M. | Verve Magazine
India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
April 05, 2022

M.

Text by Vanya Lochan. Images by Shreya Basu.

When Vanya Lochan thinks back to the time she felt the flicker of first love, she is transported to her school days, specifically to her one-sided infatuation with a 15-year-old classmate she reveals only as “M”. Now 25, the writer is learning how to make space for his friendship in the present as their old dynamic lurks in her subconscious

(CW: Contains instances of fatphobia and internalised fatphobia)

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Sunday, March 01; 2020.
Mumbai

22:22
M: What time do you land tomorrow? Arcs told me.

22:23
Me: 10 am. Why?

22:23
M: It’s been two years … all said and done … can we at least meet for coffee?

22:56
M: ??

23:32
Me: I am only in town for two days and it’s Didi’s wedding… it’s Mehndi tomorrow and I am yet to think of answers to, “oh, you have become healthy!” … “why are you so late?”… “looks like you have become a proper Bombay girl now, no time for your small-town relatives…” and the absolute worst, “now that Didi is done with, you are next!”

23:33
M: Excuses aside, I understand. It’s difficult. It was difficult for me too but it has to be bigger than this, man … we can’t be this way forever!

Monday, March 02

00:00
M: If you change your mind, 4 pm, Mocha Cafe.

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Ranchi, 2011

For a moment, travel back in time with me to about a decade before this exchange and borrow my 15-year-old self’s eye. Situate yourself at the rear of a school bus crowded with around 50 hormonal, starry-eyed, sleep-deprived teens. Now, adjust your gaze to find a lanky boy with long, boney arms, a little line in the name of a moustache (he is not immensely proud of it), brown St Thomas’ uniform trousers, and a haircut you know he got at his dad’s salon, having sought his mum’s approval. That’s M.

M loves his mother and believes he is a feminist. Of course, he also went through a phase of infatuation with his classmates’ (your!) breasts, but he has outgrown it. He apologised with fawn-like innocence after you called him out on it in the middle of the school ground. He had also almost cracked the toughest Math Olympiad and is already preparing for the JEE exams that are two years away.

A sweet face, narrow but humble eyes, and a distinct, almost forcibly reticent method of talking – you know he values his words, choosing them carefully as if he were crafting a verbal montage. He is shy and perhaps as broken as you are, but he seems to need a girl like you to make him stand up for himself or to flirt with, to either discuss or laugh about smart matters. You are simply perfect together, aren’t you? Aesthetically, maybe not as much, but, some fifteen years down the line, everyone at your wedding party will certainly look at you and say, “Guess they were meant to be!”

Meant to be we were. But not in the way I had imagined.

At 15, he was everything a girl like me could have asked for. He was all that my dad was but relatively kinder, though not by much. Of course, I only arrived at this epiphany on a therapist’s couch years later; back then, all that mattered was what M thought of me.

“It’s not pronounced ‘en-core’; it’s ‘on-core’,” he corrected me after I asked him to repeat a certain joke, having learnt the word from one of Vikram Seth’s poems.

Then there was, “It must be the radiation that burnt holes in your fat”, after I emerged with burn marks on my face from a terribly unsuccessful attempt at frying pakoras – a lesson in patience, I thought then, and the importance of drying off water from spoons and ladles before plunging them into a seething pot of fat.

Fat.

I was fat and M was athletic.

I was fat and still weak in the body. Fat and not even strong enough to pull the rope for tug-of-war on Sports Day. Fat and could barely run 250 metres.

Fat with calves that were as big at 15 as they are at 25 from having replaced sports and games in the evenings with TV and tuition classes.

“Vidya Balan’s condition is called laziness,” M had once proclaimed.

Anyone else would have had to confront the ICSE zonal debating champion of 2010-11 after that comment, but this was M, and I just wanted him to know the not-fat and not-lazy me.

I have always been chubby. Disconfirming the expectations of my parents who had surely expected a weak child to grow up to be a conventionally slim woman, I started packing on the weight before I was five. Even when I didn’t understand the complexities of body image and the idea of beauty, I knew I was fat; “fat”, as I had been made to believe, was antithetical to beauty – somewhere between ugly and a matter of laughter.

I possessed the belief that I could blind him and the rest of the world to my fatness. I could at least let him know that even though I was fat, I was not __. Fill the blank with “lazy”, “inflexible” or “low on stamina”. That I could still walk fast even though I wasn’t the best runner around. I started practicing fast walking. I didn’t want to be that fat girl who didn’t deserve M or whom his friends would only laugh at. I wanted, so desperately, for him to look at me and think: That’s just her. Even though she is fat, I love her.

Several years later, when I expressed my anxiety about my mother seeing me “with all this fat” to another male friend, he casually responded, “Well, doesn’t your mother already know that you are fat?”

She did.

So did M.

In order to simplify information, our brains supposedly perform a kind of “cognitive bias” or “framing” – they twist and modify our perception of things and events to fit our ideas of the world. Beyond simply adjusting how we “see” the world, however, we also tailor our behaviours to control how we, in turn, are seen. We constantly negotiate between our light and shadow selves.

For M, I just wanted to be thin and pretty … pretty feminine too.

The social doldrums of high school had brought the two of us into the same post-school circle. He started coming over more often after we finished our tenth board exams. Taking my duties as the “Monica” of the group seriously, I hosted lunches and high teas. I would invite M and simply expect him to show up – he lived close enough, why wouldn’t he?

On his first visit to my house, he saw a bunch of knotted wires and asked, “Why is this in such a precarious condition?”

“‘Precarious!”’

I had to look it up. M just casually slipped these words into regular conversation.

Immature hostesses are rarely immaculate in their menus and mannerisms but abound in a trait carefully learnt from their Indian mothers: tirelessly pursuing a certain carelessly lingering demand of their guests, as if those who have come to eat wouldn’t do so if not for the hostess’s efforts.

While the others relented, M ignored my constant nervousness about him consuming his untouched soft drink and sat there, slinging a nonchalant “hm” or changing the subject until another friend burst out into burps no sooner had he taken two bites of my meticulously prepared hors d’oeuvres.

“And that’s why you never have soft drinks before food.”

It was basic science, but who other than M could teach you that carbonated drinks should be consumed after the meal or alongside to avoid the random burps, even if that means ignoring the repeated requests of the hostess?

“Coy” or “easily intimidated” wouldn’t be the first words to describe me otherwise. In fact, I am generally intimidating – a closeted Type A on better days. Throughout school, boys only meant competition. Any proposals that came my way were rejected halfway through because I knew I was better than that.

Somehow, all of my nasties crumbled down when it came to M. My gently tan, otherwise unnoticeable ears turned bright red as soon as they heard him say “Hi” from behind me or whenever he initiated conversation with a much-practiced note of pleasantries in preparation for a deeper talk. I started to believe in my sixth sense; I could sense my ears turning warmer – warmer and warmer, and then I would feel the abject redness and sting of the betrayal of my auditory instruments, revealing my feelings to M. I would hold my ears to cool them down the moment he turned away, hoping nobody had noticed.

The summer of 2012 gave way to a new session and a new school. A total of 9 kgs heavier post the long ICSE, I was still happy to have scored well. M and I found ourselves in similar white-and-blue uniforms that year, and my intended M.O. was to not be too obvious about my obsession but be around just enough to make him notice me.

It’s not ‘miso-gyny’, it’s ‘miso-jiny’, but good speech this morning!” An unexpected but familiar reformatory remark echoed in the middle of the lunch-break chatter with my friends.

The Science-Humanities divide that had reduced our budding reunion to minimal eye contact and negligible conversation, finally seemed to be closing. M was speaking with me again and that too in front of his new school friends!

When I was 16 and a half, a certain Ro told our mutual friends that he found me cute. I thought I could reciprocate his affection – he was so simple and so kind, “like a human Teddy Bear”, I gushed to my friends, who saw right through me and didn’t share my enthusiasm.

“Standards, I mean?”

“Will you be this desperate now? Just because M doesn’t look at you?”

“It’s okay, new experiences must occur,” I said placidly and moved on to discussing politics, history and how cute the head boy Amol was.

“I am in love with someone,” Ro texted me one day.

“Who?”

“You.”

And so, without the right intentions in place, I started dating the unassuming Ro – probably the best boyfriend any 17-year-old could have the opportunity to be with.

Stealing kisses in abandoned school restrooms, dinosaur films that we knew everyone had come to make out to and timing our tuition classes to be together was part of all the fun I was revelling in. It was a new world, a new kind of life for me – a clean slate.

Despite the fireworks that Ro lit up within me, every inch of my face – cheeks, chin, nose, and ears – would turn hot, bursting with sanguineous cheer at the slightest mention of or proximity to M. Every morning, I made sure to time his entry through the school gate with a clear view of me. Ro waited for me outside the classroom as I waited for M to see me and finally fall in love.

Apparently, I spoke of M so lovingly and so frequently that my then-best-friend ended up developing feelings for him herself. I didn’t realise when looking at him from the corner of her eye along with me and sighing in support had turned into romance for her, too.

“I know this will sound awkward, but you know how I have always liked M,” I chose to confront her over the phone, despite still being with Ro.

Worst decision ever.

Within minutes, this brave attempt of mine gave way to one of the biggest explosions of my social life.
Matters worsened when a tart-tongued classmate got involved.

“You can’t ask her to feel or not feel for anyone, and who do you think you are? She will like and tell whoever she likes. I will see how you don’t let her.” I was threatened.

This was also the beginning of the end of my relationship with Ro. In order to cover up my guilt, I began blaming him and turning paranoid and controlling. I hated his friends, otherwise perfectly fine people. I hated the fact that he was still close to my “frienemy”. I wanted to read through his chats. I wanted to suffocate him into leaving me because leaving him with honesty would mean accepting that I had done him wrong.

I hated him, but I hated myself more.

By the time our twelfth board exams rolled around, M and I had become close again thanks to our mutual friends. One afternoon, in the middle of a lunch at my home that I had invited this group of friends to, right before his JEE results were to be released, I pulled M away to show him my father’s group photo from IIT, Delhi.

“My dad in 1985. One day you will also have a similar photo on your wall, I can promise you that.”

And he did.

Delhi, 2015

College brought back a little bit of my ambition if not my self-respect. Having been in the presence of men throughout, I found liberation in an all-women space. But it’s also when, for the first time in my life, I came face-to-face with one of M’s girlfriends. True to his “type”, she was slight-figured, dainty and beautiful from afar, if not up close. To the tall-passing, heavy-boned and boisterous, street-theatre performing me, M’s girlfriend stood for everything I could never be.

It was also around this time that M and I started exchanging emails. He disclosed to me that his calculated reticence was actually to hide a dearth of social skills, and we decided that he would help me get fitter and I would introduce him to emotions and people skills. I was, of course, still offended that he could see that I was fat, but it was an opportunity to get closer. I listened to him but seldom followed his advice – still relishing my aaloo paranthas and butterscotch pastries while I diligently filled him with a lot of care and books. I loved how our favourite book, Stoner by John Williams, had left us both crying – in Delhi and West Bengal, respectively.

Slowly but surely, our layers began peeling away.

“‘Precarious?’ Ha ha ha! You remember that! Oh, I wasn’t being phoney. I was just trying to win this vocabulary race against Dad and practicing!”

“We are both eye-smilers, aren’t we? Our eyes glimmer when we smile,” I wrote to him as I attached a photo from the picnic we had organised the last time we had been home.

Soon, I filled an entire notebook (and later, a blog page) with love poems. I showed them to him, and he appreciated them. I couldn’t ever tell him that he was my muse.

The overly stretched out, inevitable breakup with Ro finally happened in 2016. Eventually, M also broke up with the aforementioned girl and found someone else (I still think my maintenance of “your current girlfriend is stupid” made him end things; if there was anything I remained confident in, it was my intellect). He inevitably broke up with her too and moved on to yet another.

While M explored love, every man who tried to come close to me was met with: “Oh, you are just silly to like me, I am sure you’re troubled and that’s why you think you like me. You don’t want this for yourself, believe me.” I felt victorious and relieved every time I was able to convince a potential suitor of my own negative beliefs.

The prospect of waking up and being loved by someone who expected me to love him back felt uncomfortable. I clung to a strange sense of loyalty to M, and even though M didn’t love me, it felt perfect. At least I wasn’t hurting anyone else or ruining their life.

England, 2017

My first time abroad, M was the first to text and ask how I was feeling. Self-loathing combined with determination had fuelled me to work hard for Oxbridge, and there I was with the opportunity to start afresh and turn a new chapter in my life. My arrival, however, had been preceded by a life-changing medical diagnosis that should have been accompanied by therapy and emotional trauma-soothing, but those were callously sidelined. I grew more obsessed with the idea of M and sought refuge in thoughts of him. Still blushing, still dreaming of him, I continued to study and drown myself in self-pity and the absinthe of M’s fantasy.

When I grew tired of my obsession, I tried to turn my attention towards other men.

On a terrible day, when a classmate I had developed a liking for asked me, “Do you have feelings for me? Because I don’t like you in that way,” I found myself on the staircase of my students’ residence in the middle of the night, weeping profusely and desperately phoning M. It was late for him, but I didn’t care. My classmate’s rejection had triggered my trauma beyond understanding. I knew that M was in a serious relationship and yet, throat filled with tears, I called him and begged into the phone: “Why is it never me?”

“What are you saying? Are you okay?”

“I have loved you so much…so much…for so many years. Why don’t you see me? Why can’t you love me just as much as I love you? What’s wrong with me? Is it because I am fat and you only like thin girls like her? Because this is how I have been made. And I try, and I am smart, aren’t I? Why am I just never enough for anyone?”

“I think you should sleep. I am not able to keep up with this conversation. It’s late.”

My ego kicked in even as I was physically languishing on the staircase.

“I vow to never ever see your face again. I will move on. I don’t want to have anything to do with you.”

I bought an expensive bottle of Prosecco and went by the Darwin river, my “sukoon ghar” (house of peace) as I had picked up from a Karan Johar film. I wept profusely. I don’t remember much of what happened later.

I had finally confessed my feelings. He hadn’t left the whole world behind for me and I didn’t know what to do.

My return to India coincided with the worst phase of my depression. I was perennially irritated and irate, but this is when I found dating apps. I bargained my GRE studies and PhD application preparation for the thrill of being desired. Man after man, I developed a pattern but never quite addressed the root of the problem – I didn’t want to accept love despite longing for it. I was available to anyone who showed interest and who seemed even slightly interesting. My fantasy of them as the near-perfect partner would seamlessly cover all their flaws. A lack of self-esteem ensured that I was the one constantly chasing their love and attention and offering my physicality in return. Soon, all of this giving would give way to the feeling that I deserved some taking as well, and that’s when I would demand a relationship.

“But I thought you knew what this was!”

“Yes, initially, and then I started liking you,” I’d lie in response.

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Mumbai, 2020

Friday, 21 February
18:34
Arcs: It was M’s birthday. We met. Missed you.

18:35
Me: Hi, babe! Well… what do I say?

18:36
Arcs: Time to unblock? Our group isn’t the same without Monica.

18:37
Me: I have lately realised that I have so many issues to pick with Friends, you know?

18:38
Arcs: All that aside, I know there’s affection. Give it a chance?

22:33
Me: I unblocked his number.

22:34
Arcs: Yayyy! *big hug* Now, wish him at least?

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23:59
Me: Happy Birthday!

23:59
M: Saved by a minute, eh?

00:00
Me: LOL. Good night, hope you had a good one!
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By 2020, despite repeated failures on the love front, my career had finally started to look up. I was working as the editor of a fast-paced media house in Bombay, which “felt so much lighter,” I used to tell everyone, wondering if this was “the good life.”

After undergoing rigorous therapy and self-improvement and not having spoken to M for over two years, I was hoping to finally find the courage to let him back into my life with minimal romantic expectations and perhaps more boundaries as well.

Ranchi

On March 02, at exactly 3.25 pm, in a house full of colourfully dressed, party-minded people, I found myself decked up in a bright-pink chiffon lehenga and high heels, with a face full of make-up, looking frantically for our car keys.

“After all that?” My little sister caught me.

I ignored her, triumphantly grabbing the first set of keys I could find – my cousin’s Scorpio’s.

“You remember every single thing he has ever said in his life. All I am saying is, even if he wants to fix everything, it will all affect you so much and him so little. It’s not fair!”

I considered changing out of my embellished raiments, but time was running out. My heart thumped loudly in my chest as I took a deep breath and grabbed the steering wheel. I had never driven anything bigger than our gearless hatchback and wasn’t any good at parking either.

“Cover for me for a bit, I will be back soon!” I shrieked at my disappointed sister and pumped the accelerator.

16:05
M: I am here at Mocha… waiting.

Dragging the train of my organza dupatta, I walked inside the cafe, my heels clacking against the marble floor. He was sitting in the back.

Elbows on the table, with his head bowed over his phone, he appeared so small in that moment despite his big shoulders and long legs. As he turned his face in anticipation, I noticed that his beard was still sparse.

He swallowed his spit.

For the first time in my life, I saw vulnerability behind that solemn gaze.

“I thought … you wouldn’t…”

Propped up by 3-inch stilettos, I looked directly into his eyes.

“How could I not?”

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