Shaista, née Ashita and Shakeel were happily married a month and a half ago with the blessings of the world they inhabit. My heart went out to them. I wondered what it took for the parents to agree. My personal experience said the couple should have suffered drama and sacrificed love at the altar of religion and societal sanction and parental opposition. It’s because of their story that I seek to tell you a story today. It isn’t a novel one. To many who read it, it may even seem very ordinary. Very run of the mill, even. But, to those who lived it, and live it every day, all around us, it is the story of their lives. The tragedy of the world they inhabit. This is not a love story. It’s a story about love, certainly, but, a love story it is not. Love stories end happily ever after. This? Well, time alone will tell.
My first meeting with him was memorable. I call it memorable for lack of a better word. I had just joined my post-graduation and had my first discussion with a professor. He walked in, not the professor, but him, a scruffy boy, late. The world I came from had thus far been inhabited by people who impeccably turned up on time and were punctual. Or, at least, if they were late, they attempted to make polite noises about it. He didn’t. Not one word of apology. I wouldn’t say I’m a snob, but there are things one expects. However, that was my first experience of appearances being deceiving.
There were four of us in that room that day, including the professor, a young, good-looking gentleman, but if there is anything and anyone who stands out in my memory as clearly as if it were yesterday, it is him. I don’t remember the professor talking. The other girl was clearly in awe of the two of us. Why, you might ask. Well, we argued. And if two people can argue over 2000 words for over two hours, without letting the others in the room get a word in edgewise, well, you get the drift. At the end of that session, I remember sticking my hand out and telling him what fun I’d had. I also remember what he said, “…to argumentative Indian hain aap. Mujhe to waise behes karne ka bahut shauk hai. Kabhi kabhi to agar mera opinion saamne waale ke opinion se milne lagta hai, main apna opinion badal leta hoon (So, you’re an argumentative Indian. I really like to argue. If I find that my opinion matches that of the person I’m arguing with, I change my stand).” I remember thinking, “Ajeeb paagal aadmi hai (Weird, crazy guy this is)!”
For the next two years, I don’t remember much about him. That is not to say that he didn’t exist, but he existed somewhere on the fringes of my existence, in an abstract, academic sort of way. I knew he asked too many questions, got aggressive while at it and basically, could put a certain prime-time news anchor to shame. He was certainly loud enough and talked enough and asked enough questions. Beyond that, I neither knew nor cared.
Things changed, somewhat, when we did a paper together in our last semester. Before that, I had never realised what a challenge it was to find someone who got as involved in a discussion as he did and took it as a personal affront if you couldn’t match up to him. However, even then, the only ‘unacademic’ discussion I had with him was when, just before our final presentation, I drew him aside and told him, very firmly, that he was not to ask any questions. He didn’t. To the extent that a friend of his later complained that even he had been silenced with a gesture. Did I take note? No.
After that, however, things changed. On a whim, I asked for his number. And there we began. I still remember the first message he sent me, a news link. He didn’t do much to alleviate the ‘ajeeb paagal aadmi’ image then. Little did I know, he’d been flirting. Retrospectively, a thousand little things might have told me. When he changed his choice of paper to take up one with me. When he began attending classes regularly. When he texted me every night. When he photographed an entire book just so I would be spared the pain of getting it photocopied. When he changed his appearance to suit my tastes. When he changed a four-page poem to adapt it to my criticism. There are a thousand ‘when he’ moments and I didn’t see through a single one. It isn’t as though I didn’t notice them. I simply ascribed simpler meanings to them.
Changed his paper? Well, I’d been logical. Changed his appearance? Perhaps my criticism hurt his ego. Changed his poem? Well, constructive criticism was always welcomed and the original had been rather sexist, hadn’t it? Photographed the entire book? Well… There I admit, I was stuck. I couldn’t think of anything except the sheer kindness of his heart. I realise, I was being stupid, but sometimes, we choose to not see what is right in front of us.
I also failed to see what I was doing. Or rather, what was happening to me. I talked to him every night? I talked to all my friends every night. I stayed back to argue with him? Very few people managed to argue with me. I sat on the steps one evening, getting late for an appointment, listening to him read poetry? I enjoyed it. I had justifications for everything. I won’t call it falling in love, it was a slow descent. And I ignored every milestone on the way until it was too late. And even then, I refused to call it love.
It was physical attraction when I pecked him on the cheek on the staircase and ran off to class, leaving behind me a very stunned boy. It was physical attraction when, a week later, he kissed me after hours and I pulled him to me. It was just friendship when I texted him with every problem I had, big or small. I overlooked the fact that had he been any other boy, I would have whacked him solidly for daring to take liberties with me. The realisation that I loved him came gradually, in the middle of the night, more than a month after he had declared his feelings for me. And even then, I told him, I wasn’t his girlfriend.
There is something so juvenile and insipid about these terms. ‘Boyfriend’, ‘girlfriend’, ‘dating’. For that matter, words like, ‘love’, ‘passion’, ‘junoon’, ‘mohabbat’, ‘pyaar’, ‘ishq’, they’re all so trivial. They fail to encapsulate the range of human emotions. They never managed to capture what we felt. How my world narrowed down to that one person. How he came to define my happiness and joy. I’d always sneered at people who told me they were unhappy without their significant other. I wouldn’t say they were completely right. I wasn’t unhappy without him, but, he did bring an extra spring in my step, he added brilliance to my smile. He wasn’t the centre of my universe, but he was a pretty big part of it.
I wish I could tell you we lived happily ever after. The truth is that our lives are not fairy tales. And, in any case, fairy tales are meant to entertain children. They don’t come true. Reality intruded in the most unpleasant of ways. We’re idealistic and we often forget we live in an unforgiving world, a hard world. He and I belong to different religions. Hanging over us was the spectre of that oxymoron, those two words that ought never to have been used together. Love and jihad. My friends, recipients of liberal educations, inhabitants of a cosmopolitan world, didn’t understand. To say they were horrified would be to say the least. One of my oldest friends recently confided to me that she’d only pretended to be happy for my sake and as a matter of fact, had been wondering all the time how to tell me that it simply wasn’t done. And then, of course, there were the parents. I won’t go into the details. Suffice it to say, we parted ways.
Some days, I wonder if we did the right thing. I’m not silly enough to believe that we won’t heal. Time and distance are great healers. But, this is where I fall short of words. I prided myself on being a sceptic and a rationalist. I didn’t even believe in the concept of the soul, let alone a soulmate. I didn’t believe it was possible to fall in love this quickly. It was my staunch belief that loving was a slow process. It blossomed over a long period of time. He proved me wrong every time. If you ask me whether I still love him, I’d tell you that if respect, admiration, friendship are love, then, well, yes. If happiness in someone else’s happiness and grief in someone else’s grief are love, then, well, yes.
Did it hurt the first time he referred to me as his ‘ex’? Yes. Did it hurt when he said I wasn’t his past? Yes. Does it hurt when I think of him with other women? Yes. Do I hold him back? I try not to. Although, admittedly, I don’t do a very good job of pretending to not be jealous. I, who was never jealous while he was mine, today squirm at the mere mention of another girl’s name. We’re stuck in a strange sort of limbo. We can’t imagine a future together, but neither can we imagine a future without the other. It’s an odd situation to be in. There are probably millions in the world in the same predicament as us.
I began by calling it the tragedy of the world we inhabit. I insist it is so. Sometimes, love isn’t all we need. I wish it was the only thing we needed. The only one that mattered. It’s because of this that I stand by Shaista and Shakeel. Yes, I agree with those who argue that she shouldn’t have changed her name or religion, but really, it’s her life and she’s free to do as she chooses. The Constitution of India gives her the right to do so. I only hope and pray that they find love that sustains them through the course of their lives.