It’s not love. At least, not yet. It could be, though. It’s a possibility. A probability? No idea.
It’s more than just friendship. In fact, in all likelihood, you haven’t known each other long enough or well enough to call each other good friends.
But there’s something that’s like closeness. And yet it’s not. It’s the joyful discovery of how much you have in common with them, when such discoveries are commonplace to the point of mundane with your actual friends.
There’s what just stops short of flirtation. The politeness and interest that you never experience with people who are close to you. But also the chilled-outness and relaxed vibe that you don’t usually enjoy with someone you’re flirting with. You look at the their face in a photograph that has other people in it and you say,
“This one’s nice. You..umm….look good.”
If you have common friends, you carefully fall silent with their name gets mentioned and feign nonchalance or indifference. When pushed, you say (quite truthfully) that you really don’t know that much about them.
Is it one-sided, you wonder. Is it even a thing, you start to think. And I’m here to say that it is. Hormones are responsible for the heightened moods you feel when you’re around them. That and if you, like me, enjoy conversations, the highs of shared ideas (and lows of boredom with other people, when they aren’t around). It’s the fascination of newness, the sheer entertainment of discovering the unknown. I wouldn’t call it lust, just yet. But it’s a glimmer of interest, a flicker of attraction, that could become more if fanned and nurtured just right. Chemistry and physics working out to make biology interesting.
It’s fun. It is the best thing about meeting new people, the possibility that you could fall in like with them. Enjoy it. The dangers of lust and the fearfulness of love come later.
I’m writing a story about something I’ve been interested in for over a decade now – urban relationships. I’m especially intrigued by the online matrimonial process, seeing as how it seems to be bridging the traditional (arranged marriage) with the modern (online dating format).
I’ve been through it myself a few years ago. But I imagine things have evolved since then. Is it easier to articulate what you want? Is it harder to ward off unsuitors (unsuitable suitors!)? Has the comedy of errors gotten better or worse?
I’d love to hear some stories, your real-life incidents. Given that this is research for my story, I’m interested in the funny anecdotes, the bizarre misadventures, the things that made you go, “Oh my God, really??!!?”
Do tell me your whacky stories from online matrimonial searches. Go on, I’m listening.
No, we don’t.
We claim kinship to members of the opposite sex, exchange gifts on a designated day of the year and occasionally append a ‘bhaiyya’ or ‘didi’ to their names. We hang around in bunches when we’re in college and pretend we’re not specifically there for one person. When Facebook decides that India is a big market, they’ll probably add ‘is rakhi brother/sister of’ to their relationship options.
I’m confused. I straddle two worlds, one that recognizes and lives in the above references. The other whose daily relationship landscape includes hooking up, one-night stands, living in, asking out and multiple relationships. Where does someone who lives in both worlds at once stand and what is our language for it?
This new, urban India I represent, it has an oft-used passport, it’s on Season 6 of HIMYM (even knows what that stands for) and has a favorite browser and smartphone app. But it also has a life that’s kept separate (even secret) from family, consumes Bollywood-bedecked archaic rituals and is petrified of talking about sex (only talking about it, not doing it).
Attraction – should it be acknowledged or not? We can’t say. We’re simultaneously cool and appropriate.
We don’t live under strict rules of interaction with the opposite sex (though many of us were brought up with those in childhood and well into our adolescence). We’re allowed to hang out, even solo and be friends with the opposite sex. But we don’t know how to differentiate between the friendly interactions and the ones with a definite romantic/sexual motive.
I seem to often err on this. I’m friendly and approachable so conversations, interactions and associations abound. Sometimes lines get crossed, motives are misunderstood and feelings are hurt. Relationships and conversations are complex, this is true. But we don’t even have a language for broadly distinguishing what might be what.
We need an India-friendly way of saying “I’m interested in you but if you’re not interested or single, don’t worry, I’m not weird.” Subsequently we’ll also need an India-friendly way of saying, “No, thanks. That’s not possible. But it’s okay. We’re just two human beings and we’re alright.” And until then, ‘friends’ doesn’t cut it and ‘dating’? That’s just plain foreign.
This week a couple that I’m friends with, brought the M-word into their relationship. He popped the question, she said yes. Then (as she put it), they fell somewhat silent, seemed to lose their appetites, finished a quick meal and headed home. I spoke to her late in the night and she sounded pensive, worried even. I remember the feeling. It made me think of my own and everything I felt and thought and experienced after that.
She said neither of them seemed to be terribly excited about it. At the same time, it wasn’t that their feelings for each other were in doubt. My first question to her was whether they had told their families. It wasn’t till I brought it up with her, did I realize the relevance of this point. Most Indian parents of this generation are alien to the concept of dating or being in a relationship, unless it is a definite (and rushed) predecessor to marriage. My generation on the other hand, is struggling with the imposed schedules, the expected ‘deliverables’ called engagement and marriage that are forced onto relationships that take their own time to mature.
I asked her to spend a few days thinking about their reasons to enter into the engagement. Why, I asked did he propose? And why, did you say yes? Was it the looming fear of loneliness or being ‘left on the shelf’? Was it desperation and not wanting to let a promising mate get away? Was it succumbing to familial pressure to get married, to the next eligible mate? I felt I should ask these questions to them, because nobody thought to ask me these things when I was engaged. The harshness aside, my relationship may even have been saved, if only I had more clarity on why we were doing what we were doing.
So I’m curious now. What kind of timelines do today’s urban relationships follow? There is the noticing each other and the gradual paring away of crowded interactions into one-to-one conversations. This is the Indian equivalent of ‘dating’. At some point, both people agree that they want to be in a relationship (or ‘exclusive’ as I believe it’s called in the West). This symbolizes the entire range from committed committed to lust-crazed to attached to just-for-kicks. At what point in such a relationship does one person decide to start talking about marriage? And what makes the other person say yes?
I don’t know what my ex was thinking when he proposed to me but my guess is that he got tired of fighting, his resistance worn down by tradition and family and society. Why did I say yes? Pretty much the same, I think. I was so tired, so overburdened and I didn’t think saying ‘no’, let alone ‘I don’t know’ was even an option.
It’s possible that both my ex- and I are chronic over-thinkers, that we were incompatible and that’s why the relationship did not last. Indeed, I see enough of couples around that seem to gracefully dance into the mating rituals and traipse off into happily ever after.
How, I want to know, do they do that? Dance is about timing and grace, isn’t it? How do you know when to step and when to hold back in the mating dance? How do you know to follow the lead, to turn or guide? I’m clueless.
I used to love that I was ‘one of the boys’. I grew up preferring the easy rough-and-tumble ways of guys. I have a feminist father and my gender neutral upbringing wasn’t compatible with the prissy/frocky girls around me. This continued well into college, where after some initial hiccups over boys who flirted with me, I was generally accepted as one of them. Those days, I’m afraid are past now. I find I don’t really enjoy being around men so much anymore.
I think there is one important difference from those times and now. Where I was a tomboy before (for lack of a better word, since I never was a girl in the traditional pink-frills-dainty-doll way), I am a woman now. It was easier to slip unobtrusively into being ‘one of the boys’ when I didn’t look, sound or behave much differently from any of them. But I do now. And curiously enough, I find every conversation I have with men invariably comes down to something that highlights the difference between us. That difference is now an active, glaring part of our company, it’s practically sitting in a chair of its own. Men treat me as as a woman now, not as one of them. As a result, I am finding conversations with men (individuals and in groups), tedious and boring.
Recently, I had lunch with a group of men. A leisure activity ran into a heated argument, which could have been avoided, had the group listened to each other a little more and shouted ideas a little less fervently. The conversation stabilized into talk of toys, girls, superheros and such. I didn’t even make the effort to participate (where once I would have jumped in, eager to prove that I could be one of them too). It gave me a chance to observe and reflect on the group’s dynamics. All the noise and fire only settled once the group had a chance to bond against (even if in the lightest manner possible) the only woman – me. Every one of these men is intelligent, modern and undoubtedly considers his attitudes (especially to women and society), progressive. Yet, they fell into an age-old, juvenile way of being (boys versus girls).
Later that week, I also came to a decision about one male friend. I’ve decided to release him from my life. I’m past the point where I can be argued, emotionally blackmailed, badgered or promised back into the friendship. I want nothing more to do with this person who while nice, is limited. And his most limiting factor is that his perspective doesn’t stretch beyond his immediate needs and gratification.
I find this true of almost every man I know. Self-centeredness is not just tolerated, it’s actively celebrated in the male child. Empathy, delayed gratification, acceptance of another point of view – these are things pretty alien to most men. Childish behaviour like tantrums, selfishness, the inability to keep promises – these are excused as childlike traits (which is a different thing altogether) when in a man. And finally, most men I know, seem unable to go beyond patterns learnt in childhood, about bonding with the boys and treating girls differently. I’m not saying that there aren’t men who try to imbibe and practice these things. But even the best, most conscious, self-aware of them fails miserably.
Because of all this, I find that my desire to associate with men, individually or in a group, where I have a choice, diminishing. Being around men (or a man) is like being with a child. You have egos to pander to, bad behaviour to excuse, excessive attention to be paid and no acknowledgement to be expected. You’ve to sit by and watch them do routine things, boost them up with high praise, build them up when they feel let down, keep them from getting into violent responses. Of course this is a generalization but I find one or more of these things coming up true for every single man I interact with, in some manner.
Like I said, I used to love being one of the guys. I’m not anymore, I don’t enjoy it. But it’s still disconcerting to find that you don’t find your comfort zone either comforting or appealing anymore.
Western feminism talks about the infantalisation of women. Childish behaviour is rewarded, glorified and in some cases, forcibly attributed too. I think the Indian counterpart is a bit different – but there is an Indian counterpart. The Indian culture, across states idolizes the Plain Jane.
In general conversations among my extended family, I’ve often heard disparaging references to women who wear make-up. There is a strong implication that a woman who cares about her appearance beyond a very antiseptic ‘clean and tidy’, a woman who actively beautifies herself is wanton, cold and manipulative.
Pop culture is a good barometer of social attitudes. Bollywood & television routinely typify negative female characters as painted, overdressed women. The heroine in contrast, is fresh-faced, virginal (untouched even by make-up brushes) and given to more dutiful pursuits than caring for her beauty. Saadgi is a shining ideal for the Indian woman. ‘Saadgi’‘s verb form is saada which translates to plain.
If you think this is an exaggeration, look at the number of acid-throwing attacks, a crime unique to India. They’re almost always perpetrated by men whose attentions have been scorned and who feel like they have to right the balance by taking away the woman’s power – her beauty. In their defenses one hears statements like, “She thinks she’s so beautiful. She needs to be taken down a peg.”
Beauty is required of an Indian woman, but in an unobtrusive, apologetic way. As a woman who loves dressing and consistently flouts fashion norms in favour of my own personal style, I can testify to the heavy disapproval I have to deal with. This isn’t just restricted to when I wear ‘revealing’ clothes but also colours, accessories or other things that just aren’t ‘what is usually done’. I feel the constant pressure to conform, to be punished with derision and mockery if I don’t. Indian women are not supposed to be individualistic.
Plain Jane is a non-threatening image for a woman. A woman who is not a Plain Jane indicates that she thinks, that she is able to see herself as distinct from the social structure & the role she plays in it. It shows that she is aware of her personal desires, her rights even – most importantly, that she is aware of the concept of ‘personal’ and feels she has a right to it.
This goes completely counter to the patriarchal system that sees women only as the roles that they play – their relationships & their duties. No wonder India loves saadgi and hates a woman who aspires to beauty.
Since the Shakti Mills gangrape incident hit headlines, my sense of self has been shaken up badly. I’m finding that I’m just unable to turn the page and move on with life as usual.
Much of my identity has to do with being ‘tough woman’, one that can take care of herself and doesn’t need a man. In addition to being innately mistrustful and reluctant to yield power to men, I’ve also been derisive of women who have male support integrally built into their sense of being. This is all related.
I’ve declared, for instance, that no man shall ever be permitted to tell me how to dress. This of course, comes from an abusive ex- who controlled my every movement and moment, down to the colour and fit of my trousers and shape of my handbag. Two men since then, have dared voice a derisive opinion of my dress sense and both of them were silenced in a war soldier-like attack.
I’ve flaunted my independence boldly and brashly in the faces of male classmates and colleagues, not feeling the need to be nice to them in case I might need to get dropped or ‘protected’ some day. And I’ve thrown daggers, poison darts and every conceivable weapon possible, in the form of my words and behaviour towards men in general.
This incident, happening in the middle of the evening, in my city has shaken the very core of my arrogance. It makes me realize just how unsafe, how vulnerable I am. It makes me think, even my pride, my arrogance were all based on a false perception of a safe city. And it makes me nearly seize up in horror at the thought that this could have happened anytime to me or to someone I loved. And like a landslide, it’s pried loose other realizations. I live in a country where women get beheaded by their own fathers for falling in love. I live in a place where women have had acid thrown on their faces, for rejecting an advance. I live in a culture that demands dowry, punishes wives, daughters & daughters-in-law for the inadequacies of men. I may have had so, so many narrow escapes. And possibly, I live in danger and will do so for the rest of my life. Because I’m a woman.
How do I deal with this now? Can I learn to pander to men, so that they will be less hostile and more protective to me? Can I figure out how to bury my ego and be someone that men will want to take care of, rather than cut to size? How do I learn to be that someone, not an independent but a part of the world that includes men in powerful roles?
I was talking to one of my fellow participants in the seminar I’m doing, about this. Today was my first outing since my fracture and he volunteered to drive me there and back, instead of taking the train. He even waited patiently for half an hour at the signal, while I was detained in traffic. On the way, I talked about this. He listened calmly and then he said.
“It’s one incident. Nothing has changed in your world before or after. But your whole notion of reality has changed because of it? What would have happened if you had not read that news article?”
I cannot quite describe why this felt so profound to me. Perhaps it had to do with the compassion, the non-intrusive support he offered without making a big deal of it.
A little later, another person talked about a different experience, his struggle with anger and a valuable lesson from his father in his last days. He talked about being a very hotheaded young man who thought his father’s ‘turn the other cheek’ stance came from weakness, a fear of conflict. But, he concluded,
“Anger really comes from fear. It’s the angry that are weak.”
That struck home. I’ve been angry my whole life. Angry with men for getting that lottery of birth that I didn’t get. Angry with the world for its social systems that subjugate me. So much anger from fear. I’m petrified of being less, of being taken advantage of, of being violated, of life being sucked out of me and being utterly helpless to do anything about it. So I fight. I go at the world every day like a warrior, ready to do battle with anybody who gets in the way. Well, my side just took a hit. A devastating loss. Of power, of dignity, of peace of mind and joy.
Yet, should I drip my blood away on wars that have not yet been waged on me? Even the survivor, that courageous young girl who faced that terrible ordeal, she has been quoted to have said,
If she can find it in her to be fearless even after this, might I not be able to do so too? And the men in my life, they weren’t the ones attacking her.
What of the men who commit or support the above mentioned crimes to women? I’ve often talked about how it is their fear of women, of female sexuality, of their insecurity in their own manliness that makes them behave that way. Well then. I didn’t even see the fear in myself. And fear is not the way to beat fear. There has got to be a way to live as a woman at peace, in happiness and joy and comfort. Women for countless generations before mine have managed it and in worse conditions than me.
I don’t live in a safe world, this is true. I also don’t live in a clean place. Or a place with trees and wide open spaces. I’ve found ways to adapt to these and not even miss what isn’t there, without any loss of freedom, joy or power. I manage to be a poet, an artist in the dirty, cynical city of Mumbai, after all. Perhaps I can be a happy woman in a world with men too. Considering it as a possibility is my first step. The journey begins here.
After the debacle of last year, I’ve learnt a few things. In fact, as far as lessons go, that experience has been a gift that keeps on giving. My mistakes give me better and better clarity on what it is that I really want. And perhaps life is nothing more than the unraveling of that great mystery.
It turned out that I wanted a wedding. Not marriage, I hadn’t been able to think that far. Not love, either, love had absolutely nothing to do with it. What I wanted, believed I frantically needed, was that contract to be finalized, that dotted line signed, that deal to be done. I can blame it on the regressive society I live in, my traditional environment, peer pressure and other things. But it boils down to one thing – that all my relationships and adulthood associations of this nature were (quoting from Ally McBeal) auditions for the co-starring role at a wedding. As focused and precise as that.
Last year nudged me to the fact that I didn’t accept easily and then was forced to, when it got too big to ignore, that I didn’t really want to be married. Was it just not to him or in general, not to anybody? I don’t know. I think it was probably the latter and he was if anything, the least bad path to that.
In retrospect, I can see how all my relationships began with, my getting dragged in kicking and screaming (well, at least in my head). I’ve never really had a thought for, made a place for love, in my life till now. The only reason I was in the game, playing the stakes was because I was pursuing the marriage goal.
Since the engagement ended, I’m finding it a lot easier to breathe. The pressure has eased up, socially and familially. It’s almost as if everyone has given up on my ever finding someone and has moved on to matters of greater interest. Which is a good thing since it gives me a chance to think about what it is that I really want. And I’m building the blocks slowly and articulating a fresh, albeit late thought.
I want love.
I want love, now. Not marriage. I’m not ready for that thought yet, let alone a discussion on it. A relationship? Maybe, maybe not. But that’s a discussion I want to have later. But I do want love.
I want romance. I want the sweetness, that fresh, breezy feeling inside of ‘I like this person SOOO much!’. I want the flushed cheeks, the nervous signals and tentative gestures, the catching each other’s eye by mistake and turning away instantly, the giddy shared smiles. I want that.
I want attraction. And sex that is love-making, instead of a power exchange or a release or a way to pass time. Well, it could be all that but I want it to be love-making in all.
There have been opportunities for these, bobbing up in front of me, like bubbles when I swim. But perhaps I haven’t been ready yet so they’ve brushed past me and vanished. I keep learning every now and then, of someone who felt that and even reached out their heart to me. But I was so busy, so focussed on that dotted line of the marital contract, I either never saw or just blazed past them in my frenzy.
I came so close, in recent times. Marriage got in the way twice. Once, last year. I know there was love, maybe still is. And who knows, perhaps it would have grown and been a nicer, warmer, richer love, had marriage not got in the way. And after that, another possible love that never was because the M-word turned up. I was clearer in my head about not wanting to go there and he chose the pursuit of the dotted line. So we parted.
I have no regrets about these. I know now that marriage is a complex thing, embedded in people’s fears and dreams and agendas. If there isn’t a match in attitudes, then you’re better of leaving it alone. Else love will be poisoned, destroyed and all lost. I chose to walk away from these possibilities rather than watch them rot into these sores.
The recent spate of reported gang rapes have cast a cloud on my desires, though. I’m not as sure about my right to my relationship choices. This is India after all, a culture that actively suppresses, harasses and mutilates women, for simply existing, let alone having independent opinions. I wonder now, in this country of honour killings, of forced arranged marriages, of dowry harassment, of marital rape, of abusive in-laws, do I have the right to look for love? Or is marriage the compromise I must settle for?
I think I’m finally ready to talk about this. It has been a strange, choked three years for this blog. I’ve not been anonymous, an issue I’ve been struggling with on all my other social media channels too. But specifically on XX Factor, where I talk about relationships, where other people’s emotions and involvement are present, it’s harder for me to speak. And I’ve been in a serious relationship and then the equally heavy fallout of the break-up after that.
Let’s talk about what went wrong, why we broke up, I and the man I called ‘Mr.Everyday‘, the one I was engaged to.
We were very different people to start with. In time our differences became too great to deal with. No, that’s not quite it. True and yet, not what I want to talk about.
It ended because it was a toxic, abusive relationship. Yes, I said that. Abusive. Violence. It ended because voices were raised and at some point of time, hands too.
Take a second to digest that, but only a second, so you don’t have the time to jump to a conclusion. Let me tell my story.
At some point of time it just got to be too much for me, the things that hurt me so much (which I won’t get into now, I’m determined that this one post won’t be about villifying him). When that happened, I stopped being who I want to think I am. I gave up my lifelong battle against anger and let myself go.
I broke a teacup. I tore up a book I’d gifted him. I set the torn fragments on fire.
Things settled for a bit, cooling off like the burning shards. And I naively believed that our problems had gone too. We started talking about marriage a few months after that, a stupid notion, now I know.
The next time the pressure built up, it went a little further. I don’t even remember the sequence of events now, it’s all such an angry, teary blur. But I do remember screaming,
“If you say that one more time, I’ll slap you”
I don’t remember what his words were that incensed me so but whatever they were, despite my warning, he did. And I slapped him. Then he hit me back. I remember flying across the room, hitting the wall and falling down, surprised, very surprised.
Stuff after that blurs again. Another memory. Similar. I slapped him. He lunged back. This time I staggered back and fell onto a sofa and everything was a red blur for a bit. I lost a few seconds before I figured out my nose was bleeding. And still a few more seconds before I realized he was pounding his own fists into the wall. My nosebleed turned out to be a minor internal cut, not a fracture as I had feared. And his fists had bruises on them.
The rest is, well, the rest is just words. I still maintain that there was undue interference from outside which put a severe strain on an already troubled relationship. But truthfully, the rot in our relationship were sown by the two of us – him and me.
It was an abusive relationship. We stopped respecting each other and began hurting each other instead. A handful of incidents changed the course of our relationship from ‘difficult’ to ‘non-existent’.
Why have I chosen to come out with this now? This is not personal vendetta against him. His crimes to our relationship are numerous. But I can never forget that I raised my hand first, an act of violence that would set the tone for the future of our relationship. I need to acknowledge that, to myself and here, in this space where I talk about my relationships, who I am and how I love. This is me then. I love passionately. But also violently. I’m dreadfully ashamed of it.
I don’t want us to be together anymore (and understandably neither does he). My next thought is usually to wish I hadn’t said this or done that. But I honestly don’t see how my reactions could have been anything else. At that point of time, I just got pushed too far.
Today, I know a little more than I did then. I’m not as proud about never backing down from a challenge. I want to believe that I think before flaring up to anger. I’m still learning. In all fairness, that ‘being pushed too far’ situation has never risen after that. But perhaps one of my lessons is in avoiding those situations too. I’ve learnt fear, a difficult lesson for me. And this time, it’s fear of myself.
I don’t like who I was then and I hope I never go back to that place. That may mean that I never get that close to anybody again, never let myself love or trust so much again, never let myself be so bitterly disappointed again. Because if disappointment and frustration and hurt bring out such a monster in me, it’s best that the monster be caged and never taunted out.
But life is a long journey and I don’t anymore believe myself to be the strong, proud person I once thought I was. This hurt, this disappointment in myself has lain heavy on my soul for a year now. I don’t want to punish myself for the rest of my life. So I’m going to try to make my peace with this – with my ugly, violent side as well as the selfish, survival instinct that makes me want to love again.
That’s all. Thank you for listening.
P.S. – I found this blogpost very helpful.