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June 27, 2018

Decoding The Elusive Nature Of Modern Romance

Text by Shreya Ila Anasuya. Illustration by Sudeepti Tucker

What is dating like in the time of Tinder and WhatsApp?

Her eyes glowed like the summer sun; she had the breathless intensity of someone who has been waiting to start her life for a very long time and has only just begun. Her hair whipped in the hot air as the auto she was in sped past wide avenues whose tree-laden lushness she was only just growing used to, even though she still had occasional pangs for the sea salt air of the city she had left behind.

But nostalgia was crowded out by anticipation; she was, after all, after five years of struggle and boredom, finally in charge of her own life. Far away from her well-meaning but anxious father, far away from the comfortable but too-ensconcing house she grew up in, far away from the man she had once made up her mind to marry, in a fit of desperate passion, at the age of 22. All that was far behind her, in front of her lay the vast expanse of the capital city, delicious in its vague possibilities. Desire filled her pores, she crackled with it.

Spring, those few blessed weeks in which the air was still cool and the flowers seized every bush and crevice of the parks she was newly delighted by, had ebbed. Slowly, the heat took over her days; she struggled to breathe even early in the morning, as she struggled to breathe now, on her way to Lodi Gardens, wrapping her hand across her face to protect herself from the burning of the air outside. When she reached the park she decided the journey was worth it, passing by golden trees laden with amaltas, so profusely sprouting with the blazing flowers that it almost didn’t matter that she crushed the fallen petals under her feet, even as more fell into her hair and down to her shoulders. The herd of swans in the lake was swimming in unison, pointing in one direction like a battalion. She tried and failed to see what held their attention.

She had faced the Saturday afternoon heat to meet the Journalist, who had jumped out of her crowded dating site inbox, overladen as it was with versions of ‘Hello Shirin’, ‘How are you?’ and ‘What do you do?’ even though her bio specified that she worked with a non-profit and was not the least bit interested in small talk. There was something about the Journalist that made him stand out at once — perhaps it was his curly hair, falling on his forehead, perhaps the languid air that even his photos suggested, perhaps the fact that he had greeted her with a response to her actual bio, a flippant reference to BoJack Horseman. She was Princess Carolyn, she said — he was certainly, certainly BoJack himself, he told her, mess-up extraordinaire, has-been with a heart of gold, though you’d really have to dig hard for the gold. Perhaps it was his last picture, of him tenderly holding a wispy kitten in his palm, gazing at her in a way that suggested absolute adoration.

Whatever it was, here she was, the stilled afternoon and the sky itself seeming new, after years of sneaking around Ghatkopar to have furtive sex with the same man, a man who failed to make her feel seen, who in all those years of striving failed to even once look at her the way the Journalist apparently looked at kittens. This green vastness was nothing like the packed concrete of those days. And there he was, bearded and smiling lazily, sitting back on a malachite-green bench with a plastic cup of chai steaming in his hand, recognition lighting up his eyes as he looked at her. Over the next four hours they spoke softly of several things — their work, her move from Mumbai to Delhi, his family in Coimbatore, her admiration for the works of Nnedi Okorafor, his frequent run-ins with right-wing trolls on Twitter who popped up in his mentions every day like irrelevant banknotes.

At one point he casually slipped his hand over hers, as though it meant nothing at all. She felt herself tighten with secret pleasure. When it started to get darker, he suggested taking the conversation to Khan Market. They found themselves in a small cafe in the lanes of the market, joking about being ‘wine and cheese liberals’, where she felt mildly embarrassed by the too-grand lifestyle stores surrounding them. Coffee turned into an early dinner of Chinese food which turned into several cocktails which turned into an auto ride in which they hurtled to his apartment in Sheikh Sarai. Kissing, first tentative, then filled with more fire and urgency than she had felt in what seemed like years. Certainly nothing like the few lacklustre dates she’d had since she’d left Atul, returned his engagement ring, and brought her broken but hopeful heart to this new vista. Nothing like anything since Atul himself, in the early days, when he used to make her toes clench.

This was how it began. And for about a month, it was good. Mostly. The Journalist sent her WhatsApp texts every morning, GIFs of couples (almost always Caucasian), gripping hands on impossibly white bed sheets, or pecking each other on the cheek. Every night after work, which for him sometimes went on until midnight, he would call and ask to meet. He retreated politely if she was busy, but he never failed to ask, which made her wonder what he used to do with his evenings before he met her. After sex, which, for all the spark between them, turned out to be always in the missionary position and always over when he came, he walked her to her cab or auto. On Sundays he insisted on cooking for her. Once, when she had to go to Mumbai on a short trip, he held her hand on the street and hailed her an auto and after he made sure she sat in it, he leaned in and kissed her full on the mouth.

And yet, for all that he made her tingle with excitement, about four weeks in, she began to feel an insistent absence. He, brimming with stories from the newsroom, never really asked her how her own workday had gone. And yet he seemed to care about the fact that she worked in women’s rights — his eyes sparkled on the rare times he mentioned it, your work — but, but, but, somehow, it seemed, only for himself. She tried once, in conversation, to bring up the campaign they were doing on the new bill on transgender people’s rights. It’s not that he didn’t listen. But he had no real response. And yet, that night, he was back again, like clockwork, like a recurring dream, to pick her up at her doorstep, to take her away from the tedium of her first Delhi summer, away from thoughts of her father, away from the kitchen tap, and its drip-drip-drip that punctured the silence of the nights that she was by herself.

Unsure, longing, she tentatively tried to keep seeing other people. The banker who wrote poetry on weekends, a string of musicians, even a lawyer she had, for years, vaguely known. The lawyer fell hard for her, in a way that seemed unnatural, sending her overwrought texts right after their first date, not even waiting until he had gotten home. ‘You’re amazing. I can’t stop thinking about you,’ he wrote. In bed he was assertive in a way that took her breath away; he said things into her ear that made her moan; they had loud, urgent sex that left her feeling replete. And yet, when the Journalist called, she felt pulled back to him as surely as though she were the rough-hewn string attached by the navel to a great red kite.

Six weeks in, she was starting to feel jittery. She began dreaming about Atul, about home, about Juhu beach and its brackish water, rushing and receding, rushing and receding. Early morning rounds of her local park did little to quell the fact that she would wake up with her heart constricted and nausea the next morning, and the next, and the next. Her friends began to worry, particularly Fahad. Fahad, whom she had known and loved since college, where they had crushes on and deep derision for the same bearded boys, avowed Marxists who would give up life, love and ideology for a corporate job by the time placements came to campus.

Fahad, who swiped on Tinder for her, admiring men she dismissed, dissing men she admired. “This one’s beautiful,” he would say. “But don’t expect too much from him,” he would add, wrinkling his brow at a series of pictures of the beautiful man holding up drinks with three friends here, two friends there. “He’s a real bro,” Fahad had said when she first matched with the Journalist. He looked and sounded bored, eager to see someone else’s picture, swipe on her behalf on some more men, so she suppressed the fact that her heart had leapt for the Journalist already. Something told her she shouldn’t say what she was really thinking. Fahad who came over the night she couldn’t stop crying, Fahad who hauled groceries up three flights of stairs when he saw, with horror, that all she had in the fridge was a bag full of rotting bananas.

After 10 weeks of everyday phone calls and night-time auto rides, of sex that left her hungry and conversations in which she tried her best always to locate herself, she found herself saying the words over Sunday brunch at the Journalist’s apartment.

“What are we doing here? It feels to me like you’re not really listening when I talk about my work.”

He frowned, pointed his fork in her direction. “How can you possibly think that? We see each other multiple times a week! You’re the one who is busy most of the time.”

“We’re getting to know each other,” she said, her heart hammering. I want to know what this means to you.”

His eyes darkened. “What do you mean? I like you! Isn’t that obvious? But I don’t believe in rushing things.”

“There’s no rush. I just need to know what we’re doing here.” And that’s when she said it, the words that would shatter everything like glass. “I’ve been seeing other people.”

What she meant by that, he did not stop to ask. She was out of his house, blinking and bewildered, sooner than she could finish her thought, which was that it didn’t matter, it didn’t matter at all as long as they liked each other and could get to a place where they could honestly acknowledge this fact.

For weeks, she checked his WhatsApp at least a few times a day. Sometimes he would appear online, and her heart would skip a beat. Fahad had to take her phone away at a friend’s birthday party, had to take her aside and tell her to get a grip, tell her this was a friend she had loved for over 10 years, that she needed to try to be present. He poured her a glass of water. Then they went back out of the kitchen, arm in arm, and the fist in her heart slightly loosened.

In the following weeks, they spent hours playing video games at Fahad’s house in Jungpura, she sleeping on the leather couch while he and his new boyfriend took the bed in his small room. She had breakfast with them, went to work, and went home only to pick up fresh clothes and drop off files she wouldn’t need to look at again for days.

Still, she checked WhatsApp for the Journalist a few times a week, staring and staring at the world ‘online’ until it disappeared.

She doubled down on the swiping. It became a drinking game for them. A shot for every 10 left swipes, two shots for every right swipe. They became quite drunk, and in her daze, she traded suggestive messages with a gentle looking sports reporter. The next day they met for dinner, where he surprised her with his generous smile, and the way he poured the wine, tipping her wine glass to one side, first pouring her some, then himself.

She surprised herself, too, when she said yes to going home with him. “I don’t want to have sex with you tonight,” she told him. “But that’s no reason to stop hanging out.” He grinned, shrugged, pulled her along. He lived in Kalkaji, in an apartment with two housemates. She walked in through the narrow black door and saw one of them, a tall woman emerging out of the kitchen, Gina, who had moved from Brussels two months ago. And behind her walked someone — it couldn’t be — but it was, with the same curly hair falling over his eye, his stoic face that she had memorised in her dreams, in the waiting game for him to reach out to her in the hundred ways in which it was possible to do so. His eyes widened with surprise. The fist in her heart tightened, became fury. “This is Gina’s partner Jiten, he’s a journa….” began her date. “I’ve met him. Hello,” she said, and turned away. And that’s how she remained the rest of the evening in their living room, icily polite to him, and warm to Gina and her date, tightly focused on the realisation that was flowering within her.

Two hours later, she said her goodbyes and stumbled out. It took her exactly 20 minutes to return to her dark apartment. She switched the golden floor lamp on, and went out to her small balcony, where she made a single phone call. Anyone listening from the next balcony would have heard the whole story, about a journalist named Jiten, about the horrified recognition in his face, would have known she was talking to someone called Fahad, would have heard her abundant cursing. And even though they wouldn’t have heard what was being said to her in the silences during which she listened, they would surely have heard her starting to laugh, first in faint giggles, and then in great witchy cackling which rang through the midnight air long after she was peacefully asleep, at last, in her own soft bed.

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