What is Love to a Desi Girl?

To put it mildly, life is complex for brown girls & women. We weave our multiple identities together tactfully like they are threads making up a cashmere pashmina. There are a lot of identities that we take on and we must realize how they affect us in society, voluntarily or not. For a long time, I focused on my womanhood and my own definitions of feminism rather than the other components of my Chanachur-like identity. 

Recently, I have had much more time to explore facets of my identity and enjoy activities that I had once given up on since entering adulthood. One of those rediscovered activities: reading for pleasure. The most exciting on my list was All About Love by feminist author, bell hooks. She asks: what is love? How is it expressed? How do we teach it? Is it innate? Within us when we’re born? Is it subjective depending on our experiences as infants, toddlers, teens, then young adults and by the time we’re adults are we supposed to know what it means? How? By what means? 

bell hooks brings up the fascinating fact that love is never taught to us in the way that mathematics or basic manners are when we are young. By this observation, we come to the realization that we do not all have consistent definitions of love. We, as society, assume that our parents, upbringing, and environment will guide us to love kindly and properly. However, this may be offloading too much responsibility onto our surroundings. 

We know so much of this knowledge starts off in our formative years when we’re young. 

I thought about my time as a toddler and a child, which brought to my next favorite quarantine activity: listening to Bollywood from the ‘90s and early 2000s. I realized that I had learned a lot about romantic love from bollywood. I began watching movies when i was 5 years old, learning about culture and language along the way. However many of these movies were for people of a maturity level well beyond their teens. When it came to navigating love triangles, unrequited love, and pregnancy related death, I was well beyond my years. While there were at least some awesome songs involved (Although the dance numbers were relatively tame in the nineties), it was still much more sexual and suggestive than any soft brained toddler should be exposed to. As a brown woman growing up with these influences, I think I conceptualized and expected relationships to look a certain way: soapily dramatic and unhealthy. 

Am I being too hard on bollywood? Was it that much worse for a kid to watch Salman Khan gyrating than kissing in the Little Mermaid or cold blooded murder in Bambi? For one thing, those movies are animated and I suppose my young brain understood that it was fiction. Bollywood starred real people who looked like me. I wanted to relate to them. One theme that was (and still is) jarring in many South Asian movies is the role of woman, this is something that Disney parallels in the “princess being saved trope” but seeing a gorgeous woman who I looked up to be chased and basically harassed by the man of their dreams really formed what I thought romantic love was supposed to look like.  Furthermore, I learned that love and relationships were one of the main tenets of one’s worth and value. You still see so much of that pushed on to us through the media with the commercial success of shows like Indian Matchmaking. 

When I compare movies that my home used to play on repeat: There was at least some variation in the “love makes you whole” trope in animated movies, for example: movies about friendship like: Monsters Inc., which my parents deemed appropriate for me to watch. By contrast, Bollywood movies all followed a very similar formula:  Where boy meets girl and ends up with her at the end (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dil To Pagal Hai, Mujhse Dosti Karogi). 

This is the main plotline and goal of this media, even the songs have little to do with anything else. From a young age, we’re inundated and learn the words: pyar, ishq, prem, mohabat, etc that are featured in every song. Bollywood would be a great life lesson in love if life actually worked that way. The problem is: South Asia still deals with issues in their legislation in regards to marital rape so a man obsessing and harassing is not especially romantic, female sexuality is not as liberated as the movies show, and on a much more trivial note, most men are not as charming as Shah Rukh Khan.

Growing up in society, especially a mostly white society, I had some hard lessons to learn (and still do). If you’re an impressionable kid like I was, Bollywood can set you up to view the world in a reality that doesn’t exist. This is not to say kids should not be brought up with Bollywood because frankly, watching the films were one of my most beloved formative memories, a great cultural window surrounded in a world of whiteness, and songs that still incite indescribable nostalgia in me. I do, however, wish South Asian films and media contained other topics and tropes that were more widespread and less focused on your worth as a person when someone else loves you (this does not mean having to do with war or terrorism, as that was the other option if not romance). 

In the end, it all comes down to the original question, but refocused: what is love for us, desi folk? How do we teach it in South Asian households? How do we teach it so that love does not seem worth and metric based? By what we achieve? This goes for self love as well. It took me time due to the stimuli around me that I could be single and still love and respect myself.

About Lipika

Lipika Raghunathan is a marketing associate and creative living in New York City (where she has resided for her entire life). She graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University in 2018 with a bachelor’s in psychology and was *this* close to minoring in South Asian Studies. 

When she’s not writing poetry, Lipika probably drinking iced coffee and watching Youtube videos about Kamala Harris… or Friends. Check out her portfolio here: lipikaraghunathan.com 

Instagram: lipi_raghunathan

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