We are in an era of merchandising. There are hundreds of corporations working overtime to ensure that we have this going on. That, multiplied with the celebratory zeal that comes from having named days, weeks and months for every possible named relationship, dozens of different activities, specific cultures, traditions, religious holidays, and other occasions of celebrating one thing or another, and with each of them taking up very specific colours, objects and rituals coded for it – there is a mind-boggling number of objects and ideas being sold to us every day.
A lot many of these celebrations and the merchandising associated with them are designed for love and lovers, wooing them from the days of initial attraction, or even before that putting up love as something to be desired and to be sought, to every day of the relationship, and even end of relationships. Every possible moment in a relationship seems to have merchandise designed specifically for it, advertised and sold to the masses through every media possible.
Add to that, the very specific merchandise that marks a relationship. These could be small mementoes from the first date, to travel souvenirs, random pieces of paper and objects like movie tickets, a napkin with a scribbled number, hair clips, the toothbrush that they had used after the first sleepover - we can make pretty much anything an object of much meaning and specialness to a relationship. Then there are specially marked days such as birthdays and anniversaries of the first meeting, the first kiss, the first “official” date and so on. Add to that, other gifts given that mark particular occasions – the objects that mark fights, the making up after a fight, cards, stuffed toys and other objects signifying given for forgiveness, for gratitude, or just because one decides to surprise the other.
Thankfully, we don’t have as many printed photos anymore. If we were not living in the cloud so much these days, there would likely be hundreds of printed photos as well. Thanks to the mobile phone camera revolution, we have millions of photos now, but thankfully, very few of them ever get printed anymore. The few that do get printed, are on fridge magnets, coffee mugs, mobile phone covers - and there are plenty of those.
Is it any wonder then that relationships are one of the largest sources of clutter in one’s lives?
As individuals, we seem to accumulate a fair bit of clutter anyway, but the degree of clutter seems to explode into another dimension altogether when there are relationships in the picture. We accumulate boxes and closets full of things, few of them of much everyday value, or even great long-term meaning, but we hoard them, loathe to dispose them off, each object a memory marker of some significant moment of loving and being loved.
It is painful enough to declutter and say bye to objects from relationships that have ended badly, but how about all the personal treasures from joyful relationships, ongoing or otherwise?
Do we let our loves clutter our lives?
As written for The New Indian Express
Almost every newspaper and household magazine carry a horoscope column. Some carry multiple columns – a daily one, a weekly one, a monthly prediction, one based on your birthdays, another based on the shifting of planets from one constellation to another, lunar ones, solar ones. There are some unusual ones as well – one based on the numerology of your name, or esoteric calendars like the now-defunct Mayan calendar, for example.
The columns have a great readership. Many might just give it a passing glance for a quick check-in “just in case” or for a little light reading along with their daily dose of Calvin and Hobbes and other syndicated cartoons, for relief from all the stories of murder and mayhem. For others, it is a matter of particular importance, and even for the generally cynical population, convinced of the irrationality of 9 billion people’s lives being stuffed into a dozen predictable patterns for the day, there may be times and places when these columns become an important part of their fixture.
Consider a person falling in love for the first time and wanting to really time their confession of love and other feelings to the object of their adoration, or somebody wanting to take their relationship to the mythical “next level.”’ They might be looking for anything that can help shore up their chances at success, time their proclamations, and just get some courage. Horoscopes often become one such tool. They might eagerly wait for the daily newspaper, skim over news of elections, defecting politicians, world cup matches, climate crises and so much other important news, and go directly to the horoscope columns in the penultimate page of the paper, just so they can read their own prediction, match it with that of their beloveds, and look for clues in the two.
What if Scorpio says, “This is a good day for love and lovers. Venus is in your sign and it is the time for love and shows of affection,” and Libra says, “Be ready for annoyance. Mercury is in retrograde and people you don’t like are likely to be a source of irritation to you. Avoid them.” Would the poor lovelorn Scorpio take the risk of professing undying love to the Libran, having been forewarned thus by the daily horoscope? Or would the crushing Scorpio stay crushed under this warning, and wait for a better day with predictions that are more encouraging?
As human beings brought up in cultures of mysticism and the occult, even the very rational amongst us sometimes catch ourselves looking for signs and we read meanings into random occurrences, just to give ourselves a little solace, some comfort and maybe a bit of courage. If it stays a harmless foible, then it just is something for people to share a laugh over. If it becomes a potentially crippling dependence or ends up hurting someone, then of course there is nothing funny about it.
Lastly, here is an idea: What if there were predictions for the relationship as a unit based on the date the relationship was born?
As written for The New Indian Express
Once upon a time, in a busy market, a flower-seller and a fish-seller started to fall in love. They would meet each day at the market, make googly eyes at each other, and playfully call out each other’s wares, enjoy each other’s successes and were just lovely with each other.
Over time, their friendship matured into a relationship, and what started at the market, moved into long walks by the riverside, conversations over shared plates of food and all the regular stuff till finally the fish-seller invited the flower-seller home, and after a long evening, when they went to sleep, the fish-seller slept soundly while the flower-seller twisted and turned missing the smells of the flowers back home, but being a good guest, did not tell anything much. The next day, the flower-seller called the fish-seller home, and again they had a good time and when they finally went to sleep, this time the flower-seller slept easily surrounded by familiar smells, and the fish-seller couldn’t.
After a few weeks of such tossing and turning, they confess to not being able to sleep well at each other’s houses, much as they love each other, and it becomes quite an issue. Finally, they reach a solution: the fish-seller would bring an old, empty basket of fish to keep close when visiting the flower-seller, and vice-versa!
Both were now able to be relatively happy at each other’s place. The point of the story is this: Are we markers of space? Do we need our space to be marked with our things to claim it as our own, and imprint our characteristics on it so that it feels like home and we feel comfortable in it?
It is not easy to be in an impersonal space and there are always some things that feel more like one’s own.
One might be able to sleep wherever and be comfortable for a few nights anywhere, and yet, feel that much more at ease when back home. Isn’t that every tourist’s experience? It is great to be travelling around, seeing the world, sleeping in amazing hotels and camps, and yet it is all so much nicer when you have your own home to come to, your own bed to come back to and your own things around you.
For some of us, the need for our own things is much higher. We take a little bit with us wherever we go. Maybe it is a pyjama, a toothpaste, a bedside kerchief, a mala of beads, a book – it could be anything. It is the rare person amongst us who doesn’t ever need anything of their own and can feel at home anywhere and wit anybody.
If we can’t make space for another’s need for a few of their own things, is it really love? Could the fish-seller really love the flower-seller, but not allow for a bag of flowers?
As published in The New Indian Express
Smart phones are so ubiquitous. People use their laptops and personal computers only when they need to really type out large pieces, or work on multiple documents or when they have to work on software that is only designed for such computers. All other connected life is on the phone now that phones operate with equal or greater computing power as compared to computers, and there is internet everywhere. Very few actually use their computers to access social media, dating sites, news or anything else that one gets around to on a daily basis, unless they are on some kind of digital detox and are limiting their access to their mobile phones.
More and more smart phones these days come with fingerprint and face scanners that can unlock the phone. Gone are the days when the only option was a complex pattern or a numerical pattern were the ways to lock a phone, now it is your own face or finger that does the job. Most people set the unlocking pattern to their thumbs or index fingers, and sometimes, just for convenience, store all their fingers as unlocking patterns on their phone. It makes sense if you think about it – what if a couple of fingers get hurt and are damaged, or in full masala movie style, you are in trouble and only your little finger can reach the phone!
Jokes aside, smart phones and their being locked or unlocked is often a sticky issue with people in relationships. It is much more common to find people insisting that they have access to each other’s phones rather than have people who are quite OK that phones are each other’s private spaces and do not need to be accessed. Many take the half-way path where they ask for and get access (“just for emergency sakes”) and give the same open-door policy to their partners. The rare person uses their partner’s finger to unlock their phone when the partner is deep asleep or not in a conscious state, adds their own into the security system, just so that they will have access should there be need to have such access at all, and maybe not let the partner know at all because they want to avoid arguing over something that might never really happen.
How people in relationship access each other’s smart phones then becomes quite an important issue for many people in relationships. They want to be able to see each other’s WhatsApp conversations, messenger history, browsing history and everything else. With people taking their phones to their toilets and glued on to the small screen, with wireless ear-phones on almost all the time, there is very little that others in the relationship get to know of one’s lives unless there is an open sharing.
Issues of consent, transparency, connectedness and so on that have been the key concerns in relationships. More than rechecking your phone’s security protocols, people need to talk about these issues with their partners, or risk them playing out on a screen very near you.
How do you decide what shows to watch? Earlier, even with just the TV and all the cable channels, deciding what to watch with your beloved was not easy, unless you happened to luck out and both of you enjoyed the same things, and weren’t pretending through your courting period just to get each other’s attention.
Now with all the streaming apps offering shared subscriptions and “Netflix and Chill” becoming part of our daily language, there are thousands of hours of programming, season after season of shows from every corner of the world right at your fingertips. All this content is available on every kind of screen now, from TV screens, to iPads, mobile phones and other stuff. There is apparently a fridge with a screen that can stream content. Coupled with the very best of headphones that cancel out noise, it is convenient for people to watch what they like, independent of each other.
If you are out sprawled on your couch watching Game Of Thrones and all its gore, your partner might be three feet away but watching old reruns of The Big Bang Theory and getting ready to mourn that it was ending as well. Of course, for the most part, your partner might be in another room altogether, and telling you to call when it is time for dinner.
It is becoming harder than ever to bond over your favourite shows. You really have to up sell the content you want to watch, or search for shows that appeal to both your tastes. You find that odd Korean drama that also features vampires, or the 90s documentary on serial killers and it somehow gets both of you piqued enough to share a few hours together as you binge watch it all in one night, and then you have to trawl all through the suggested links to find something else.
There are silver linings if you look for it. If you are an older couple, maybe you would rediscover some old favourites that you could both reconnect over. Maybe you’d watch Friends again, or older classics – re-watch the whole lot, and then watch the rebooted versions, admire the hotter, younger actors, the more polished production values and yet diss how the show has lost its earlier charm – think Star Trek. You might find yourself introducing each other to new content or find yourself bonding over content that neither knew you would like.
It is a toss-up, whether these unlimited choices will bring you together, or separate you from each other. There is no telling what it will do, unless you really think about this together. When we are free, it takes so much more effort to stay together.
As written for The New Indian Express
Travel is a metaphor for life in so many ways. Are we travelling for travel’s sake, or are we travelling to a destination? What is more important, the journey or the destination? And is there one destination? In real life, few don’t travel at all, and hardly any journey is done with the one destination. And yet, if we hold travel as a metaphor for life, we are told to look at relationships as if it is the one destination that we are all supposed to arrive, one way or another.
If one is single, everywhere one goes, parents, grandparents and every other relative one could meet in everything from a baby’s naming ceremony to a funeral asks the big relationship questions: Why so late? Do you need introductions? Is a relationship the one destination that we are all supposed to head towards?
Even in travel, it is not as if we celebrate the one traveller who travels from point A to point B and never ever travels again. Nor do we celebrate someone who never travels, or the traveller who is incessantly travelling, so much that there is no saying where they were or will be.
We travel as we want to, stay for as long as we like and leave as we will. The travellers we really celebrate are those that have a story to tell. They may have never ever travelled, or barely, or lots – none of that matters as much as how their travel adventure was, how much they experienced in it and how deep they could relate to their experiences.
What if we treated relationships the same way? Do we really need to treat relationships as if they were a destination to arrive at and never leave again, like the Hotel California from the Eagles song? Instead of chasing being in a relationship as if it were some mythical giver of bliss and everlasting happiness, what if we simply saw it for what it is: Just one other possible part of one’s own life journey?
In our mythologies, we celebrate the celibate as much as we celebrate the once-married and those with 16,000 partners. The celebration of such deified lives is not because of whether and how many they were in a relationship with, but because of the lives they led, the values they upheld and the heroics of living as themselves in the face of many odds.
A relationship can be a witness for a life well-lived, but it is not the golden ticket to a meaningful life – there is none. Our life is meaningful because we give it meaning by how we live it, how we strive for what we value despite the odds, and what we make if it - not necessarily whether we were in a relationship, many relationships or none. Life is the journey, and the destination
As published in The New Indian Express
What makes a home a home?
The popular saying is home is where the heart is, or that while a house is made of bricks and cement, a home is made of love. The romanticism aside, home is really about belonging - both to the place one calls home and the people with whom one shares this home.
Making a home for yourself and those you love is no easy task, even when the people living together in it are very similar. As people, there are so many ways that we are different - any and every thing from what we eat, when we eat, our daily routines, the demands of our work, our studies, our hobbies and interests etc can set us apart. For any of us who grew up with siblings, we know how even when we are flesh and blood, it is not easy at all. Interests vary, friendships vary and lifestyles vary even with identical twins. When we are so different from people that we are born to and grow up with, can we really expect to be very similar to someone we fall in love with and try and make a home with?
Even with the greatest of loves, moving in together and starting to make a home together is a risky affair. You might expect that for couples from the same cultural background, it might be easy, but it is often not. So many conversations around household chores are fraught with danger, and even the most innocuous stuff like clearing the garbage or doing the laundry, could set off conflicts, and many start innocently enough with the seemingly simple words, “In my home, we used to …”
This is a home you are building with this new person in your life and yet so many conversations start off with these few words that separate you from this partner, put you firmly back in the family you came from and this partner is now the outsider. The partner then quite predictably replies with experiences from their family, and the conversation gets more and more distant - two people talking about the homes they came from rather than the home they are trying to build together. The 'We’ and 'Our Home’ become forgotten in the rush to claim older homes and separates the couple into individuals loyal to their own respective families.
It takes a lot of presence of mind to be able to remember that the new home need not be anything like either of the old ones. The pressure to replicate and comply with the rules and regulations of where we grew up is high, but doing so at the cost of the other person's own vision of their home will end up in either or both feeling alienated and not feeling like they belong.
Making a home is a lot of work and the work starts with the awareness and acknowledgement that this is hard work. Everything is up for grabs, nothing is given as granted and each thing has to be negotiated between the people making this home together.
As published in The New Indian Express
The fairy tales we grow up on had so much enchantment built into them.
One of the tropes was that of a happy family that for almost no fault of their own, fall into the bad books of an evil magician, who curses them with all sorts of bad things, and life would have been hell. Just in time, as the curse is starting to have effect, a benevolent fairy god-parent sneaks in just after the cursing evil magician is gone and gives a small gift that keeps the cursed royalty in an enchanted state of stasis for years, if not decades till finally the enchantment wears off with a magical kiss and all is well again. That is typically how the story goes.
What does that have to do with love and relationships? Think of it this way: We might be happily going about our every day life, when suddenly something awful happens. Something quite unexpected and for hardly any fault of out own, and it throws our lives out of whack. It might be something like an old long-forgotten ex- coming back into life like the evil, cackling magician in the fairy tales, dropping a bomb on the new life with some story or a debt that wasn’t serviced, or in true Bollywood style, a child that people didn’t know existed till them. It could be anything really – maybe a change of job, a posting abroad, someone falling critically ill, loss of wealth from a stock market crash, not necessarily involving an active, malevolent person, but something that changes our lives altogether.
These times when our relationship goes through some serious strife, it can come to a breaking point, and one wishes there was a fairy god-parent who could somehow magically freeze the relationship, give it time and space to suffer through that period, and maybe, just maybe, there will be that magical kiss at the end of it to heal the relationship.
We don’t have too many fairies floating around in real life, and we are forced to find substitutes for them. It might be a kind parent, a good friend, a therapist, a colleague – anybody could be that person in real life. We just need someone who can hold the trauma, to have time to process what just happened and allow for our shaken lives to stabilise again. Sometimes, it is a gentle holding, and at other times, it is a scolding from a good friend like in the 1980s hit Hindi movie Masoom, where the idyllic life of the couple gets shattered with the arrival of an unexpected child, and there is a lot of emotional distress, till finally the character played by Shabana Azmi gets one nice little lecture on how life could throw up unexpected surprises and yet, there are blessings there if only we can get over ourselves – and we got ourselves a sweet little ending for that movie.
In our lives, we do have these fairy godparents around us in abundance. It is just up to us to make use of them.
As published in The New Indian Express
Have you seen your relationship through a major period of illness? It might have involved hospitalisation or not, but the kind of time we are talking about here is the one that has weeks if not months of at-home care, where the person who is unwell needs assistance with their body. Perhaps they are unable to walk, or get off their bed on their own, need assistance dressing, eating or in any other way need help.
How much do you stay with them and take care of their physical needs? How comfortable were you staying with them and working through the mess that is our body with all its random fluids, smells, textures and everything else? Were you able to do all the small things that a person needs in such a situation with a smile on your face and able to still make the ill person feel valued, and even desired? Or, did you go through that period as a temporary annoyance that just needs to be borne with as much fortitude as possible, but not really a period to be cherished in any way?
Conversely, think about the times you might have been the one in need and how your loved one was with you in those times.
The way we are with each other in times of sickness tells more about how we love and how deeply we love, much more than the times of good health and circumstances. It is something we understand in theory, and when we look at it through the lenses of our lived experiences, we find that there are so many nuances. It is a tricky situation because we have different conflicting needs acting up. On one hand, there is a self-assertion, a desire to be as independent as possible. On another, a fear of being needy, along with a strong need to feel related and reassured. One wants to do as much for oneself, and yet also want to be cared for.
We sometimes are able to overlook a loved one’s freezing in times of medical need, excusing them as being squeamish, sensitive or immature. We may look at an over-functioning carer as being over-bearing, self-sacrificing, taking away your agency, your freedom and really be angry with them, or just annoyed and irritated. If we are the ones providing care, we might feel ourselves overcome with compassion and be in tears along with the one suffering, or on the other extreme, be very annoyed – judging them for their difficulty in managing this much pain when you have gone through much more.
Finding that balance between two people on how much care is welcome, how much space is needed – that could be the journey of a lifetime. If these lessons aren’t learned well, you could be those bickering old couples who can’t stand each other in their old age. Or, you could be that picture book version of the old couple sitting on a bench together – one reading, and the other resting, quietly confident in their care for each other.
As written for and published in The New Indian Express
Check in on your WhatsApp conversation with your loved one. How much of it is “What are you up to?” “Busy?” “Just checking in to see if you are free!” and messages like that?
It is one thing if these check-ins are at times of stress such as when there is something going on at work, or at home, someone is ill, either is travelling out or some key errands need to be done. It is quite another, if a lot of it is just about such quick check-ins even when there is really no pressing need for checking. If your WhatsApp history is full of such check-ins, take a moment to think about it –what did you really want when you were asking these questions? Were you stressed and seeking a bit or relief from your partner? Were you missing each other and wanted to get a bit of affection that will let your oxytocin flow? Was it to keep a tab on the other’s day so you feel you are in-touch with what’s going on? Or were you just bored?
If the answer is more of the “Just like that” variety, you might want to rein in that a little. The constant check-ins on each other, wanting to know every detail and stay connected throughout the day, almost as if one cannot really go through the ten or so hours without actually being around each other – all of it can be painted with an aura of Being Romantic, as acts of caring, of being thoughtful. Granted, sometimes it is just that – a sweet, romantic act, and even then, these can quickly cross the line into needy, entitled, demanding, sulky annoyances. You can see it again in the WhatsApp history, when the responses shift from equally endearing “XOXO, Sweetheart! Can’t wait to see you in the evening! What are you doing?” and “Yes, darling! Stuck in office meeting and thinking of you!” to curter, sharper “What is it?” “Yes, busy” or just plain blue ticks with nothing offered in return.
When that happens, it is time to recognize that the constant checking in is getting a bit too much and one needs to back off. Often though, instead of backing off, there is a greater questioning: “Why aren’t you answering?” “I am just MISSING you SO MUCH! And you don’t even care!” “Are you even in love with me anymore?” and while the first few times might get the loved one to squeeze out some attention, it is like trying to get more water out of a starved borewell in peak summer – it gets muddier and muddier, till that well of love is just coughing up ugly, dirty filth. Like our borewells, we often need to be left to recharge without being constantly drained out. We need our own rainwater harvesting, so to say – time and space for one’s own joys to fill up one’s life
Then, there can again be interesting and interested replies to those WhatsApp queries of “What u doing?’
As written for and published by the New Indian Express
Ajanta, Mahesh and other InnerSight counsellors and guest contributors are happy to share their thoughts here.