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?
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 that everyone acts as if there is a league game going on as far as dating and relationships go? It is quite a complex league structure as well, with the leagues being decided on so many factors including looks, age, fashion sense, economic class, education, job prospects and so many other things – half of which we may not even be able to crystallize. Still, every now and then, a friend might pull you back from approaching someone you feel attracted to with the comment, “Chill! Way out of your league! Don’t go hurting yourself!”
Are there really such clear-cut leagues in society? Are we destined to be a layered, beleaguered society? Are we constantly looking to trade up in this league game?
In matters of love stories, often times the celebrated legends are the ones that break through the barriers, where the leagues don’t matter. There are gods who fall in love with humans, royalty that falls in love with a theatre person (Hey – that story is repeating just now as well!), the rich person and the poor artisan, and hundreds of such stories of people breaking barriers in the name of love. Those are the stories we celebrate and tell generation after generation – not the story of how one industrialist married another, or other general relationships though sometimes they are fun as well.
So, when every other story is about breaking barriers and love succeeding in uniting people across levels, why is it that people stay within their leagues? Why do we get warned about what is within our league and what is not?
The real story could possibly be about the degree of risk involved, and whether one has the appetite for the risk. Each of us gets quite accustomed to our own ways of life, and while there is always room to adapt and change, drastic changes are a lot to handle especially if there are expectations of permanently adjusting to a new lifestyle right away. It is not easy to adjust to a lot more than what is one used to, or a lot less either. The notion that the lovers find it within themselves to make do and be happy is often belied in reality by bitter struggles for resources and support. Sometimes, the romanticisation such as in the musical Sound of Music, glosses over the difficulties the family goes through with their relationship that breaks through barriers of age, class, parenthood. The book is a lot more honest on that account, but in both, they do survive and manage to thrive all the same.
Professing love and courting love is anyway fraught with risk. There are no guarantees that your love will be reciprocated in whatsoever manner. You might get rejected for any number of reasons, and yet one seeks it all the same. So, why let questions of who is in or out of whose league matter, if you are up for the risk?
If you don’t mind dusting yourself off and moving on with whatever else life brings up, then go on – break a league.
As written for published in The New Indian Express
If you have read mythological stories, or their Amar Chitra katha versions at the least, you are bound to come up with the most awesome and awful stories of what love might demand of a person, and to what lengths and depths a person might go for that. Think burning a thousand ships to not let your love get away, travelling to the netherworld to chop off a demon’s head to get their earrings as a token of love, agreeing to let seven infants be murdered – our mythologies are replete with stories of horrible things that people agreed to in the name of love, never mind that they are all later somehow sanitized as having been necessitated by Fate or whatever.
It is one thing when it is an adventure-rich story, but quite another when one does dreadful things in the name of love in real life. If you just grab a newspaper on any random day, you would see stories of people killing spouses so they can marry each other, persons going through cosmetic surgeries to be like each other, robbing, looting, murdering, assaulting – every horrible thing one can imagine, really.
Fact is, people have been doing amazing, wondrous things in the name of love, like build the Taj Mahal, but they do horrible things as well in the name of love like kill other suitors, imprison their brothers and other things. Gods and emperors might get to whitewash the deeds they do in the name of love by divine will or a grand edict, but for the regular junta, there is no such luck – one typically gets caught sooner or later.
In our everyday life, perhaps we don’t get to the extremes, but ask yourself this: Does love inspire the best in you? Or does it bring out the worst in you?
Possibilities are that you would have done, or at the least imagined doing some pretty horrible things. If you are being quite honest with yourself, I would imagine that you can remember one or more times that you have done massively wrong things or a number of times that you have done smaller things such as eavesdropped, spied, manipulated, lied, deceived, stole, broken passwords, stalked or any number of such ‘bad’ things that you would never think of doing in any other circumstances and would actually be quite against. Generally, one would think of such actions as a failure of character.
Perhaps, that’s why they say people fall in love.
Are we destined to have such falls? Can’t one, to use the cliché, rise in love and do only the awesome things?
Think of love as energy, as a power. Just like fire, whether it cooks a meal or burns down a house is dependent on what place it has in one’s life. If one lets it fully take over one’s life and love becomes obsessive, the more dangerous and hurtful it is. When love is held in its place, it can light up your world.
As written for and published by the New Indian Express
So, you walk into a party and notice this old friend of yours with a particularly attractive, charming new person. You can see everyone’s eyes on this new person and there is a buzz around. What would you do? Quite likely, you’d either ask the host of the party or other friends who are already there, or if you are particularly risk-friendly, ask the friend themselves – “Who is the arm candy?”
Maybe they are in a deep and meaningful relationship. Maybe it is something new they are trying out. Or maybe it is a one-night thing – just for fun. One never knows, but you and probably much of the party has asked this question. Maybe you have been someone’s arm candy yourself or had your own arm candy for a while.Now,imagine that this person persists in bringing someone new, attractive and charming every once in a while. A new arm candy, so to say,very often. Just stay with that image for a second. Imagine what it feels to be the person bringing someone new to a party, and imagine what everyone else feels and what the new person goes through. Pause for a second with that memory and ask yourself this: Who is experiencing what for whom in that scenario?
If I were a betting person, I would bet that there are all sorts of feelings floating around in the room. At the first instance, one imagines there is envy, lust, jealousy, admiration and disbelief. Emotions that might reflect how the person with the ‘arm candy’ wants to be seen by their peer group and a lot lesser about how they feel about the person they are bringing in. Really then, this is them interacting with the group, trying to position themselves as somehow more powerful, attractive and sought-after.
This is them in love with themselves and maybe in love with the group as a whole – not necessarily with the persons they are with. Again, as the pattern continues, if there is a new person often, those feelings of envy, jealousy and admiration, might either solidify into a thinly cloaked hate, or it might mellow into an amused tolerance – mostly depending on where each person in the group is with their own lives.
If someone has been struggling to even meet people let alone form relationships , they might react differently from others who have their own steady relationships. If you are the arm candy though, watch out if your new found love interest is asking you to meet friends at a large party. Have your guard up if anyone refers to you as someone’s arm candy. It just might be a signal that perhaps the relationship is not between you two. You may end up getting hurt if you go in without knowing that you are only an object in someone else’s love games with their group. Of course, being arm candy can just be fun as well.
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
Ajanta, Mahesh and other InnerSight counsellors and guest contributors are happy to share their thoughts here.