In December, a friend invited me to participate in a book circle on bell hooks’ ‘all about love’. While I had read bell hooks before, it was only a few months before her death that I actively engaged with her writings while assisting a class in a human geography course. Her conceptualisation of the ‘margin’ as a place of radical openness, unlocked novel thinking in my work. A margin is a place, according to hooks, where we ‘dare to seek new knowledge and experiences’ to be able to articulate alternative ways of being. A book circle on bell hooks ‘all about love’ to begin the new year seemed like a perfect way to engage with alternative conceptions of love.
I went out in search of the book. Most bookstores were sold out. The popularity of her book made me uncertain. I wasn’t sure if the bandwagon I was jumping on was fetishising a celebrated scholar’s death or was there genuine interest in contemplating love. I pushed the first thought out of my mind, blaming the academic in me. It did not matter. I was on the wagon. I found a copy of the book.
While reading hooks, I visited my Nani with my mother one afternoon. It had been a while. The guilt I feel expands with her joy in seeing me. I sit across her on a loveseat in her large, unchanged room. A safe space in a rapidly changing world.
Sipping on coffee, she asks about my work. I say it’s fine; I am writing these days. It always feels easier to draw on simple tropes – I am doing a PhD, I work with non-profits, I am interested in entrepreneurship. It seems to satisfy her, and I am spared the glazed look in her eyes when I talk about my research. Today I wonder if my inability to share a significant aspect of my life leads to disconnection. I try to explain further. My Nani smiles, happy to hear more.
The conversation drifts. She speaks of her childhood. Bent over with age, she recalls her home in Lahore, at times referring to a large kothi and others a small flat she shared with her parents and siblings. I love to hear my Nani’s stories, of spaces she occupied before the current mosaic tiled room I have always known her in. But time has blurred the distinctions and edges in her memories. The kothi in Lahore merges into the small apartment in Old Delhi they moved into after the Partition.
I probe, ‘Nani, I thought you lived in a large house in Lahore’. She pauses, confused, and then agrees with me. ‘Yes, you’re right, I don’t know what’s wrong with me’. I want to probe further, to capture more of her, but she struggles to articulate her thoughts. My mother reminds her of some details. She nods along, relieved that someone remembers the details she couldn’t. My mother and grandmother continue to chat about random nothings. My eyes wander, as they often do when I am in her room.
Being stationary in a room where I wandered as a little girl, doesn’t come naturally. I would walk around her room, looking for treasures – a comb, travelling sweets, handkerchiefs, old photographs. My Nani would let me keep them. I finish my coffee and stroll around the room. Walking around, I don’t recognise my childhood impulses, even as I probed my Nani to remember hers a minute ago. I find a book in a dusty corner. I ask if I can borrow it. As before, she says take it.
The afternoon returns to me as ‘all about love’ unfolds. A question comes up in the book circle – what ignites love in your heart and what sustains it? I struggle with the question. I could not answer it with any sense of adequacy. Long after, I continue to think about what love is and what love is not. My mind tries hard to find a neat box to characterise the concept. But engagement with love is diverse and uncertain.
The afternoon with my grandmother was filled with obvious gestures of care and affection. Coffee and treats were offered, smiles and hugs were shared. But it stands out because it expands my notions of love. I recognise it in the infallibility of small moments, simple joys, and everyday choices.
In the margins of my memories of the immediate and distant past, in reimagining broken bits and pieces, I find love to be a concept of radical openness, of shedding norms and experiencing new possibilities. Love, as bell hooks says, is more than a feeling, it is more than popular references of falling in love where we lose all sense of agency and responsibility.
Love is a choice.
Vrinda Chopra is a human geographer with research interests in entrepreneurship and livelihoods. She enjoys yoga, coffee, and opportunities to contemplate on everyday work and life.