Here is a piece I did for Valentine's Day and here is where it appeared.
We no longer understand. Those of us who were nourished on a carb-rich diet of the Bronte sisters and Yash Chopra, along with vital supplements like Tagore, Gulzar and Bob Dylan that were steadily poured into our blood. We understand the brave new world of new age romance no more than our grandmothers understood email.
Yet, we use the same language: love, longing, loss, despair. Young people meet each other, are attracted, call each other ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ – or the new politically correct thing: ‘partner’. They commit. They have kids. And one supposes that there must be love in the frame. No reason to disbelieve their ‘I love you’s even though we live in a world where Valentine’s Day has become a bit of a joke with half the world protesting the crass commercialism which has reduced it to greeting cards and online offers to ship bouquets of roses; and the other half intent on buying the cards, the balloons, the diamond pendant (which is supposed to make sure that love lasts forever), and the super-soft Rs 299 teddy bear holding a red velvet heart. On several campuses, it has become ‘sad’ for a young person to be seen without a love prop. Those who do not receive roses buy them and pretend they were gifts. Those who have nobody to buy cards for, buy them anyway, and pretend to be on their way to meet a mythic beloved. Very Calvin-n-Hobbes, except it isn’t comic.
But let me not delve into the Hallmarks-isation of love. What of love itself? How do young people romance each other, minus the props? Ask a teenager and he looks at you suspiciously. “What do you mean ‘how’? Like, I mean, like everybody else. I guess.”
Everybody else would include women like me who grew up dreaming of strapping young men with the mind of a Yeats, the body of a farm hand, the temperament of a Heathcliff, and a propensity to stand under windows, singing about the moon paling beside one’s own face. We, who dared not actually do anything more than dedicate a song at the school fete, or created an acrostic in his name, hoping he would have the sense to crack the code. We, who talked long hours into the night on the phone and could not wait until it was time to step out of the house so one could meet the beloved and talk some more over coffee. Endless cups of coffee, long walks, frequent glances. We, who suffered heartbreak alone, without breathing a word even to a best friend. We didn’t die of heartbreak, of course, unlike heroines in nineteenth century novels. But we weren’t afraid of impossible longings. Nor did we feel panic at the prospect of our teens slipping by without having a ‘partner’ .
But we too have adapted and evolved. New age romance is no longer about borrowing books or quoting romantic couplets. One signs up instead on a Google group that focuses on love poems and dips into the treasure once in a while, and emails a poem to the person one is interested in.
We write SMS poems. We sometimes send text messages saying nothing more than ‘Hi’ or ‘Just’. Just to say hello. Just to say I’m thinking of you. Just to say you’re in my heart. And once we hit ‘send’, we wait, phones clutched to our chests, wondering what sort of reply will be sent back.
If we were born a generation ago, we’d have hit the writing desk and dashed off a five-page letter. Or sent off a single pressed flower in an envelope by registered post.
If we used to make dates at art galleries; we now make dates to go to the mall and listen to new records together at a music store. Or to play a round of Counter-strike. Different medium, but the message remains the same.
Or does it?
I asked a friend and fellow-writer, Manisha Lakhe, who promptly dissed present-day romance as ‘a commercial break in a TV show’. “Romance is dysfunctional today,” she says. “Maybe because people don’t read books. They watch TV so the attention span is low.”
Is love is now a much fast-food phenomenon now: a fly-by-night operation rather than a lifetime of work? After all, a generation that is seduced by advertising lines such as ‘Why wait?’ is not likely to be seduced by the idea of longing and patience. Nobody waits for love to be consummated beyond a few dates – maybe a few weeks, maybe months, certainly not years.
Yet, a corner of my own heart refuses to believe that teenagers nowadays are that much different. The generation that was brought up on online gaming and doesn’t know how to use a pager probably uses the same basic tools to romance – words, making eyes, cafes.
Or perhaps, the change runs deeper, linked to the ways in which Indian culture itself has changed. Love in the 2000s, some people say, is more like pornography, less like erotica. And capping everything is the pornography of money. Lakhe confesses she was horrified when she met a young girl who was accepting gifts of diamonds from not just her dad, but from the boys she knew. “She did not understand why I was horrified. Her attitude was: ‘They like me; now let them work for it’. In my time, only 'bad' girls were like this. I’m not exactly the Grease generation, but still, there was some sort of honour.”
Notions of honour in love have also changed. To show someone you love them, you buy them things; take them out to fancy places. And when they have agreed to be your lover, you focus your energies on finding a nook to neck in – coffee shops or clubs or water-fronts. Nobody bats an eye. And if you break up, you go to the same places with a new person, and still, nobody bats an eye. It is now kosher to be in love with A today, B, tomorrow, C yesterday.
Ten years ago, even in the metros, this wouldn’t have passed for romance. You wouldn’t have described a dalliance as ‘being in love’. Now, of course, we don’t talk of love if we can help it. We say we love a movie, a film star, a Parsi dish, an outfit. But we describe all romantic, quasi-romantic, or a barely sexual association as the prosaic fact of being ‘in a relationship’. Love is now a matter of a status update.
Besides, thanks to Facebook, one doesn’t need to confront the person you want to dump. No need for final goodbyes or having to witness tears. A male friend who doesn’t want to be named admits that he has broken up with somebody on the phone – “distance not being a factor, she trying to avoid me” – but it has never gotten to the point of simply changing one’s Facebook status from ‘In a relationship’ to ‘single’.
It is now possible to track one’s friends’ love lives on social networking sites. I have seen friends go from ‘single’ to ‘in a relationship’ to ‘married’ and from ‘in a relationship with X’ to ‘in a relationship’ and finally, back to ‘single’, along with that awfully jagged tear in that tiny pink heart.
Perhaps, that is all it is – a public signboard on which you can now announce your happiness, and your heartbreaks. Love comes, and goes. And perhaps, we have finally learnt to deal with it without making too much of a fuss about it.