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BOOK REVIEW

Intimate Connections
Geetika Bapna

onjugality Unbound is a welcome


addition to the burgeoning scholarship on marital and non-marital forms of intimate relations in the subcontinent. Comprising 10 essays, the
volume employs anthropological, historical, as well as feminist perspectives
to address the dual objects of its enquiry: marriage and conjugality. The
unyoking of marriage and conjugality
from their definitional moorings is in
the spirit of privileging multiple emic
notions that serve as nodes for query
across wide terrains of law, state, citizenship, religiosity, kinship, exchange
and the civilisational politics of the colonial and the postcolonial nation state.
Theoretically, the essays attest to the
continuing importance of interventions
by feminist scholars in the 1990s and
early 2000s. These interventions showed
that economic, material, and political
spaces are reclaimed when sex and sexual
practices linked with marriage and other
forms of intimate governance are interrogated (John and Nair 1998; Uberoi
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Conjugality Unbound: Sexual Economies, State


Regulation and the Marital Form in India edited
by Srimati Basu and Lucinda Ramberg, New Delhi:
Women Unlimited, 2015; pp viii+283, Rs 575 (hardback).

1996; Kapur 1996; Chakravarti 1993;


Menon 2004). The volume under review
can substantively be read as one that accepts marriage as a master signifier that
both mimes and alters an assemblage of
otherwise disparate intimacies. However,
the contributors do stress on conflict, severance, violence, and non-heteronormative and non-reproductive elements of
unbound marriage and conjugality.
Contraceptive Advocacy
The opening essay by Mytheli Sreenivas
examines the debates on contraceptive
advocacy in Tamil print culture in late
colonial India (specifically the late 1920s
and early 1930s), to make three observations. One, while these advocacies clearly
anticipate the postcolonial states interventionist regime of population control,
they have a discursive heterogeneity

that is worth highlighting in its own


right. Two, the legitimacy of marriage
provides space for public discussion on
intimate matters; these discussions, in
turn, have far-reaching effects on family,
nation and the future of human kind.
They simultaneously reinforce conjugal
sexuality and monogamy. Three, multiple sites of discursive references emerge.
These are as varied as graphics of anatomy, that purportedly explain how sex
combined with contraception is not
equal to reproduction, and a meta-commentary that links spacing child births
with familial and national health. The
exception to this regular tenor of metacommentary is the sparingly forthcoming account linking contraception with
womens sexual and bodily autonomy.
Sreenivass mapping of this polyvalent
discourse on contraceptive advocacy in
Tamil society takes care of nuances of her
material. However, her posturing of the
postcolonial states population control as
a unitary domain of intervention, sans heterogeneous and complex discursive registers, may appear as a weak counterpoint.
A Sexual Biography
Sarah Pinto ethnographically crafts the
knotty sexual biography of Lata. Lodged
in psychiatric care, Lata had run away

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BOOK REVIEW

with the aged long-serving male household help, claimed to have married him,
and also participated in sexual transactions with his friend (and perhaps other
men) in return for money and well-being.
Pinto attempts to address the polyandrous longings (p 51) of Lata as she
rebels against her kin ties and articulates
her desire to be married to two men:
one to love her and one to feed and
clothe her (p 50). In Latas self-articulation, there is a complex repositioning of
what may be seen as manipulation and
exploitation (Latas mothers stance)
into marriage. This repositioning blurs
boundaries between the wife and the
prostitute; it also indicates the co-presence
of autonomy and dependency and violence
and love in her sexual history.
In refusing to participate in the normal-pathological spectrum, Pinto brings
together a whole range of concerns impinging on Lata, be that of the psychiatric
unit, judicial arbitration, familial history,
secrets, biography, or that of a worried
mother; the agency of the mobile phone;
men as brothers, lovers, buyers; and convergent junctions of life and myth. The
author argues that marriage involves
transactions, and the nexus between wife
and prostitute can be made in more ways
than one. She concludes by raising an important question. Pinto asks, would it not
be more productive to shift our lens from
agency to justice when speaking of feminist subjects such as Lata, given the easy
permeation of violence and agency?
Criminality and Victimhood
The essay by Srimati Basu critically
nudges at reigning paradigmatic understandings behind criminalities tied to
rape. It argues that in these instances,
rape is seen as extraordinary because
the victim is construed through codes of
honour and social worthand the idea
of an irreversible physical and subjective
damage. She moves away from looking
at rape from the frameworks of sexual
violence, crime, and punishment. Instead she embeds rape within systems of
exchange and alliance and emphasises,
in particular, its links with heterosexual
marriage. This becomes particularly evident in the ways in which rape legislation becomes a site for reconciliation
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between the community and the state: it


provides sanctuary to marriage and rapists, in turn, offer to marry their victims.
The states participation in restorative
justice in such manner does not restore
women as a subject. Such restoration is
about the status of woman and is tied to
marriage. Critiquing this framework, Basu
suggests that rethinking victimhood requires rethinking the prevalent network of
community, law, status, and kinship, all of
which impinge on the female subject.
Devadasi Tradition
Writing on the now-banned devadasi tradition in Karnataka, where Dalit families
would dedicate their daughters to the goddess Yellamma, Lucinda Ramberg explores
the sexual economies underwriting this
traditional practice and contrasts them
with conventional marriage. She shows
that in case of marriage, the valuesboth
productive and reproductiveproduced
by the daughters accrue to the affinal family, while they flow back to the natal family
in case of the daughters dedicated to the
goddess. She also argues that unlike the
married woman, who is only a gift, the
dedicated woman is both a gift and a giver
who transacts back to her natal family
while bestowing the blessings of the goddess across other castes.
In her rich ethnographic presentation,
Ramberg constructs a not-so-regular
picture that has the devadasi married
for life to the goddess while also participating in professional sex work at known
urban centres. Though she embodies
auspiciousness, the devadasi is increasingly caught within the reformist agenda of the community thatlike other
caste communitiesperceives its selfimage as one mediated through idioms
of womens sexuality. Rambergs discussion involves an intricate engagement
with the contemporaneity of the practice. Like the preceding essays, Rambergs article too moves away from the
concept of agency. For Pinto, the premier theoretical lens was justice. For
Ramberg, it is the question of value.
Colonial State and Christianity
Drawing on how the civilisational
concerns of the colonial state shaped
the sphere of conjugal relations and
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vice-versa, Eliza Kent investigates marriage amongst Indian Christians. She


shows how marriage became a key
signifier of who they were in a cultural,
religious, and moral sense. She argues
how the attainment of a full Christian
self for the converts hinged upon the
nature of emotional ties and realisation
of intimacy between husband and wife.
Thus, conversion as viewed by the
missionaries and the colonial state was
never a one-time affair; it was gradual
and was shaped by a concurrent transformation in the nature of conjugal ties.
The two instances cited in this essay
convey these strands. They also make it
clear that the how of married life is
tied to the private and public in equal
measuresthus mirroring a complex
version of the political and its unfolding.
The Endogamy Paradox
Janaki Abraham complicates the old anthropological discussion on caste endogamy. She draws on her ethnographic
work among the Thiyyas of northern
Kerala, as well as that of scholars working on honour killings and cross-regional marriages in Haryana to show that, in
practice, enforcement of endogamy as a
principle of alliance has varied with
time and across groups. She also shows
that endogamy is less about the purity of
blood and maintenance of caste purity,
and more about questions of power,
prestige, and status within the local.
Abraham elaborates what she calls the
endogamy paradox. Here on the one
hand, there are honour killings for violating the rule of endogamy, while, on
the other, shortages of brides lead to
community-backed inter-caste marriages. Abraham questions the stability of
endogamy as a principle of organising
alliance. Instead, she proposes the idea
of a contingent endogamy, wherein
questions of status and power relations
within the local are integral to decisions
about who one should marry.
The essay further delves into the
honour killing end of the endogamy
paradox, which Abraham holds as integral to what shein a reformulation of
the erstwhile usage of Brahmanical patriarchycalls caste patriarchy. In
both instancesof callings of honour
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BOOK REVIEW

and that of faraway bridesthe next


ethnographic moment is left poised in
the conclusion of the essay where the
participants and their kin could be
invited to narrate what these social
initiatives mean to them.
Asymmetry of Marriage
Studying Muslim marriages in India,
Sylvia Vatuk sheds light on the institution
through the idiom of breakdown: what
separation and divorce can tell us about
marriage. Vatuk is interested in cultural
understandings of parting and separation, and not just their legal implications. She outlines, through rich ethnographic material, the expectations that
husbands and wives bring to marriage
and what happens when these fail. Theoretically speaking, the essay uses the
idea of crises and conflict to make sense
of the enduring nature of the institution.
It is in the moment of crisis and breakdown that women seem to acquire traits
of ownership over self. The essay raises
the question: is separation more agential
than the act of entering into nikah/marriage? In either case, we find that just as
a marital alliance, separation is also
asymmetrically-structured. The excellence of the essay lies in subtly directing
the reader to ponder if the former asymmetry (of matrimonialmarital alliance)
is disrupted by the latter, or if the two
asymmetries are homologically similar.
Compulsory Marriage
Registration Bill
Gopika Solanki analyses the federal bill
on compulsory marriage registration. She
situates this state legislation as part of the
efforts to shift the governance of marriage, family and conjugal relations from
the domain of customary and religious to
secular regulation. The author shows that
while, on the face of it, the bill seeks to
redress gender roles and reform conjugal
relations and provide legal protection to
women, in practice, it fails to do so.
Moreover, the bill institutionalises heterosexuality by defining marriage as a
union between a male and a female. As
the state wrests monopoly over determining the affairs of marriage, divorce,
and transmission of property rights held
by different communities, the question
36

arises if the bill is an alternative route to


achieve some of the agendas of the
Uniform Civil Code. Equally instructive is
the amendment that renames the Registration of Birth and Deaths Act, 1886 as
the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act, rounding the ritually
marked life cycle triad of birth, death
and marriage in the Constitution of the
citizen subject.
Critical Queerness
The concluding essay of the volume, obliquely referring to aspects of marriage
and conjugality, shifts the attention to
the theme of same-sex erotics in India.
Nithin Manayath provides a critique of a
certain rights-based LGBT activism and
politics, exposing its fault lines and its
attempts to frame the question of sexuality as a matter of identity alone. Engaging
with Michel Foucaults well-known formulation of the social-sexual directly linked
to subjectivity and self, he suggests that,
in the Indian context, the erotic and
non-erotic socialities are spatiallyguarded and ideologically-delineated.
Questioning the ways in which gayness in urban cultures distinguishes itself from hijra-ness, he suggests that
both are caught in similar binds vis--vis
the state and operate through a separation of the erotic and non-erotic domains. He speaks of a critical queerness that involves a blurring of these
boundaries, a delinking of erotic expression from a culture of shame and conjoining it to a culture of shamelessness
that recalls the Self-Respect Movements
public avowal of inter-caste alliances.
Patriarchy under the Scanner
While reiterating the importance of the
volume for the contribution it makes in
providing us with a variegated picture of
the contemporary, this reviewer has a
minor crib. The volume uses a discursive
performative of patriarchy as if everything else changes around it. But the notion that patriarchy in itself is obvious
and out there, requires critical qualification. Admittedly, capitalism and patriarchy have been seen as self-evident categories in serious social scientific scholarship for long. However, increasingly,
there is consensus on the fact that

neither of these terms is self-explanatory


or easy to use, and, thus, probing them
from the inside and laying out the terms
of engagement is worth the effort.
The contributors to the volume are
alert in not using capitalism as a selfevident concept, if they mention the
term at all. Ironically then, patriarchy is
used as though everything around it is
shifting, including forms of marriage
and conjugality, but patriarchy itself remains intact. Given that at least half the
contributors have used Gayle S Rubins
(1975) classic essay to speak critically of
Claude Levi-Strausss characterisation of
women as sign and value, Rubins own
reflection on the term may be illuminating. This is what she has to say of patriarchy in relation to that essay:
I coined the phrase sex/gender system
while groping for an alternative to patriarchy, which I considered a hopelessly imprecise and muddled term (Rubin 2011: 27).

If nothing else, it seems to me that


since the original 1975 essay was published, the imprecision and muddle
has only amplified with regard to the
term patriarchy, and one would benefit
from putting the term under the scanner
just like the authors do for marriage
and conjugality.
Geetika Bapna (geetikabapna@gmail.com)
has recently submitted her PhD thesis on The
Contemporary Meanings of Marriage to the
Department of Sociology, University of Delhi.

References
Chakravarti, Uma (1993): Conceptualising Brahminical Patriarchy in Early India: Gender,
Caste, Class and State, Economic & Political
Weekly, Vol 28, No 14, pp 57985.
John, Mary E and Janaki Nair (eds) (1998): A Question of Silence: The Sexual Economies of Modern
India, New Delhi: Kali for Women.
Kapur, Ratna (ed) (1996): Feminist Terrains in Legal
Domains: Interdisciplinary Essays on Women and
Law in India, New Delhi: Kali for Women.
Menon, Nivedita (2004): Recovering Subversion:
Feminist Politics Beyond the Law, New Delhi:
Permanent Black.
Rubin, Gayle S (1975): The Traffic in Women:
Notes on the Political Economy of Sex, Toward an Anthropology of Women, Rayna R Reiter (ed), New York: Monthly Review Press,
pp 157210.
(2011): Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader, Durham: Duke University Press.
Uberoi, Patricia (1996): Hindu Marriage Law
and the Judicial Construction of Sexuality,
Feminist Terrains in Legal Domains: Interdisciplinary Essays on Women and Law in India,
Ratna Kapur (ed), New Delhi: Kali for Women,
pp 184209.

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