Tag Archives: romance

The Venus Flytrap: Depression-Curing Boyfriends On Hire

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On Independence Day, Mumbai-based entrepreneur Kaushall Prakash launched an app called Rent A Boy|Friend, through which one can employ male company for brief periods. The line in their name between Boy and Friend is deliberate, suggesting the demarcation between physical engagement and what the app’s Instagram bio calls “Pure Friendship”. Physical intimacy and meeting in private locations are supposed to be prohibited on it. Intriguingly, the app states that its aim is to “eradicate depression”. The men whose company can be hired are expected to provide emotional support, not just attend functions or share meals with the customer.

Understandably but unfairly, this aim has been met with mockery in certain sections of the media. Reactions often fixate, in typically classist and conservative ways, on how the educational prerequisite for the gentlemen one can meet through the app is 10thor 12thstandard graduation. As though PhD holders are more likely to be thoughtful, sympathetic or have good listening and guidance skills (tell that to the erudite men on The List of Sexual Harassers in Academia).

While I’m in no hurry to give Rent A Boy|Friend a certificate of good intentions, there’s definitely something being added here to the conversation on depression, loneliness and the need for companionship. For the first time in India, an app connecting people on a personal level explicitly forefronts these issues instead of using oblique terminology about marriage or relationships. The app’s concept is not new abroad: in China, hundreds of services provide “fake boyfriends” whose time can be bought to take home to meet the family on holidays, or even for just a couple of hours to hang out with at the mall; a website called Invisible Boyfriend lets you co-create text message conversations as though you’re in a relationship; Japan’s kyabakura culture offers non-sexual, romantic company at clubs.

Rent A Boy|Friend only provides the company of men (for men and women alike). While the founder’s reason for this – “Rent-a-girlfriend sounds weird in India but it’s okay abroad.” – is a bit insubstantial, if the service’s condition that sexual contact is not allowed is true, it doesn’t in itself sound sexist to me. There’s an argument to be made that neither dating nor sex work are guaranteed to be safe or respectful for women in India at this time. As one of many women who downloaded then deleted Tinder, an app meant unambiguously for dating and hookups, I can only imagine how much worse the harassment, entitlement and abuse would be when the power dynamic involves a financial transaction.

As gimmicky or even shady as it may seem at first glance, tell any honest person who dates men in India about such an app and she’ll be curious – not interested enough to try it, probably, but certainly interested in the concept. Obviously, a “rented” boyfriend isn’t going to fix one’s mental health or loneliness. But naming the issues puts emotions, not only life goals or sexual availability, at the centre. No matter what our gender or orientation, and regardless of whether we think an app can fulfil our longings, that’s a change in perspective that would benefit us all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 30th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: On Romantic Nemeses

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I was telling a friend about how I’m likely to encounter a romantic nemesis of mine in the coming weeks, when he asked me to explain the term. Was it just a fancy way of saying “ex”? Haha. No.

You see, in order to become an ex, one first has to have been acknowledged as a girlfriend, boyfriend, partner or bae. There are whole swathes of our pasts that have no such acknowledgment, yet somehow we’d been pulping tamarind in their kitchen at 9pm, or been bubble-wrapping something that made us think of them for a long-distance care package, or been the one they texted through their father’s surgery instead of talking to their fiancée. Only you were not, you were never, “the one”. No – you were “a friend”. Or worse, “just a friend”.

The past tense of “romantic nemesis” is usually “lover” – a word I like very much but which makes a lot of people queasy. Is it because it’s associated with illicit affairs? Ahem, well… Of course, it might also make any said romantic nemeses queasy, because it contains the word “love”. This activates their allergies.

Having left my uninhibited 20s behind a few years ago, I now find there’s an entire category of could-have-beens who, without having gone through the lover phase, plonk right into the romantic nemeses gang like they bribed their way to graduation. Before, the shift from lover to romantic nemesis seemed awful but logical. Now, I belong among the wizened elder millennials who’ve conducted entire non-relationships on the basis of cautious approaches, boundaries, and (gasp) conversations. Sadly, the ghosting, cowardice, non-communicativeness and general bad behaviour that necessitates the nemesis tag still happen, eventually. Just without the passion that’s supposed to precede them. It’s terrible, I tell you. It’s basically like they’ve seen you naked even though you’ve never slept with them. How could “ex” suffice?

It’s difficult to explain this romantic nemeses thing without being told that one is too dramatic or sensitive. But what I’m describing is far more common than not, a kind of duplicity that we don’t question. There are so many lingering non-relationships, with all the emotional demands of full-fledged ones and some but usually not enough of the fulfilment. And even though our attention spans are but the length of one finger’s scroll, even brief interactions leave a lasting, often silenced, impact. We haven’t and shouldn’t evolve out of the longing to connect deeply. Sometimes, the heart is wounded not because you loved someone, but just because you trusted them enough to think they may not play to pattern. And then there’s the wounding that does come with love, only it’s never named.

I could dismiss someone a friend was briefly involved with as a “player” or a “dudebro”, angry at how he wasted the privilege of having known her, but if I put myself in her shoes honestly – if I truly consider how all pain is a palimpsest and that heartbreak of this nature is also historical – “romantic nemesis” is a far better description. Nemeses, that is. It’s funny how many there are, no, the ones who aren’t even supposed to count?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 2nd 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Tale Of Two Poets (aka A Little Aishwarya Rai Appreciation)

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If Karan Johar was going for a parody effect with the character of the poet in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he failed. Essayed by Aishwarya Rai, Saba of the shayaris was surprisingly familiar, real and honest in a way that nothing else in that film was. In a club of her choosing, she grooves to a remix of an iconic ghazal before taking her date home; the next day she tells him not to mistake passion for familiarity. It’s not a line of defense, only of caution, because she proceeds to get to know him, and to invite him into her world of art and contemplation. She’s divorced – love suits her more than marriage did, although when her ex-husband sidles up to her at an art gallery in a moment of cinema coupling perfection, she still recognises him by aura, and smiles. And when she does fall for her current lover, and sees what is not to be, she tells him this too. All in (I’m inferring, because subtitles vazhga, I mean, zindabad) profound, lyrical Urdu.

It wasn’t the first time Aishwarya Rai had played a poet, though. In the grip of that particular melancholy that only a certain kind of cheesy-but-never-cringeworthy cinema can cure, I watched Kandukondein Kandukondein again after ages. And there, in just one scene, was Meenu sitting under a tree overlooking a river’s grassy banks – writing. So she didn’t just read widely, recite Bharati by heart, and manifest a man who knew his words almost (but not quite) as well. She wrote, too. At least until the #1 reason for the fatality of art/ambition among women happened: a deceptively suitable man. (Take it from me – the ones who love you but are too afraid to be with you are more common than linebreaks in verse).

But then again, she did ball up that paper she was writing on and throw it into the scenery before a pretty dubious song sequence.

Imagine if Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s Saba was Kandukondein Kandukondein’s Meenu grown up and grown away. That the longing in her, once a trickle she thought was as pretty as rain, had pooled: tidal, bottomless. So the naïve woman plunging into a temple tank in the village of Poonkudi and the wiser woman who walks cobblestoned roads a continent away, all the while diving into the well of her own emotions and memories, are not so different after all.

Meenu seems to stop writing, starting to sing professionally instead, encouraged by the good if slightly macho man she marries at the movie’s end. Saba, meanwhile, might be who Meenu may have become if her luck had veered just a little off the conventional trajectory. Still writing, still loving. Because she didn’t crush up the core of who she is and throw it into landscape or landfill. Because she kept claiming her words for herself, and not just the ones someone else placed in her mouth. Because, most of all, she’d touched the bottom of the pool she thought was made just to play in, and surfaced from it with knowledge of the deep that can only be learned – but never taught.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 15th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Koi No Yokan And Kintsugi

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What marvels do the languages we’ll never know contain, what things would they tell us about ourselves if only we knew how to decipher them? Sometimes there are feelings I have that calcify inside me until, years later, a comet of words will set them free like a kiss in a fairytale. What if the words that will give me back to myself are ones I will not even understand?

Those lists of beautiful and supposedly untranslatable words are like too many macaroons at once. I’m not sure such delicate turns of phrase are meant to be gorged that way, instead of being savoured. I encountered one of them, unaccompanied, the other day – and perhaps because it was alone, among lines and not in lists, it arrested me. I mused over it slowly. This was the phrase, from the Japanese language: koi no yokan. The presentiment upon meeting someone that, eventually, you will fall in love with them. But not yet.

The last time I had that sense, I had held on to the possibility like the fact of the moon: full in rarer moments, obscured in most. Sometimes the probability of love took me far, literally. Sometimes I forgot about it. Once or twice, it ambushed me, and I would find myself bawling, as though a claypot I didn’t know was in my hands was suddenly in shards on the floor. All in all, let me say this: what was never promised but expected to be eventual was more inspiring than disappointing. Perhaps some glimpses of love yet to come, intuitions that hold true for only as long as morning dew on a leaf, are meant only to do that much.

The last time I really loved someone, I didn’t have a clue that it would come to pass for the year and a half in which I had known him peripherally, before he suddenly came into view like an aperture of sight or imagination had been adjusted. I never saw it coming, and sifting through memory later, I was humbled by the intricacy of life’s convolutions, how something only a short distance away had never shimmered at me with sweet allusion, or cast its spectral foreshadow.

Although here’s what I suspect and may never be told the truth about: he knew before I did. He’d had that presentiment, and if he had known the Japanese words, he may have known what to call it.

There are other words now to fill the gap that cannot be bridged. I know some of them. Others hover outside my comprehension.

Mulling over koi no yokan, I remembered that where that early recognition had caused me pain had actually always been only in platonic friendships. Their loss scars me far deeper than amorous disillusionment. I’ve matured into a tendency to see romance as transient in ways that I refuse to presume, even now, of friendship. I spent all of this year recovering from two friendships that failed my faith in them.

Again, and always, another Japanese word: kintsugi. The art of fixing what’s broken with gold, which hides neither its beauty nor the reason for its need.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 22nd 2016. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Heartbreak’s Optical Illusion

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If you’re capable of being a good friend (and not everyone is), you’ve probably sat through endless sessions of lament, helping someone through heartbreak. Only, when it’s not your heart that’s broken, the circles they’re carouseling can be baffling. The lowlife they’re describing – that lying, cheating, manipulative, selfish man or woman – isn’t the person they’re holding in their mind’s eye (or their heart’s vice-grip) as they sob. It can be as though they’re telling you about one person, while thinking about another.

“S/he’s a [you-know-what],” you say, because, well, it’s clear to you that they are. But even as you say it, you wonder: does your friend know what? The person they’re talking about – the one so clearly conjured up by their descriptions – is obviously undeserving of such lament, or such love. But the person they’re thinking about – the one who has caused these tears and confusion – is almost beatific.

It’s not that your friend is in some failure delirium. Because, briefly perhaps but with total vividness, the one who broke their heart was something other than the rude word you’ve recommended they be saved under on your friend’s phone (try it: in case it rings and flashes the said word, it’s a mnemonic to avoid feeling thrilled). They were – in short – wonderful. So was the heartbreaker intentionally deceitful? Sometimes, but this is not about those times. Consider: were they just as enamoured by the possibilities of who they were capable of becoming – the version of themselves that another saw, and was falling in love with?

And so, the deflating but not devastating premise is this: they tried it until they got lazy. They did it until being interesting, exciting and kind became too much effort. They pursued it until self-actualisation and being with someone as amazing as your friend turned out to not be their journey at all, just a merry detour. And like the kid who thinks he’s cruising along without training wheels until his parent lets go of the bike, they crashed right into the flowerpots.

The truth is that the potential someone else saw in them was probably not there to begin with. But unlike the kid with the bike, the bruises were also received by that someone else. And while the kid may keep trying, the heartbreaker usually just gets up and walks away, dusting themselves off – as though what happened between them and your friend was so light. And that’s the part that hurts most.

Can you help your friend integrate the two: the awful one who broke their heart, and the awesome one that same person was capable of being (but chose not to be)? It’s not bad to see the best in people. But it’s dangerous to see only that.

But also so normal. You see what I’ve been doing all this while? I assumed that you’re an empathetic listener. I assumed that you surround yourself with people who are passionate and resilient, and that you care for them. Are these things true? Or do they really just say more about me, and what I want to see, than they do about you, and who you are?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 3rd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Heartbreak Whisperer

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By the time I hang up, it will be late into my night or theirs, but I know that by the time they come to me they have exhausted their usual sources of solace. And so they call from somewhere in the world, asking almost shyly first, and I listen and let them weep and then tell them what I know to be true. One friend recently told me, “I knew you’d understand.” Another said, “You’re the only one who doesn’t judge.” I hadn’t heard either of their voices in a long time, but it didn’t matter. I am happy to be just their heartbreak whisperer.

Heartbreak is a form of grief, and all grief deepens after the initial stage of public acknowledgement. In that stage, desperate for distraction, most people make themselves fun to be around. They want to be social, and to be seen. They want to be tagged in as many photos as possible, caught mid-laugh, their arms around new acquaintances, raising a toast to the camera and the concept of liberty. Their anger, confusion and sorrow are gladly indulged, because it’s really not that difficult to say, “There, there, hon – bottoms up!”

But the mask wears thin, and not just one’s own. Fairweather friends show their true colours and leave, or must be left, with the added damage of tending to that loss. No one who tells you “get over it” is your friend. But even close ones grow weary, and one grows guilty and self-critical. Ultimately, we’re left to our own disasters.

It’s socially unacceptable to stay heartbroken beyond a point – an extremely arbitrary point, often determined by no more than your confidante’s disinterest. There used to be a popular calculation: that it would take you half as long as you were with someone to get over them. But how provably untrue. What does “with” mean anyway?

It takes as long as it takes. If your physical heart underwent surgery, you would give your body all it needed to heal. Well, your metaphysical heart shattered into pieces. How can anyone expect it to behave like it didn’t happen? Why do you?

Among those who hit the ground running, successfully staving off the horror of their true feelings by throwing themselves into adventure or work or a rebound, the mess comes out later, inconveniently. By then, the early sympathy is gone and they’re entrenched in new self-made environments. But there it is: the unrequited love calcified into insomnia, the self-destructiveness in the second year after divorce, the irreversible regret.

So this is why I’ll be the heartbreak whisperer, across time zones and in violation of sanctioned timelines. A heartbreak isn’t something you build a bridge across and “get over”. You almost drown, you sink to the very bottom, and there you learn the language of water. And when you surface, breathing raggedly but breathing, not only are you in a new lease of life but you’ve also seen the undercurrent of another world. I’ve spent a lot of time in those depths. No one who’s seen them forgets. Anyone who tells you to forget is telling a selfish, and dangerous, lie.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 8th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Cosmic Longing & A Heart-Shaped Bloom-Bruise

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He found a way to tell me he was wandering near the house I lived in then, a way to get me to ask what he was doing there, to spritz my wrists impulsively with nocturnal jasmine and walk out the door. But I didn’t ask. All of that year so far, I had caught a refrain pulsing in me, with no proof: “my heart is going to break”. And so it did. I had known before I’d known. And then I knew, incontrovertibly.

But that was the week they’d flown by Pluto and sent back images of a heart-shaped bloom-bruise on its southern hemisphere. So, instead, I laughed with delicious bitterness at the meme that made the rounds – “so you dumped me years ago and now you’re driving by my house real slow” – of earth’s obsession with the ex-planet. I sent it to my friends, and they too laughed with me, and then I put my phone away and colluded quietly with the night sky. Its burning brightnesses, its invisible implosions. My heart was going to break, but so what, 320 light-minutes away was one that had broken billions of years ago.

I looked at those images of Pluto and marvelled at the perfection of that heart. It, too, was a scar, the result of a collision with interplanetary debris. They call it Sputnik Planum, sprawled across by a frozen, far younger expanse. Sputnik Sweetheart, I thought – but perhaps that was too sentimental for the star-seekers who know their gods and their stories, who named its principal moon for the ferryman of the dead, and dark regions after Tolkien, and one terrestrial macula for a goddess whose nepenthe helps souls forget lifetimes, and others for different beings of other underworlds.

That NASA flyby was the first time that human eyes had seen the celestial body with such clarity. Now, almost a year later, we know even more. Beneath that iciness, the young surface thrives with heat, continuously replenishing itself. Pluto’s heart beats, is what the astronomers and scientists now tell us. It beats like “bubbles in a lava lamp”, is their specific description, and I think of something silent and aquatic. What if we got closer, learned more? Would it beat the way wings flutter as a hummingbird descends to slip its beak into the flute of a flower? Would it beat like the throbbing at the corner of someone’s lips as they sleep, the one you don’t touch unless you hope to wake them? Blood-tide in the conch of the body, song-tide in the silence of the deep.

Would it beat the way his fingertips uncertainly drum surfaces around me now that he knows he can do nothing to thaw my wintry demeanour?

Someone else, longer ago, cracked open corridors that led me to the songs of pulsars. And later, listening to warbling conus shells – a mermaid, according to local legend – from my maternal homeland, I thought of those dying stars too. Does the beating heart of Pluto make a sound?

Only light-minutes of distance, not insurmountable light years, and each generation closer and closer. I’m listening. Are you?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 9th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.