The story of the wish granting genie trapped in a bottle that will give you whatever you desire when you release it from its bottle is an evergreen story, with all its twists and turns. You have the versions where the genie sort of becomes friends with the person releasing it from its bottle, stories where the genie is repeatedly trapped by an evil magician, enslaved in its wish granting forever. You have stories where the genie is intrinsically evil and unless cleverly trapped in the bottle, destroys all that it gave and everyone it gave these wishes to once it is free of its obligations. Some stories have the genie as this wise old soul that has seen it all over thousands of years, and is here again, granting wishes one more time to a naïve little soul, trying to advice the young one to use these wishes wisely, but alas, history repeats itself. There are even stories of the genie being mistakenly imprisoned for crimes done by its kind even though this genie itself is quite a sweet old soul.
Whatever the antecedents of the genie and its intrinsic nature, in all these stories, the wishes are asked for with one of two goals – either power through wealth or victory, and love.
Power through wealth and victory is easy enough for the genie to grant – tons of gold and gemstones are showered upon the benefactor, whole cities built overnight, magic carpets brought to life, enemies vanquished in a single breath, nations laid waste, oases made to bloom in the desert. There is nothing the genie cannot do as far as wealth or war is concerned. On love though, it is quite another story. At best, the genie could kidnap the objects of affection of its temporary masters, create magical wonderlands where they might be held in thrall for these people, but it cannot truly make a person love another. Even in the rare version that has a semblance of such forced love, it is a shadow – a vague semblance of the original person that might look and even act like the original but is not really, truly alive.
The moral is quite clear and consistent: You cannot force love. You can have all the power in the world and all the gold in the universe, but love cannot be acquired by wishing for it.
Generations have grown listening to these stories, retelling them to new generations and yet, every now and then we hear of the horror stories of coerced relationships, people forced into relationships with their assaulters, kidnapped partners and what not. What makes it such a difficult lesson to learn and accept? Why do so many of us still find it so difficult to let go of a partner who doesn’t love us back? There is a desperate need and belief that somehow it can happen, but there is no magic.
No genie in the universe that can just snap its fingers and make love happen.
As written for The New Indian Express
When we are young and in the care of adults, sooner or later we do something that displeases them and we are bound to get disciplined one way or another. When we are babies who haven’t yet even learned to crawl and explore the world, perhaps there was very little need to discipline, but from the moment crawling happens and curiosity starts, we hear “NO!” in two dozen ways, have our hands smacked away if we reach for those power points or knives, and we are disciplined in half a dozen ways.
Hopefully, the ways one was disciplined was more a matter of reward for good and expected behaviour and not being the object of emotional or physical violence, but given how we are still raised in this country, the occasional slap or a smack is not even considered physically violent. It would, even in 2019, be the rare person over 20 years old who can say that they were never beaten or slapped or smacked ever in their life by a parent, a caregiver, an uncle, or a school teacher. Even then, where there has been some degree of permission for some physically violent acts as a way of disciplining an errant child, at most places it stops as a child gets into adolescence. There is a popular saying that once a child grows taller than one’s shoulders, beatings have to stop.
Discipline then becomes strictly a matter of negotiation and bargaining, with rewards for good behaviour, or by trying to show up better behaved people and praising them, hoping that they will take the hint and that the desire to be praised and adored will outweigh any instincts to indulge in mischief.
In adult relationships, we still carry so much of the ways of relating as parent and child into our relationships. Often times, we believe we know what needs to be the way to live, talk, dress and behave, and when others in the relationship do not do what we believe is right, we try to think of ways to discipline them. Think of all the times you might have thought about your loved one and said to yourself, “I have to make them change.”
Even when we were children, despite all kinds of social and legal permission to use pretty much any kind of disciplining, there was little that anybody could do to make us change if we were very decided to not change. So, why would an adult subject themselves to any kind of disciplining efforts from another adult, unless they really buy into it?
If you are in an adult loving relationship, and you feel your loved one needs to change, there is little else to do that showing very clearly one’s sadness and disappointment, making sure there are consequences that affect the relationship and hoping that there is enough love to trigger an empathetic reaction to these feelings that the bad behaviour stops. Anything else is just going to make life miserable.
As written for The New Indian Express
August in India has for the last 70 years always been associated with Freedom and Independence. The colours are all around us, there are flags being sold everywhere and even restaurants are putting up buffets with the flag’s colours. It has become quite a day of celebration and soon we will probably have street parties and community fireworks like the Americans do on their fourth of July holiday with family picnics, city level parades and all the other razzmatazz.
This year in India is a little different with the actions on August 5th around Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir and how it is polarizing the nation, with disbelief and shock on one side at the sudden and abrupt turn of events with the terms of engagement changing literally overnight, and on another side, people rejoicing on how they would now get to marry certain people and what not. It would be the rare person in India who has not been thinking about what these actions mean for them and the country.
For me, it also set me thinking on how love and freedom work. Specifically, what freedoms does one get when you agree to be in a relationship, and what freedoms does one willingly forego? Are relationships in general, and marriages in particular, an agreement with many stated contractual terms and as many unstated terms and conditions?
Certainly, love and relationships are built on a certain kind of give and take.
People typically pledge to have a loyalty in the relationship, to the exclusion of their individual freedom to have similar loyalties to others. They pledge to be with each other in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer and so on, giving away the freedom to walk away when things are inconvenient or uncomfortable, with the promise that there is a mutuality in this. The freedoms given away are not for nothing, and one expects them to be respected and if all goes well, life is good. People make all sorts of decisions. Some forego property, careers, best friends and what not for the sake of love. Others give away citizenships. Many let go of their freedom to travel alone or hike in groups to travel only with each other.
Then again, there are situations like in a Confessions post that went viral a couple of months ago about two people who fell in love and married, and when they had a child, the mother quit work to stay home with the understanding that the mother was free to get back to work after a couple of years, but the father, having gotten used to having someone home, conspired to find ways to keep that freedom away from the mother, including trying to force a second pregnancy without the consent of this person, and certainly without any indication of their intention.
In contexts like this, would we still say it is love, when one partner snatches away the freedoms of a beloved without their full and informed consent?
As written for The New Indian Express
Mobiles and cheap data have had a massive impact on how people relate and talk to each other. With everyone on their mobiles, the way people use public spaces has changed so much in the last decade or so. Now, there is hardly anyone in public transport without a mobile in their hand, and the screen along with the almost mandatory earphones. It offers such an easy and convenient way to create a boundary around oneself, and hold off uninvited contact much more effectively than a newspaper or a book ever did.
There is something about being on the phone which seems to send out a universal “Do not disturb” message that everyone reads loud and clear, and it is only in times of true exasperation or emergency that one steps over that boundary and says, “Excuse me! Can you look at me for one moment? I am trying to get your attention!” but even that would be only with someone one knows well or the perfect stranger who is blocking your access, and even then, it is only a quick interruption – not a real request to put the phone down and interact.
Check in with yourself: How easy is it for you to bring yourself to interrupt somebody when they are on their phone? I would bet it is really difficult. You probably try to see what they are busy with. Are they playing a game? Watching a movie? Reading something? Chatting with someone? Talking to someone? On a video call? The order of these come with an increasing level of difficulty in disturbing the person. Somehow, we seem to hold back a lot more when we see a person on their mobile, and it is not just difficult with, say, a stranger on the metro but also with people in your own life, no matter how close the relationship. I would even argue that it is probably much harder to interrupt your partner than it is to interrupt a stranger.
What is it about being on a phone that makes people stay back a little?
Considering that mobile phones and data were barely around even ten years ago, the respect and space we accord to someone on their phone might just be the assumption that perhaps they are actually busy with something specific and important, some urgent matter that is more significant than us. But, we are quite aware, given our own mobile usage, that much of it is just passing time, right? Shouldn’t that make it easier for us to interrupt and demand attention? Yet, we typically don’t.
For people in relationships, this becomes quite the bother. People are on their phones a lot more, and since we are somehow programmed to back off and wait, till we just cannot wait any longer, it is creating a lot more distance between people. It is decreasing possibilities of spontaneous and real-time connections.
We are waiting a lot more to reach each other, and that is not great news for love.
As written for The New Indian Express
How often do you go out for a meal?
In these days of food delivery apps and heavy traffic, it often feels so much easier to be at home, put on the latest season of Master Chef from one of the streaming services, settle into your favourite couch and just chill.
If you are single, it is that much rarer to go out to a nice restaurant for a fine dining experience. Most times when one goes out alone, it is to a tried and tested, familiar hole in the wall place where one knows all the staff and the menu, and one might have gone there so often that the staff probably know what you want to order before you do. Fine dining by oneself is a rare experience for most of us. It can be quite a daunting experience to go by yourself to a nice restaurant and ask for a table for one. In most places, tables for one are relegated to the most unattractive places to sit, like next to the restrooms or at some other obscure corner as if to hide the singleness.
Restaurants do make a great deal of fuss about people in relationships come over. It is very much a sweet spot for them, especially because so much of dating revolves around food and drink, where each date matters because of what it says about each person to the other.
Post the early dating period though, when one is in a steady relationship, more often than not, one would just have a quick and easy meal at home, whatever is available or fastest to make on most days, leaving the more elaborate meals for weekends or holidays and perhaps the one meal a week that is had outside, just for a change – and again, even that one meal out, is probably in a selective set of restaurants. You would have three or four of your favourite restaurants that you cycle through whenever you want a break from home cooked food. Most often, the special dining out experience is reserved for holidays and special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries.
We often accept it as the natural course of events. People in relationships will get into routines and stay in their comfort zones. Food is one place it is most obvious in but we do it everywhere – the clothes we wear, the way we groom ourselves, the conversations we bring to the table and so on. Thing is, these so-called natural courses are really entropy in action – that old principle that all systems decay and disintegrate, unless there are other forces in action.
If you ever find yourself thinking your relationship has been in a nice little steady state for long, just be careful – it might actually be getting into a rut, that there is increasing entropy. You need to shake it up a bit, make a few shifts so that the systems are back buzzing and alive.
Go. Eat out or do something like that. Even if alone.
As written for the New Indian Express
Food is such an integral part of relationships. What we eat, how, when and where we eat – all make a big difference. If the people in a relationship cannot quite get along on these matters, there is likely to be a fair amount of conflict. If I eat meat, and my partner doesn’t like meat at all, we might more often than not, go for the least common denominators, which would be the vegetarian. Even if we do go out to a place with more food options, will there be equal respect and space for everyone’s food choice?
Chances are that there are differences. We make so much meaning out of food. It might be as simple as, “Don’t kiss me, you are reeking of garlic!” to “You are smelling of beer! I hope you are not going to sit belching all night!” to a lot more direct criticism of the food eaten, bringing in everything from environment and ecology, to politics and economy.
It is easily one of the most loaded subjects in a relationship, and perhaps one space where people really look for some levels of compatibility before moving in or living together. When looking for a partner, food preferences are one of the first things one checks on. Is the prospective partner from a similar food heritage? Are they as excited (or not) about variety of cuisines, do they have a favourite few, and do these favourites match? What do they hate, what do they love? Are there allergies? Preferences?
Sometimes, other emotions feel that much more important than food, and despite vast differences, people do get together. Thing is, very few houses run multiple kitchens to accommodate the food habits of the people living in it. Mostly, people run their households to the minimum common program, or the lowest common denominator. If there are food allergies or preferences that limit the possibilities for some person, then the common kitchen in the house will likely be designed for that, with anyone desiring more variety having to step out for a special order or get something special for themselves delivered home.
They seem reasonable choices to make and easy enough to accommodate for some time, maybe even a few years, but over time resentment could be slowly growing on these divisions, like layers of dust settling on furniture. Why can’t there be that one meal a week as per your choices? Can’t the others compromise for a change? Should you really have to settle for this much lesser than what you know you can enjoy?
Food is never really just food. It is culture, tradition, heritage, freedom, variety, fun, pleasure, companionship, adventure and much, much more. Relationships can be built on food, and can break on food.
The old saying “A family that eats together, stays together” does have some merit in it, and when the food one eats is so different from each other, then being able to eat together and stay together requires attention to everything food means for each other – not just compromise.
As written for The New Indian Express
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
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
Ajanta, Mahesh and other InnerSight counsellors and guest contributors are happy to share their thoughts here.