1. Marry your best friend
I met Sahil when I interviewed him for his first job in 2006; I was his first boss (and continue to be, clearly)! Straight off, I was blown away by the work ethic of this college student, especially since he had no financial reasons to be in the workforce so young. We promptly friendzoned each other, and became platonic best friends for two years as I dealt with the Bombay migrant experience, my father's death, a divorce and an alcoholic live-in boyfriend.
He listened when I told him the things I’d done that I was sure he’d turn away for: I had cheated on my husband, I had had abortions, I was as sexually promiscuous as he wasn’t. Once, when I had broken up with the boyfriend, Sahil tried to reach me over a whole weekend. I called him back on Monday morning. “Where were you?” he demanded. “Oh, I was with three boys this weekend.” He laughed, and never left.
I didn’t feel undeserving of his unconditional love; I returned it, as much as my heart, smaller than his, was capable of. In 2008, when his mother was diagnosed with the cancer that eventually took her this year, he leaned on me with impunity, despite knowing how confronting cancer was for me after the recent death of my father. We were lucky to have each other, then and now.
Ten years ago, as now, we are faced with a confusing dating-mating-love environment. Expectations, aspirations from and for ourselves and each other meet bewildering realities. If a healthy long-term relationship is what you seek, perhaps you should look again at those good guys you friendzoned?
2. Opposites may attract but…
As someone who has been in relationships forever (gosh, I’m ooold!), I do not believe that opposites make good relationships. The premise of this idea, from an evolutionary psychology point of view, is that the things lacking in one partner’s personality are made up by the other.
Take, for instance, an introvert with an extrovert. Sure, the extrovert adopts the role of maintainer of relationships; while the introvert, well, does what introverts do. But beyond this superficial completion is constant compromise about together time, by one or the other. When they stay in watching TV is compromise for one; when they party, for the other. Though my grandparents had a happy, easy 65-year marriage, Dadi still laments that they saw so little of India, despite the free tickets provided by their railway service. She loved and wanted to travel; he didn’t; they didn’t fight about it coz she quietly swallowed her desire. Ditto with pet lover vs not; antinatalist vs wanter of child; etc.
Sahil and I became friends because we had a lot of the same interests. In fact, when we hung out outside the office for the first time (a lovely evening, sitting on a pavement, people watching), we were mutually surprised by our mutual love of Dream Theatre and LTE. (We’ve since grown away from both bands’ music.) We each love(d) the arts, dancing, travel, friends, conversations… and so the things we do together are fun for each of us.
Should a partner complete or complement you? Sahil and I are both foodies, and I really wish one of us (him!) was one of those people who is a passionate cook. Jokes apart, the best relationships, IMHO, are between those with more shared interests than not. Of course you must have variations (how absolutely maddening would it be to be dating someone *exactly* like you); and you must grow together and individually; but the basics need to be there… Whatever you consider the basics, that is.
3. Be careful what you wish for
There are three parts of any relationship: you, me and us. At the outset, examine yourself, and what you want from a partner and relationship—and why.
You know, alongside the life stage issue, the reasons I friendzoned Sahil included wanting someone older than me (coz, maturity, Daddy complex); taller than me (coz I spent my childhood surrounded by strapping Naval Officers); who wasn’t in a conventional career (coz, left-brained therefore boring)! (Sahil is two years younger, of the same height, and was studying to be an engineer before joining the media then becoming a photographer.) While I’m happy for the magical friendship this resulted in, I look back and recognise how ridiculous some of my criteria were! (Though I endorse my anti-conventional-career stand—I knew enough about myself to know that neither the mind space nor the lifestyle of a conservative would work for me.)
For an egalitarian relationship, what you want and what you provide should be equal or complementary. Want to sow your wild oats but want a virgin bride? Want someone to look after your parents but not her maike issues? Want to work only until marriage, then leave all the financial stress to him? Want a jealous-possessive type—until it’s too much? Uh-uh. What’s fair for the goose is fair for the gander.
… And why did I—why do we—subscribe to the cult of the bad boy? Bad boys are exciting! Doesn’t society and culture teach us that love is supposed to be a rollercoaster of drama? That the love of a good woman will fix a damaged bloke? So we don our maternal instincts and set out to change what drew us to them in the first place. Odds are, the pain will not be worth it. As I read somewhere, you can only make an honest man out of an honest man.
4. Love in the time of feminism
One of the reasons relationships are harder today is because women seek feminist men—yes, even those who are undeclared or partly formed feminists, who don’t articulate it as such.
Newly exposed to liberation and education, we have more expectations than our foremothers did—to wear jeans, to work or to expand our worlds in other ways. Within our cultural milieus, we seek broadminded men with softness in their masculinity, and hope for more egalitarian marriages than our parents had a mere generation ago. And many men, like all privileged parties, would like to retain the systems that favoured them—subjugation through the ideas of ‘a good wife’, virginity and honour; the packed tiffin boxes; the lack of domestic load; etc.
In a poor household I studied, all five brothers had barely studied till the 10th; all four sisters were postgraduates. Trapped at home and allowed out only occasionally with male guardians, the women kept themselves busy doing correspondence degrees—in secret, until they needed permission to attend exams, when all would be revealed to and accepted by the family males. What next? “Sapne bahut hai. Bus, dekho, shaadi kahan hoti hai,” said one. As much as the sisters loved them, they hoped for men better than their brothers. Tellingly, one of their sisters-in-laws had left because: “Woh padhi-likhi thi, usne job bhi kiya tha. Shaadi ke baad ghar pe baithke unka man nahi laga.”
Not that women are entirely done with the preexisting paradigms either. Many still enjoy jealous/older and higher-earning partners—cognitive dissonance sometimes seen even in the most examined of feminists. As we’re all negotiating who we are and what we want for ourselves and from others, things can be confusing!
IMO, you are fairly set if you find a partner who believes in equality plus has a growth mentality. Because the world today is all about examining structures, ourselves and each other, and growing, changing, adapting…
5. Public display of divorce
I spoke casually about being divorced much before I got remarried, much before I found love with Sahil.
Personally, it is because I believe in being an ‘integrated personality’: being the same person in all situations while responding to context. Also, some secrets are overrated and too much baggage. I have been divorced; that's one of the things that has happened in my life. I also do it for grander sociological reasons: to help relax the social stigma around divorce, and for people to know that it's okay, even at the worst times.
I faced no stigma—I know people have it much worse. So, I ask this: what’s the big deal? A woman lost her hymen (which I hope she wasn't preserving for marriage anyway); a couple lived together, someone thought s/he'd be happier elsewhere (or worse, the partner thought s/he'd be happier elsewhere), and… So fucking what?
Of course, women bear the brunt of the social censure. And just as one of the reasons for the divorce epidemic in urban India is women's earning power and independence (we don't need to take shit anymore), it is this very aspect that will immunise you against it. Family is what it is, but generally, surround yourself with people who'll support you, or mind their own business. Grow a thicker skin; get and stay financially independent.
No gain without pain: This is not to say that divorce was a cakewalk. It wasn't. At 22, I left Chennai for Mumbai with little money, a broken heart, no job, an on-off BF and no maike as my parents were without a home during my dad's illness. But through the pain was an understanding that this was a choice. I would rather be here than back in a marriage I did not want. (And, I know this is simplistic to say about divorce, but hey, I've been through enough painful breakups to know: even if your spouse is the one who wants out and you think it's being lumped on you… would you really want to stay with someone who doesn't want to be with you?) Though times were much worse than in the marriage, I knew that, eventually, I'd be happier. Eventually.
Read my long-form piece about divorce here.
6. Towards a rainbow-coloured world
I’m jittery with ecstasy! Congratulations all around—but particularly to members of the LGBTQIA+ community! May this herald a change in your collective and individual lives! May you live happily ever after! And, so sorry this has taken so long—the verdict is right, we DO owe you an apology for the years of systemic and sociocultural persecution. Gay rights are human rights, and have finally been seen as such.
In India and other conservative countries, rights and consent are not of the individual but of the community. Particularly reproductive rights, particularly of women. This explains everything from child and forced marriages to Section 377 that criminalised all sex against the “order of nature” (ie, for pleasure and not reproduction). So when the judiciary delivers such a progressive judgement—putting the individual and their happiness above all else, making consent the heart of the matter—it bodes well for the fight for equal and human rights all around. Any justice system should pick the side of rightness and reform, because, more than we acknowledge, laws have the power to guide social mores. And it has! So thank you, Justices Dipak Misra, RF Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra, for your legacy.
Here’s the link to a piece I wrote about the lives and loves of Rohan and Avil, Ashok and Christopher in 2014. In it, Rohan described an odd sense of insecurity: “Avil and I were celebrating our one-year anniversary at a club in Andheri, and kissed at 12. We were pushed out of the place and had to defend ourselves, and were followed by eight bouncers.” With the law finally on our side, let us as allies pledge to never let something like this happen again.
In the words of Edie Brickell: “Go where the love is, and you won’t be lost again.” India, thank you for choosing love.
7. More PDA, please
Most traditional societies and religions don’t like love. Love is blind, and deaf to reason, ‘honour’, society, status, money, norms. It beckons their young (daughters, in particular) away from their fold, un-enslaves them from ‘mummy-daddy’, and makes them—gasp—free-willed. It breeds in young, reckless minds and hearts, and feeds on Bollywood happily-ever-afters, romantic notions and lust. It grows in the generation gap like an insidious sapling in a wall crack. It is a subversive, idealistic idea, that disregards social, political, economic, religious, caste barriers like no preaching, media or education can achieve.
Which is why we’re okay with Public Displays of Anger, Aggression, but hold hands in public and the police gets its knickers in a twist! Even in our movies: rarely does violence ever receive as much censure as the humble bedroom scene. What norms are we setting: that love, lust, happy-making things are not okay, while anger, hate, dishoom-dishoom, yeah, they’re just fine, signs of masculinity, justice, society.
For a happier society, we need to recognise, internalise and channelize the positives of love; just as we need to take a foot off the violence that we proffer as a solution to small or big, perceived or real wrongs. The Centre pays up to 50k to each inter-caste couple that has one spouse as Dalit, a phenomenon long suggested by social reformers as the best tool to weaken the barriers of caste segregation. The SC has even ruled that the police should protect a legal inter-religious marriage, and has repeatedly upheld the rights of consenting adults. Like it did yesterday, by abolishing Section 377.
Because it is for the same reasons that traditional cultures so fear romantic love that we need to protect it. So come on, do some PDA.
Here’s a longer piece I wrote on the power—and fear—of love.
8. Past imperfect
Many people have problems with their partners’ romantic-sexual pasts. Me included, at first—so ironic and hypocritical considering I had such a colourful one and Sahil had none of significance! This just tells you how insecure I was at 25; and how his love has changed me since. He has made me believe I am worthy; his love has been constant. (There’s a reason I say he has a much larger heart than I do, and that mine has grown because of him.)
Not that I have been entirely praise-less in the matter. I left the people of the past where they belonged. If you’re going to be FB stalking your One True Love <insert sad violin music> from when your eyes met when you were 16, even the most secure of partners would become insecure. Also, your past experiences serve as a pivot for your personality. To illustrate—the child of an alcoholic can be an alcoholic, claiming nurture or even nature; or a teetotaller, having seen the havoc the parent’s habit wreaked. So, I’ve been on a slow and steady journey to leave the pain and negative patterns of the past in the past. Though I was in a much better relationship than I had ever been in, I was ready to trigger my ‘flight’ response in even the smallest of arguments, until S reasoned that (and other unhealthy behaviours) out of me. “I love you like mad, but I respect myself too much to take this much shit,” he once said. ‘If you never heal from what hurt you, you’ll bleed on people who didn’t cut you.’
If you have a problem with your partner’s exes, aches and pains, like I did, can’t you see how juvenile it is?! (Unless your partner’s past is in the present, when your concerns are totally valid and need to be addressed.) Especially as we get into relationships as we are older—everyone has a past, or there’d be something wrong with them.
A long time ago, Sahil had said something very beautiful. Though he wished I'd never have had to go through the divorce and other disasters, he was damn glad I did: "It's your journey that makes you the person you are, and I love you the way you are," he said. "And, if you hadn't got divorced, you wouldn't be with me!"
The past is only as relevant as you make it. You’re here now. Make the most of it.
9. Forge your own path
There is no one type of relationship, as long as you, me and us, the three parts of any relationship, are happy.
It’s important to remember this as you are pitching all three against the expectation of conveyor-belt lives, on all fronts including romance… Find appropriate person, get married, stay monogamous, have baby, have baby, you get the picture. As if every woman is presented with an obvious choice between career and family in her mid-to-late twenties. The image of married life concludes in a fuzzy binary of powerful men who cheat on their middle-aged wives versus happy couples who settle into boring grihasti.
You may not subscribe to some or any of these norms; borne of thousands of years of relative stasis that don’t cater to our rapid evolution into multiplicities. Our palettes are exposed to newer ways of being and a world more sexualised than ever before; and the internet that connects us to like-minded people, blurring the distinction between normal and abnormal. The difficulty of actually choosing which rules to live by requires extensive self-examination. And—if a long-term relationship is indeed what you seek—a like-minded partner.
A friend says that polyarmory is his answer to the common interests and companionship I sought in one person. He does different things with different partners, getting just the best of all. Which is one way to look at it; another is that those are then fair-weather relationships, aren’t they? Sickness, depression, bad times are nobody’s idea of fun… A couple told me recently about how they are finding a way to open their 10-year-long marriage. “We love each other deeply and forever, but monogamy wasn’t created for when we lived till 85! We can’t imagine the 50 yawning years ahead…” Whatever works for you is valid.
Sahil and I live in no particular way but our own. As should you. Because if there is anything to be said about happiness, it’s that happiness means different things to different people. As does happily ever after.
10. The wind beneath each other’s WINGs