(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, on 13th March, 2010)
“This was my sweet, inconsolable, grief-stricken, beautiful sister! For a moment – and perhaps because I knew we were related, however slightly – her body, with its long limbs, fine bones and fragile shoulders, reminded me of my own.”
- The Museum of Innocence’, Orhan Pamuk
It’s the forbidden i-word. Maybe this is why Sam Shepard’s ‘Fool for Love’ ends with a standing ovation irrespective of individual performances… because the emotions outlined in the play form shadows in the minds of the audience. It is a story of tormented love, of a couple that can’t stay apart and can’t be together. They were first drawn to each other because they were alike – feisty, strong-willed, impulsive and passionate. But then they discovered why – they shared a father. Maybe their story fascinates us because it takes something to pursue a relationship with someone once you’ve discovered s/he is your half-sibling.
While folklore is rich with tragic stories of accidental incest – from Oedipus to Kullervo, from Electra to the 6th century Danish ruler Helga – hearing about two people aware of their blood ties indulging in incest shocks and horrifies all of us. We know the verdict if it involves sexual abuse, but what about two people willingly entering a forbidden relationship?
Mythology is not short of instances of this either – the Greek pantheon was the product of a union between the siblings Zeus and Hera, their son Hermes seduced his jealous brother Apollo, and the Egyptian Gods Osiris and Isis, and the Norse Gods Freyr and Freyja, were sibling-spouses. But then, there are real people, people we know, who are attracted to their own blood relatives. A former schoolmate of mine had a ten-year-long affair with his cousin, which ended at the family’s insistence. A friend’s uncle was ostracised for marrying his mother’s sister’s daughter. They chose not to have children for fear of birth defects, but decided societal norms would not get in the way of their relationship.
Is it only societal norms that tell us which relationships are allowed? Is a blood tie just another factor like caste, religion and gender? Do we unconsciously control whom we are attracted to? Does knowing someone is a relative ensure your feelings are platonic? Do some people stifle the physical chemistry they share for this reason? Or are the people involved in incest rebels, choosing to break barriers simply because they exist? Anita, a woman in her mid-forties, believes “harmless” crushes within the family are common, and says she and her sister fancied one of their cousins until he got married. “We would never have acted on it,” she says, “it was just timepass. There’s something wrong with people who act on it.”
Roland Littlewood, a Professor of Anthropology and Psychiatry at University College London, identifies “eroticisation of the young” as a cause for incest, saying “the notion of ‘adolescence’ [marks] a recognition of sexually mature but socially immature adults.” (Littlewood, 'Pathologies of the West: an Anthropology of Mental Illness in Europe and America'). A resident of Chennai, Janaki, who is now in her sixties, agrees and says boys and girls in the 10 – 18 age group shouldn’t be allowed to mingle at weddings. “The occasion stirs feelings you can’t control,” she says, “and easy access is a catalyst. When we were kids, our mothers would keep an eye on everyone in that age group, especially the older ones.”
Does the difference lie between feeling and acting, or acceptance and denial of the feeling, or feeling and not feeling at all? Another dimension comes into play in the case of what Littlewood identifies as ‘post-adoption incest’ or ‘genetic sexual attraction’. Some people raised by foster families were found to be uncontrollably attracted to their biological relatives when a reunion was arranged. While some experts attribute GSA to a need to identify with someone who resembles oneself physically or in personality, others see it as a manifestation of a need to ‘connect’ in some way. They say proximity to one’s biological family in early age resolves this into attachment rather than erotic interest, whereas it causes confusion and misinterpretation if the reunion happens in adulthood.
While intellectual debates ponder over the blurry line between sexual attraction and emotional bonding, Western countries have witnessed many cases asking for the abolition of incest laws. A German sibling couple (who met as adults) have had four children in a bid to have a family of their own, as each child was given into foster care. In India, where such subjects are considered too uncomfortable to discuss, chances are that there are more people suffering in silence, torn between guilt and inclination. Counselling centres abroad report that many cases of incest can morph into more conventional relationships after therapy. But will we see similar aid in India, where talk of incest is brushed under the carpet as taboo?
* Some names have been changed