marriage

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.

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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 Shaadi.com: “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.

The Intimacy Initiative by Tara Kaushal

The Intimacy Initiative 1/4: Talking

October 2011: Restart the fire in your marriage by following this four-point self-help plan. Step 1 is finding what's left you in lovemaking limbo—and why.

There are three parts in a marriage: you, your husband and your relationship. (No, your kids are not part of your marriage—not in the bedroom.) If the stork flew in with the babies and out with the intimacy, the problem may lie with any or all of these parts. The good news: the solution, too, lies with the two of you! Find out how six real couples crossed the marriage minefields.

Talk: one small step, one giant leap

Hit a dry spell in your marriage? Chances are, you're bang in the middle of a vicious cycle. "At the start, it was just exhaustion and pain," says Jyoti*, 29, "but soon, we were fighting so much that there was no question of resuming sex." Soon, Manav*, 34, and her were sleeping in different bedrooms. "The issues just kept piling up."

Feeling like Jyoti and Manav? Wondering how to break the cycle? Starting talking. Now.

Today: Make a date to chat

"We knew we had to end the cold war, but taking this step was the hardest part," says Manav.

So, what should you chat about?

* Yourselves: You and your sexuality are not separate beings. While you talk, you will realise that issues seemingly unrelated to your relationship are impacting it. These could be situational stuff, like exhaustion, being chained to work via a Blackberry, having a hectic social schedule or a lack of space. Or they can be emotional, like feeling unattractive after the baby weight, being depressed or feeling like you're stuck in a rut. Jyoti ended up telling Manav, "As noble as my role as a mother is, I barely feel human, let alone sexy." What's up with you?           

* Your marriage: All aspects of your relationship will impact each other. Anger, distrust and other unpleasant matters will reduce your desire for intimacy... then add the lack of intimacy to the list of issues, and you're on a downward spiral. Intimacy is both an indication and prerequisite of a happy marriage. Says Rahul*, 32, "I discovered that an off-key joke I had made about another friend's stubborn baby weight had been playing on Natasha's* mind. I love her as she is, and couldn't figure out why she was angry for months... until our talk."

Keyword: Honesty

* Make a chat date at a private, comfy place. Stay away from the crowds and time-restrictions at a restaurant or the familiarity of your bedroom. And no phones, please.

* Talk honestly and freely, and be prepared to accept feedback with an unbiased and open mind. This won't be easy, but you've got to listen! The road back in to each other's arms will be dotted with awkward conversations, painful self-reckoning, and more than a few failed attempts.

* Note the points you two raise. You may discover that the problem is as simple as a lack of time or a minor relationship tear like forgetting an anniversary—focus on the bigger picture, and they're easily solved. Or, these points may be a surprisingly brutal critique of each other and your marriage—but don't worry, finding the problem is the first step to finding the solution.

* Tough, na? Don't worry, step 1 is the hardest, I promise. Just one last tough thing, okay? Cuddle. No matter how many landmines you've stepped on, how angry you are or how bad things seem right now. After all, you are doing this programme together, so a happier marriage is what you both want...

How hard is it to chat with your spouse? Tell us how you made the first move and what are the issues you uncovered? Write in if you need help starting out...


The Intimacy Initiative 2/4: Fixing

October 2011: In step 2 of this four-point self-help plan to bring back the intimacy to your marriage, learn that if you fix the rest, the sex will follow.

As I said last time, intimacy is both an indication and prerequisite of a happy marriage. First, it's an indication. If you're okay, he's okay, the marriage is okay—chances are, you're intimate and having sex. But if there are other issues, they will show up in your bedroom—and if one or both of you are unhappy with sex, it will impact the rest of your relationship... but, we'll get to that later.

Your exercise for today is about working towards changing five of your most major issues, not including the bedroom. It's a step-by-step guide to managing your life, really, and I've given a few common problems and examples of their common-sense solutions. Your relationship is unique: you may be dealing with some or all of these issues in varying degrees, and others that are unique to you. Others' solutions are just guidelines for you to adapt to suit your life and lifestyle... Remember, your answers lie with you.

Today: Plan to achieve your goals

The idea is to break five of your most major issues into bite-sized actions and their solutions. Remember, you are the problem-solver. Here's how.

Keyword: Right goals

* What is my problem? The five you choose should include yours and his individual situational and emotional issues, and issues in your marriage not related to sex. Of course, you're looking to deal with chronic issues and their symptoms, not a one-off incident where your social-drinker husband had a peg too many. Remember—if the bigger picture is a happier marriage, decide to make up, forgive and let go of the small things. "We didn't have the time or energy for anything at all, let alone each other," says Sonal*, 32. Sounds familiar? This is perhaps the most common reason for the post-baby dry spell... sex just isn't on the schedule.

* Why? Break it down and analyse. Sonal and Anshuman*, 40, found that they could break down the 'why' into some distinct parts: a) Her mornings were busy with taking care of Antara*, and cooking for the family; b) Her commute to and from a nine-hour day at the office added another three hours; and c) Their evenings were consumed with Antara and putting her to bed. A later riser than Sonal, d) Anshuman's two-hour commute and 12-hour work-day allowed him a little time with Antara, and none with Sonal or for the gymming he loved. Saturdays were for chores and friends, Sundays were with the grandparents. "When we broke it down like this, the answers seemed so obvious!"

* What's my goal? Flight attendant Natasha, 37, discovered her problem was with the way she looked. "We'd waited quite long to have our first child," she says. "The weight refused to go, so did the acne. I didn't feel sexy, and Rahul's joke about a friend's baby weight just played on my mind." Now, finding your goal is the trickiest. As with all other goals you've managed in your life, this needs to be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely—SMART goals—with a gentle ‘acceptance of things you cannot change’.

Natasha gave herself six months to be acne-free and lose 10 kilos, at a modest 1.5 kilos a month; Sonal and Anshuman got a reality check. "Our choices didn't reflect how important our relationship is to us. We realised that we were choosing to put kids and career above a healthy relationship," he says. They reassessed their schedules and decided to work towards an hour of "quality time" with each other and two with Antara every day, and double on weekends, without compromising their jobs. Anshuman also wanted to squeeze in three hours a week at the gym. All thought these goals were SMART ones; ones that they could attain with minor changes to their lifestyles. 

* How do I get there? By this step, your course of action should be pretty obvious. Map your plan of action to a time schedule, with quantifiable milestones to ensure you're on track. Easier if you maintain a daily planner.

"Some things were easy—I chucked my maternity undies and clothes, and bought some clothes in my new size," says Natasha. "So was the acne: I met a good dermat and followed up." Other things required persistence, like the four hours of walking a week. "Having a goal is inspiring and empowering," she says. "I changed my schedule slightly so I, not the maid, took Shail* to the park. I walked as he played." Says Rahul, "I could see her feel more in control from the get-go. Once I understood what she was working towards and how, I was as supportive as I could be."

Sonal and Anshuman had to make a bigger lifestyle change to reach their goals. "First, I realised that making tiffins and getting Antara ready for school was not 'quality time'," says Sonal. "I relinquished that to a maid, and we joined her for breakfast instead." "We also realised that long commutes were common to both our days. Neither wanted to change jobs, so we decided to move to a smaller house in a more expensive suburb midway for both," says Anshuman. "It is about prioritising, really."

On alternate nights, Anshuman, the night bird, takes up bedtime story duty, giving Sonal time to recharge for some couple time after the baby is asleep. On others, he goes to the gym, while Sonal puts Antara to bed. Every couple of weekends, Antara goes to her grandparents' homes without her parents. "Once we told our parents we were overextended, they were only too happy to babysit Antara to give us private time."

"It all seems so simple now," says Sonal. "The key is the right goals, and willpower!"

Does having this plan of action make you feel powerful? How do you see yourself achieving your goals? If you're having trouble following this step, write in for personal or community advice.


The Intimacy Initiative 3/4: Refreshing

October 2011: So, there's a problem with the sex? Step 3 of this simple four-point plan to revive the intimacy in your marriage, we tell you how to take sex from being part of the problem to being part of the solution.

I hope you've put the plan you made in step 2 into play, and are working on the situational, emotional and interpersonal issues that have impacted your intimacy. I bet your recent heart-to-heart and active problem-solving action-plan have given you and your relationship a booster shot, not only because you're working towards these life- and relationship-altering goals, but because you're feeling empowered while achieving them.

But what if the reason/one of the reasons you're not having sex—and that's showing in your relationship—is because the sex itself is, well, bad? How do you take sex from being a cause of unhappiness to its fullest potential as cement for your love and a source of joy. Read on...

Today: Clear the sex issues

So, what's wrong with the sex and how can you solve it? I discuss the most common issues, and their solutions. Modify these for your life, or find solutions to your problems though the 'what's the problem-why-what's my goal-how do I get there' system you learnt in step 2.

Keyword: It's simple

* "I'm bored," admitted Sandra*, 35, to Roy*, 37, her husband of 12 years. He was hurt... but relieved she'd said it first! Can passion survive the routine of a long-term relationship? Or must the spark fade over time? Biologically, it does, say sexual health experts, as contentment overshadows the thrill of new love. But, while it is natural to move on from the can't-keep-our-hands-off-each-other first days, a complete disinterest in sex not healthy or natural.

What's their simple solution? "We returned to the basics," says Roy. "We discovered that it was actually the basic romantic stuff that was missing—kissing, cuddling, being nude." Adds Sandra candidly, "We stopped taking each other for granted. We began dressing better, paying more attention to everyday intimacy and spending more time on foreplay. We added in some sex toys, porn and other new stuff." What's there to be shy—it's your bedroom! Sandra and Roy discovered that the more the effort they put in to the intimacy, the better the foreplay and sex... and the more the desire for it.

"If you're still in love, restarting good sex is easy!" promises Sandra. "And it just gets better once you start."

* "I've never wanted sex as much as he does," says Etee*, 33, "though it's not like I don't enjoy it." It's no wonder: studies have found that testosterone, one of the hormones responsible for sexual desire, is 20-40% higher in men than women. Add our social conditioning—good girls shouldn't like sex, and certainly shouldn't be 'good' at it—and the natural dimming of lust, and your husband ends up getting the "I'm too busy" turndown one time too many. "When we fought, Sohail* would end up calling me frigid, I'd call him a maniac."

What's their simple solution? "We realigned our expectations, and try avoiding the blame-game," says Sohail, 36. "Thrice a week is reasonable for both of us, and, even at the risk of making sex 'routine', we make it a point to include it in our schedules." Beams Etee, "I'm also actively shedding my inhibitions, and we're both enjoying the sex a lot more."

* "My sex drive's even worse after the baby arrived," said new-mom Jyoti. Not surprising. In addition to the lower testosterone, your hormone levels drop to near-menopausal levels after childbirth, further dampening libido. Your body also needs time to recover childbirth.

You can start having sex once you've healed—four weeks or when your doctor says so—but if you're still not feeling the mojo six months after you've stopped breast-feeding, get your hormone levels checked. (Also, watch out for other medication: birth control pills and meds for high BP, etc can interfere with libido and performance.)

Physical changes aside, a baby can be hard on your emotions too. "Though I didn't battle postpartum depression, I did feel completely non-sexy and asexual," Jyoti adds. "Manav had to deal with other adjustments—a whole new level of responsibility and no longer being the centre of my world."

What's their simple solution? Jyoti started working on her self-esteem and body-image issues in step 2, resuming work and social life, and exercising to get the endorphins going. To bring the spark back in to their bedroom, the couple went on a holiday, sans-baby. "At first it seemed unthinkable," confirms Jyoti, "but my mother convinced me to leave the baby with her and reconnect on a holiday. Tucked away in our hillside resort, we finally broke the spell!"

Tell me how you beat the baby bedroom blues... your real-life tips can help others. Can't find a solution yourself? Write in for one-on-one or community advice.


The Intimacy Initiative 4/4: Working

October 2011: In the last step of our simple four-point plan to intimacy, we tell you the mantras to keeping the magic in your marriage...

When you were first married, the sex was easy and the lust—fuelled by the excitement of adrenaline, pleasure-enhancement of dopamine and addiction of serotonin—did most of the work. A healthy, happy marriage is always a work in progress. As contentment sets in, you have to make a special effort to retain intimacy and sex.

Today: Make an ongoing effort

"When people say their marriage is important to them, their choices should reflect that," says Neeta*, 42, who's been in a happy marriage for over 20 years. "If you remember that, it's easy to prioritise yourselves and your relationship over schedules, careers and kids—and they don't need to be mutually exclusive."

Keyword: Small steps every day

1 Find the time. Always schedule time for your marriage. With today's lifestyles, are you taking your relationship for granted? Even if you're not in the mood or are exhausted, give in to each other's pleasure needs... sometimes.

2 Work on the intimacy. Flirting, touching, kissing—these are all important ways to connect with your spouse. Keep the connection alive, even in front of the kids (within limits, of course). Kids who grow up seeing happy, expressive parents are less likely to develop complexes around love and sex. 

3 Stay sensual, stay sexual. Dressing up, a warm bath, aromatherapy are just a few ways to stimulate your senses. Why let parenthood impact your access to pleasure? Make an effort to entice your spouse, in and outside the bedroom.

4 Maintain a private, intimacy-friendly space. Even Feng Shui and Vaastu encourage you to keep your bedroom sacred and dedicated to yourselves. Babies are ready to leave your room at around three months, and teach them to knock in the night. Keep the toys and laptop out of your private space, and choose pinks and reds to encourage romance. Nikalank Jain, the brand architect at Yowoto, recommends "putting up happy photos of yourselves and your family. They help you keep perspective, even during the lows, and are visual reminders of what's important, what's achievable."  

5 Chat to stay connected. There is no simpler way to ensure you're in sync than to talk, often and freely, about the mundane and the important. For biological and social reasons, this is harder for the men, who use far fewer words than women do—but it's important. "Talk every day and you'll never grow apart," says Neeta, who's been there, done that. "You can anticipate and solve problems if you know what's happening in each other's lives."

6 Never go to bed angry. Most women need to feel close to their husbands emotionally to desire sex. Men, on the other hand, generally need to feel close physically to invest more in to relationships. You'll have seen this language barrier during fights—many women will turn down sex until the argument is over and the two are connected again; men will often initiate 'make-up sex'. "Catch-22: you need to feel the love to have sex, he needs sex to feel loving," says Neeta.

Nip issues in the bud by not going to bed angry. Give some to get some, and don't be afraid or too proud to make—or accept—the first move.

I hope this programme has shown you just how easy it is to create a happy, intimate marriage. Share how it has helped you. You can also write in for one-on-one advice... I'll be happy to help you.


This series appeared on Yowoto—a now-defunct parenting website startup that I helped incubate as Editor-in-chief—in October 2011.

While I’m now a firm childless antinatalist, my politics weren’t fully formed when I took this short-lived assignment to explore the digital side of publishing (though it was never a good fit). Nonetheless, some of the articles I wrote at the time are interesting.