By Umang Sabarwal
A few weeks ago, we travelled from Mumbai to Titwala, a small village about two hours from the city, to talk to a group of young women about love, desire, relationships and heartbreak.
When we arrived, we had a challenge ahead of us: the post lunch challenge! The workshop was being conducted in a large room, with a screen on one side and gaddas placed against all the walls. The girls, sleepy after lunch and the day’s activities and reluctant to participate, were sitting scattered against the walls, using the gaddas as backrests. We knew that capturing their attention was going to be tough!
The participants comprised of around 200 students aged between 18 and 21 from the National Service Scheme (NSS) unit of Smt PN Doshi Women’s College. They were on a week-long service camp. They had been painting the local government school walls and planting trees along the riverbank nearby, and were camped at a local school. The classrooms where sessions were held during the day became the dorms where the students slept at night. With all the activities they were involved in, including cooking their own meals, we suspected our workshop would be quite a departure from what they had to do so far. Even so, when we got there it was evident that most of the girls were intent on napping.
We later found out that this was because through most of their afternoon sessions, they rarely got the opportunity to speak about things that really mattered to them. The girls told us that more often than not, they were preached to rather than spoken with. “Most people come and give us lectures on this and that, and we get really bored, this is the first time someone has come and spoken to us about all these things,” one of the participants told us later. But despite their initial reluctance, the room was soon crackling with laughter, song, dance, and pure energy, transforming us all.
Because when it comes to discussing love, sex and desire honestly, without judgement, without easy conclusions, who doesn’t wake up?
We began the workshop with a question every young Indian has to confront and has a lot to say about: “Do you plan to get married?” And if so, would they choose a love marriage or an arranged marriage? Some girls just smiled coyly and didn’t respond, some jumped up enthusiastically to say they would pick a love marriage, while a few preferred an arranged one.
Why love marriage, we asked. “Well, getting married without love is just for material purposes,” was one answer. “[In an arranged marriage] you see how well off that person is, what their job is and what their caste is, and pick them based only on that,” was another answer from a girl to whom love marriage seemed a way to combat such parochial practices. Another view was that love marriages ensure compatibility.
Some of the girls said there was stability and security in arranged marriages. A few said that people in love ended up eloping, and that just created a lot of problems for everyone.
We decided to get a little personal.
Have you ever been in love, we asked. The air warmed up. The room changed. Tentative smiles and furtive glances to gauge each other’s reactions went round the room. Those slouched in the corner trying to nap were peeking through one eye, interested in what the others would say. A few hands went up, then more. Some nudged their friends to raise their hands, some raised their hands for their friends. We, the facilitators, first raised one hand, then both, then raised alternate hands again and again. We were all laughing.
So if everyone had been in love, they must have thought about sex, no? we asked. So what did they think? Was it ok to have sex? There was giggling and hesitation, they looked at each other, waiting for someone else to be the first to answer. They said that sex was something that gives a person pleasure. We observed a general lack of judgement in terms of how and with whom and when people had sex (as in, before marriage or only after) when it came to others, but also noticed that the girls tended to speak of others in broad generalisations – what should be and what shouldn’t be. When it came to themselves, they seemed more prim. There was a great deal of distance when talking about themselves, and some did express a clear sense of what they were personally were okay with when it came to their own values and boundaries that differed from what they felt was okay for others.
One participant went on to share her feelings about one of the protagonists in the movie they had watched the previous night, Lipstick Under My Burkha. She felt that although the woman in the film was having sex, it was not something that involved her willingness or pleasure – the husband was using her for his own pleasure – and that was wrong. The students firmly believed that communication was a very important part of physical intimacy, and that rape and sex were two very different things.
Biology se pehle, Biology ke baad
One of the things we’ve seen in so many classes and workshops and conferences and projects about sexuality is that no one discusses sex, actually. It’s as if we criticise the unrealistic sex of mainstream porn, but don’t really touch the topic of sex – the mechanics of sex – ourselves!
But I guess we aren’t Agents of Ishq for nothing. So we asked them about sex directly.
At first, the answers we got from the students were very brief. Some girls in the front of the class gave us basic answers, probably out of a sense of dutifulness, to represent their group and make sure that the class responded to our questions. But since they all sat spread out, we tried walking around to gather responses, and heard more interesting things when we leaned in to listen to the shy and the hesitant who wouldn’t speak loudly.
We found that the students were mostly aware of the basics of heterosexual penis-in-vagina sex. Some who may have been studying biology were able to describe it more clearly, using terms like “fallopian tubes” and “cervix”. Some admitted to not being entirely sure about the exact process of sex and making babies. So we played “Mai Aur Meri Body” – a full blast Bambaiya ishtyle video made by Agents of Ishq in collaboration with SNEHA about how bodies are made, how babies are made, how gender is formed, how attraction happens, and what puberty is about. The fun music and animation completely changed the energy of the room. The girls were laughing and trying to sing along.
The video mentioned pheromones, and we tried to expand on the idea of pheromones and attraction. We asked if any of them had been in relationships – and received a whole range of responses! Some people said yes, some no, and one participant went on to vehemently say that she had never felt love or been in a relationship. We then talked about asexuality, as also being a part of the spectrum of desire. As we talked about the idea of attraction being a normal part of life, just like the feelings that we experience when we like someone, the girls nodded knowingly. “She keeps talking on the phone for hours,” said one, pointing to her friend. That started a chain of more girls pointing at their friends and teasing them. Some were embarrassed and tried to shush their friends, while some simply laughed.
Until Main aur Meri Body, everyone participated just fine, but our discussion was still in traditional sex-ed territory. Then everything changed when we played the first Agents of Ishq podcast – suddenly all the girls were wide awake, intent, interested. Why?
In the podcast “Lovezone Friendzone”, a 19-year-old called Lubna talks about how she fell in love with a boy who was dating another girl. She talks about regretting kissing him, about how she thought she loved him more than even her mom, and how he left her because she was not Marathi. Lubna talks about how much she cried over him, how she missed him whenever she heard an emotional song – and then, how she now likes another boy, one who gives her “waise wale feelings”.
The girls, who until then had been constantly chatting among themselves, listened to the podcast with complete attention and even sang along! When we asked them if they thought this story was possible in real life, they said “Yes” in unison. Many of them associated relationships across caste and community with complications and trouble, and were supportive of the fact that Lubna had moved on and found someone else. At this point, the girls started sharing their personal experiences, about previous and current relationships, that were similar or related to what they’d heard in the podcast, such as, “One boy did the same to me, but now I like someone else.” For me, it was deeply encouraging to to hear them share things once the initial inhibitions were gone.
Perhaps it was listening to other people’s stories and personal experiences that flipped that switch for the girls – the session became way more interactive with more girls eager to talk about their own lives once they’d heard something that felt relevant to them and that they identified with. Their interest (and energy) seemed to come from hearing about the lived experiences of people like them – young girls from traditional families. We also found that it helped to be vulnerable ourselves, and share our own experiences. When we told them our stories of love or heartbreak, they would chime in protectively with advice such as “Dump that person!” or “Forget about them! It’s not worth it!” and got invested in what we were talking about.
When we moved on to talking about heartbreak, more hands went up than they did when we talked about love – the videos and podcasts had gone a long way towards drawing the girls’ attention and setting them at ease. Even though the workshop was very interactive, and involved conversation rather than instruction, it took these additional tools to act as opening points for these conversations.
One participant added that her relationship had broken up because her partner belonged to a different caste, and although she was able to convince her parents to let her marry him, she would have been expected to wear a ghunghat, and wouldn’t have been allowed to work or have any freedom while living with his family. She tried to negotiate these terms with the boy and his family, but they did not budge, so she decided to break up with him although she loved him very much. Breakups because of caste or differences in financial status seemed to be a common experience among the girls.
Most of the participants felt that if the person you love makes you feel small, then they’re not worth it. Another popular sentiment was that if your love requires you to do something that hurts your family, then you must not do that. Not everyone agreed about putting your family first, but one thing everyone seemed to agree with was that it is great to love someone, but you should always love yourself a little more. The girl who had shared her story about leaving the boy whose family expected her to wear a ghunghat was a great example of this – when she spoke, it was wonderful to hear her discuss her dreams and ambitions for herself, and see her recognition of the fact that the boy’s family would require her to give those dreams, and her very sense of self, up. Hearing someone talk about choosing her dreams over her lover’s unfair expectations was a great learning moment for us all. This was an important moment in the workshop – after this girl opened up about her experience, more felt encouraged to share their stories with the group.
We also talked about heartbreak, and how if it happens, you should give yourself time to process it – talk about it, cry it out, stalk your ex a little if you have to. But if months go by and it doesn’t get better, then take help.
Slumber party to Dance pardy
After the Lovezone Friendzone podcast, there was an electricity in the air. It felt as if our session had gone from workshop to raucous party. We played Qayanat Ka Romancenama – a podcast in which Qayanat, a young girl, tells of her amazing story that doesn’t end with her being with her lover. She talks about how her lover ultimately got married to someone else, but she is still happy to have experienced that love. Everyone was totally involved, singing (and some even managing some vigorous dancing) along to the opening song of the podcast so enthusiastically that they didn’t want to stop, and drowned out the beginning of the new podcast. When the closing song began, they started up the dancing and singing again and kept going for a few minutes!
When they eventually quieted down, we asked them what the podcast made them feel. Many said that they felt what Qayanat did was right, that she did care for her parents and also that she chose herself. We spoke a little more about rejection and introduced the idea that one can move on from rejection in relationships just like we move on from the non-materialisation of other dreams or expectations.
We then asked the girls if they had been in a situation where they were not sure of their feelings – had they ever said yes to something they didn’t fully want to say yes to, or said no but they didn’t mean not ever? Many said they had. That gave us the opportunity to play a video called “The Amorous Adventures of Shakku and Megha in the Valley of Consent” – Agents of Ishq’s popular music video in which two lavni dancers wonder about the nuances of consent. Given that the language of the video was Marathi, we felt that had greatly helped get its point across. They all cheered loudly when Shakku’s response to a man’s overtures in the video is a “maybe” rather than a yes or a no, and he says, “Of course! I can wait for you, baby.” With the girls still in party mode, we could see a clear shift from the beginning of the workshop when people’s participation and interest in talking about love, sex and romance veered from somewhat lukewarm to a fun-filled atmosphere by the end – one that was embracing and joyous.
Afterwards, some of the girls sought us out, wanting to share the dilemmas they were facing, one-on-one. Most of the girls who spoke to us saw themselves getting married within a few years, if not immediately after college. Still, they gave importance to their education and their own careers and ambitions. Many talked about barriers to relationships such as caste and financial status, and some girls came up to say that they were glad to have the opportunity to speak about such things, instead of being lectured about things that didn’t interest them or weren’t relevant to them. At the workshop, they had been able to talk about matters that were so deeply a part of their everyday lives, but are not usually raised in everyday conversation.
It wasn’t just the girls who may have had lightbulb moments that day! For us, the workshop was an unforgettable experience and we learned a lot ourselves. As we headed home discussing the day, we realised a key thing: frequently we all tend to think about desire, love and heartbreak as being very low in the hierarchy of things that are considered important to learn and talk about, while they are in fact very pertinent to young people’s lives, and the desire for sex is mixed up with the desire for validation, love, affections and intimacy. We need to accept that these feelings and experiences are valid, and perhaps even common. Removing the aspect of shame from the girls’ experiences allowed them to engage more openly with the issues that were talked about at the workshop. And the significant change in energy that the podcasts brought confirmed for us the importance of personal stories in helping one feel a connection to the subject being discussed.
Perhaps we could receive no greater validation that day than to be given an enthusiastic and warm send-off, and to be told that it was the first time the girls had gotten through an afternoon session without falling asleep! We hope to have more sessions as fruitful and eye-opening for both sides. Particularly ones that involve dance parties!