First, an old story: Once, at the end of their education, four students who were graduating asked their Guru to give them blessings and wealth with which to start off their lives. Each were given a few pebbles and told to take a long walk, and that where any pebble fell, they would find wealth. Along the way, when the first pebble, they dug and found coal and one person, was thrilled with it, thinking “I can build an empire with this!” and settled right there, while the others kept walking.
After a long time, the second fell, and there was copper, and another happy person settled with that, thinking “This should be surely enough for me for this life.” A third fell on silver much later and a relieved person happily settled, saying “I have spent enough time looking. This is enough.”
The fourth though, kept walking.
After a long, long walk, when the pebble fell and there was some gold, it seemed like after all that trouble they went through, surely gold was not enough, that there should be more if only they strived for more and so the pebble was picked up and onwards the journey continued. Diamonds were similarly discarded, so was platinum, and lots of other precious aspects. Finally, there was nowhere further to go and nothing more to be found. The pebble rose up and fell on the head, crushing it to smithereens.
What’s the point of this story in a column about love?
If you read this story again, and thought of wealth as love, you might then make a connection. At first read, it might look just like a story about settling down and not being too greedy. You might find yourself focussing on the hapless fourth who kept going on and on till at the end of the road, they were crushed by their own greed. That’s fair enough, but a closer read might show you a change of language of how the person finding the wealth changes from being thrilled, to happy, to relieved, to almost desperate. Read it yet again, and you see time passing inexorably.
As a metaphor for finding The One, the story then has similarly interesting questions one poses for oneself.
Do you find potential, work on it and build up your wealth for yourself? Do you wait to find for more obvious wealth, and then enjoy it for what it is? Do you discard the obvious wealth and strive to find the golden dear, so to say? Or, do you strive beyond it, no matter what cost in time and health, looking for that absolutely perfect, everlasting and inexhaustible source running the risk that you never find it and just get crushed in the process?
As all cautionary tales go, this one too only serves to highlight that searching for love is like searching for wealth. You have a choice to make between multiple dimensions of potential, time, perfection and much else.
As written for and published by The New Indian Express
Imagine the worst fight you have had with the love of your life. You may have been screaming at each other, maybe came close to being violent – hopefully, stopped well short of it, and you may have continued on and on for hours if not days. Maybe you made up, maybe you decided the fight wasn’t worth it. Maybe you just let time heal and let other things become important enough so that the fight no longer mattered.
The point is this: How do you know a fight has ended?
The challenge for many couples is that when they stop fighting, one party might believe the fight is over, while the other might just believe they have taken a pause in the fight – an interval in a long movie, just to attend to some other things, and the fight has been marked as “To Be Continued.” If it is the latter, then on another day and time, it might join yet another fight to snowball into a much bigger deal than either fights by themselves. Of course, it becomes a really big, ugly deal if both parties to the fight are in the “To Be Continued” mode – then, the interval could be really short, and each break becomes shorter than the previous one.
As more “To Be Continued” fights pile up like a bed-side library full of books that one has never completed, it is more than likely one day to topple over and crush you. As the pile increases, there is less and less faith that anything will ever get resolved. Soon, there is either a giving up and an uncaring attitude, or there is an active rage that throws out everything, or it becomes an irritation in itself and there are fights about fights. And then fights about that.
To continue with that image of a pile of unread books, what would it be like if couples could pick up a book now and then to see if they want to really finish it now, or do they want to clear the clutter? Imagine yourself doing it quite literally for all the incomplete things in your life, be it books, or those shows that are left at 40% seen on NetFlix, or those half done craft projects in your closet. If you really took stock, how much of the clutter would you keep? How much would you clear away?
My bet would be that you would probably find that there are a lot that you simply grew out of and that you just don’t want any more. Maybe a few that you want to keep for later, and maybe one or two that you really cared about and find that you want to attend to right away.
So, what would happen if you actually kept an active roster of open issues? A journal exclusively for all these “To Be Continued” fights that you are having with your loved one? Could it help you let go, and yet hold on to what is really important?
As written for and published in the New Indian Express
Ever noticed how people in love call each other ‘honey’ and 'sweetie'? There is hardly any reference to other tastes. Occasionally, we might see a reference to a hot chilli or a spicy pepper, but that is more about sexiness and attraction rather than feelings of love itself. And no, it isn’t yet another western notion that has come to India. People in India have been calling their lovers ‘laddoo,’ ‘jilebi’ and what not. I haven’t heard anybody call their sweet-heart ‘mysore-pak’ or ‘kaaju katli’ but someone out there probably does use these terms for their loved one. A ‘paal payasam’ or a ‘kheer’ might be stretching it, but other more solid sweets – there is probably a person high on love somewhere calling out to the object of their affection with what could be the menu card of their local mithai wallah.
When we are not sweetening it, we are quite likely babying it. Babe, baby, coochie-pie, kutti, kanna and every other thing that we last called a cousin’s 6 month old.
What is it about love and sweetness and cuteness? What makes us become a melting pot of sweet, gooey chocolate when loving some one? Why do we go on and on with sweet nothings ?
Are all these terms just empty calories that is going to fatten up the person, or is there anything actually nourishing to the soul about these sweet endearments that make us use them?
It really shouldn’t be a surprise, but it turns out that we are all suckers for the kind of desire that the sweet words imply. When our loved one addresses us with the sweet endearments that show us we are special to them, we react with a specialness as well. Often times, even without realising that we have kinda softened, we reciprocate in some similar fashion. We may not use the sweet words ourselves, but we might be paying a bit more attention to them, feel a bit less hostile or angry, be less agitated or upset.
Try it out next time you are having a fight with your beloved. For the first couple of times, have the argument using only their given name through the whole fight. No pet names. No sweet terms. No terms of endearment. Just see how long it goes and how bad it gets before you both work it out. Observe yourself, and observe your partner. A few days later, when you have the opportunity again (and I am sure there will be) use your pet names for them, use the terms of endearment, the sweet talk – and observe again what happens to the fight. Are you fighting as hard or as bitterly? Does it go on for as long? Are you both more willing to make up, or less so? Just notice what happens.
For the everyday conflicts, I would bet that fights where you remember to use your sweet somethings (and mean it) are shorter, less harsh, and more easy to recover from.So, go on. Use those endearments.
As written for and published by The New Indian Express
There was a joke going around the internet the other day: A couple is talking about what it would be like if one of them were to die, whether there would be a second chance at love for the survivor, and after a few minutes, just to cut the conversation down, one person tells the other, “Let’s make a pact. Whichever of us dies first, I will marry again.”
Joking aside, talking of death and dying is a seriously difficult thing to do among lovers, especially where there is no immediate pressing need to talk about such things. There are, of course, the semi-flirtatious use of loss and death in conversations like in the joke above to reaffirm commitment to each other, with the expected answers being in the lines of, “I cannot live without you,” or “Love dies for me the day either of us die,” or “You may not have been the first person I kissed, but you certainly will be the last.”
Even in non-romantic situations, trying to start a conversation about it can be met with: “Why such dark thoughts?” or, “Stop. You are scaring me!” or, “Are you OK? Should we go to the doctor or something? Shall I call your mother?” We don’t want to engage with these topics at all thinking them to be bad omens and macabre.
With the Supreme Court ruling a few days ago on dignity in death, and allowing for passive euthanasia and living wills, these conversations really do need to happen in living rooms and bedrooms across the country, and yet it is the rare couple that seriously talks about death, its effect on them and what might be needed to work around it.
If you are in love with someone, and you trust them with your life, your bank account login details, your google mail password and even your old Tindr account, then why not trust them with death as well? Let’s face it. Death is an integral part of living, so why should it not be a part of loving as well?
We are not talking stuff like the Gerard Butler movie P.S: I love you, or for a younger generation, The Fault In Our Stars. Though loving in the face of death, like in these movies, is important as well, the emphasis is on whether we should wait till death announces a date with us? Would we really know, anyway? Quite sadly, in all likelihood, each of us know a few people lost tragically too soon to accidents, incidents and illnesses.
So. can you as an act of true love, talk with your lover about death? What you’d like to happen in the event of? What worries you or scares you about it? What projects of yours would you hope outlives you? What of your other loved ones? What secrets would you want handled? What do you feel happens after death?
Of course, keep it clear, direct. Don’t bore your loved one to death over it.
As written for and published in the New Indian Express
In many of the mythological stories one grows up with in India, as well as in the more western fairy tales of romance and love, there is often the tests that love has to go through before it is hailed as true and worthy. In Indian mythology, there were stories of the lover travelling across seven seas and seven mountains, battling untold miseries, demons and temptations, to get a token that the beloved asked for in a moment of whimsy. Or bows had to be strung, flowers plucked from treacherous mountain tops, jewellery made or houses built. There were royals who decried that the suitor must prove worthy of the royal heir’s love by solving a dozen puzzles, battling wild animals and what not.
Other cultures had similar stories as well. Japanese stories of star-crossed lovers who wait eternities to meet their loved one, Hawaiian stories of a lover chasing the moon where it meets the sea to bring pearls like never seen before. Hundreds and thousands of stories of lovers proving their love’s true worth before the happy ending.
In real life, or IRL as we know it nowadays, do we still test love before accepting it? We may not ask for the moon or jewels or what have you, but test we still do. All the time, some times. The tests are often quite small: “Give me your phone, I want to see your pictures.” “What’s your password for your google mail?” “My mother wants to meet you. What are you doing this weekend?” If the answer is not quite what is expected, the grades on the love test start to dip. There are so many other little tests, like when you are walking together and you are reaching out with your hand, and though both of you are looking ahead, you still look if your hand is being held. Or that time when you are in a mall, and you watch to see who your lover is watching.
Even after years of being together, the testing continues in subtle and not so subtle ways: could be about who brings the milk in, or walks the dog on a rainy day, or who gets to decide where one goes for the Sunday dinner.Then, can you really stop testing ever? How long before you know well and for sure that all the testing is done and it is a given, now and forever? Or are we doomed as a species to forever test and be tested, with only the intermittent lulls of peace and quiet, like summer and Christmas holidays between unit tests and term exams at school?
An old friend once had an insight to offer: the real test, according to them, was if you could scratch where it itched and let your body be as it will, making whatever sound it would, whenever it needed to, without feeling judged for it. “Have you found that love?” I asked, and that friend laughed, “No, I still judge!”
As written for and published by the New Indian Express
A game that has lasted for decades, if not centuries, is the good old ‘Flames’ game. In many schools, when the teachers are droning on about trigonometry, the various wars of the nineteenth century, dissecting poor old Wordsworth or any subject to their wards in the eighth, ninth grades, and finding their students busily making notes, in reality they might have been busy playing ‘Flames.’
If you never played the game, the rules are quite simple. You simply write your names down one on top of the other, and then scratch out letters that are common to both till there are no matching letters left, and then count the number of letters left. If you had four left, then you count four into ‘Flames,’ reaching ‘m’ which then means ‘marriage’ is on the cards. If you more than six, you just count another cycle till you get one of the letters.
Flames stand for Friendship, Love, Affection, Marriage, Enemies and Siblings. If you think about it a little differently about what each of the letters of ‘Flames’ stand for, an interesting thing stands out - there is this gradation of so many positive feelings. There is friendship, affection, sibling, love, and let’s count marriage as positive as well, and only one negative feeling – enemy. Nobody plays to find if between them and this person there might be, for example, jealousy, envy, disgust, irritation, worry, anger, regret, sorrow – say Jedi Wars for short. (Hey, did I just invent a game?)
In fact, even when Flames is played, the interest is really at what level the positive feelings are towards each other. Are they merely fond of each other, is there a friendship, has it matured into some kind of love or might it get into sibling territory or might it really go all the way and become a marriage and stay presumably forever? That is the real curiosity. If you don’t like each other and are ‘enemy’, nobody particularly bothers to see what kind of negativity is supposedly there.
In all likelihood, since you play the game pairing one name with some person of interest, if ‘e’ does come up, or if you didn’t like the result the first time around, you might try with your full name, initialled name or other spellings till you get the result you wanted. That’s half the fun of it as the reaction to what the Flames reveal, intuitively reveal to the people that are playing the game what they really feel about the person they are being paired with in the game
It is quite a confusing set of emotions between friendship, affection, lust, love and the lot, and with all the rules we have about what’s OK in one and what’s not OK, it can be so scary to see ‘s’ when you know you are having very different feelings. Just getting to acknowledge what you really feel, that’s what games like ‘Flames’ is about. What after you get to know what you feel? Well, you are really in the fire then
As written for and published at
Here is an exercise: Tell your beloved that you need their help. Tell them to get a paper and a pen. This is a writing exercise. Ask them then to think about you, and more specifically, your body and how you look and that includes how you express yourself – your sense of style, your clothes, how you carry and present yourself. Ask them to write ten things that the simply adore about you – no copping out and writing about your intellect, humour and all the other things that make you. Those can be a different list, a different exercise for another day. This is just about how you look.
Let them take their time. Don’t peek and let them keep that list with themselves till you do your part. You too need to think about yourself, your body, your clothes, hair, appearance, makeup and everything else about how you look. You don’t have to look at yourself in the mirror, or record yourself and play it back – this is not about looking at you in a completely factual manner. This is just a simple exercise. Now, you too write down ten things.
The catch is, make your list about ten things that you DON’T like about yourself. Things that you wish you could change or are already working on changing. Perhaps it is that nose, or those extra-huge earlobes that dance with their own momentum. Maybe it is your dorky glasses which you wish to lose and get lenses instead. Maybe it is your hair. Or lack of it. Whatever it might be. Just let it flow. We want ten, and if you find you are writing a lot, allow it to be maybe twenty, but stop at that.
Now, here comes the fun part: Take your beloved’s list about things they adore about you, and take your own list about what you don’t particularly care about yourself. Look through it, item by item, and see what’s the overlap.
Chances are that there are at least a few items common to both your lists though you both wrote it from wholly different perspectives.
Think about that. How is it that our loved ones adore things about ourselves that we may not even like? Who is weird in this perspective then? Should you recast your own assessment, or do you feel like dismissing your lover’s perspective as coloured with their love for you? And if indeed it is coloured with their love for you, what does that tell you?
Of course, you might be among the small set that has no overlap whatsoever. You could take that as a sign of a really true self-image, or just that it has no importance. That said, for far too many of us, our loved ones see us so much better than we see ourselves.
What if you could really see yourself the same way your loved one sees you? Would you adore more of you? Would you be less self-critical? That would be nice, wouldn’t it.
As written for and published in the New Indian Express
Is there no need for exchanging thank yous or sorrys between those who love each other?Salman Khan’s first movie Maine Pyar Kiya set this notion for the 90s kids with its catchy “No sorry, no thank you between friends” dialogue and that has stayed on in our general culture for a while now. The idea that friendships and especially love meant that things just get understood and appreciated automatically, and that no real expression of apology or gratitude was needed, has stuck for such a long time. There are literally hundreds of movies across languages reflecting that sentiment now.Does love really not require expressions of gratitude or apology?Should your lover just trust and have faith that you know and appreciate everything they do for you, and should they automatically forgive any and every transgression in their ever-loving generosity of spirit because they know that deep within, you only love them?
It can seem such a romantic idea – this notion of implicit trust and faith in love for one another, but it is actually quite a harmful notion. One that hurts both people individually, and certainly hurts the relationship. As with everything else, trust has to be built and maintained over time, and the way trust gets built is by open expression of all feelings, including hurt, anger, joy and happiness.
So, how do you say thank you to someone you love? Are words enough? Do you need to show your gratitude – like “I scratch your back if you scratch mine?” Do you need to be public about it – let their friends and family know how grateful you are?
What constitutes gratitude and exactly how much you need to be thankful before it becomes creepy or icky can get tricky. Too little and you might get a sulk, and too much and you might freak them out.
With apologies, the intensity and frequency aside, there are a few things that are quite important: One, no apology is worth its salt if there is a ‘but’ attached to it. That will nullify it altogether and only get you a kick in the butt. Two, the apology needs to be specific about what behaviour you think has been offensive. Just saying, “Whatever I have done to offend you, please forgive me – I was just being playful,” or something like that just won’t cut it. In fact, it only means that you haven’t a clue as to what was offensive and you aren’t taking accountability for it whatsoever.
Don’t be surprised if you get a severe lashing in response for such ‘apologies’. Third, don’t make the person to feel awful if they don’t immediately accept your apology and forgive you. Real apologies and real gratitude is vital in strengthening loving relationships. In love, it is, “ No sorry? No, thank you!”
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We Indians are a nosy bunch. It does not matter where you are – school, college, family function, railway station, security check, maybe even public toilets, people are bound to ask personal question. Very often, intimate questions are asked as if they are a conversation starter, and there is genuine surprise if you take offense at it.
Even with close relatives and family, the questions never stop. Are you single, why aren’t you dating, why aren’t you married, why no kids, why only one, why three kids, why no pets, why dog, why cat, why divorced, why together. There is nothing that cannot be questioned, and no stage in life that one can be perfectly conforming to some mythical standard of life.
A guy friend who looks like he is somewhere in that indeterminable age bracket of 25 to 40 given his looks and how he carries himself, often finds himself being asked, “Do you have any kids?” It really annoys him. It was one thing for the neighbourhood uncles and aunties to ask when he is out buying vegetables from the street vendor and they are also there. He could excuse it thinking they are trying to see if they can pass on their kids to his home for play dates and give themselves a free hour or two. It is quite another when random people come to him in the gym or in the metro and ask, as if it is a filtering criterion for making friends.
Of late, he has been answering such queries with, “None that I know of,” or “Why, has anybody been claiming they are my child?” and other such responses, finding that by having a sense of humour for himself atleast he gets a laugh out of it.
The ability to make a joke out of this and just laugh one’s way out of it is not easy and is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. When you are dependent or in a socially difficult position, or in some other way vulnerable, these questions can be really scary. It can be hard for someone with nothing to report, and equally scary for someone whose love is different, for example, someone in love with a person say eighteen years older and/ or from a different community or any of the other dozen odd parameters, questions can be really scary and causing one to hold their love secret even when you know that it is a perfectly consensual, adult relationship.
Keeping something as powerful and as personal as love a secret is never easy. We are social creatures after all, and want to share, want to be visible with our love, want to celebrate it and live the relationship with a sense of being accepted if not encouraged.
So, what do you do if the questions keep coming and you don’t want to answer them at all?
The simple answer is: Don’t answer them. Learn to say No in the way appropriate for you in your social situation.
As published in:
In one of my favourite movies, at the start of the movie, our hero is with his lover, who after a whole day’s romancing and after the inevitable outcome of all that, as they hang around in bed together, asks, “Do you know what you could do to improve?” Our hero, still flush from his exertions, smiles indulgently and asks, “What do you think I should improve?” expecting some sweet romantic nothing. “Your obliques. Right now, you are flabby. You really should work on it.”
They split up soon enough, and as movies go, our hero meets another person and again a whole lot of romance later, the scene repeats itself. This time when the question comes, our hero warily asks, “What?” to hear this time, “Nothing at all. You are perfect as you are!” At the movie hall, a collective “Aww” went up, leaving everyone feeling warm and mushy.
That’s the movies for us. In real life, often it can be quite another story. When someone tells us we are perfect as we are, we often think they don’t know what they are talking about. They are blinded in love, or are saying sweet lies just to get you hooked. Or worse, that they are really undermining you - this person actually wants you to be unattractive to others and therefore is saying you are already perfect, so that you don’t work on yourself, don’t get better and they get to keep you forever.
We are often unable to take a real loving compliment because we just don’t love ourselves enough. We see our imperfections a lot more and so we can’t accept it when someone loves us enough as we are and are brave enough to say that we are actually quite ok.
It isn’t our fault, really. For the most part of our lives we are told to aspire to higher and higher standards of looks, fitness, academics, employment, art and every other aspect of human life. We are not just told that, we are actively told that we will be lovable only when we attain and maintain those standards. Like in the movie I am talking about - if the first lover’s words hit our hero hard, he might not be able to take the second lover’s overtures, and instead of pulling into a grateful, loving embrace, he might quickly say bye and hit the gym, wondering if those obliques he had built up had thawed back into gentle love handles.
We want our lover to be a source of motivation, of strength and support in “becoming the best version of me,” and yet, we also hold the entirely opposite of “I want to be loved as I am.”
Which is it? On the face of it, they seem such opposite things.What if the answer is something different: Can we love ourselves as imperfect, striving people? Can we then allow ourselves to be loved by imperfect people as imperfect people, all striving together?
Perhaps, that is what is really love.
( As written for The New Indian Express)
Ajanta, Mahesh and other InnerSight counsellors and guest contributors are happy to share their thoughts here.