The Difficulty of Modern Love

“So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.
The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more,
and we give it.”

I let these verses written by Jane Hirschfeld sink in on a rainy evening when the power was out and the thunder rumbled so loud and close that it drowned the unsettling Prateek Kuhad song playing at our neighbour’s house. Rain assumes a different meaning according to your mood and, on this evening, it fell in an alien language, like a forced confrontation, like tears shed over all the love in the world that wasn’t reciprocated.

I sat drenched in a familiar feeling of emptiness, which I have felt every time I lose a loved one to reckless emotional outbursts. This time, it was this guy I knew from a book club who also grew up clinically depressed, who dealt with his lonely childhood by aggressively devouring Camus and Sartre and Ambedkar – as if texts could compensate for the friends we could never make.

He grew up playing in the lush green countryside of Satara. I grew up scampering around the congested streets of Cuttack. I had never seen sugarcane fields, he had never lived through a cyclone.

While we were able to bridge the differences in our cultures, there was a more urgent, contemporary problem we struggled to solve: long distance. There are only so many fights you can resolve over a phone call, only so many warm words you can say to make up for the body heat you aren’t sharing, only so many nights you can pretend that a pillow makes up for the lack of a person.

No one wants to love a difficult woman (and definitely not from afar), in a world full of others who won’t take as much of your time in being understood, who do not need so much decoding. Sometimes communication must be physical in nature to be complete instead of being limited to conversations – an apology in the form of holding each other’s hands, bereavement by falling asleep in his lap, middle grounds achieved while doing the dishes together. I didn’t know for two years of the relationship that he talked in his sleep, he never discovered I cut myself sometimes on my arms.

In the kitchen, my parents were making tea. My mother was laughing at my father’s jokes, which he forgot he has already cracked more than once.

What made the relationships of my parent’s generation different from ours is clear: they were looking for companionship and togetherness. We are looking for convenience masquerading as compatibility, a conditional love that would collapse under the weight of circumstances since it was motivated purely by self-interests.

For them, it was enough that love had arrived. For us, the mere attendance of love isn’t enough – love has to be in the same time zone, growing at the same pace as us, never taking more space than what we allot to it, never making us compromise on our daily schedules. While they were moved by simplicity, we are always second guessing.

The trust between them was taken for granted instead of being constantly policed; their intimacy borne out of persistence and patience instead of chance. For us, forgiveness is never worth the effort if we can abandon the relationship, and merely leave rather than investing on reparation and self interrogation.

So much energy goes into matching our own expectations, there are so many nights we cry by breaking our own hearts, and by holding our lovers guilty for their normality and humanness.

This is the opposite of compromise, a weird state of being extremely sentimental about our own independence. A collective delusion that partners are manifestations of our own self worth or social status. We keep score, treat everything with an opportunity cost, and show up on dates with performance anxiety to live up to our social media profiles.

Also read: A Brief History of Reading: The Innate Joy of Second-Hand Books

In one book club session, now completely virtual, we discussed Ezra Klein’s Why We Are Polarized. “We are so locked into our political identities that there is virtually no candidate, no information, no condition, that can force us to change our minds,” he wrote. “We will justify almost anything or anyone so long as it helps our side, and the result is a politics devoid of guardrails, standards, persuasion, or accountability.”

Just like we engaged in online political discussions as a means of self validation and tribalism rather than genuine discourse which benefited both parties, the fights in our relationships seemed to be a war of othering and proving wrong. Our cancel culture has been spilling into our relationships, confrontations have become a courtroom trial rather than an attempt at understanding each other.

Love has died a quiet death in a contest of self righteousness.

“No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt,” wrote Sally Rooney in Normal People. “Go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.”

I didn’t know why not.

Back in school, they told us love was some kind of “distraction”, a misleading temptation which was supposed to test your self-restraint. Only losers fell in love. “Winners” never gave in to their emotions, never made a fool of themselves by being hopeful. Love was feminine. Love was shameful. Love was anti-spiritual, capitalistic, and against Indian culture. Apathy was rational, cynicism was a safe space, loneliness was our intended state of being.

Maybe Arundhati Roy was right, I thought, we indeed have held in our bellies so much violence that it is hard to be moral anymore. It is hard to be altruistic without feeling coerced, or selfless without feeling violated. Breakups are much more frequent for us because denial is our defence mechanism. Anger shielded ‘grief’, the modern metaphor for weakness.

“My view of human nature is that all of us are just holding it together in various ways and that’s okay,” wrote philosopher Alain de Botton. “We just need to go easy with one another, knowing that we’re all these incredibly fragile beings.”

I believed tenderness was a drawback until I read about people falling in love during the Holocaust, during world wars and colonialism and on death beds. Tenderness isn’t a disability, but a gift one must learn to use.

The sound of my mother laughing brought me back to the moment and I wondered if my father cracked the same joke for the third time. I could still hear Prateek Kuhad faintly singing about his heart being a mess.

The rain fell kindly now, like the light and innocent footsteps of a child who had just discovered the glory of walking. As Satara kept growing its crops and Cuttack kept wrestling with its ferociously flooding river streams, I decided to write about two lovers and an alternate, happy ending. Since life didn’t wait for us to find closure together, we must find it separately, even if it’s possible only under the facade of fiction. At least in the story and in our annihilating fear of being vulnerable ever again, we will find a commonality.

Bijaya Biswal is a doctor and social activist working for LGBTQIA rights in Odisha.

Featured image credit:愚木混株 Cdd20/Pixabay