South Asian Love in Today’s America

How the Heer-Ranjhas of the past have influenced the conception of love in the Desi community today

“And Heer replied to her father, ‘As wine-bibbers cannot desert the bottle, as opium-eaters cannot live without opium, so I cannot live without Ranjha. As the stain of mango juice cannot be washed away from clothes, so the stain of love cannot be erased when once the heart has fallen a victim…”

Waris Shah

Love is such an indescribable thing. Humans have tried throughout history to encapsulate its meaning and purpose through sonnets, books, scientific theories, you name it — and to no real fruition. It works in such mysterious ways, bringing immense joy to some, and absolute ruin to others. And over time, we have begun to rate love according to these outcomes. We now have conceptions of “healthy love” and “unhealthy love” and everything in between. The things we do to try to intellectualize emotion…

According to this unspoken rating system that I have yet to fully understand myself, I have noticed that the way some South Asians view love is so very unhealthy. Obsession, possession, jealousy, drama, suffering — all the things that cause the love health-o-meter to cry in despair — are common aspects of many of the South Asian relationships I have seen in modern day America. After having my tenth friend describe to me the same unhealthy characteristics, I started looking for a why. Why were all my South Asian friends considering No, Never, and Not-in-a-Million-Years in spite of, or perhaps because of, these warning signs?

I put a good long five minutes of thought into this conundrum, and came up with this (not-so-expert) opinion:

cultural context

For the group of us Desis who grew up in the States, particularly those of us with little opportunity to travel back to the motherland, the perception we have of our culture is dated to the time during which our parents immigrated from their countries; let’s say late 1900s, so 1960s-1990s. This article applies less so to the Desis who have recently immigrated to the States, having already experienced the modern-day Westernization of the homeland with all its associated sociocultural impacts.

Without getting into the various, nuanced subcultures of the different echelons of South Asian societies, arranged marriages were the status-quo back in the day. Most young men and women expected to be introduced and eventually married off to someone of their families’ choosing. Love was taboo and forbidden for many, putting into question the honor of the families of the couple involved, particularly the woman’s. The few examples of love that existed historically — Sassi-Punnu, Soni-Mahiwal, Heer-Ranjha, Laila-Majnu — were as dramatic as it gets, all ending in death and agony. The love portrayed in these stories was never manifested; the focus was always the struggle to attain, with many extracting a deeper metaphor from these tales about the relationship between humans and the Divine.

family structure

Children learn how to give and receive love from their parents, so culture’s impact on a developing mind’s conception of love cannot be taken in isolation from the family environment.

For many South Asian families within the States, the strains of immigration, compounded by the patriarchal norms within which parental relationships were born, have caused fragmented marriages, strung together only by the shame associated with divorce. Displays of love and affection between spouses, which were rare at baseline (modesty is big in South Asian societies), have only become rarer due to these strains.

With a nonexistent parental model for children in the household, perhaps stories like Heer-Ranjha, made more accessible by Bollywood’s modernized plotlines, took over as the prime source for understanding love, thus instilling the desire for those “unhealthy” characteristics in the search for a partner.

(An aside but worth mentioning — the family structure itself is also definitely contributory towards the pull for the “unhealthy”. The enmeshed family system is quite common in South Asian American households, with many different factors contributing to this phenomenon (imo: basic understanding of family purpose, fear of unknown, bias and racism). The interdependence that is characteristic of this relationship pattern prevents the formation of a strong sense of self and leads to low self-esteem. Wanting to find a sense of identity through someone else, investing your all into another human being, both characteristics of an unhealthy relationship, can reasonably be linked to such a family system.)

Shifting our lens to American relationships today, love is the norm. Arranged marriages are almost never heard of in mainstream American society, with most individuals waiting for “the one” to spend the rest of their lives with. Whether one approach towards relationships is better than the other is a different conversation altogether, with a variety of differing opinions on all sides, but I do find it interesting to place the concept of love that once prevailed throughout South Asian societies into the context of modern-day American relationships. What emerges is something that is, perhaps, incompatible. To try to attain a passionate, all-consuming, devotional love is bound to end in disappointment, because this sort of love isn’t meant to be captured; its capture leads to its demise. Its burn lies in its chase, with attainment the extinguisher of its fire, leaving you with nothing but love’s ashes to pick up and deal with for the rest of your life.

And even if we put the outcome aside, how would one go about finding such a love in modern day America? In a world that has commodified humans, providing us with endless options of people to swipe through, where is the potential for devotion and obsession? For the late 1900s Desi individual, when much of public society was gender segregated, accessibility was low and the question of “what else is out there” less common. Now, with seemingly endless options available at the tip of our fingers, running after someone, committing, and looking past flaws may not feel as necessary. So, more likely than not, the search for such a love would leave one empty-handed.

This is not to say that South Asian Americans all use Laila-Majnu as our prototype for #RelationshipGoals. Or that we are any less capable of healthy lasting relationships than anyone else. But if these stories play a role in shaping our understanding of love (especially in the absence of parental models of a successful relationship) and we are now in an environment where love is the expectation rather than the exception, then it may be worth either redefining our understanding of love or our expectations from a relationship if we want to find congruence in this aspect of our lives. Our hearts have been programmed to want what they want, but our hearts are also fickle and given a bit of self awareness and humility, perhaps we can instill some conscious change in their desires to help us find a health-o-meter approved, longer-lasting love. Or get an arranged marriage… just like the good ol’ days.