In the 1970s, Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker postulated a theory of marriage using the market as a metaphor. People marry to gain comparative advantage, he said. Partners divide the work: if men make more money in the labor market and women provide better care, they partner. “A person decides to marry when the expected utility of marriage exceeds that expected from remaining celibate or further searching for a more suitable mate,” he writes.
The primary motivator behind human action in Becker’s utility maximization model is self-interest. Feelings – love and desire, dignity and aspiration – remain secondary.
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These reductionist economic models, by definition, minimize the complexity of the human condition. The social science literature is full of these great theories offering answers to great questions. They satisfy our urge to seek global explanations but often miss the essence of what’s going on underneath. A deeper look at ourselves reveals their deficiency.
In his remarkable book, In Desperation for Shah Rukh: Lonely Young Women of India and the Search for Intimacy and Independencedevelopment economist Shrayana Bhattacharya does exactly the opposite.
At its core, this book deals with the challenges faced by Indian women. We know it’s a fight. All the statistics show it. Bhattacharya takes this idea and adds so many layers to show that it’s not just a story of struggle: it’s a story of aspiration and competing interpretations of freedom that is sometimes won through gradual negotiations and compromises. and sometimes by rebellion. Some may be complicit in their own discrimination. What she subtly shows is a point that economists like Becker ignore: love and desire are not variables to be ignored. They are central to our understanding of the economy.
Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh, by Shrayana Bhattacharya, HarperCollins, 464 pages, ₹699
Bhattacharya delves into the world of women who are “divided by caste and class” but “united by gainful employment and their fandom” of Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan. The narrative of the book emerges from these individual stories.
Each story follows a similar structure: it outlines the world the character lives in to show where they fit in India’s socio-economic hierarchy before delving into their intimate lives. What unites these disparate stories is his choice to bring in Shah Rukh Khan. Each woman in the book uses her films, songs, and interviews to talk about her aspirations and her frustration.
The aspiration is rooted in the characters SRK plays on-screen and in his off-screen persona who treats “women with dignity and respect” and helps “women with chores and cooking.” They dream of building a life with a man like him.
But the reality is frustrating: “few have experienced the emotional equality or domestic parity in their relationships with men” that Khan’s characters show on screen. “I watch his songs online every night. But his films are all lies, there are no men like that in the world,” says one woman.
Alia Bhatt and Shah Rukh Khan in “Dear Zindagi” (2016).
The details reflect the complexity. Each woman in the book experiences the daily struggles differently and deals with them differently. There is no clear pattern. This leads to a classic problem of social sciences: how to explain macro phenomena involving a large number of people by observing micro-choices of individuals?
The standard practice – commonly seen in magazine journalism and popular non-fiction writing – is to find a “representative individual” whose choices and conditions substitute to reflect the behavior of the collective. While this technique can be helpful, the representative story may not capture the complexity of the day-to-day interactions where the action takes place.
Bhattacharya’s work is refreshing because she avoids this: the characters are carefully chosen to represent India’s economic diversity, but the stories do the rest. They reveal the disorder that defines the lived experience of Indian women. A frame is not forced for fun.
The book’s engaging writing derives its strength from the author’s embracing of her vulnerabilities. She does not claim to be an academic studying Indian women from the outside: she is part of the story. The introspective narrative reveals an emotional self-awareness. This leads to empathy. She builds a bridge with her subjects and makes them reveal their most intimate details. Bhattacharya is there to listen and understand how his fellow people experience India, where their ideas come from and why they feel what they feel. What she takes away from these stories helps her refine and develop a more nuanced model of feminism.
For example, watch a discussion around the 1995 hit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. “Many of DDLJ’s critics mention an exchange in which Raj refuses to accept Simran’s plea that they run away together” because he “prefers to work to gain the support of his family”. Like many others, Bhattacharya thought Raj had given in to oppressive patriarchy until she met Manju who saw it as a sign of courage.
“She [Manju] insisted that running away was the easier choice for the men, especially when their families supported the game, as was the case in DDLJ. … I began to realize that the act of rebellion can be very different when women are made dependent on family for protection and provision,” Bhattacharya writes, pointing to the varying personal calculation of risk and reward. “What the film shows is that freedom is won through progressive negotiation, that dialogue between loved ones can be a path to social change,” she writes. “Compromise is not necessarily cowardice.”
The social sciences help us make sense of the world. It reveals truths that we cannot see in the tunnel vision of our singular experiences. But it has potential beyond explanation. He can guide us to think about our lives. This can inform our choices. Bhattacharya’s book does that. I entered the book to learn more about the opposite sex but also learned a lot about myself. If nothing else, the book will get you thinking.
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Samarth Bansal is a journalist based in Landour