Are you the kind that likes a quiet Deepavali, full of light and warmth, maybe some music and prayers, lots of good food and company? Or are you the kind that likes it loud and big, lots of fire crackers and enormous celebrations, huge parties with multiple outfit changes? With the increasing cost of firecrackers and the such, Supreme Court regulations on the time when people can go out to burst these, greater awareness on the effects of pollution and general sensitivity to the environment, the tendency is by and large towards moderation, hopefully. Yet, there are hundreds of thousands who would rather defy environmental sense and sensibility towards fellow creatures, and defy laws at that, and assert their power to celebrate as they will.
Thing is, who cleans up after them? Granted, they cannot really undo the poisons they unleashed into the air, but do they take the trouble to sweep up after themselves and tidy up the streets so that these chemicals do not get washed away by the rains into our tanks and lakes from where we get our drinking water? Do they clear up the waste paper, plastic and random metal rods and chemicals into easily collected lots for the sanitation workers? Chances are, that they do not.
If one does not clear up after the literal mess one makes during a celebration full of joy and exuberance, would one expect that they clear up after themselves at other times? In relationships, we are so likely to make a mess every now and then. Sometimes, it is a literal mess like when in a burst of anger, we have upended a flower vase on the table, or tipped over a kitchen shelf and made a mess of mixed up dals, flours, masalas, oils and what not on the kitchen floor. Those are horrible to clear up and someone has to do the job.
Is it the one who made the mess, or is it somebody else in the house? Does the job end up on the person at the receiving end of the outburst? Or does it, yet again, get outsourced to someone like the house help who had nothing at all to do with creating the mess in the first place?
At other times, the mess we make is a lot less literal. We say and do things that are ugly, dirty and stink to the high heavens. There is bitterness, resentment and pain for the person this rage was directed at, and quite likely, for a lot of others in the vicinity, like children and pets. Who then does the picking up of the pieces and cleaning up of the emotional mess? Can this as readily be outsourced to poorly paid sanitation workers? Like with the environmental damage we do around the festivals that come back to bite us through clogged drains, poisoned waters, charred air and scarred animals, the damage we do here comes back to us as well.If you make the mess, you ought to clean up as well.
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
Food and the family
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
Smart phones are so ubiquitous. People use their laptops and personal computers only when they need to really type out large pieces, or work on multiple documents or when they have to work on software that is only designed for such computers. All other connected life is on the phone now that phones operate with equal or greater computing power as compared to computers, and there is internet everywhere. Very few actually use their computers to access social media, dating sites, news or anything else that one gets around to on a daily basis, unless they are on some kind of digital detox and are limiting their access to their mobile phones.
More and more smart phones these days come with fingerprint and face scanners that can unlock the phone. Gone are the days when the only option was a complex pattern or a numerical pattern were the ways to lock a phone, now it is your own face or finger that does the job. Most people set the unlocking pattern to their thumbs or index fingers, and sometimes, just for convenience, store all their fingers as unlocking patterns on their phone. It makes sense if you think about it – what if a couple of fingers get hurt and are damaged, or in full masala movie style, you are in trouble and only your little finger can reach the phone!
Jokes aside, smart phones and their being locked or unlocked is often a sticky issue with people in relationships. It is much more common to find people insisting that they have access to each other’s phones rather than have people who are quite OK that phones are each other’s private spaces and do not need to be accessed. Many take the half-way path where they ask for and get access (“just for emergency sakes”) and give the same open-door policy to their partners. The rare person uses their partner’s finger to unlock their phone when the partner is deep asleep or not in a conscious state, adds their own into the security system, just so that they will have access should there be need to have such access at all, and maybe not let the partner know at all because they want to avoid arguing over something that might never really happen.
How people in relationship access each other’s smart phones then becomes quite an important issue for many people in relationships. They want to be able to see each other’s WhatsApp conversations, messenger history, browsing history and everything else. With people taking their phones to their toilets and glued on to the small screen, with wireless ear-phones on almost all the time, there is very little that others in the relationship get to know of one’s lives unless there is an open sharing.
Issues of consent, transparency, connectedness and so on that have been the key concerns in relationships. More than rechecking your phone’s security protocols, people need to talk about these issues with their partners, or risk them playing out on a screen very near you.
Whose home is home?
What makes a home a home?
The popular saying is home is where the heart is, or that while a house is made of bricks and cement, a home is made of love. The romanticism aside, home is really about belonging - both to the place one calls home and the people with whom one shares this home.
Making a home for yourself and those you love is no easy task, even when the people living together in it are very similar. As people, there are so many ways that we are different - any and every thing from what we eat, when we eat, our daily routines, the demands of our work, our studies, our hobbies and interests etc can set us apart. For any of us who grew up with siblings, we know how even when we are flesh and blood, it is not easy at all. Interests vary, friendships vary and lifestyles vary even with identical twins. When we are so different from people that we are born to and grow up with, can we really expect to be very similar to someone we fall in love with and try and make a home with?
Even with the greatest of loves, moving in together and starting to make a home together is a risky affair. You might expect that for couples from the same cultural background, it might be easy, but it is often not. So many conversations around household chores are fraught with danger, and even the most innocuous stuff like clearing the garbage or doing the laundry, could set off conflicts, and many start innocently enough with the seemingly simple words, “In my home, we used to …”
This is a home you are building with this new person in your life and yet so many conversations start off with these few words that separate you from this partner, put you firmly back in the family you came from and this partner is now the outsider. The partner then quite predictably replies with experiences from their family, and the conversation gets more and more distant - two people talking about the homes they came from rather than the home they are trying to build together. The 'We’ and 'Our Home’ become forgotten in the rush to claim older homes and separates the couple into individuals loyal to their own respective families.
It takes a lot of presence of mind to be able to remember that the new home need not be anything like either of the old ones. The pressure to replicate and comply with the rules and regulations of where we grew up is high, but doing so at the cost of the other person's own vision of their home will end up in either or both feeling alienated and not feeling like they belong.
Making a home is a lot of work and the work starts with the awareness and acknowledgement that this is hard work. Everything is up for grabs, nothing is given as granted and each thing has to be negotiated between the people making this home together.
As published in The New Indian Express
In Sickness more than in Health
Have you seen your relationship through a major period of illness? It might have involved hospitalisation or not, but the kind of time we are talking about here is the one that has weeks if not months of at-home care, where the person who is unwell needs assistance with their body. Perhaps they are unable to walk, or get off their bed on their own, need assistance dressing, eating or in any other way need help.
How much do you stay with them and take care of their physical needs? How comfortable were you staying with them and working through the mess that is our body with all its random fluids, smells, textures and everything else? Were you able to do all the small things that a person needs in such a situation with a smile on your face and able to still make the ill person feel valued, and even desired? Or, did you go through that period as a temporary annoyance that just needs to be borne with as much fortitude as possible, but not really a period to be cherished in any way?
Conversely, think about the times you might have been the one in need and how your loved one was with you in those times.
The way we are with each other in times of sickness tells more about how we love and how deeply we love, much more than the times of good health and circumstances. It is something we understand in theory, and when we look at it through the lenses of our lived experiences, we find that there are so many nuances. It is a tricky situation because we have different conflicting needs acting up. On one hand, there is a self-assertion, a desire to be as independent as possible. On another, a fear of being needy, along with a strong need to feel related and reassured. One wants to do as much for oneself, and yet also want to be cared for.
We sometimes are able to overlook a loved one’s freezing in times of medical need, excusing them as being squeamish, sensitive or immature. We may look at an over-functioning carer as being over-bearing, self-sacrificing, taking away your agency, your freedom and really be angry with them, or just annoyed and irritated. If we are the ones providing care, we might feel ourselves overcome with compassion and be in tears along with the one suffering, or on the other extreme, be very annoyed – judging them for their difficulty in managing this much pain when you have gone through much more.
Finding that balance between two people on how much care is welcome, how much space is needed – that could be the journey of a lifetime. If these lessons aren’t learned well, you could be those bickering old couples who can’t stand each other in their old age. Or, you could be that picture book version of the old couple sitting on a bench together – one reading, and the other resting, quietly confident in their care for each other.
As written for and published in The New Indian Express
Can love be pleasant forever?
The coming of summer in Bangalore always seems so very sudden. Even up to the first week of February, everyone still has their quilts out and the ceiling fans are quite still through the night. We don’t need heating, but certainly don’t need any cooling either. Then quite suddenly, within a couple of weeks, it gets so very dry and so very hot. The winter just passed has had so many Bangaloreans connecting back to how Bangalore used to be, the long, pleasant weather causing reminiscences about winters past and how wonderful it is to have a taste of that old Bangalore weather yet again.
Now, even though it is not even March, places in the city where all the trees are gone and it is just another steel and concrete mess, temperatures are already above 35 degrees. People around Bangalore are likely making the transition from quilts to summer blankets very quickly this week. The ceiling fans are getting dusted off and conversations are starting about whether this will be the summer when Bangalore will finally lose its “A/C City” tag to become yet another city full of droning air-conditioners, like in much of mainland India.
Relationships are quite often like that in how the mood of it changes rapidly.
Let’s say the beautiful Bangalore winter is like the honeymoon period of any relationship. It is pleasant, comfortable and there is a lot of space to just chill and be with each other. When it gets over, life moves on into some kind of general routine, and there are times of connectedness and others when it is not so much. Then, quite unexpectedly, we sometimes get a longish second honeymoon – like our longer and more pleasant winter that just passed. After many, many years, there comes again a time when there is a strong sense of that connectedness, there is joy in being together, love in the air, fond smiles and affection overflowing – and then, in a manner of weeks, it dissipates and we are back to humdrum relating, as if the cool winter is over and the harsh summer has set upon us already with barely any springtime in between. It is so rapid, as if to shake the whole thing off, that it was unbelievable in the first place that the ease and chillness of it was ever warranted at all.
Either we are like Bangalore where things get dry and dreary, or we are like Leh-Ladakh where we get far too cold and distant after brief summers of joy, or we plod along in the sweat and steaminess of Chennai with just that little Margazhi season of fun and happiness. Can relationships be in a state of forever pleasantness like, maybe, Hawaii? Can the honeymoon last forever?
It is the rare relationship that can sustain pleasantness right through.
For the vast majority of us, we need to learn to appreciate the subtler joys of the changes in how we relate in our lives – like how we look forward to mangoes in this summer heat.
As written for and published by The New Indian Express
Love in the time of the flu
It is the flu season. At doctors’ clinics all around, there are people sniffling and coughing, looking bleary-eyed at each other and wondering what sort of flu it is. For most of us, the doctor would give us a quick look, and after deciding it is none of the scarier variants around these days (H1N1, KFD, Zika and what not,) declare it is a viral fever and send us back home to rest, telling us that there is nothing to do except keep ourselves well-hydrated, take a paracetamol for the fever and wait it out.
There is probably no other time that one is grateful for relationships than when one is unwell. The idea of rest and relaxation at home and being taken care of is so therapeutic for the patient, but what does it do to one’s relationship?
When you are sick and need to rest, what kind of patient are you? Do you get needy and clingy, and ask for your hand to be held? Do you get possessive about the TV and demand that only your choice matters because you are sick? Do you meekly go away into the bedroom, bemoaning how your illness is taking a toll on everyone? Or, do you act as if nothing is the matter at all and that life needs to go on – do you try and continue to work, getting angry with the people around when they try to get you to rest? Are you the disobedient patient who will try and sneak in the ice-cream or something else that is against doctor’s orders?
If we are being honest with ourselves, we will likely confess that we are not exactly the model patient. Some of us seek extra love, and others seek to test the love available. A few try and distance themselves from loving attention, while yet others make their illness a matter of public record. We might regress to being childish, talking in baby-tongues and sulking or crying, and ask to be cajoled and pampered like parents would. We might act like a martyr and be self-sacrificing, but still, do a bit of drama around it.
How we behave if there is something major is often quite different – there is a far greater degree of concern and worry, and everything is different, but when we fully expect to get better in a few days, it is as if we give ourselves permission to almost enjoy this aspect of being able to love each other as a parent-child as well. We act less like the adults in a relationship and take on a distinctly more parent-child kind of relationship. The nurturing required becomes more like a baby and a caregiver than two adults.
Just like with a parent-child relationship, being able to get the care we need from a partner influences how deeply we bond with each other. The flu can be an annoyance, but it tests relationships and can also help deepen the bond.
As written for and published by The New Indian Express
Best of times, Worst of times
Tired of New Year Resolutions?
Here is a game you might want to consider playing with your partner, provided you have in some way, form or shape been together for significant periods ot the year so quickly passing by. It is quite a simple game that we call “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times.”
Each of you take a couple of sheets of paper. If you want to be dramatic, take a sheet of white paper and write in blue ink for the best of times, and take a sheet of yellow paper and write in red for the worst – twist it about as you please, but the requirements are quite simple. You each write a letter to the other about your best time that year and the worst time. There are no pre-conditions, and no constraints on what it is that you need to write. Put the letters in an envelope, and give it to each other to be opened in your new year. You could make a ceremony of it, open it together, open it separately – whatever suits you, but take some time to think over it, and see what happens for the two of you.
There are a number of possibilities.
Either the best or the worst, or both could have you featuring prominently in it, or not at all. You might have known about it or maybe it was something that never registered for you and yet you see it means so much for your partner. It could be something you considered trivial at the time it happened (“Your mother made me rotis, knowing very well that I prefer rice. I suffered for the whole week, and nobody even noticed” - for example) or something major that happened you think ought to have been noticed, but was not (“I broke my back and was bed-ridden for a month!” – for example)
The point of it is to notice what happens to you both as you share what is written. Do you find yourself empathizing with the other’s experience and feeling a warmth for them, or do you find yourself looking for you in your partner’s letter? In other words, is it about you or is it about your partner?
In relationships, we want to ideally be able to love our partner as they experience themselves, and share what their life is like, but in reality, we are rarely able to achieve that ideal. Most times, we are looking for simpler gratifications. We want our best times to be about each other and worst times about some body else, but where we played a supporting role (“I lost my best friend, and only having you with me helped,”) and we might hate it if the worst times was squarely about us and best times didn’t feature us at all. And that’s what makes this exercise quite powerful.
It can be a simple sharing, but could also be deeply insightful in terms of how you love.
In love, it truly is the best of times and the worst of times.
As written for and published by the New Indian Express
Does Love need Gifting?
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
Ajanta, Mahesh and other InnerSight counsellors and guest contributors are happy to share their thoughts here.