Lata Mani in conversation with Arvind Narrain
Arvind: How would you relate what you have said to what people think of as love in a conventional sense? Take the story of Romeo and Juliet. You could argue that initially Romeo is in love with Rosaline and then suddenly realizes that the true love of his life is Juliet. And it is transformative as far as both of them are concerned. They were willing to risk all. What is the source of that love? Intense physical attraction? Their poetry to each other? Maybe nobody else in that particular setting could use language with such felicity. In your other work you speak of rescuing love from what capitalism or wider society would think of as love.
Lata: There are many notions of love that circulate. One idea is that true love requires self-extinction. Another, that true love requires sacrifice, self-sacrifice. A third idea is that true love can conquer everything. These are commonplace ideas about love. So the intensity of a Romeo and Juliet can end, not unsurprisingly, with the demise of Romeo and Juliet.
The idea that love can overcome social divisions is naïve. Love may have the potential to transform you individually. Love may have the potential to transform others by extension or by example, by the kind of courage that that transformation may incite in you. But if we are saying that love is a dynamic, ongoing process of learning and unlearning, we cannot then attribute to love the power to transform everything all by itself. We can’t say love is relational and then think that love is not related to other things, social structure, prejudice, etc.
In the preamble I state that love is connected to fearlessness and vulnerability. Initially we spoke of the fearlessness, love, vulnerability triad in relation to the inner transformation of the person in love, of the person by love. But if you situate that in social setting you can see that your fearlessness may not be sufficient to protect you from your social vulnerability. So, not only do you need to be extremely alert to that which is transforming you, you have to be extremely alert to the fact of your relationality. This is not to say, be not therefore courageous; it is to say therefore think very carefully both about love and about social relationships and about what is required for that love to thrive, whether it is possible for two individuals to take on the burden of social ostracism, discrimination and violence. The love of two people must nestle in a love that’s bigger than itself. Otherwise it is likely to cannibalize itself. As people involved in political activism we can ask how we can imagine reconfiguring social relationships in order to make love possible.
Arvind: In a sense what we are saying is that a conventional love story like Romeo and Juliet is about two points and that two points are never quite enough to anchor you in the world. There is the world outside as well and that is a relationship you have to build. And I guess there are many ways people can build that relationship to keep one anchored and stable.
Lata: The idea of justice can provide an enabling shelter. Especially if that idea of justice retains within it some of these qualities that we are attributing to love, for example, openness, unknowing, a processual understanding where you are not assuming normative content; if you are allowing the very process of the struggle for justice to transform you as it unfolds, if you don’t assume a telos. If we can imagine justice or struggle or political activism along these lines I think it can be something that continually refreshes both the people who are participating in it and the project as well.
Arvind: A point of continual transformation in the lives of two people in their relationship to each other and the world, that’s what you are articulating. That is an ideal, of course. Everybody doesn’t achieve that. Most people might be happy within the bourgeois capitalist framework but your point is something more needs to be added to that.
Lata: Absolutely. And you will find that even in bourgeois relationships there is often expressed some discomfort, not with that form of life but with life itself. There is often a yearning for something more. And it’s frequently not a yearning for something more materially but for something other which remains nameless. I am increasingly beginning to feel that if we act against our nature it is very likely that we will be unhappy. We would agree that if we are not able to live according to our sexual nature we cannot be happy. What I am saying is that built into our DNA is the fact of relationality. And if we act as though that were not true, or if we put a white picket fence around our community, our caste, our gender, our sexual orientation, our region, our language, our nation, and we fail systematically to investigate the truths of our relationality, that itself can leave a sense of dissatisfaction in one’s consciousness. If we are not going to take our interdependence and relationality seriously, not see how it is actively, continually, mutually and collectively constituting us, then it is bound to lead to false namings of problems, false solutions and modes of living that do not satisfy.
Arvind: In effect the developed thought underlying this idea of love is what makes it meaningful as an idea worth aspiring to. But how do you connect love to the idea of lust? I use lust to indicate how sometimes things begin in many people’s lives, a momentary contact which may or may not be transformative in a good way for either party. In some ways what you have outlined is the ideal state. What is the relationship between the idea you put forward and the lives of quiet desperation which a majority of people lead?
Lata: It’s not as if the world for which I am trying to find language is separable from the world in which we are living. Let’s start with lust and go on to other things. What is lust? It is an experience of intensity that is temporary. Sexual pleasure is always an experience of intensity that is temporary. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. What we seek as sentient beings are various kinds of intensities that can sustain us. Because we live in a world where Eros has been narrowed to the narrowly sexual we tend to invest that aspect of life with a degree of expectation that it almost always never fully meets. If it did people would not have anxiety about their sexual relations, or an addictive relationship to their sexual relations, or serial sexual relations in search of something that they may or may not find. So the point is to open Eros out, to free it; not because sex is lower but because of the multiplicity of Eros.
If love actually undergirds the universe then multiple experiences of intensity are surely part of that universe. By their nature some will be temporary, some evanescent, some seasonal, and some long lasting. We have to make room for all kinds of intensities. We open to embracing all forms of intensities. We then see what we learn about sensation, about physicality, about bliss, about pleasure, about love. Each of us in our experiments will encounter different dimensions of experience in each of these different realms.
Another example, the family. On the one hand you can think of it as ritually, unthinkingly, reproducing some form of social life tied to economy and culture because people don’t know any better. On the other hand you can think of it as incubating some notion of community in context of parents, grandparents, children, extended family - as an experiment in community building. Family and community tend to be imagined in narrow ways. Is it possible for me to expand my sense of kinship? Insofar as my sense of affinity is limited to a certain group of people there will always be this anxiety about what will happen to me if this particular group is no longer able to be there for me. Can we open ourselves to relationality in the broader sense?
In other words, it is true that it seems as if I am speaking of a radically different universe than the one in which we live. But if we actually look at what people do what do we see? Migrants coming into the city leaving behind all of their kin networks create something else but also something similar: forms of caring, communal pleasure, storytelling, ways to witness each other’s lives. There are some people whose lives take them in the direction of solitude, solitariness from humans. But even they will never be apart from the universe. Mystics who have retreated to the Himalayas etc. are always relating and communing with nature. None of the philosophers talk about being complete apart, entirely alone; the radically separate individual is a figment of the imagination. For the most part people are trying to make meaning with others, with nature, with matter: with clay if you are a potter, leather if you are a cobbler, language if you are a writer.
Many of our rituals and customs have to do with making meaning, with making connections with nature, animals or people, with making community, with giving and receiving love in some form or other whether as generosity, as kindness, as greeting, as a smile. It’s about becoming aware of what is already here: noticing how we tend to respond to what we notice and imagining other ways of relating, other modes of sense-making, other modes of community building that take us away from the various kinds of fences we construct to keep out those we deem “other,” whether on the basis of ideology, gender, sexual orientation, caste, race etc. But once you do this you have to reimagine politics.
Arvind Narrain is a founder of the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore and a prominent human rights lawyer and activist, more here.
More on love and politics in the next concluding post.