parvati and Ashok, Tamil Brahmin Hindus. Maya pursues Veer brazenly after spotting him at a wedding; Maya’s parents object to the union, so they elope. Sabeena and Shahzad meet just once before their engagement. Parvati and Ashok find each other through a matrimony website with the help of their concerned families. Like Katharine Boo — who synthesised hours of research into a cinematic account of slum life in Behind the Beautiful Forevers — Flock writes about her subjects with omniscient authority. But unlike Ms Boo, who was working across formidable economic and linguistic barriers, Ms Flock has embedded herself among educated, English-speaking, middle-class Indians. Ms Flock’s subjects read novels by Chimamanda Adichie and Jeffrey Eugenides, and watch Friends reruns. Marriage is hard for these couples in the ways that it can be hard for couples anywhere. They fight over money and work, overbearing in-laws and traffic stops. They struggle with infidelity, infertility, miscarriages, anxiety and depression, and the trauma of childhood abuse. But their lives are also difficult in culturally specific ways. As writers like Siddhartha Deb and Akash Kapur have explored, the rapid global economic growth of the 21st century has upended nearly all aspects of Indian life.
What this looks like is Maya, armed with a master’s degree, cooking elaborate meals for the in-laws who have confiscated her mobile phone. Or Ashok, an aspiring novelist, telling his father that while it’s true his peers have largely abandoned arranged marriage, he’d still like his parents’ help finding a spouse. India, like rural America, has the dubious honour of being perpetually discovered anew by wide-eyed journalists. One of Shahzad’s side-hustles entails offering foreigners a tour of Mumbai; its highlights, Ms Flock notes, include a stop at a slum (where they “could feel a mix of pity and awe at all the poor, resourceful people and take photos”) and a trip to a Bollywood studio (where “the foreigners laughed at the dance numbers”). Ms Flock strives mightily to avoid cliché, with mixed success. (Take her opening line: “In Mumbai, people say the monsoons make everyone fall in love.”) And for all its sophistication, the book feels compelled to remind readers of the basics: that caste divisions were said to have originated in ancient India, that Gandhi was father of the nation and so on. Still, on balance, Ms Flock is a careful, diplomatic interpreter of modern Indian life. Distilling large swaths of culture and history into brief, well-deployed asides, she keeps her focus on the couples themselves. It’s a good strategy. What’s extraordinary about The Heart Is a Shifting Sea is the apparent ease with which Ms Flock has unlocked these marriages. The reader is taken into the heart of their domestic lives, and allowed to linger as Ms Flock gently excavates the childhood superstitions, religious beliefs and political upheavals that have left a mark on these particular unions. The result is deeply engrossing. As other journalists — most recently, Mansi Choksi, writing in Harper’s — have observed, social and legal rules can make the cost of a failed marriage particularly exorbitant for low-income Indians. If a marriage unravels, death or destitution may follow. In one scene, Maya’s maid, Pallavi, briefly considers leaving her unfaithful husband but loses her nerve: “All the money she’d saved cleaning houses was in a bank account in his name.” For Pallavi’s employers — and for Sabeena and Shahzad, and Parvati and Ashok — the stakes aren’t so dire. What they’re after is just a small piece of the good life. The Heart Is a Shifting Sea is a sober portrait of middle-class yearning — an earnest inquiry into what it is one might reasonably dream of finding in marriage. Maya and Veer like to joke that in the obsessive early days of their relationship, things were like biryani rice — “wild, with a lot of spices.” But as Maya concludes: “Who wants to eat biryani every day? No one.” THE HEART IS A SHIFTING SEA Love and Marriage in Mumbai By Elizabeth Flock Harper 358 pp; $27.99
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