You, Me & Us: Dating & Drama in Modern India by Tara Kaushal

December 2017: Kristen Roupenian’s viral short story ‘Cat Person’ in The New Yorker—about a short relationship that is constructed via texting and ends with bad sex at the end of an awkward first date—addresses issues of sex, gender, power and consent in present-day American dating. I go on an exploration of the complex paradigms of love, dating, sex and marriage in new-age India.

The central theme of ‘Cat Person’, IMHO, is expectations—how they differ from person to person, and from reality. In the beginning, one sees Margot’s burgeoning hope, an "incipient crush" developing on Robert, a man whose character she is guesstimating around their texts. On their date, he is colder than she expects him to be. Midway through their drunk sub-par sexual fumbling she turns, feels "her revulsion turned to self-disgust and a humiliation"; he, on the other hand, flush with post-coital closeness "started talking about his feelings for her". In the end, he is shocked at being rejected and abuses her when she doesn’t respond to his texts a month after the incident.

In India today, the idea of an ‘ideal man/woman’, and worlds of love, dating, sex and marriage are fraught with a whole host of different expectations from varied schools of thought and influence. On the one hand, we still have child and arranged marriages (although I am told that the latter is not as it used to be). Then there’s love—the ‘aankhon hi aankhon mein ishaara ho gaya’ variety, the ‘Friends’ variety, the online dating variety, the list goes on. Then there’s and the ‘self arranged’ brigade. Plus there’s Tinder and texting. Add Bollywood, global culture, the internet and porn to the mix, and there you have an incredibly complex and confusing gender dynamic.

The Ideal Man/Woman

First, consider the expectations each person/gender has for themselves and is seeking from the other (in a heteronormal scenario). By and large, I have found that women, newly exposed to liberal ideas and education, have more expectations than their foremothers did—whether to wear jeans, to work or to expand their worlds in other ways. Within their cultural milieus, they seek liberal husbands and hope for more egalitarian marriages than their parents had a mere generation ago. This is causing pre- and marital strife as many males, like all privileged parties, would like to retain the systems that favoured them—pre-conceived notions of ‘a good wife’, subjugation through the ideas of virginity and honour, the packed tiffin boxes, the lack of domestic and childrearing load, the control, etc.

This is true across classes. In a poor household I recently studied, all five brothers had barely studied till the 10th grade; the four sisters were all postgraduates. Trapped in their home and allowed out only occasionally with a male guardian, 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 did they plan to do with this education? “Sapne bahut hai. Bus, dekho, shaadi kahan hoti hai…” said one. As much as the sisters loved them, I sensed that 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 pre-existing paradigms either. Many still enjoy jealous boyfriends, and want older husbands who earn more than they do—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!

The Meeting of Cultures

A close friend was telling me about someone who was going to marry a woman he had met through parents. “Ewww,” I said, displaying the disdain for arranged marriages I carry as a result of being the child of an inter-religious love marriage. My parents met on a road when the dog my father was walking jumped on my mother. They went on dates and kind-of lived together before they married four years later, despite religion-based familial differences.

I had several issues—one, arranged marriage presumes that all those from similar backgrounds come out similar; two, the social pre-approval perpetuates a conservative cultural cycle; three, there is the matter of consent and agency; and then there is the decision-making over chai-samosas as one had seen in the movies… “Those last two points are rubbish,” said this friend, who had lived with, then married a man her parents had introduced her to, “you know it’s not a forced or instant decision anymore. They’ve even travelled abroad to a festival together.” So then arranged marriage setups are now family-approved long-term dating?

Or maybe not. A friend went for a few dates with a family-introduced man, only to have him communicate, via the parents, that he would like to date for a couple of years before he made a decision. A couple of years? My friend and her family thought this meeting of the arranged and dating cultures was unacceptable, so that was that. A divorced family friend gave up trying to find himself a match on “Invariably, by the third date, the women would bring up if/when we would get married… I was seeing it more as longer-term dating with intension.”

And the varieties of love. I sat chatting with the fiancée of one of my father’s country cousins at a relative’s wedding. “So, how did you meet?” It was at a daytime disco in New Delhi, when she’d borrowed his mobile to call her home. The next day he called and asked for her. “I love you,” were the first words he said, à la some filmy hero. They’ve been together ever since.

While some of us in urban India date and mate at will with wanton Western abandon like the characters of ‘Cat Person’, the newspapers are bursting with stories of vengeful jilted lovers in small towns, unable to accept that women are seeing futures for themselves beyond the men who covet them. Desperate men flock to Tinder in the hopes of meeting some wild women, asking for pictures of ‘vagine’ and ‘bobs’. Not that the consensual dating-mating is simple either—what do I really know about this person? How much does texting count? Sex on the first date or on the third? What if it’s bad sex? Just casual or is there something here…? Are we a couple? The ‘L’ word? How does one break up?

As these styles of relationships with their unique protocols meet in blaze of cultural chaos, we are bound to fumble in our interpersonal dealings. The trick is to be kind, empathetic and simply polite, and communicate the in best way possible.

This article was commissioned by Mumbai Mirror in December 2017.

The ManHunt by Tara Kaushal

June 2007: My experience of being single in my twenties.

So I’ve just recently become single again after many years of being committed in some form or another. And my hormones are driving me up the wall. I am on the ManHunt. Capital M, capital H. I’m in the ‘All is fair in love and lust’ Zone. I’m pulling out all the stops. The make-up kit is back out, dusted and ready-to-use. The pub-visiting and party-hopping days, abandoned when I was about 20, are here again. Contact lenses, long forsaken for the ease-of-use of spectacles, are being worn again. My two cute doggesses and one gorgeous dog are being paraded everywhere, as showstoppers and conversations starters. I’ve been walking into the Versova Barista (for reasons apparent only to me!) and walking out after sashaying to the counter and back, a dramatic flick of the head thrown in for good measure. The weight-loss-and-dermatologist beauty plan is in full swing. Relationships put you in a complacent, relaxed zone that I’m now officially out of: I’ve taken to wearing uncomfortable and pinchy frilly lace underwear, hiding my comfortable cottons in my cupboard—relics of a different lifestyle.

I have been ruthless in my quest. My MSN ‘Personal Message’ reads—‘Beautiful. Brilliant. 24. Single. Why?’, in the hope that someone on my list of contacts will bite the bait or sense the pain and set me up. I’ve been badgering my friends to go through their phone books and locate suitable boys. Besides the beauty and brains and all that, they are to inform every guy who shows potential of my USP—I am a cheap date. I don’t drink and barely eat. Now, you would think I’d be flooded with calls and numbers. No. My friends say that I have too many criteria—each presents one or two measly names after much thought and soul-searching. My friend Sahil, on hearing my demands, said they were so elaborate and exacting that I’d never find a guy to fuck, let alone live Happily-Ever-After with. Which is a really unfair thing to say—I’m not being choosey. At all.

I’ve even considered getting myself a profile on Now, wouldn’t that be fun: 24-year-old bohemian dilettante who writes for a living seeks a non-matrimonial alliance with a man who must fulfill all the following criteria. The guy must—

a)      Be taller than I am in heels—so over 6 feet
b)      Be clean-shaven
c)      Smell beautiful
d)      Be dark-skinned
e)      Be right-brained: very, very creative
f)       Not live with parents
g)      Not be an engineer, doctor, MBA, CA or any other corporate type
h)      Not be a wannabe model/actor type
i)       Love dogs
j)       Love dancing
k)      Love music
l)       Love reading
m)     Love the sea
n)      Be feminist and unconventional
o)      Be good in bed (this bit I’m willing to find out for myself, thank you)
Religion, caste (what’s that?), income, family and social standing (and all that shit) no bar.

Now tell me, logically, whether these basics are too much to ask for? This can hardly be called 'expecting too much'. Anyway, I’ve been on a few dates over the last few weeks. A few stray men—none of whom would have got even 50% on the criteria test above. What were my friends thinking? What was I thinking? For alliterative purposes, I’ve classified them as the following—

Mr Date: There have been two ‘Mr Dates’. The perfect gentlemen. Came to pick me up on time, with flowers and all. Took me out. To a ‘right’ restaurant. Opened the door. Made polite, non-sexual, non-flirtatious conversation at the table. Discussed the weather, President (dimwit) Bush and all the right things. Thoroughly disapproved of my wrestling for the cheque or suggesting that we go Dutch (this part I didn’t mind so much)! Dropped me home. Walked me to the door. At a decent time. Must have taken a cue from my incessant yawning.

You may have even forgotten that I’ve been talking about two different men with whom I went on two separate dates. I could almost hear them flipping the pages of date-etiquette books in their respective heads. Thank you, good night, bye-bye. All you get is a peck on the cheek.

Mr Hate: The other extreme was this angst-ridden man I went out with once. Just once. And I lived at my shrink’s for a whole week after. Took many steps back in therapy. A creative-type—a wannabe film director. Decent looking. Intelligent. Lovely long hair. Goatee. But the conversation—that was another thing entirely. Talked 19 to the dozen. Which is great. But think whine and vinegar. As acerbic as acerbic gets. I listened to his rant against the world for two whole hours. My eyes were trying to decide whether to be glazed-over or teary.

Thank you, nice to meet you. I value my sanity too much to be with you. And there is good in the world. Go smell some flowers. Get some spirituality or something.

Mr Late: Being late is my prerogative. Fuck feminism and equality. I’ve gleaned my ideas of romance from the romance genre and The Archies! I remember one story in particular. Betty Cooper has been waiting all day for Archie to call. And when he does call, she tells her mother that she won’t pick up immediately so he doesn’t know she’s been waiting. And there’s this other time where Veronica gives Betty advice on how to play hard-to-get. Being late and making the guy wait topped the list. So when the guy arrives late, it disorients me and disrupts my well-laid-out plan of action.

Mr Late was to meet me at 8. At 7.50, I got a message informing me that he was leaving home. Which is in Bandra. I stay in Versova. Even those of you who own a helicopter (which he didn’t) know that 10 minutes doesn’t get you from Bandra to Versova, no matter what. When he finally arrived at 9, I was in bed. Thank you and goodnight. No, sorry, I’ve changed my mind. Yes, I am a real bitch.

Mr Fate: My parents met on a road. On Breach Candy. The dog my dad was walking jumped on my mom and dropped the apples she’d been carrying. And I’ve lived burdened with those bizarrely unrealistic expectations of romance since I was a little girl. So when something romantic and filmy happens between a guy and me, I have violins going off in my head. I imagine Happily-Ever-After. The words, 'This was meant to be and 'Janam-janam ka saath' and all that.

So imagine what must have run through my head when I met a guy I’d had a crush on when I was 12, and had been thinking about recently, at an obscure bookstore in Bandra on a Tuesday afternoon. And imagine what must have run through my head when, over coffee half-an-hour later, he showed me pictures of his wife and newborn daughter. 

Mr Rate: Mr Rate is rich. That’s all I knew about him when I agreed to go on this blind date. Though money is not part of my criteria, it works in the absence of many other things on the list. This rich man lived and breathed money. All he did was discuss money, ask for rates and analyse costs. I saw it, I sensed it. On our date, I was so acutely aware of his value-for-money policy that I couldn’t get myself to waste anything that was served to us—not even the toothpick.

As I recover from the havoc the toothpick has caused going down my digestive track, I’m fairly certain Mr Rate won’t foot or even share my hospital bill.

Mr Mate: So there was the ‘model-type’. A type I’d specifically put an embargo on. I cannot imagine myself with a man whose t-shirts are tighter than mine are, who is more narcissistic than I am. And I’m fairly convinced that male models are as daft as their female counterparts are portrayed as being.

Within 30 seconds of our set-up phone conversation, I’d realised that there was really no point going on the date. All I’d do was get bored. Attempting to understand the Jat-accented English. Attempting to find some brain in all that brawn. So when he showed up, I just cut out the preliminaries. It was fun. Yes baby, yesss, yessss…

So I’ve done Mr Date, Mr Hate, Mr Late, Mr Fate, Mr Rate and Mr Mate. Now all I’m really waiting for is Mr Great. Any leads?

An edited version of this article appeared in Man's World in June 2007. 

I LOLed when I read it again to upload—the friend Sahil who I mention in the article was Mr Great all along. We got together 15-or-so months after this article was published, and have been together since.

The Reduction of Seduction by Tara Kaushal

November 2006: Is seduction an outdated art?

Perhaps the most telling indicators of how dramatically the art of seduction has suffered over the years, are the results I encountered when I Googled the word. Here’s what I encountered—

The first site that came up was a semi-porn site, which promised ‘100% free dating tips, sex tips and seduction secrets’. It also featured the promising article ‘How to seduce your ex’s friend’.

Following this promising start was a site on ‘Speed Seduction’ (registered and all huh!), a theory created by one Ross Jeffries.

Third in line was a site that would teach me to use ‘hypnotic tricks, phone techniques, kinesthetics, power rules, foreplay, along with a host of tricks to seduce any woman’.

This search also yielded a porn shop and a lingerie brand called Seduction. The word also showed up in a variety of porn sites…

Here’s what I didn’t know—old-fashioned seduction is truly outdated. It took a Google search to teach me this hard fact of life—years spent waiting around for my knight in shining armour didn’t get this fact into my thick skull!

This painful realisation made me think long and hard about why the art of seduction is dead—or dying at any rate. (Oh, by the way, I came across a site detailing the ‘science’ of seduction as well—reminded me a little of that chick-flick… can’t remember what it was called… where this girl equates men with cows or something and relates mating behaviours.) From a sociological perspective, the reasons seem to be different for Western countries and for India.

Sociologically, seduction, when applied to sexual behaviour, refers to persuading a person to do something that s/he may later regret and/or would normally not want to do. Seduction is the stage before sex: the many-fold and complicated steps involved in convincing a person of your charms and desirability.

In the West, where arranged marriages haven't been the norm for a while, seduction became a huge part of sexual and social consciousness during the period between extreme prudery and absolute sexual liberty. It was during this time that a man (it was usually a man) had to use his charms and powers of persuasion to convince a woman to go to bed with him. However, the advent of the sexual liberty of the '60s reduced the need for elaborate seduction… going by the traditional definition, women didn’t need much convincing to go to bed, as it was neither something they ‘wouldn’t normally do’, nor something they’d  ‘regret later’! The final fall for this dying art form came with the advent of the internet and the impersonal and brazen sexual norms it brought about—my profile on Skype, which is neither inviting nor too interesting, gets me several offers of ‘friendship’ and more every day!

We, in India, have got the short end of the stick where it comes to our exposure to this fine art. With our arranged marriages, seduction on a purely sexual level was rare and restricted, particularly after the British came to India and left us with their unhealthy Victorian morality (that the RSS has promptly adopted as being part of authentic Indian parampara). Literature and myth in India have several accounts of sexual seduction, and describe a number of gods and their sexual prowess. Lord Krishna and his gopis, the Kamasutra and Khajuraho are all a part of our culture.

Anyway, when dating and sexual liberty finally became mainstream in the '90s, the internet-porn generation emerged simultaneously (or perhaps the emergence of dating and sexual liberty has something to do with the emergence of the internet and free porn—it’s not really a question of what came first: all social movements are interdependent and feed off each other). There was never a chance for subtle physical seduction—we went straight from the eyes staring meekly from under the ghoonghat to them staring wide-eyed at the wonders the internet presented. We now have new and improved virtual ways of meeting, flirting and planning/having sexual liaisons. Unfortunately, the era of seduction has, by and large, passed us by.

Such is the pity. Where are the old-fashioned men who wined and dined a woman, who picked us up at the door and escorted us back home? My friend, lets just call her ‘S’, gets drunk fairly frequently—and does so with a group in which more than one guy is seriously interested in her. However, the guys (and she) think it perfectly all right to deposit her, almost passed out, in a cab to get her home. I mean, come on! Forget chivalry, think safety maybe?

But hey, I understand that everything comes as a package deal. If I were with an old-fashioned guy, who did all the right, romantic things, he’d perhaps also be conventional enough to be intimidated by my sexuality, would probably keep me from writing brazen articles and want to do it missionary style all the time! On the other hand, an unconventional man will probably not do all the chaste and romantic things Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty had done to them. But he’ll accept me, as I am, and I will not be judged for having sexual impulses and making moves as and when the feeling seizes me.

But then, we’ve all grown up reading happily-ever-afters. (Now completely rubbished in our cynical feminist heads—why did Sleeping Beauty need to be rescued by a man? Her ‘happily ever after’ probably consisted of placid domesticity. And why couldn’t Cinderella just run away and become a big-time Bollywood actress if she was so beautiful?) But really, we really want the best of both worlds. We want the seduction and the romance, the flirting and the flowers—not for too many intelligent women are the internet ‘friendships’ and the cold hook-ups (at least not more than once in a while). We all want the best of both worlds—I want the man who treats me like a Princess, but doesn’t expect me to do nothing but sit on a throne! I want a Prince without old-fashioned gender definitions.

My knight in shining armour? The old romantic legend, slightly modified and updated, infused with a liberal dose of feminism and modernism—and of course, schooled in the art of seduction. All the chivalry and none of the chauvinism!

An edited version of this article appeared in Man’s World in November 2006. 

And so much has changed—for me and in the world, in general—since I wrote it! Tinder coexists with, living in is par for the course, feminism is in wave five. And that knight in shining armour I was dreaming of? I found him! :)