I love this city in a way that I have never been able to love a human being. Even to call it love feels facetious because it feels silly to say I love myself in a way I’ve never loved another.
I live inside a body and a name and a lifestyle that people identify as me. But these are mere identifiers, a hat & spectacles placed over an invisible being as a visibility courtesy to other people. These are not me, they merely symbolise me. Ostensibly, they protect me from the universe running over me by mistake but really, they protect other people by alerting them to the scary presence of another.
ME – this is what I know in an innate sense that defies words and expression. The closest I can come to it is this geopolitically defined, this culturally denoted, this statistically demarcated, this verbally described experience called Mumbai.
In 24 hours, this city (and I) go to vote for one of the most shouted about elections in recent times. Relationships have ended, allegiances wrought & broken and people have even died for this. And after that, true to our name, we’ll go to work, to school and to places we must be so the system runs. So we run.
What is a city, after all? It’s more than its people and its buildings and its location and its numbers. It transcends what is written and spoken about it. And if it is a city that you have lived in your whole life, it defines you and you in loving harmony, define it back. Just like every drop defines the ocean and the ocean is every single drop. I feel the way Mumbai feels, every second.
I feel most at peace in the nights here. One of the labels hung on my city is after all, the city which never sleeps. I am awake and watching the city’s nights as its noise transitions from tinny, metallic horns and the tang of concrete to deep bass breathing and the rumble of machines coming to a stop. The night is defined by my wakefulness and by the sleep of every one of the others who are it.
Sleep, my place-self. Sleep the sleep of island magic and moonlit sonatas. Mumbai sleeps.
I’m saying this to men, to women, to married people, to gay people, to colleagues, to acquaintances, friends, family. I’m going to treat every meeting with you, like it’s a date.
If you were going on a date with someone you liked, you’d prioritise making it happen. You’d be too excited about the prospect of meeting them to keep them hanging. Work, life, health and other people would be valid justifications but you would make sure they didn’t become excuses. You’d ensure you didn’t need an excuse. You’d be on time.
You’d treat the meeting like it was conscious manifestation of what you wanted. Not a tolerable alternative when you had nothing better to do & didn’t feel like the effort of saying no. You’d not turn it into free therapy or professional advice to be more productive because meeting them would be gift enough.
You’d bring your best self. You’d dress nicely. You’d speak with consideration and thought. You’d care about their wanting to meet you again, not assuming that it would be default. You’d make the effort to be good company.
You’d care about their opinion of you. You’d show them. You’d acknowledge the effort they made to please you. You’d be respectful of the thought they put in and that they could have been elsewhere but they chose to spend this time with you.
I promise to treat every meeting with you like this. I expect you to do so too. If you don’t, I can write you off as a bad date rather than internalise your inability to treat me well, as reflection of my abilities. This means I will not have as many dates but that’s okay. I’d rather have one great date with you in six months than ten lousy ones in a month.
My time is precious and so is yours. My emotions are valuable to me. I invest both carefully. If you do as well, maybe we’ll have a great date soon!
It seems like I’ve healed every few weeks or months or years. “You’re sounding a lot better since that one conversation of ours in the coffeeshop” says one friend. And I believe it because I want to. I must. Forgetting (somedays I call it self-deluding) is an integral survival skill. I don’t know if it is actually healing but most times I suspect it isn’t. Not really.
Right now, I’m remembering. And when I do, as at other times, it’s as fresh and real and vivid. I’m surrounded by clouds of words like ‘triggered’, ‘therapy’, ‘moving on’, ‘self-respect’, ‘gender politics’, ‘intimate partner violence’. Words. They are powerful but in the way of sedatives. Not healing. Not making wounds disappear.
I know there was never love. I know that now. But there wasn’t even friendship. Not kindness. Not empathy. Not respect. Not even human consideration. He treated me like a public toilet. All the things that one does in and to a public toilet. Yes.
I’ve never based my identity on my looks. It’s always been my mind. And he eroded that, one brick by brick. With words like ‘social whore’ and ‘fucking bitch’. With auteur opinions about what a pile of shit the Kala Ghoda Art Festival that I was a part of was, and how he as a Kolkata person had seen far better and how this was just Mumbai’s pathetic attempt to pretend at being cultured. With derision about my friends because they didn’t deserve basic courtesy. And eventually me. Because mistrust in a relationship is like bringing a sword to a friendly party. I did not do that.
I fell down deep into a black hole of his violent derision. I couldn’t find a foothold to claw my way back. I couldn’t remember what other people sounded like, let alone what compliments, support and affection felt like. It was as if those things ceased to exist, like they never had existed. All that was, was a pathetic WRONG that was my existence. Yet, my breath continued and I woke up every morning. Struggling to deal with the guilt of being alive though I was so WRONG to do so, coping with the punishment he heaped on me daily.
And this was way before the physical violence begin. When I’m asked why I didn’t leave (and I so often am), I have no answer. Why doesn’t the slime clinging to the sides of a well no one has used, leave? It’s going to be destroyed eventually anyway. So why doesn’t it leave?
In the years since then, I’ve built a stage called a personality. I’ve run so many stories on it. Of a performer. A writer. A community manager. A poet. A lover. A friend. A player. A swimmer. A gardener. A consultant. A thinker. A talker. A listener. A patient. An emergency contact. I work very hard to keep this stage up and beautiful. I am obsessive about maintenance and repairs.
But when the story closes, all I can see is the slime, the mold hidden under the stage’s foundations. I know the stage is always precarious because what can balance atop slime for long. I can’t clean it no matter how hard I scrub.
Because I am that slime. And each time I cry, it gets more runny and unstable.
Of all the ways human beings meet and interact, we only remember the two extremes of love and war. But conflict and alliance are inseparable, interchangeable even in the constant ebb and flow of human relating. We know that moving forward needs collaboration among the diverse. We throw about platitudes like ‘Opposites attract’, a statement that only focuses on the superficial drama of early meetings. So there is firepower. So what? Without direction, that’s just fireworks that fizzle out in a few breaths, burning oxygen, making it harder for everybody to breathe. Look up to the sky to remember what you are becoming or what you could be. A firework or a cathedral.
Trust? How is that to be built between people primed to see each other as foes? ‘Friendly opponents’ is a temporary white flag one may wave but maybe some differences run too deep for the truce to last very long. And then, it’s back to the stomach of a volcano, combat to death, anything goes. We do this with words now and with silent actions that leave invisible wounds science still can’t heal. We cheat, we snipe, we ghost, we block, we brag. We hold up our perfection as a way to slice the other person’s flaws. And they retaliate, not with swordplay but with a cup of sweetness, already poisoned beforehand. Who bears blame for this war? We may as well live in blood-stained medieval times then, for all that we remember about collaboration, respect and growth.
Love is a taboo word in our times but it’s the only solution proposed in every text, every wise truism, every question asked about how to deal with conflict. Maybe it is an inadequate answer or an outdated one or a silly one but it is the only one. It takes two to start a fight and only one to end it. But maybe you are not strong enough to be that one, maybe the other person isn’t whatever they need to be for it to be more than fireworks. It doesn’t really matter. The rules of engagement are very clear. Either you survive together. Or you both burn.
The 60s talked of free love. Millennials say fuck-buddies or if they want to be nice, friends-with-benefits. The term polyamory is having a day. It’s no newer than the other ways we negotiate the politics of sex and affection.
I live in compartments of emotion and logic. There is what I feel & desire and what I decide that it’s practical to say & do. The system works but love is an inconvenient fit. It refuses to stay contained to a schedule, a format, a relationship status. It screams like a ravening beast for more, more, never satisfied with the appropriate time and agreed-upon rules that it has been assigned. I don’t know if intimacy can be constructed with an easy-to-follow recipe, paused as convenient or left-swiped when it outlives its purpose. Because intimacy is not easy, convenient or of a purpose. It happens as it is built into the very DNA of human interaction.
We assign it words, weigh it with ideas like jealousy, self-esteem, ownership, patriarchy. But these are no more than nets we’re trying put around something that is fluid. Not even liquid because even that flows within the containers into which we pour it. Intimacy is air, love is plasma – moving between boundaries as if they don’t exist.
It is so much effort to erect and maintain walls that will anyway fall. Therein lies the nub. Love and intimacy are not hard; they’re terrifying. It’s a horrific prospect to go along with something to an unknown destination, knowing that it will transform you, take away from you and possibly give nothing in return. That’s not an adventure, that’s a horror story. It’s easier to run in a maze of our own making than fall into the wide unknown. So we work this together. Failing together, even in different places is a form of intimacy too.
“We are undercover passion on the run
Chasing love up against the sun
We are strangers by day, lovers by night
Knowing it’s so wrong, but feeling so right
I guess that two can play the game
Of part-time lovers
You and me, part-time lovers” – Stevie Wonder
I’m sitting up in bed typing this, something I haven’t done in many years. I stopped this to help me distinguish between work and leisure and to establish regular hours. It’s served it’s own purpose but today I give myself a little leeway. I wanted to say this in September and wake up to October on a fresh note.
I’ve been unwell. Seriously unwell. I woke up on Saturday with the kind of sick feeling that you feel inside your cells, painting your very mood green (because this is the colour of bile). It was so bad that for the first time in my life, my doctor paid a house call. And for the first time in a long, long time, I’ve just sagged into my pillows, into the sofa or wherever I’m breathing allowing time, sickness, medication and words to drift over me.
I know I need to get some tests done, given how often I’ve been falling sick lately. But I also know that my body usually echoes what my emotional state is. I think I’ve been unpacking a lot of old traumas since December, starting with the domestic abuse event that SXonomics conducted(very successfully).
So many things have come up since then, like they were just waiting for an outlet — including external factors. This boundary business is a lot more effort than it seems, for me. I struggled with it and now I’m not but it’s brick-by-painful-brick labour.
I’ve written about how there is suddenly an influx of people and references and conversations around me about my ex. He’s existed on the periphery of my thinking, popping up in my thoughts occasionally during PMS or residual bad moods. But the last few months have been an onslaught of being forced to think about him, about the relationship and about what it has done to me. I can only assume that this is good; I have to.
But since my birthday month, other tightly packed traumas have been unravelling. Last year I had to let go of a number of close relationships and I realise now I’ve been carrying the heavy hurt of that all this while. I’ve been struggling for closure. A friend once told me that closure would always have to be one’s own secrete recipe. And I’ve accepted that but how then, does one achieve closure? Now I know.
My closure comes when I give up on the person. Where I can no longer see any value in their being, feel no sympathy, no hurt over their actions, just a mild irritation that they are still standing in front of me or in my mind. It’s very undramatic. One moment they are saying or doing something quite trivial and the next I cannot tolerate another minute of their existence. So I erase them from my world. It’s happened before and I don’t know why I never learn that I cannot force or rush it. It always happens and it happens on its own timeline.
In my birthday month I met someone on a dating app. It was supposed to be a casual coffee and it turned into an 8 hour conversation on politics, music, people, family, culture and more. We disagreed with a lot of friendliness and mirth. And it freaked me out when I came home. He reminded me so much of my ex. The passionate political viewpoint, the quiet sardonic approach, the ideas on consent, even the exact same damn dysfunctional family problem. It was so many things to consider. I remembered what made me fall for my ex and it terrified me that these traits could still hook me in willy-nilly. I tried to distance myself after that. But oddly, we met again. And again. And it was just as bizarrely good. It was really quite traumatic, finding myself enjoying a moment with the heavy dread of “I know how this turns out and it’s not good, not good at all.”
Mercifully Mumbaiker schedules have given me pause and time away to think. I’m in a better frame of mind now, not terrified at the thought of this person’s existence. I’ve had a chance to tell him the reasons for my reticence and he has listened with that mild-mannered acceptance that I now remember can also exist alongside Capricorn’s ruthless opportunism and cold-blooded people-trampling. I will probably keep him at arm’s length (I always thought my ex and I would have made for better friends and now we are nothing but a poisonous, monstrous thing). It’s better for my emotional health this way but I don’t have to fear him so much that I’ve to run away from him.
The person I was in love with last year, showed up on my radar. I gave him one last chance and he let me down again. I didn’t even feel bad. I think I was expecting it and this chance came from a sense of fairness, not affection. I was even able to move into a work discussion with him. And there, he faltered and faltered so badly, I knew I had reached the end. So I opened that door labelled Closure and I walked out.
Recently I met someone on her birthday. All in a flash I suddenly had a name for the unease I was feeling. It’s Libra month, a sign that has always made me uncomfortable with its smooth, diplomatic manipulativeness. One of the biggest traumas of last year came from a Libra person. And here she was again, in another body, the same pretty looks, the same fussing over perfect body proportions, the same artful juggling of classy and relatable, the same charm masquerading as warmth. I held her at arm’s length too. But she slipped into my life in that smooth (I call it sneaky) way that Venus people have.
I told her it was difficult for me being reminded of someone who hurt me in the past. She hmmmed reflectively and said,
“We draw in what we fear the most.”
She pointed out my pattern of violent relationships, comparing it to her pattern of liars. And when I told her I was scared of Libra’s twisting of the truth under the garb of diplomacy, she said,
“Yes, we do that. I’m confronting what my pattern of lying boyfriends says about me. Lies, that’s my lesson.”
See what I mean by sliding in? How can I not like someone who understands and articulates this so? As the evening wore on I relaxed into the conversation, the events around and other people.
I realised much later that some of her habits irritated me already. Venus people are full of excessive fussing over how they look, how other people, how things smell, what colour things are. I indulged it with my previous friend and called it love. And she discarded me like I was a slightly offensive crumpled tissue paper. I’m holding on to this thought now. I can choose to keep these traits alive in my memory. I do my best to treat people well and that includes not judging their personal idiosyncrasies. But I don’t have to be blind in my affections and then left hurt and bewildered when they don’t accord me the same depth of feeling.
I know the adage goes that you cannot love someone when you judge them. But maybe I need a little better judgement and a little less love-bombing. Walls are built between people, from such petty things. But a wall that serves as a protective boundary, does its job well.
I am clearly drawing in situations that I need to examine or which afford me the chance to re-examine my own feelings. It’s bringing up all sorts of feelings of terror (I am such a scaredy-cat) and grief. But curiously, they aren’t lingering as long as I feared. They come up like large signs bearing the names of people who terrify me with how easily they’ve hurt me. And then the signs float by and I realise they’re just paper. I don’t even need to turn them into paper planes.
I first heard of polyamory when a friend guest-blogged about it right here. I went back to talk to him about it and I was surprised at the simplicity of his explanation.
Polyamory is the idea that we can love many people at the same time.”
Last month I went to a party hosted by someone who had told me they were polyamorous in our second conversation. We have since, spoken of gender politics, health (mental and physical), the cities we have known and a lot of other things. I like the time I have spent with them. Conversations with them have given me ideas and feelings that have furthered my life experience. I can see this tangibly – how I understand myself and the world a little better because of the conversations we shared. Is there any life experience that beats this?
At their party, I settled quietly into a corner. I have never been one for big, strange groups which is what most parties are. I prefer the intimacy of one-on-one conversations. Or with a group of people that I know really well. I seek depth and when I miss that in interactions with other people, I find it in being silent around them. There is such richness to be experienced in just watching other people be. The trouble is that most people are not comfortable with being watched, even as they really, desperately want to be seen. Thankfully, this party was not one of those.
I lurked quietly, shared some light banter, smiled in on other conversations. And then I drifted into a chat with a stranger sitting next to me. We spoke about art, about our work, about our generation, about cities. When I think about it, there is an unexciting predictability to the kind of conversations I seek and have. But that’s probably true of most people. The same things entertain and engage us over and over again, even as we learn newer things from them.
About an hour into the party and having been part of group conversations, interactions with other people and then back to talking to each other, the stranger told me they were polyamorous too and had been invited to the party because of having this in common with the host.
I’ve been talking to my new friend often since then. We met one evening and decided to go for a walk and look for a smoothie place – an actual smoothie, not the milkshake-that-passes. We found a parlour and drank our smoothies out of glass bottles that we got to keep. Normally, I would roll my eyes at this and call it hipster. But I didn’t. What made the difference? The person, the conversation.
And is this not the core, the essence of love? An experience (usually with another person) that makes you see the usual differently, that makes you examine yourself and the world around you and want to smile? How lucky we are then, to be able to find this with many people.
A friend asked me what a polyamorous person liked. I collected my thoughts together and said,
“I don’t think there is any one kind of polyamorous person. But something they all have in common is they really like to talk about stuff. It’s very, very important to them to talk about feelings – their own and other people’s. All emotions are okay, jealousy, anger, all of it. And it’s all up for discussion.”
I know that a lot of people associate polyamory with cheating, with sex, with drugs, with hippies and a lot of other things. But those have as much to do with polyamory as they have to do with being alive. Love is an experience, one that you may share with another human being. It could be as finite as sharing a smoothie with them. Or as vast as co-habiting and sharing a bed, a home and a relationship status with them. We share something as basic and as intimate as breaths with other people. In a crowded place like a city, we do this with hundreds of strangers. We share eye contact, we brush shoulders and thighs on public transport. We make tiny allowances, minor adjustments, little kindnesses. We also wage small wars and micro aggressions. Because these are a part of being alive, of colliding with (or brushing against) other people’s experiences of life, just as we are going through our own. How could this not be manifold?
I wrote this post on XX Factor but I realised it sounded a lot more like my The Idea-smithy side so here it is. I am manifold in myself (as we all are). How could my experiences with love be anything but?
Yesterday I ran into a friend. The last time we met, this friend visited me at a new home I was building. I was also newly engaged. So obviously, that would be the starting point of our conversation, a picking up where the thread dropped off. I rolled my eyes wryly and said,
“So much has happened since then. I don’t live there anymore. I’m not engaged anymore.”
My friend’s immediate, almost urgent reply was,
“My good friend is close to him so I will not comment.”
I have navigated hundreds of such conversations in the past six years.
I had a (somewhat) public relationship. Given that I write about relationships and the fact that they form such an important part of my existence, I found it hard not to. Shutting up about that would essentially mean to quit blogging, which would be akin to losing a kidney, a limb and maybe a few other vital organs. But my partner was not an open individual (quite the opposite) and I felt I had to respect his privacy too. So I have never mentioned him by name and I have only sparingly offered details of our relationship, while trying to be honest and open about my own feelings and thoughts (these are mine and I’ve never felt the need to have anyone else’s permission to share them). This has been the trickiest juggling I’ve done in all my adventures with anonymity since I began in 2004.
I didn’t have a chance to think about how this would turn out, if we parted ways. And given how suddenly everything crashed, I barely made it out alive, let alone with enough stability to think clearly. The thing with sudden disasters is that you don’t get time to stop and collect your thoughts. The world hits you with life, even as you’re still lying on the ground with your heart ripped open, bleeding from wounds you didn’t even realise had opened up and were being systematically poisoned. You just learn to cope and hope to heal on the fly, as you get carried along on the rollercoaster ride called life.
In six years, I have run into, got back in touch with and in some way reconnected with possibly hundreds of people. Most people in my world have some connection to my narrative through my blogs, my work and having interacted with me on digital. I have tried to keep my narrative as true to myself but it has to be a filtered, edited one, for reasons of safety and respecting the privacy of other people connected with me. This includes exes, even the ones who have behaved in very, very bad ways.
Last year a friend screenshotted something my ex had put up and sent it to me. I wish she hadn’t. I was not even thinking about him and seeing this forced me to remember his existence in an unnecessarily immediate and close way. She said she thought it would make me feel better but it didn’t.
A few months ago, somebody else told me about someone who liked my ex. They said they were concerned about this person and that they were making a terrible choice. I get that concern. But I don’t get what I am supposed to do in this. This story has nothing to do with me.
“My good friend is close to him so I will not comment.”
I felt knocked for a loop by my friend’s statement. Because I was starting a conversation and their response was a very clear iron-curtain style wall. The last thing that was called that was part of something the world knew as Cold War. Why did my friend feel the need to rush in with that statement when I had not even asked for comment? Possibly they thought I was seeking validation, asking for them to join me in bashing my ex. I wasn’t. I was just telling my story.
But, in the very act of writing this down, I feel my balance restore itself to normal. I cannot fault my friend for not thinking this through. After all, they haven’t seen me in years. I can also see the good intentions behind the actions of the other friends. They were offering commiseration in their own awkward ways. They were also trusting that I would act with sanity rather than viciousness and while that is overwhelming, it is also inspiring. Maybe I can be that person if people think I can be. I write a narrative that is one that inspires me. And I can only write it if I live it. I am so glad to be a writer.
The difficulty in writing your own story is having to explain every word and every edit. But maybe that is also the best thing about it. Remembering the story, that’s all that’s important. The story of me.
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