By Kamayani Sharma Jun. 01, 2018
The first language of many North Indians including myself, Hindustani, has no word for romantic bonds outside of matrimony. I use “um” and “er” liberally when referring to my boyfriend, when talking to relatives and neighbours. That’s because there’s no respectable word for “boyfriend” in the language.
he other day, the Supreme Court passed a judgement affirming the right of adults to consensually live together without marriage. It’s amazing that the judiciary actually has to issue statements like this, but I’m relieved by the declaration. Earlier this year, when my boyfriend and I were looking for a place to move in, it didn’t seem like South Delhi landlords saw it quite that way.
“If they ask, you’re married,” became the tagline for our house-hunt, a phrase repeated by many a broker in that sidling, smarmy-but-well-meaning way only Delhi brokers have. Not wanting to get caught in a lie later, we persisted with the truth. When we finally met our One True Landlord through a Facebook post, posing as “friends” who wanted to split the rent, he surprised us by asking if we were in “a healthy, stable relationship”. He wanted to avoid any drama. Still, it was when we emphasised that we – two 27-year-olds – had informed our parents and weren’t risking an honour killing, that he really relaxed.
Once our landlord had ascertained that we were not going to torch his flat in the throes of a lovers’ quarrel, he introduced us to Downstairs Aunty as “a couple”. Not too married, not uncommitted – juuuust right, the Goldilocks term of the modern sanskari lexicon.
The thing about living with your non-spouse is that all the angst associated with it is often experienced as a language problem. It involves frequently referring to your partner in third person. Downstairs Aunty refers to my boyfriend as my husband, even though we suspect she’s onto us, and we are not going to correct her. It’s only for everyone else that the words matter, that make it a solid, certain thing, something with an outline and a shape. A hard fact, as they say, that can’t be easily broken.
Were we a soft fiction, then, our world fragile?
There is an illicitness and frivolity associated with being “girlfriend-boyfriend”, a lack of heft that makes the entire relationship seem disposable
Language has a way of exposing you: the words you choose reveal who you are. A poverty of language renders you even more vulnerable: As you fumble for words, you give away so much of your truth – it slips away in the gaps you try to frantically plug with “um” and “er”. I use these sounds liberally when referring to my boyfriend, when talking to relatives, neighbours and an assortment of people who provide their services as we set up home in Delhi. That’s because there’s no respectable word for “boyfriend” in Hindustani.
There are no words for a lot of contemporary phenomena but it’s not everyday that you have to explain the meaning of “Netflix and chill” to Downstairs Aunty. Your flatmate, on the other hand, is a different matter.
The first language of many North Indians including myself, Hindustani, has no word for romantic bonds outside of matrimony. This makes it almost impossible to publicly “define the relationship”, the ultimate marker of romantic seriousness. People might use the word for “friend” – dost, mitr, saheli. My grandfather, raised in a genteel, pre-Independence culture of arch sauciness, often alluded to any male friend as “sahela”. A change of vowel opened up the possibility of a playful friendship with the opposite sex. It’s not an actual word, which was the whole point, and none of those boys were my boyfriends.
I once heard the word “dostan”; a rakish uncle gave me to understand that men once used it to mean “girlfriend” in the ’60s and ’70s. It is a fair approximation of the English; there’s an element of equality here. Of course, words have always existed to describe a woman you’re going around with – “rakhail” (mistress, pejorative), “premika” (loverrrr, see: affair, torrid) to “setting”, that evergreen misogynistic description of the woman every North Indian man dreams of owning.
It’s telling perhaps that in many ways, at least in a symbolic regime that is still wedded to pre-modern notions of women’s autonomy, the tawaifs or courtesans of the 19th century seem to be the closest ancestors of the girlfriends of the 21st. Girlfriends are often women you have conversations and sex with, but who are not the caste-appropriate, at-least-notionally virginal wives that most Indian men eventually take. So what else can they be but a provisional distraction? There is an illicitness and frivolity associated with being “girlfriend-boyfriend”, a lack of heft that makes the entire relationship seem disposable, like a practice run for the final parentally approved union.
My boyfriend and I are luckier than most, to have advantages of class and caste as well as that of relatively reasonable parents. Even so, my mother’s primary anxiety had to do with how his mother would perceive me, as the sort of scarlet woman who has the temerity to shack up with her son sans mangalsutra. I understand where she’s coming from: hell, when I was a teenager in my conservative tier-2 North Indian hometown, even telephoning someone of another gender got you labelled “fast”. In fact, a survey last year revealed that more than three-fourths of the 18-25 middle-class urban population across the country was against living together without marriage. To be fair, I don’t think I would have moved in with someone who wasn’t willing or able to declare the nature of our relationship to his circle, as if it were something easily rid in the dead of night. And private rituals can be just as significant as public ones: when we signed the lease on our flat the sight of our inky squiggles side by side was proof of a life we were committing to jointly.
There was an ad for tea a few years ago, featuring a young couple surprised by a visit from the boy’s parents. They are displeased about the situation until the girl brews tea, demurely dons a dupatta and serves it to them, at which point the prospective mother-in-law warms up to her in the guise of commenting on the tea – “Buri nahin hai” – not bad. Stocking up on tea and dupattas seems to be the way to avoid censure. For my mother, it was my boyfriend’s mother’s act of giving us a microwave for the house that calmed her nerves as if this was a purifying ritual, a demonstration of bestowing izzat unto us “from the boy’s side”.
Of course, none of my relatives or neighbours back home can know what I am doing. “What’s the need to announce it?” as if I were evading taxes or dealing drugs. It’s weird being asked to report events in my life and then having to mentally chop off huge chunks of it so that what’s left is an unappetising, skeletal version of my meaty, flavourful biography, all bones.
Painters came to our apartment one Sunday. They spent some time trying to get a read on the nature of our set-up. I sauntered about in pyjamas with my laptop, while my boyfriend played the role of domestic custodian with panache. It’s possible that we didn’t act like the sort of typical straight married young couples they might have encountered – the woman managing the domestic space and the man not giving a hoot. The conclusion they arrived at regarding our relationship was that it was not a spousal one.
“Is she your sister?” one of them asked my boyfriend, as if I wasn’t even in the room. He said this rhetorically, in a manner designed to elicit a “yes”.
He was thwarted by my boyfriend’s response, “No, she’s my girlfriend.” The painter then launched into a story about how he had recently done some work in a flat occupied by a young executive who had “four girlfriends, can you believe it sir!”
His eyes were popping out of his head, the exaggerated tone invited my boyfriend to disapprove of that man’s ways. He spent the rest of the morning giving me an odd look, somewhere between a smirk and a side-eye.
“Should I just say friend from next time?” my boyfriend mused later when we discussed this.
I feel uncomfortable about that, even though it has nothing to do with the truth of our relationship. I feel uncomfortable because doing this censors the romantic thrill, edits out the companionate zest that is part of our life together, like succumbing to a form of moral policing. I feel uncomfortable because in a social context in which platonic friendships between members of dissimilar genders are regarded as a front for rip-roaring sex scandals, it makes me feel powerless, as a certain sort of woman whom a man will not accept in a way that is deemed respectable.
I feel uncomfortable because every time I have to mention my boyfriend in his absence, I have to resort to the cold anonymity of pronouns. I have to pause awkwardly mid-sentence and teeter on the rim of an utterance that will divulge too much and too little at the same time. In the old days, women couldn’t refer to their husbands by name, blushingly murmuring “mere woh”.
That archaic, delicious combination of pronouns – possessive and nominative – seems, ironically, to be the grammatical solution to this crisis of love, language and living in sin.
Kamayani Sharma writes on visual culture and teaches philosophy to undergraduates. She contributes regularly to artforum, The Caravan and ART India. In her spare time, she makes elaborate lists of things she would like to do in her spare time.