Thoughts on Love by Tara Kaushal

This month, it is 10 years since Sahil and I got together. To commemorate, I’m going to take a break from my usual acerbic postings and share 30 thoughts about love, relationships, marriage, feminism, etc. Follow the series here, on Facebook and on Instagram.


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

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Sahil and I end up coordinating our clothes quite often—either by choice or chance. (Today’s was a coincidence, believe it or not!) It’s because our wardrobes comprise similar colours, patterns and prints. S wore bespoke printed shirts before I met him thanks to his creative and super-involved mother; my influence is the OTT colours (and the reduction of browns, a colour I hate with a passion). He got me to wear dresses (that I once thought didn’t work for my body type but now love), the shorter the better.

In another context, a friend and I were discussing how comfortably we police other people and their bodies, especially those we are related to and/or are in relationships with, especially men to women. Don’t go here, don’t wear this, don’t meet X, don’t, don’t, don’t. We’ve grown up with these paradigms, where family serves as the primary agent of society in its conflict against individuality. When a friend tossed her burka to be a cutting-edge feminist, her grandmother ended up in hospital. When another wanted to break her engagement, her grandfather threatened suicide. (She proceeded with the wedding, then divorced when grumpy grandpa died.)

In a modern partnership, just don’t. Don’t be an impediment to the personal evolution of your partner. Commercial menswear is a sobering reminder that men are denied most of the colour spectrum and all prints that aren’t checks or stripes. (Aside: as the historically dominant gender, why would they do that to themselves?!) So when S tries nail paint or experiments with (steals!) my hair accessories, why would I deny him self-expression?

Further, play the role of an enabler. Enable your partner to go in the direction they want, as well as open their minds to directions you think might be beneficial to them. And be in their corner. When a snarky aunty told me I was making S a girl; when another pointed out the length of my dresses; when a troll on a bikini picture told me I was “not the way (he) liked Indian women”—we stood up for each other. (The relatives got lectures on liberty, the futility of gender norms and mind your own business; S informed the troll that he, the husband himself was the one who took the picture so fuck you very much.)

Remember, be the happy person behind the happy person.

11. The love bank

One of the reasons Sahil and I moved to a work-from-home lifestyle is because I had an epiphany that we spend our best waking moments with colleagues, leaving the dregs for our favourite people—spouse, friends and family. (Oh, we work like crazy, just in the same space as each other, and at a pace that accommodates other aspects of life.) Since we embarked on this lifestyle where we’re mostly always together, I’ve had this rule—when I’m out for more than a few hours, I buy him something special from wherever I’ve been. 95% of the time it’s a food thing; sometimes it’s a shirt fabric that caught my eye or a book he’d been mentioning. These gifts, not expensive or effort-heavy, are my deposits into the love bank.

This love joint account theory is my wise Aunt Alice’s. As she explains it, you make individual and joint deposits into your account whenever you can. There are whole host of things that can go in—love letters, gifts, cakes and holidays. And your partner and you may not have the same saving strategy—as long as they value what you want to deposit, and your individual contributions are about equal. S doesn’t get me presents every time he leaves the house (that would be hard AF). One of his rules is to make me belly laugh at least twice a day, from pulling funny faces and cracking PJs to breaking into elaborate oafish dances. (Some days take more effort than others, clearly.) He also gets me flowers on most Saturday mornings. Then there’s the fact that he gave me the financial freedom to work on Why Indian Men Rape—an intangible and priceless whopper deposit.

Keep track of this account. Overlook the occasional overdraft. But also remember this caveat: I said ‘when you can’. Love is not so transactional, and one of you may end up with an illness or something that makes you lean on the other disproportionately. Life’s just like that!

Make sure your account is topped up with happy memories and moments… so when you make withdrawals, you will be able to remind yourselves: how much have I, how much have we been happy.

12. Today’s my 10th anniversary!

Yes, mine, not ours.

Tonight, 10 years ago, I told Sahil I was in love with him. On Gtalk (of all inglorious things). Under pressure to explain why I wouldn’t hang out with him that evening and had been avoiding him for over a month (it’s true—I’d gone from seeing my bestie almost every day for two years to radio silence), I told him it was because I was in love with him.

The realisation had been a bolt from the blue. I’d attended two weekends of a life-management course. At The Landmark Forum, they made us call and thank people who played important roles in our lives. My answer to almost everything—3 am friend, person who broke down a door to rescue me when the lock was stuck, nurse during a severe bout of viral—had been Sahil. Bam! 

I was mortified that this had happened and at what I’d done. Not because ‘girls aren’t supposed to make the first move’ gender crap (I’d long since received my PhD in rejection), but because this was SAHIL. We had been poster children for platonic relationships. We had told everyone and ourselves we weren’t each other’s types. We’d carefully ignored any tentacles of attraction. We knew the most about each other than anyone else in the world did. I was shit scared. There was too much at stake. This was a disaster! 

“Don’t worry, I’ll get over it,” I said.
“I’m coming to get you,” he said.
He picked me up from my office. I wouldn’t look at him and talked 19 to the dozen about everything but—. We ate a roll in the car at Ayub’s. He dropped me home.

So this day each year we commemorate my bravery. And today has been a spectacular day—chilling in Chor Bazaar followed by a fancy dinner.

13. Cultural confusion

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 turn 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, 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. (And a BJP MP recently offered to kidnap these women for 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.

Read the longer piece I’ve written about this here.

14. Long-distance love

I am in Goa for a week before S joins me on this working holiday. Being here alone brings up memories of the year apart we did in 2010 as he studied photography in the States and six months earlier this year as I wrote in Australia. We have an almost co-dependent relationship; being without him is like having my heart beating outside my chest. I miss him like crazy; worse because I’ve fallen quite ill with the flu here.

Long-distance is fucking hard, especially if you’re aiming to be monogamous. S’s parents started dating in architecture college in Bombay, then spent four years apart as Dad went to the States for post graduation and work. Dad often laughs about the brevity of his letters to Ma, the letters that would take three weeks to traverse continents: “I was doing SMS before it was a thing!”

While there are so many more ways to communicate today, nothing makes up for Sahil’s smell; the rise and fall of his chest as I lie draped inelegantly across him; gazing at his grace as he goes about his business… Towards the end of my time in Australia, I had forgotten the colour of his eyes—calling them brown instead of the jet black that they are—something he still teases me about. Besides, the world is a lot more sexualised as well, so temptation lurks at every party, a swipe right in your vicinity… but these are your choices. I’ll say this, though: monogamous long-distance is only worth doing for IMPORTANT relationships.

The truth about being apart: this is life, this is love. If one of you needs time and space for your own growth and self-actualisation (or less romantic reasons, like a sick parent, visa issues, job, whatever), take that time and space. For the other, it can seem like an act of extraordinary strength and sacrifice to give space to the other when all you want is to hold them close. At another time, your roles may switch. To quote Kahlil Gibran, “Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.”

15. Romance and rejection

Although I knew so much about Sahil, and—if we could look at this love business objectively, like his mother and my ex-boyfriend did—we were exactly perfect for each other, I was terrified of rejection. Oh, not rejection in general, but of being rejected by him. Rejection and failure are essential by-products of trying, and any dynamic person has faced their fair share in life and love.

Truth is, there are so many varieties of and expectations from love. Besides, someone can be madly in love with you and still not be ready (I mean, he was 23, for goodness sake)! They can love you with their whole heart and still not take the leap. And then what? Were we to leave this magical friendship? How would we overcome the confusion in our equation? What when he found someone? What would we do?

My mum arrived from Australia the day after I told S that I was in love with him. In person in Bombay, and on the phone as I travelled to Delhi and Goa with her, S and I flirted wildly. It was weird, it was awkward. Was he interested? If he was indeed interested, what was taking him so long to say ‘let’s do this, let’s give it a shot’? I would find out what had been going through his mind a few days after we started dating…

But in the meantime, my fear simmered. We’ve been brought up to think that love is once in a lifetime, happily ever after. It takes a bit of adjustment to accept the reality that it is not. It’s a hard balance to strike, admittedly. The ‘fall’ in ‘falling in love’ implies a lack of control, a sweeping off the feet, a deep investment. Multiple loves and rejections require both, restraint and it’s opposite, recklessness. Restraint, because you want to try and try till you succeed (with the same person, aka stalking). Recklessness, because you have to stand up, start walking and be ready to fall, again. How do you stay excited and engaged while not letting yourself feel those peaks and valleys too deeply?

Love shit’s complicated. And that’s a good thing. Because if was too simple you’d have no reason to try.

16. Conscious coupling

Sahil arrives in Goa this morning! (Unfortunately, I’m too ill to pick him up from the station.) I remember another time he joined me in Goa… The year was 2014. I had been shooting here, and had stayed back so he could join me and we’d make a holiday of it. I’d finished early in the morning, around the time S’s bus was supposed to arrive. But it was many hours late, the AC had broken down, he’d had a miserable time.

I was waiting for him as he stepped off the bus into the blazing noon sun at Mapusa. When we talk about that trip, both of us remember the feeling of acute relief that washed over us at the sight of each other. So long as we’re together, who cares about the weather…? As we drove home in the cab, he asked to stop for something to drink, for Thums Up and Kings. “Don’t worry, baby, it’s all waiting for you at home.” And it was. I’d gone out with a pilot rider that morning; and had bought him the soft drink that he was then a drinker of and beer that is a quintessentially Goa thing. I’d left the AC running.

I felt a sense of joy and accomplishment to have *exactly* anticipated what he would want. Being in a relationship doesn’t mean you put another before you—no. It is mutually seeing happiness in their happiness, and therefore anticipating and, sometimes, prioritising their needs. But it’s important that it works both ways. If you’re constantly depositing in the love bank, and the other person isn’t, there’s a sense of disquiet and unhappiness that sets in. Ask me, I know.

S is a great, gentle, kind human being, as an absolute; with the bar set so low for what we consider ‘good’ men, he shines in comparison. This also meant that when we first got together, he thought he could just show up and be. Lives, however, do not run on love and fresh air. To receive you have to give; equally important, to give you have to receive. Don’t take each other or yourself for granted.

Anyway, he’s almost here. Looking forward to another great holiday over the next week.

17. Yeh under ki baat hai

My social media photos and the way I look when I’m dressed up belie the fact that I usually look quite awful in my usual jhalla makeup-free state (and when I’m sick, I look like hell on earth). Oftentimes, when I’m dressed to the nines, people will call Sahil “lucky” for scoring a woman who looks like me. Yes, a stranger did really call us “beauty and the beast”! Recently, an acquaintance we bumped into after a long time called out S’s greys, and laughingly told him he would lose me. (I know, right, WTF! Why would you erode someone’s security like that?!)

This really bothers me, for several reasons. For one, it assumes that beauty is only skin deep—mine and his. When one acknowledges that it isn’t, one has to further acknowledge that S has a lot more of it than I do (as all our friends know well). It also puts a premium on female beauty, our ‘erotic capital’, so to speak; a depreciating asset that must be traded at its prime (usually for wealth and status).

But it’s a lot more than that. How do you—how does anyone—know the dynamics of what is going on between a couple? The things that make each other’s hearts go boom…? His voice whispering in the sheets as he tells me about his day. His soft masculinity that has been a balm for my battered heart. His laughter—and the silly things he does and says to invoke mine. His openness. His sense of style.

Us Indians are really nosey people with an abject disrespect for privacy, borne of our cultural tribalism, living in cramped spaces and the stay-at-home aunties who have nothing better to do but comment on other people’s lives. I’ll say this: don’t give a shit about what others who don’t know you think of your relationship. If it works for you, that’s all that matters.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t listen to people who have observed you closely and can tell you what you can’t see. It was my father who first pointed out the flaws in my previous marriage. “Why are you so afraid of him?” he asked, when I told him not to tell Shiv something. It was an epiphany—here I was, so brave and brazen in other aspects of my life, afraid of my husband’s temper in what was supposed to be the most important relationship. But, I digress…

Don’t let nosey parkers with their own axes to grind determine how you feel about your relationship. And, obviously, don’t be one yourself.

Struggling with relationships? Send me an email if you need to talk.

In Defence of Valentine’s Day by Tara Kaushal

February 2014: Despite the criticisms in the Indian context, I explain why I’m a huge fan of the day of love.

Conceptual photograph courtesy Sahil Mane.

Conceptual photograph courtesy Sahil Mane.

Call me a romantic fool, but I love Valentine’s Day. In college in New Delhi, I’d laugh and say, “Why not? It’s just another excuse to celebrate and get presents!” Now, 10 years, awareness and much consumer fatigue since, it isn’t about the gift economy at all. For days before, love is literally in the air (and on the airwaves, TV and everywhere). Consciously ignoring advertising suggestions of what we should be giving-receiving, where we should be going, what we should be doing, Sahil and I celebrate without spending. Last year, we just cooked for each other over music and laughter; this year, we’re planning a party. I also wish my mother, family and friends.

When I speak of my love for Valentine’s, it tends to spark debate with a whole range of people. I’ve had the religious and cultural traditionalists play the ‘Against Hinduism/Islam’ (India’s two major religions) and/or ‘Against Indian Culture’ Card, say it is a cultural contamination from the West. Friends who are nonconformists and anti-consumerism are, well, anti its consumerism, the nauseating marketing blitz and the pigeonholing.

And the many arguments of those coming from a postcolonial perspective are best summed up on Wiki:

“The holiday is regarded as a front for ‘Western imperialism’, 'neocolonialism' and ‘the exploitation of working classes through commercialism by multinational corporations’ (Satya Sharma in ‘The Cultural Costs of a Globalized Economy for India’, Dialectical Anthropology). Studies have shown that Valentine's Day promotes and exacerbates income inequality in India, and aids in the creation of a pseudo-Westernised middle class. As a result, the working classes and rural poor become more disconnected socially, politically and geographically from the hegemonic capitalist power structure. They also criticise mainstream media attacks on Indians opposed to Valentine's Day as a form of demonisation that is designed and derived to further the Valentine's Day agenda.”

And, surprisingly, I agree with most of these criticisms.

The Religion & Culture Card

I agree that this day, the Feast of St Valentine, which originates in ancient Roman and Christian theology, does not come from Hinduism or Islam. Though it is stripped of religious significance in its current avatar, one can understand why purists would see it as celebrating another religions’ festival. However, I see this broadening of horizons, loosening of religious strangleholds and cultural cross-pollination as a positive way forward towards a liberal, melting-pot world.

What’s worse, this is a festival celebrating love—the dizzying, crazy-making romantic and/or sexual variety that is condemned by Islam and Hinduism, in its current Victorian-prudery-infused avatar far removed from Kamadeva, Khajuraho and the Kama Sutra.

Now, 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. Age-old systems—arranged marriages, joint families, stay-at-home wives and mothers, divorce-free not-so-happily-ever-afters with (legally sanctioned) marital rape, dowry and other patriarchal traditions—fall in its wake. This too is a good thing, methinks, particularly from a feminist perspective.

A separate issue is the sex (or any physical contact), pre-marital to boot, that is a consequence of the love and its expression that Valentine’s Day propagates. Some activists claim they are not against love, just against its ‘vulgar’ exhibition in public—a definition that could include merely holding hands in the more conservative parts of the country. This cultural obsession with and repression of sex (controlling who can do what with whom, when, where, why and how much), and hypocrisy about sex (we’re clearly having a lot of it, just not talking healthily about it) is hugely problematic.

So, for the past few years, in various parts of the country, moral police from religio-political groups like the Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal and Hindu Janajagruti Samiti have been burning cards, red-coloured gifts and roses, and beating up, or threatening to beat up and forcibly marry, couples who are found on dates on Valentine’s. (Through the year, they also target bars, music concerts and women’s sartorial choices, other Western corruptions.) Yet, we don’t lament the irony of being more comfortable with Public Displays of Anger than with Public Displays of Affection. “We live in a world where we have to hide to make love, while violence is practiced in broad daylight,” said Lennon all those years ago.   

(More by me on culture and love in India in Governance Now.)

Just like the stand against consensual homosexuality, the stand against Valentine’s Day unites traditionalists across religions, cultural positioning and political affiliations across the country. However, in that case, as this, the governance and legal systems should prioritise individual choice over this tyranny, a their-size-fits-all. After all, if right-wingers are allowed to live a patriarchal lifestyle that is offensive to certain demographic groups in a democracy, others should be afforded the same respect.

Consumerism Overload!

Love sells, I agree. It sells roses, cards and lingerie, dinners, diamonds and holiday packages.

Valentine’s entered the Indian mainstream with the advent of satellite TV in ’92. The first music channels, MTV and Channel V, carrying strong influences of American pop culture, hyped it as a peg for contests, dedications, love-song countdowns, on-the-ground events and early-day reality TV, to enthuse their teen audiences, and generate marketing and advertising revenue. For Indians, this alien festival was manufactured in the media, through content as well as advertising campaigns for mushy cards, chocolates, teddy bears, etc. It has since established the rituals—not only have we been told that we must celebrate this day of love, but how and how much we should spend on it. The more you love, the more you should be willing to spend, it says, inextricably linking the two in the manner of American capitalists.

I’ve been on the other side of the fence, and I’d know. Come January and the PR agents are at it, sending out press releases about Valentine’s Day offers from the companies they represent. They hope you will feature these in the next issue of your monthly magazine (on homes, with a female target audience), which they assume has a love theme. And you do, because it does.

Though it is advertising bucks and brouhaha that sustains this festival of love, although it is with an intention to get people to buy, buy, buy and not altruistic, the optimist in me rejoices the very fact that there is a day for romantic love. Men and women alike are being conditioned to expect, express and prioritise this happy, powerful emotion.

My octogenarian grandparents from small-town India, married since 1951, tell me that, though “Valentine’s Day didn’t exist” in their youth, they now celebrate it by going out for coffee. Through all the marketing din, I’m sure the nonconformists can separate the message from the madness.

Postcolonial Perspective

I agree with the argument that Valentine’s Day is a part of Western cultural imperialism. Notwithstanding the Chicken Tikka Masala-Britain example, the extent of the influx and acceptance of the Anglosphere’s culture in India and Asia is far greater than the reverse. The growing urban Indian middle class, exposed to what passes as ‘global’ culture through TV and/or the internet, knows America’s movie and pop stars, celebrates Halloween, and loved 'Friends' and 'Breaking Bad' and 'Dexter'. We are adopting, and being conditioned to adopt, its mores. The hegemony of American culture (and English, food, design, fashion, etc) continues to be cemented around the world, aiding and being aided by its economic might and business globalisation… the very definition of neocolonialism.

But, culture has never been linear or fixed, and has always evolved and adjusted—a British ball game remained here after the Raj, to become the Subcontinent’s religion. In the age of communication, knowledge and travel, cultures are evolving more rapidly than ever before anyway, with or without Valentine’s! I believe people have a right to tap in to ‘global’ culture, assess their cultural influences, and pick and choose their individual beliefs.

Some of us have become what Wiki refers to as the “pseudo-Westernised middle class”, whose acceptance of a few aspects of new culture does not mean a complete break from the old. At the numerous weddings I’ve attended in the past year (yup, it’s that life-stage), all couples, without fail, personalised their ceremonies, appropriating and incorporating things they like from other cultures and abandoning some aspects from their own. From tattooed rings to bachelorettes and buddymoons… at our own wedding two years ago, Sahil and I skipped the most important Hindu wedding ritual, taking seven circles around the sacred fire to the droning of an unintelligible priest, in favour of exchanging vows. Individuals should be allowed to negotiate their own cultural positioning, whatever it may be.

It is also true that Valentine’s Day and its commercialism widen the pre-existing cultural and economic gap between this class, and the working classes and rural poor. Economic inequality, the gap between the landed and nouveau riche, and the poor in India, is growing and becoming increasingly apparent every day. In his latest book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Michael Sandel, professor of philosophy at Harvard, discusses the dangers of what he calls “the sky boxification of life”—the growing separation between rich and poor in the ordinary activities and common spaces of daily life owing to rampant marketization. In an interview to Mumbai Mirror, he asserts this is damaging to democracy, because “it erodes the sense of belonging, the shared identity that democracy requires.” Neither do the ‘masses’ understand or subscribe to a culture that understands and permits a day of love, nor can they afford to join the celebration.

An unfortunate fallout of these disparate cultural influences regarding Valentine’s Day on the masses is that it leads to the sexual harassment of women by Roadside Romeos across India. Valentine’s Day propaganda and Bollywood expose these men to the idea of and desire for romantic love, at odds with their conservative cultural environments. Love, according to older Bollywood plot lines, happens at first sight, and comes to fruition and marriage once the hero has followed and convinced the girl. Starry-eyed boys ‘eve teasing’ and harassing the girls they ‘love’ becomes a pandemic during February. Growing up in North India, I’ve had letters flung at me and a stalker from a different city end up at my doorstep to hand me a teddy bear!

The depression, loneliness and suicide around the Christmas holiday in America among those who cannot partake in the celebration and spending is well documented, and may indicate an upcoming trend vis-à-vis the Indian population and Valentine’s Day. Though statistics are not yet available, incidents of jilted lovers seeking revenge are thought to be higher during the month of love.

Valentine’s Day is clearly not the only place where this cultural and economic chasm is obvious—it’s in housing, Bollywood, clothing, lifestyle, food, etc, and even in the consumerist gluttony encouraged at Indian weddings and festivals. A daylong love festival, one that has many positive sociocultural consequences, is, in my opinion, less deadly that the sustained disparateness on display throughout the year.

The intellectuals’ contention, however, that mainstream media attacks on Indians opposed to Valentine's Day is a form of demonisation that is designed and derived to further the Valentine's Day agenda is a tad simplistic. For one, the English media is not, in the strictest sense of the word, the mainstream media of India: vernacular and Hindi media have a much more pervasive reach, and they continue to be religious and cultural mouthpieces. For the most part, the English media, run by people from the “pseudo-Westernised middle class”, is liberal leaning and pro-West. Its ability to provide sustained cultural critique from a liberal point of view is important to counter the rampant patriarchy, religious intolerance and complexity of Indian culture, and it is often seen taking politicians to task for the misogynistic statements that invariably follow every sensational rape. 

The pro-Valentine’s agenda of the English media derives not only from commercial interests, but also from the intrinsic cultural positioning of those in it. The English versus Hindi and vernacular languages divide is not merely linguistic, but also promotes and exacerbates a deep cultural chasm with thin middle ground.

Love, Life & Laughter

India is in a hyperactive state of sociocultural flux, between the old and the new cultures and religions, between the have and the have nots, between rural and urban realities, those educated and those not, those who speak English and those who don’t, men and women. It is and will continue to be interesting to watch how we negotiate these dynamics as a nation, particularly in respect to love, sexuality and Valentine’s Day.  

I’m clearly on the side of love, and choose to see Valentine’s as much-needed reminder and celebration of the emotion that makes—or should make—the world go round.

This column appeared on 3QD in February 2014.

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.