ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Intimate Connections

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).

Conjugality 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 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 state’s “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 meta-commentary is the sparingly forthcoming account linking contraception with women’s sexual and bodily autonomy.

Sreenivas’s mapping of this polyvalent discourse on contraceptive advocacy in Tamil society takes care of nuances of her material. However, her posturing of the postcolonial state’s “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 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 Lata’s self-articulation, there is a complex repositioning of what may be seen as “manipulation” and “exploitation” (Lata’s mother’s 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 worth—and 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 between the community and the state: it provides sanctuary to marriage and rapists, in turn, offer to marry their victims.

The state’s 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 values—both productive and reproductive—produced 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 that—like other caste communities—perceives its self-image as one mediated through idioms of women’s sexuality. Ramberg’s discussion involves an intricate engagement with the contemporaneity of the practice. Like the preceding essays, Ramberg’s 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 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 measures—thus 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 she—in a reformulation of the erstwhile usage of “Brahmanical patriarchy”—calls “caste patriarchy.” In both instances—of callings of “honour” and that of faraway brides—the 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 matrimonial–marital 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 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 Foucault’s 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 spatially-guarded 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-à-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 Movement’s 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 self-evident 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 Rubin’s (1975) classic essay to speak critically of Claude Levi-Strauss’s characterisation of women as sign and value, Rubin’s 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.”


Chakravarti, Uma (1993): “Conceptualising Brahminical Patriarchy in Early India: Gender, Caste, Class and State,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 28, No 14, pp 579–85.

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 157–210.

— (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 184–209. 

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