Chasing Freedom through Romantic Love in Popular and Literary Fiction
In post-1990s India, romantic love is increasingly a fungible commodity. It is an emotion that is separable from the self and subject to a process of self-evaluation and rational judgment. It is evaluated because it must fulfill a function, that of confirming a revenue generating entrepreneurial alpha-masculinity. The extent of one’s successful self-transformation toward this kind of individual freedom is evaluated through one’s ability to acquire a romantic partner, and one’s emotion for that partner is therefore also a means to an end; a measurement of one’s own financial success. In this way, the realms of romantic love and work are linked to each other. The competitive man achieves the prize of freedom and of romantic love by commodifying components of himself, including his emotions. Women are not the subjects of freedom but solely the vehicles through which men can measure the success of their own self-transformation into free subjects, with freedom becoming a synonym for revenue-generating capacity. Post-1990 Indian novels are a rich resource for exploring these ontologies of emotion, asking: what constraints are built into different kinds of “freedom?” What sacrifices must be made? How must the self be shaped?
Freedom Inc. in the Novels of Chetan Bhagat
Chetan Bhagat is the most popular English language writer in India today. He initially turned to writing as a break from his international investment banking career. Together, his eight novels have sold millions of copies and almost all have inspired Bollywood films. His writing offers an aspirational vision that revolves around India’s place in the global economy. The stories embrace a free market capitalism, revolving around individual empowerment and entrepreneurialism. His novels have overwhelmingly male protagonists who succeed when they transform themselves into revenue streams but do so in a way that elevates India’s position within the global economy. In an echo of Gurcharan Das’s representation of India’s economic liberalization as its true era of independence, Bhagat represents this version of individual freedom as the only route toward national freedom. This coupling of individual freedom with national liberalization is apparent in Bhagat’s novel, One Night at the Call Center.
This novel defines a masculinized individual freedom by setting up a dichotomy between unfree men defined as “losers” who are trapped within a nexus of constraints that they cannot overcome, and men who successfully construct themselves as entrepreneurs of their lives. The “loser” is one who possesses no capital; he fails to sell himself in exchange for money or social respect and therefore must also give up the prospect of love. The winner, the free man, is one who manages to turn himself into a revenue stream. Each novel sets up a bildungsromanian structure beginning with a “loser” at odds with his social order and rejected by the girl he desires. After a journey of overcoming obstacles, the “loser” becomes a hero and is rewarded with the girl. In line with this basic plot structure, One Night at the Call Center ends triumphantly with the following words:
I used to feel I was a good for nothing non-achiever. But that is not true. After all, I helped save lots of jobs at a call center, taught my boss a lesson, started my own company, was chosen over a big catch NRI groom by a wonderful girl and now I even finished a whole book. This means that i) I can do whatever I really want ii) God is always with me and iii) there is no such thing as a loser after all.
The protagonist, Shyam, attains freedom—“I can do whatever I really want”— because he achieves an income stream that is not dependent on a boss who buys his labor. Rather his income depends on his own management of his self as capital. This is confirmed by his boast that he has “started his own company” and “finished a whole book.” Shyam here is entrepreneur of himself, “being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings.” As a result, Shyam is “chosen over a big catch NRI groom by a wonderful girl.” The last words of the passage “there is no such thing as a loser after all,” are aimed at Bhagat’s many small-town underemployed male readers, giving them the confidence that they, like Shyam, may have thought of themselves as “losers” but can also succeed in transforming themselves.
Bhagat represents Shyam’s success in terms of him having won the ultimate freedom—“I can do whatever I really want.” But, in reality, this seemingly broad conception of freedom is a narrow one, reduced to the freedom to compete, the freedom to earn, the freedom to produce oneself according to what will be rewarded by the market. Freedom Inc. ignores the ways that such freedom is still governed by the constraints of the market as well as the discursive constraints that shape a subject, such as that of a compulsory and competitive heterosexuality. The male entrepreneur’s success is measured by whether he is sexually rewarded by the girl of his choice by the end of the novel.
What, then, does it mean to be an entrepreneur in relation to love? If the competitive self is an income stream, the components of the self are what can be commodified in order to generate that income stream. Within this framework, the ontology of emotions undergoes a drastic change. Eva Illouz writes that emotions, including love, are now understood as objects of rational analysis that can be detached from the subject for control and clarification. Such an emotional ontology makes intimate relationships evaluable according to abstract criteria so that they are transformed into cognitive objects that can be compared with each other and be subjected to a cost–benefit analysis. Illouz elaborates: “when we use commensuration to help us decide things, value is based on the trade-offs we make between different elements of the decision. Indeed, the process of commensuration makes intimate relationships more likely to be fungibles, that is, objects which can be traded or exchanged.” Emotions and romantic relationships become exchangeable consumer choices, which stand in as metrics for the successful attainment of Freedom Inc.
Bhagat’s characters compare and trade intimate relationships, and therefore romantic emotions, just as if they are commodities. Within this consumer model of choice as individual freedom, Shyam’s girlfriend Priyanka faces constant pressure from her mother to marry well. Via marriage websites like shaadi.com, Priyanka encounters marriage as an economy of abundance, where the self must choose and maximize her options, using techniques of cost–benefit analysis and efficiency. She finally chooses to marry an NRI Indian man, Ganesh, who works for Microsoft and is “well settled” in the United States because this would be a more profitable choice. Shyam is hurt but understands, asking: “How am I going to succeed against Mr. Perfect Match Ganesh? A house with a pool, a car that costs more than ten years of my salary, freaking working for the world’s top company … . No way I could ever buy a Lexus. Maybe a Maruti 800, one day but that’s about it… Maybe Priyanka’s mom was right too—her daughter was stuck with a loser.” Despite its generation of sympathy for Shyam the “loser,” the narrative perspective does not contest this economized account of romantic love or of what counts as freedom. All the characters leverage the idea that the romantic encounter should be the result of the best possible choice of mate, who is himself the man who has best commodified himself to generate an income that can buy other commodities. A coworker tells Priyanka: “Marry him sooner, you get to drive the Lexus sooner.” When evaluating life partners, Priyanka herself performs a slippage between the man she considers a “decent human being”—a category that usually encompasses values, emotions, and morality—and the man who is likely to end up “richer.” Under Freedom Inc., the definition of “decent human being” itself changes from an ethical register to an economic one.
These passages in Bhagat resonate with Eva Illouz’s account of neoliberal love as a market, which turns the search for a partner into an economic transaction. The result of the economization of love is that Shyam must have his masculinity confirmed in both the private sphere—that usually concerned with romantic emotion—and the public sphere of economic exchange. Both spheres become intertwined with each other, each mirroring the other, absorbing each other’s mode of action and justification, and ensuring that “instrumental reason be used in and applied to the realm of emotions and, conversely, making self-realization and the claim to a full emotional life become the compass of instrumental reason.”
Freedom as Character in Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy: An Alternative Model of Autonomous Choice
Bhagat’s version of Freedom Inc. is the product of particular limiting contexts and conditions, producing some choices while displacing others. In this section, I argue that its cost is that people are not seen on account of their characters—those embodied moral referents and values that constitute one’s responsibility to other individuals within one’s community— but solely in terms of their characteristics like personal preferences, economic achievements, or sexual desirability.
In contrast to this model of love by characteristics, Illouz explains her definition of character-driven love through the example of Jane Austen’s heroines who exercise their freedom in the realm of love by molding their selves to a moral purpose that transcends their desires and interests, thereby confirming their obligations to others. Reading Sense and Sensibility, Illouz argues that even though Elinor Dashwood is in love with Edward Farrars, she rejoices when he does not break his engagement with Lucy for her sake because “breaking his promises to others would have made him morally unworthy. Clearly, Elinor’s allegiance to her moral principles has precedence over her love for Edward, in the same way that his engagement to Lucy must take precedence over his feelings for Elinor.” In the context of love and courtship, self-interest takes a backseat because character designates that both lovers derive their personal sense of value directly from their capacity to enact moral codes and ideals, even if the result is the lovers’ potential separation. The self ’s freedom, then, is performed through one’s embodiment of publicly agreed on moral codes, which organize a communally constructed emotional life.
Indian novels set in the decades prior to the opening up of the economy often registered a similar organization of selfhood and sensibility that was tied up with a sense of public duty toward one’s friends, acquaintances, relations, and love interests. Free actions were those taken when acknowledging the grounds of one’s interrelationships and acting in relation to them. Such an organization of subjectivity is represented in Vikram Seth’s renowned magnum opus, A Suitable Boy (1993), hailed as one of the longest novels ever written. The novel is set in the tumultuous years after independence from Britain and sets out a vision of individual freedom as constituted through one’s interrelationships and communities. Romantic love in A Suitable Boy is not an individualist choice but one made on the foundation” of relational ties, and through one’s embodiment of publicly agreed on moral codes.
The novel follows four families in the period leading up to the first post- Independence national election of 1952 and focuses on Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s efforts to arrange the marriage of her younger daughter, Lata, to a “suitable boy.” Lata is a nineteen-year-old university student who initially refuses to be influenced by her family members about who to marry. Her story revolves around the choice she makes between her suitors: the Muslim student Kabir, the shoemaker Haresh who is of the same community background as she is, and the Bengali poet Amit. In what seems like a blow both to the Nehruvian idea of India as a secular multi-faith republic as well as to the idea of individual freedom as autonomous choice, Lata ends up repudiating her relationship with the Muslim Kabir, even though she is in love with him. Instead, she decides to marry Haresh, a more “suitable” match in the eyes of her mother who is horrified at the prospect of Lata marrying a Muslim:
Never, never, absolutely not—dirty, violent, cruel, lecherous— … He’ll marry you—and next year he’ll say “Talaq talaq talaq” and you’ll be out on the streets. You obstinate, stupid girl! You should drown yourself in a handful of water for sheer shame.
Lata is repelled by these discriminatory views, pointing to her mother’s Muslim family friends, who her mother would never dream of characterizing in this manner: “Like Talat Khala?” demanded Lata. “Like Uncle Shafi? Like the Nawab Sahib of Baitar? Like Firoz and Imtiaz?” Nevertheless, Lata eventually relinquishes Kabir, an action rued by her best friend, Malati. Malati pleads with Lata to: “Look at the danger caused to the world by that sort of attitude” in a reference to the communal riots in Brahmpur, which in previous chapters have resulted in the near murder of dear Muslim family friends. Lata does not agree with Malati’s logic here, and she insists on making a distinction between murderous Islamophobic views and her choice to marry within her own community. Thus, even though Kabir rightly accuses her of making his faith “the basis on which you’re acting,” Lata insists that it underlies her decision only because marrying Kabir would mean losing her family. As she tells him:
It’s not possible—it never was—Because of my family … However much they irritate me and constrain me, I can’t give them up. I know that now. So much has happened. I can’t give up my mother—
Lata’s decision is significant because it refuses the idea of romantic love as an individualist choice that is the product of absolute autonomy, for, as Lata realizes, there is no such thing as an autonomy that is absolute. Instead, the self ’s freedom to choose who to love is performed through a contextual ground of preexisting relations and social ties and through a publicly held morality that individuals embody through their actions. Lata’s realization of this truth comes through the knowledge that her marriage to Kabir would never be a happy one, for they are constantly rowing their boat against the
“current of society, upstream towards the Barsaat Mahal; but surely there was a solution. Should they row harder, or agree to drift downstream? Should they row in a different river or try to change the direction of the river they were in? Should they jump out of the boat and try to swim? Or get a motor or a sail? Or hire a boatman?
Lata decides not to marry Kabir when she realizes that there is no solution. Having to row against the tide of social norms and publicly agreed on moral values means that their mixed marriage “wouldn’t work. No one else will let it work.” Indeed, the sheer effort of maintaining a relationship in these circumstances means that Kabir and Lata’s interactions “always had a somewhat illogical, incomplete, and insubstantial feel about them… Kabir was straightforward in his conversations with everyone except Lata, and he wondered if she too might not be at her most complex and difficult when she was with him.”
Lata’s eventual choice to marry Haresh is depicted as the product of a truer autonomy than her previous choice to marry Kabir because it is made on the basis of a communally constructed emotional life. The novel hints that this is the right choice because it is the one that will be the most likely to result in Lata’s happiness. At the same time, the novel rues that this is the case, pointing to the tragic reality of a post-independence republic that, despite its status as a democratic secular nation, increasingly succumbs to communal politics and an extremist majoritarian Hinduism. This is why, despite setting up Lata’s marriage to Haresh as the choice most likely to ensure her happiness, Seth infuses their wedding with a sense of pathos; for many characters, the reciting of the gayatri mantra during the ceremony brings to mind the enraged chanting of a murderous Hindu mob on the rampage. It is a reminder that while Lata’s choice to give up Kabir is different from the Islamophobic rage of the mob, they are both products of the same social context of communal strife.
In this moment at the end of the novel, Seth seems to gesture toward an as-yet-unrealized future, when religious minorities are able to live alongside and with the Hindu majority without victimization. In this respect, it is significant that Seth names Lata’s first love, Kabir, after the medieval saint-poet who preached against religious dogma and insisted that people were not to be judged by predetermined religious identities but by their actions in the world. In a utopic future, the novel implies, perhaps someone like Lata would be free to marry someone like Kabir while not risking her happiness to do so. In its nuanced depiction of individual freedom as constituted by interrelationships, social ties, and publicly agreed on morality, the novel seems to enjoin its reader to work to make such a reality possible for future Latas and Kabirs.
Mukti Lakhi Mangharam, author of Freedom Inc.: Gendered Capitalism in New Indian Literature and Culture, is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, USA.
 Chetan Bhagat, One Night at the Call Center (New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2014), 253.
 Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 226.
 Bhagat, One Night at the Call Center, 253.
 Eva Illouz, Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), 36.
 Bhagat, One Night at the Call Center, 232.
 Bhagat, One Night at the Call Center, 128.
 Bhagat, One Night at the Call Center, 126.
 Eva Illouz, Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), 88.
 Illouz, Cold Intimacies, 112.
 Eva Illouz, Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014), 25.
 Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 207.
 Seth, A Suitable Boy, 1027.
 Seth, A Suitable Boy, 1114.
 Seth, A Suitable Boy, 1422.