In the great big, complex soup of human emotions, there’s a very fine line between love and control. The tight-rope walk that’s far too tricky. By definition, love ought to be selfless and giving, but its very nature makes love susceptible to the need for possessing — the need to keep someone close no matter what it takes. That includes the need to keep them safe, which soon transforms into a euphemism for keeping someone on a leash.

Let’s take, for instance, the beautiful festival of sibling bonding that just passed us by: Raksha Bandhan. Interestingly, several writers have pointed out the patriarchal roots of the festival —which highlights the importance of having a male in the family. It underscores the roles of the man or the brother as protector and saviour — roles that are challenged persistently as society evolves. And yet, a quick look at the ground reality of the country — particularly the hinterlands — reveals that the evolution isn’t quite there either. The symbolism of the male as responsible for the female, as the guiding force and strength of the weaker sex is nowhere more evident than the small towns and villages of real India. It isn’t uncommon to find brothers dictating the lives of sisters — double standards firmly in place with regards to the ominous notion of honour. Honour killings still mar the reality of our people. But to put the blame on a celebration of love is a little like moving ahead with blinkers on. From a purely historical-biological standpoint, the problem doesn’t lie with men’s traditional roles as protectors. It lies in the lack of reinterpretation of the idea of protection.

Since prehistoric times, males evolved to take on the roles of protector of tribes, hence the average male has centuries of information transferred from the collective unconscious that programmes him for defensive strategy and combat. No harm there, except when we come back to the fine line between love and control.

To love someone is to instinctively desire to protect them. The problem arises when protection slides into control— of another person’s decisions, ambitions and right to choose their path in life. Another example here illustrates the point better: parenthood. There are few roles in life as protective as that of the parent. But here too, the Indian parenting style scores major points on overprotective control. Dictator parents abound, parents that lay down the minutest details of the path their sons/daughters need to follow — from the education they’d get to the career they’d choose and even the person they’d marry. The idea of space and independence within relationships isn’t easy for us to digest. And therein lies the need to reinterpret protection.

The most ideal protective love is the one that equips the beloved to protect their own selves. Think of the child that learns to climb and leap and ride and slide — facing cuts, wounds and bruises. The sensible parent knows that these make the child tough, that the best kind of protection enables the child to grow into an independent adult capable of handling their own life. And that’s the reinterpretation we have missed.

To be there for someone when they need you is different from making them dependent upon you. To protect is to help loved ones find their place in life, to equip them to assert their independence and strength in the world. The demarcation between love and control then, is a very simple one: respect. To love without controlling, love needs must be accompanied by mutual respect.

Zehra Naqvi