Love between a man and a woman is one of the most complicated emotional relationships that develop among human beings. Romantic love is more important for women than it is for men, because men grow up with a sense of identity that exceeds the boundaries of family life. Men are given the opportunity to spread themselves over large spans of spaces--intellectuality, sports, friends, music, nature, and moreover they have the mobility to actually explore the world around them. Women on the other hand are raised within the confinement of their homes, and they are accustomed to be emotionally centred on the family. Whereas teenage boys burst out with the recognition of the vast world outside, the taste or freedom, and the exploration of sexuality girls when they reach puberty become even more confined. They start spending all their time obsessing over romantic novels, TV serials, fashion magazines, and phone calls from the desired boys. Girls learn from a very early age that they have to be physically appealing in order to attract men, and they also learn that finding a man to build a family around is their main mission in human life.
A woman may have a job, education, career and friends, but her family is her ultimate essential. Similarly family is important for a man as well, but for him, other things exist too. Marriage and family maybe fifty percent or even be seventy (pushing it!) percent of a Bangali man's life, but for a woman it is like two hundred percent! Romantic love is, whether or not we like it, one of the biggest emotional concerns of a Bangali woman's life. It is something indeed worth thinking about because our sense of love is pretty clouded as it is. We never really analyse romantic love with a rational lens. Our sense of what love between a man and woman actually means, how it is politicised, how it is socially and culturally manipulated via print and electronic media, and finally how in most cases it creates the biggest hindrance for women to become complete-independent-free individuals remain relatively unexplored.
Like anger, fear, hatred, humour, love is an emotion. This emotion, however, is different from other emotions because material elements like marriage, childbirth, divorce, dating, etc., build up upon this emotion to give a person's life a definite direction and shape. Love is the only emotion that channels itself into paving a path for our life. Our sense of love is constructed by the world around us. We learn how to love a man, and how to care for him not only by our instinct, but by the socially expected gender roles. A woman may totally love a man, and refuse to cook for him, but it would not be acceptable behaviour for a 'woman in love' according to our cultural codes. Social needs to sustain families on specifically prescribed gender roles also instruct us on how to love a man. There is a hidden code to exploit women in the whole cultural and social scheme of romantic love, mostly because the concept of romantic love has been authored by men, and is based on men's fractured understanding of women as primarily sexual objects.
As women we need to understand the specificity of love between a man and a woman according to Bangali culture. We need to look at the specific signals we get from literature and the media. We need to understand the forces of cable TV layering up on our Bangali sense of love in creating yet another dimension of love and romance. We need to ask ourselves as women, when our biology and our society make us susceptible to being exploited and alienated from ourselves in romantic love, how hard do we have to work in order to battain a sense of balance in relationships?
I have often asked myself 'can there be a female Devdas?' Where do we find a leading female character totally struck by the complications of failed romance, driven to death via drugs or drinks, and finally dying in front of the lover's home? If we try to imagine a woman in the role of Devdas how would we feel? The answers are not clear, because there have not been many Bangali female writers writing about romantic feelings, rather Bangali literature if full of instances of male writing up female characters struck by love, and therefore, Bangali women's imagination and instinct about romance is heavily influenced by male ideals and expectations. Devdas is considered a milestone of romance in Bangla literature, but if we actually look at the romantic dynamics between Devdas and Paru we will notice many asymmetries.
Devdas is a story of unfulfilled desire. There are failed promises, violence, negligence, drinking, and finally death. Pain in this case accentuates the sense of romance. It seems as if pain is essential in order to make a love story truly a love story. Pain is always considered an integral part of prem in Bangla literature, as poet Sunil Gangopadhay points out, 'pain as an emotion is more intense than pleasure.' Considering pain as an integral part of romantic love is not a phenomenon peculiar only to Bangla literature, but the specificity of romantic love lies the predominance of male writers creating and controlling the notion of romantic love, which in many cases, demand the female characters to savour pain as pleasure. When Bangali women say 'no,' it is taken as a 'yes,' and it leads to an understanding of women as incapable beings to directly convey their emotions. There is always a gap between what they say and what they feel. This convoluted representation of female characters, and their preoccupation with pain as an element of pleasure is highly destructive for women, because it raises our tolerance level to male violence to a greater level.
Take for example 'No Honnotey' by Moitreye Devi, it is probably the closest one can get to finding a female Devdas in Bangla literature. In 'No Honnotey' the sense of pain and minor physical violence inflicted by the lover is made to appear as highly sensual. There is a scene in the book where the main character Ruu is kissing her lover in the library, and she finds tears running down her cheeks, and she says to herself, 'is this harsha (joy) or bishaad (sadness)?' This is the ultimate dilemma of romantic love in Bangla literature: you never know where pain ends and pleasure begins.
The ultimate love story of Hindu mythology is the one between Radha and Krishna. This love story that is bound to end in disaster since Krishna is not only much younger than Radha, but he is also her nephew. Their love story begins with Krishna alluring Radha, and ends with him leaving Radha completely submerged in love. There is a myth that, after Krishna left Brindabon for Mothura, Radha became a bird in grief and kept calling, 'Krishna Kotha? Krishna Kotha?' It is not a simple love story, but entails the love story between God and the devotee. It is also the epitome of love story, retold for centuries, used as the template for the male female dynamics in Bangla literature as well as Bollywood films.
Recent scholars studying South India bhakti poetry dating back to fifteenth century have speculated some very crucial dimensions of erotic love between Krisha and Radha. They have pointed out the utter asymmetry built into the love relation. The heroine is always depicted as relatively helpless in comparison to her lover. She can only wait for him, and suffer because of his absence. He is, on the other hand, free to come or not, to show compassion if he wishes, to save her life or simply let her die of love. For her the entire universe proclaims to his remoteness, both physical and emotional. She is dwarfed by the inherent inequality between them, and most interestingly she blames her situation in part on her womanhood. Being a woman puts her precisely in a position of helpless dependence. She is not even in control of her own emotions. Her heart is not hers to control as if a part of her self is split away. This sense of pain, and conflicted personality is a recurrent pattern in the female representation in South Indian bhakti poetry written between fifteenth and eighteenth century. Most poetry ends in the man showing up, and the woman giving in and making love.
Isn't that what a lot of us do as women? We take violence, negligence, emotional unavailability from men, and always forgive them at the end. As Bangali women, we always learn to love our husbands or lovers as if they were our sons. I have heard many women say that they feel that their lovers are just like their little sons, and therefore, any mistakes on the men's part are to be forgiven and forgotten.
In any case, as women we must be very careful while loving a man. We must remember that nobody is watching our backs but ourselves. We must remember that we are walking on egg shells, and if we are not careful enough to learn to put ourselves as the top priority in our heads, we are doomed to end up in uneven and violent patterns of love relationships.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005