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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

The country with no surprises: ‘Love laws’ and their incredulity

e like to say — and believe — that we are fond of surprises. "Surprise": that word has been pegged with an immediate and contagious joy, the kind that is supposed to keep our relationships alive. Love, by its very ontology, should always be a thing of surprise. The partners we choose then become part of this equation: increasingly, complaints and compliments are made on the basis of a person's ability to surprise — or not. All that seems to matter to those selling the charm of surprises in relationships to us — inexpensive cell phone beeps, the pizza boy at the door, holidays, among countless other things — is that we are one half of a package that likes to be surprised; the person who will surprise will be arranged for, thanks to the EMI relationship that love and capitalism share.

And yet, it is love that causes such strong surprises: honour killings, acid attacks, suicides.

Adulthood, not in terms of years, but the coming to terms with the you-left-your-buttons-unbuttoned reality that marks relationships, teaches us that the line between surprise and shock is thin, often brittle, and thus the cracking of the shell between a pleasant surprise and an unwelcome shock. And so the ambiguous values of weekend stubble and bed hair.

Adulthood, in the context of coming to terms with the you-left-your-buttons-unbuttoned reality that marks relationships, teaches us that the line between surprise and shock is thin, often brittle, and thus the cracking of the shell between a pleasant surprise and an unwelcome shock.

Writers need surprises as a fix-it tool more than most professionals, including magicians. Christopher R. Miller, in his essay Wordsworth's Anatomies of Surprise for instance, gives us a rich catalogue of the poet's love for the "surprise": "The word 'surprise' figures in some of the poet's most striking phrases of astonishment: the Boy of Winander's 'gentle shock of mild surprise' at the aural jolt of the owls' silence and the world's susurrus; the leech-gatherer's 'flash of mild surprise' at his questioner's curiosity; the child whose 'mortal Nature' trembles 'like a guilty Thing surprised'; the strange experience of being 'surprised by joy'". Miller situates this within the "eighteenth-century discourse that conceived of surprise as a component of aesthetic response, a phenomenon of cognition and emotion, and a narrative crux".

It was this surprise in narrative that I was reminded of when reading Prajwal Parajuly's first novel, Land Where I Flee.

The love of Agastya's life hardly fulfilled the requirements that an ideal match was expected to satisfy. First, the person he desired to spend the rest of his life with wasn't a Brahmin... Second, as the first son and grandson of the Neupaney family, it was understood that Agastya would get married to a Nepali, no matter which side of the border... Nicky's race, nationality and questionable family background were hardly worth losing sleep over... Registered Nurse Nicholas Zachary Wells, you see, was a man, and the man had just threatened his boyfriend with the effective termination of their relationship if they didn't somehow adopt a baby soon and if his concealment from Agastya's world continued.

eading this around the same time that the Supreme Court judgement about Section 377 was made, I could not help wondering how so many of our "love laws", to use that semi-oxymoronic phrase from The God of Small Things, hinge on the ontology of surprise. As if the social caste-community-commerce meters were not enough, now there is the legal kabbadi one has to wrestle with. Section 377's "against the order of nature" is a mossy regimentation, for which all of us could be held guilty — who knows where your tongue or nose or ears or fingers went the last time you made love?

The image of the child in Wordsworth, whose "mortal Nature" trembles "like a guilty Thing surprised", is one that kept coming back to me as I thought about the different quotients of surprise that "natural" and "unnatural" love brings. The word "unnatural" holds within it the possibility of surprise, even shock. So when Walt Whitman uses the phrase "athletic love" in In Paths Untrodden, we do not pause, we are halted in our narrative sprint.

Here by myself away from the clank of the world,
Tallying and talk'd to here by tongues aromatic,
No longer abash'd, (for in this secluded spot I can respond as I
would not dare elsewhere,)
... Resolv'd to sing no songs to-day but those of manly attachment,
Projecting them along that substantial life,
Bequeathing hence types of athletic love,
Afternoon this delicious Ninth-month in my forty-first year,
I proceed for all who are or have been young men,
To tell the secret of my nights and days,
To celebrate the need of comrades.

"Types of athletic love", Whitman's phrase acquires a taut resonance in India today: Why should any "type" of love be privileged over the other, why should any kind of love cause surprise, natural or "unnatural", heterosexual or homosexual.

Barbara Ramsell, in The Poetic Experience of Surprise and the Art of Teaching, writes, "Yet surprise does not always appear as pleasurable. When it reveals a part of our personality which we dislike, or when it reveals to us an area of unpredictability when predictability seems a necessary value, surprise can produce disquieting results. Instead of allowing ourselves the natural laughter and wonder of human affirmation, we fight it in order to bring our lives back into the predictable world of safety". "In Rama's kingdom," writes Devdutt Pattanaik in Myth=Mithya, "there were ... no surprises." So the BJP's "unambiguous" support for the re-criminalisation of athletic love should not surprise us. That is their definition of Ramrajya.

 
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