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In ‘The Heart Is a Shifting Sea,’ Indian couples navigate domestic squalls and rapid change

“The Heart is a Shifting Sea” is a story of modern love told through the eyes of three Indian couples in Mumbai. The NewsHour’s Elizabeth Flock spent years following how these men and women navigate marriage and relationships at a moment when tradition is colliding with 21st century global culture. Flock joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss what she learned.

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  • John Yang:

    Now a story of love and marriage in a society undergoing tremendous change.

    Jeffrey Brown has the latest from our NewsHour Bookshelf, which comes from one of our own NewsHour family.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    People come together, grow apart, struggle to hold on to love and family. It’s an old story, of course, but a new book offers an unusually intimate focus in a place where tradition is colliding with 21st century global culture, Mumbai, India.

    “The Heart Is a Shifting Sea” follows three Indian couples over more than a decade.

    And I’m pleased to say its author is one of our own, my NewsHour colleague and arts producer, Elizabeth Flock.

    Nice to talk to you in this way.

  • Elizabeth Flock:

    Thanks, Jeff.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, explain first how this began, your interest in not just India, but love and marriage.

  • Elizabeth Flock:

    Well, I moved to India about a decade ago.

    And, at the time, for a combination of being homesick and restless and broke, I ended up living with a number of Indian families. And there’s perhaps no better way to understand what’s happening in a marriage than being inside the home.

    And I got really interested in the Indian marriage and in some of the changes. There’s tremendous change happening in India, social change, culture change, political and economic, and in the ways that that was placing pressure on these marriages.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You say, early on — you have a quote early in the book- “In Mumbai, people seem to practice a showy, imaginative kind of love with an eye towards spectacle.”

  • Elizabeth Flock:

    Sure.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What’s that mean?

  • Elizabeth Flock:

    Well, I think there’s this idea of over-the-top, showy declarations of love.

    If you watch Bollywood films, you will always see this happen. One of the people in the book, Maya, she sends her lover 13-tier cakes and gifts wherever he’s going.

    And some of this comes out of people’s inability to be together. There is, of course — the practice of arranged marriage is very prevalent. And so people that cannot be together with the one they love I think are more likely to show their love in over-the-top romantic ways.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, a constant theme here — we have just alluded to it already — is this clash of tradition with modernity, because the couples you’re dealing with are middle-class couples open to the world, but still so bound by arranged marriages, parental involvement, right?

  • Elizabeth Flock:

    Yes. Yes.

    And I think that’s creating a lot of tension for people and for couples. One thing that I consistently saw is that one-half of the couple might be, you know, consuming Western culture, changing ways, and the other half might be more tied to previous generations.

    Often, it’s the woman in the relationships that I followed, because Indian women are being educated more, going to work more. They’re, in fact, watching pornography more, maybe having more affairs.

    And in many cases, you will see, perhaps, in the couples I followed, husbands struggling to deal with that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The women are all doing that, but, also, I mean, what comes through continually is this continuing struggle for women, right?

  • Elizabeth Flock:

    Mm-hmm.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    They are still — the inequities of marriage.

  • Elizabeth Flock:

    Yes, absolutely.

    I mean, arranged marriage still is very prevalent. There are arranged marriages that are happy. There are some that are deeply unhappy and that are born out of violence and cruelty. Child marriage is still practiced in parts of India.

    And Indian women have been making their voices increasingly heard. You look at the MeToo movement of now in the U.S. Well, India had that moment five years ago, after the 2012 gang rape of a student, and, at that time, thousands of women came out to the streets to say that wasn’t OK.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

    So, just use one example of the three couples, Maya and Veer, and if I ask you sort of what surprised you the most in getting to know these couples if you look at them.

  • Elizabeth Flock:

    Yes.

    I think it was, with all three couples, that I would go back to them. I would go to spend a reporting trip, live with them, work — go to work with them, travel alongside them, eat alongside them, and I would feel like I had a handle on their marriage. And then I would go back a year later, and I would find that things were radically different.

    I might step away from it and feel like they were on the verge of a divorce, and then I would come back and things had changed, which I think is probably true in any marriage.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes, in any place.

  • Elizabeth Flock:

    In any place.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Elizabeth Flock:

    But just how radically things had changed.

    And I think part of that is also this additional pressure on Indian marriages because of how rapidly things are changing.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, that’s what I wanted — because a lot of what you’re detailing are the stuff of a marriage anywhere, right?

  • Elizabeth Flock:

    Yes. Mm-hmm.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Getting together, having all kinds of stress.

    But there’s so — clearly, because of the detail here, clearly comes through the ways that Indian culture still impinges on this very personal side of life.

  • Elizabeth Flock:

    Yes, and particularly for the middle class.

    All three couples in this book are middle-class. And there is this idea of middle-class morality anywhere in the world and the idea that people will talk, that even if you feel like you might want to test the boundaries — and, in many cases, the people in these couples were — the neighbors might talk, the wider community might talk, your in-laws, who may live in your home, and in which case you’re going to face repercussions for testing those boundaries.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You were just talking about how much time you spent with them.

    And you’re going through very stressful, painful, vulnerable times, right? How did you get people to allow you to do that?

  • Elizabeth Flock:

    I think it was a product of time.

    You know, so often, as a reporter, we have to parachute into places. We don’t have much time. We have to make sense of the story as fast as we can.

    And because I started this back in 2008, when I first got interested and met these couples informally, I think, over time, building that trust was really important. And, you know, still being around 10 years later, when people are sort of saying, what are you still doing here, I think, was really important.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. Were there moments along the way where they said, off-bounds, off-limits?

  • Elizabeth Flock:

    A little bit.

    And I’m sure there were some side conversations in languages where I didn’t understand what was happening.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Elizabeth Flock:

    But, for the most part, I think people either forgot I was there maybe a little bit, but more so hoped that I would show the totality of their story.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Important question that’s an inevitable question for an outsider telling the story, right? Any of us, as journalists, go into places, and it’s hard to tell about an outside culture.

    But India has been particularly romanticized, right…

  • Elizabeth Flock:

    Indeed.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    … in many ways.

    How did you avoid the cliches? How did you deal with that?

  • Elizabeth Flock:

    Mm-hmm, romanticized, idealized.

    But, also, I think we often hear the most salacious details only out of India. As a reporter, that can be frustrating to see only gang rapes and forced marriages or Bollywood love.

    In this book, I really tried to show to show the reality of those things, but also show the banal and mundane that we all have to deal with in our marriages and within our families, which is, you know, very universal, and also to acknowledge those cliches, you know, a Bollywood romance of lovers along the beach while the rain is coming down under an umbrella, meeting on the beach because that’s only way that they can have privacy, because they’re not going to get it in their joint family home.

    And so meeting on a public beach is actually the most private place that they can meet, and acknowledging that those are cliches, but they’re also very — a ubiquitous image in India.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    OK.

    “The Heart Is a Shifting Sea- Love and Marriage in Mumbai.”

    Elizabeth Flock, thank you very much.

  • Elizabeth Flock:

    Thank you, Jeff.

  • John Yang:

    You can read an excerpt from “The Heart Is a Shifting Sea” on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour. And we hope you will.

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