As kids in school, we studied The Gift of the Magi by O Henry in high school English. This famous story is of a loving couple, too poor to buy each other Christmas gifts, and too desperately in love to not do that. One sells off their long hair to buy watch straps for the other, while they sell off the beloved watch to buy combs.
We also read The Nightingale and The Rose by Oscar Wilde that year, with its story of the sacrifice it took to make a rose red a precious gift for a beloved, and how it is tossed aside for something else, casting away in that bitter act what it meant to sacrifice for love’s sake.
Between those two tragic love stories, our heartless English teacher had us teenagers in tears, more so because we were expected to write ‘precis’ versions. Does love really require gift exchanges? Would it really be impossible to love and be loved without ever exchanging gifts for birthdays, anniversaries, festivals, etc? Is it humanly possible to be perfect gift givers, or are designed to be tragic magi in our gifts, irrespective of our levels of poverty?
So much of our culture is built around ceremonies of gift giving. Traditions dictate what gifts are appropriate and when. There is a whole list of what to give for which anniversary. One could interpret it as anything from a handwritten card to money, to property, or, going by certain movies, divorce papers!
These gifting protocols may have helped some people but for many others, it also builds expectations. One is ‘supposed to’ give wood for the fifth anniversary. Sure, you could Google something that sounds appropriately woody enough, or close enough to hopefully pass, but then, it also has other expectations that it needs to be personal, it needs to have value for the recipient, something that they can cherish because otherwise, it is just a useless gesture.
Why has gifting come to occupy such an important place in relationships? As a measure for how much one loves the other in its physicality and demonstrability, gifts seem to offer some value, but it really is hollow if gifting is the only measure of love offered. If those high school stories really hold any truth, it is this: Gifts aren’t as important as love.
So this Christmas season, gift only if you really want to.
As written for and published by The New Indian Express
What would you say if someone told you that in any loving relationship, there are always two children who are in love? No, we are not talking of puppy love between cute 4 year olds.
What we are really saying is that each of us as adults have our own inner child within us, and when in a loving relationship, what we are really seeking is for our inner child to be able to relate to the inner child of our beloved. The inner child is not merely a metaphorical child within us, but almost a literal one – it is like a younger version of us is very much there living inside us, carrying with it all the playfulness, the attention-loving, the creativeness of that child.
Often, that child gets socialized out through our growing up years. We strive in growing-up to achieve a very different ideal of the cool, calm, collected adult who can make great decisions, is goal-driven, is purposeful and resourceful. Such adulting is seen as a goal in itself and given tags of ‘maturity’ and ‘objectivity.’
Of course, it is really important that we do become such strong adults, but it is so often at the cost of that inner child, who gets stifled and bottled up, forgotten like so much of the music and dance that we might have learned and enjoyed as a child. Somewhere between senior school and university, the child gets ignored or worse, actively shunned or repressed, or just retires to a corner. The playfulness and competitive joy of games and sports gets relegated to weekend hobbies to make space for the serious business of being an adult.
Now, when two people fall in love, is it really the adults falling in love with each other’s eruditeness and ability to balance their accounts? Or are they falling in love with the undertones of mischief, fun, play and joy that are there if you scratch the surface of the seriousness of their education, jobs and social connectedness?
Chances are that it is the two children within us connecting and falling in love. It happens quite unconsciously. Think of any romcom that you like – be it the When Harry met Sally types, or the Modern Family types, you are very likely to see the romance click through in those cracks when that inner child shines through the cultivated adultness. If you look at your own love, you would see it as well.
When we do find someone that we really connect with and fall in love with, it is more often than not seeking to somehow make that inner child come alive again, but within the safety and security that the adulthood offers. The challenge is that often times, that connection again falls prey to the pressures of adult life and succumbs to the pressures of EMIs, Career progression and the such.
But what if we could be conscious of our inner children? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could let them live and love forever?
As written for the New Indian Express
Can you think of one thing that can really tell if you and a prospective partner have a future together or not? Many would say that the crucial thing would be to see if you have compatible friends, or to meet the prospective in-laws and see how that visit goes, or better still, to get both families to meet each other and see who survives the evening.
All good trials, but to really test a relationship, there is just one true test and that is to travel together for at least four days and three nights. Seven nights would be ideal, but three nights at a minimum. Seven nights, so that questions of laundry and the such come up, and even if one can keep up a facade for a couple of nights, seven will surely test it.
Everything from deciding when to go, how long and where, are great ways to get to know each other. Does one say beaches and other say hills? One says scrimp on travel and splurge on good food, and the other says stay in luxury but go easy on food. What about shopping? And time spent in museums, or heritage sites? How about whether you take that GoPro along or avoid electronics altogether? Are either selfie-obsessed? Or take pictures of every food item consumed for your Instagram feed?
What travel reveals about the person’s tastes and preferences are endless, but even more fascinating is the insights you get when sharing a room together for so many nights. You get to truly know their intimate physical selves, and that’s not talking about sexual aspects - just the every day things. Do they like the right side of the bed? Do they brush before bed? What does their morning face look like? What is their real smell like, devoid of all perfumes and other stuff? Do they snore? Do they hog the bed sheets? How are they to travel with as a companion? Are they pleasant, can they stand complexity – what if a train got cancelled or the hotel bungled up the booking or you made a mistake? What is their personality like at 3am after a 10-hour drive to the hotel and you find that you had mistakenly booked for November instead of October?
Nothing reveals more about a person as much as what you can see of them when travelling together. Best done by yourselves, but a couple of friends might not make it bad. If you can survive a week-long trip, chances are you will survive the other tricky things like planning a home together, meeting families or friends and more.
As written for and published in The New Indian Express
The last few years have seen a major upswing in how many horrific sexual assaults and violence have been getting reported. Just when one thinks this is the worst that could happen, every new month even more such stories emerge, each with unbelievably sickening histories of how, where, how many, for how long and so on and so forth. With social media being so active and so many news channels on the air and in print, there is no shortage of public discussion and outrage. The call for action is palpable in every public arena possible.
A person must literally be living under a rock to now know about all this happening.
While there is so much in the public arena, let’s talk about what might be happening in the more private and intimate spaces of a loving relationship when such news breaks.
Often, there is nothing.
Early in the relationship, many unspoken rules get formed. We make a pact as it were, on what is OK to talk about, and what is not. Sometimes, it is directly spoken about and agreed (“I don’t want to hear about what you discussed with your school friends unless critical,” for example or “I don’t understand your work at all. Please don’t bug me with details about some issue you solved.”) Mostly though, these rules come about based on what we observe. How did your partner react to a movie scene showing the hero forcefully plant a kiss, for example. Or, what did your partner do when you talked about a friend who was molested in the metro, or when there is some more innocuous news on TV, say for example on an inter-community marriage.
One makes decisions pretty early to say how much the relationship can bear, and one edits oneself accordingly – and that’s generally OK.
Thing with news reports such as on sexual assault is that for many people who have gone through sexual violence in the past, these news stories when they break or when they are being analysed and spoken about in detail, it can be triggering. The new reports might bring up old trauma and pain, even after having spent much time and effort in getting some degree of healing. It is at such times that one starts to really feel the need for a safe, loving space to just talk and if there is any kind of spoken or unspoken pact that the relationship is not open for such painful but necessary conversations, then it gets really tough. Sometimes, it can even threaten the relationship itself.
As a loving partner, if you think you need to be the one to be able to support your partner through any such pain, that you want to be the shoulder that gets leaned on, remember that you cannot suddenly become that person overnight. It is a privilege earned through all the small interactions. Watch yourself on how open you are for the small conversations if you want to be there for the big ones.
As written for and published by The New Indian Express
If you were going out on a date, would you expect to split the bill or would you think whoever initiated the date should pay for it? Would you look at reciprocating gestures so that there is some kind of balance, or do you believe that there are expected social norms that are to be followed?
It is not just about who pays for the bills. Even if we were just talking about a simple dinner date, there are more than half a dozen questions that come up in as much as etiquette of the date is concerned: Who gets to make the date? Who picks up whom, and how? Who holds the door open? Who enters first? Who sits where at the table? Do you stand up if someone is leaving the table? Who finishes first?
Something as simple as going out for dinner is fraught with questions and questionable habituated practices. In most places, the restaurant staff go with a certain protocol on how and to whom they present the bill, for instance. Whenever we bring up these questions into conversations on love, relationship and the such, it gets sideswiped with comments like, “It is just good manners,” or “this shows good breeding.”
Of course, it is just being a nice human being sometimes. One expects these things when there is a person in need around. You give up a seat in the train for anyone who can’t really stand for long. You open the door for someone who asks for assistance.
When these things happen between two perfectly capable people in some sort of a relationship, one wonders if these so-called good manners and chivalry come with a flip side. Are there unstated expectations that cement a power structure? Does having the door held open for you come with the unstated expectation that the keys to that door are in the hands of someone else? Does having someone pay your restaurant bill go alongside an undesirable notion of being judged for what you order, or worse? When someone just lets you go first in the queue, are they doing it to just be nice, or are they saying something to the effect of, “You really shouldn’t be here, so I’ll let you go right ahead so you can get back home where you belong?”
In love, it is nice to have things done for you. As much as it is nice to do something for someone you love. It is great to spend time with each other, sharing thoughts, being thoughtful. However, when things happen only in one direction, or there are very firm rules on what one person can do and what the other person ought to do – is it really an equal relationship? Is it really love?
What do you want in your relationship? Do you want the person you love to treat you as you, or because of a social code that tells them how to treat you, and tells you how to treat them?
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
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
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
Recent social media campaign #MeToo brought to light some intimate and troubling stories, as well as those with courage and strength. But could sharing these personal anecdotes affect your relationship?
Ajanta, Mahesh and other InnerSight counsellors and guest contributors are happy to share their thoughts here.