She wanted to say no, but felt compelled to say yes. She would signal how she truly felt, but he would pretend not to understand. Consent proved tricky and elusive, until she developed the muscle she needed to say ‘no’.
Illustrations: Mayur Khadse
I live and work in Mumbai, and the reason I want to continue doing that is that it’s far away from my hometown, where my parents live. I grew up in a smallish tier 2 town in India which still reminds me of all the restrictions I had while growing up. Like the fear of being seen with a boy in a public place – “reputation kharab hone ka dar (the fear of dishonouring the family’s name)”, even if we were just talking casually. So when my mom found out that I had moved in with my boyfriend (she gathered this after quizzing my domestic worker), I knew I was in for a lecture. I had not intended to tell my mother just yet because I wasn’t sure of my relationship with this boy and things were moving too fast (we had only met three months before, and had been dating just a few weeks). But super sleuth that she is, she caught my lies pretty quickly.
“So what do you intend to do?” my mother asked, as part of the ‘serious talk’ that followed. I said, “I don’t know yet, but I enjoy his company.”
“Send me a picture of this boy,” she demanded. I told her I didn’t have a photo. This “boy” was 15 years older than me, bald, with a big stomach, and rich. He wasn’t exactly the picture-perfect guy my mother had been dreaming of for me (she pictured someone tall, slim, and handsome. The only part she would have approved of was his money). Unfortunately, my parents are very judgemental and try very hard to ‘fit in’ the social structure. For them, a live-in relationship is blasphemous. I didn’t want to hear her judgements at such an early stage of my relationship and thank god, he was not on social media! My mother would have stalked him straight away.
When I met my new boyfriend, I had recently changed jobs, and had just exited a two-year relationship after a lot of struggle. My previous relationship was the first time I had had sex with someone, and the combination of my first time getting physical and the passionate love I felt for that guy led to strong feelings that I wasn’t able to get beyond easily. He was a ‘playboy’ type and was dating another woman simultaneously, and I knew this from the beginning, but I was addicted to the feeling of being with him. Looking back, I think he was one of those narcissistic bad boys, whose attention I loved getting. For the last year of our relationship, I struggled to overcome this addiction and finally after a friend motivated me enough, I quit it and came out of it.
My new live-in boyfriend was my boss at my new job. He could see that I needed attention after a difficult breakup and showered a whole lot of it on me. For starters, he called me to a 5-star hotel, took me into the kitchen (he knew the chef) and cooked a lavish meal for me. The meal was clearly bait, and I fell for it. I once overheard him giving advice to a friend – You gotta make the move when the girl is all impressed and needs a shoulder to cry on. Well, that was my state at that time. He would also give me advice, saying, “You need to get under someone to get over someone.” After the meal, he kissed me and invited me to his room. I said, “Okay.”
I knew what I was heading into, but I was still numb from my last breakup and wanted to take revenge on my ex even if it was just in my head, by sleeping with this man who I did not desire at all. He quickly undressed and started kissing me and rubbing his hands over my body, while I stood there still, looking out of the window as if this torture was my punishment for making bad choices in life. It felt like torture because I didn’t know him enough – or at all – to want to do it with him, and he was only the second person I was getting physical with. I think I was faking liking him, just like we sometimes fake an orgasm. So he probably thought I was enjoying it, but I was not. It’s not like he didn’t want to pleasure me. But I was not ready for a pleasurable experience as I was still grieving breaking up with my previous boyfriend. We got naked but did not end up having sex, because I was drunk and I passed out. I woke up naked in his bed and saw him sleeping next to me. I wore my clothes and slipped out without telling him.
I know that is probably the worst way to start a relationship – I was never able to articulate what I truly felt, and in a way, I had been paralysed by it. Because he spent so much money on that first date, made a personal effort and did various small things to make me feel impressed, I think I felt obliged to enjoy it, and so faked it all the time. This pattern was pretty prevalent throughout our relationship. What followed after that first date was loads of affection showered over me, dinners at expensive restaurants, and consensual sex. Though I did not feel great having sex with him, I started to grow fond of him, so it mattered less. I don’t think he is bad at sex – I don’t think anybody is bad at sex, people just like different things. I also feel that a natural chemistry has to be there for two people to enjoy sex. We didn’t have that chemistry. We talked about what we liked, but it didn’t help and sex always seemed like too much effort and was not pleasurable. Later, I started avoiding sex as much as I could.
I don’t know when exactly we moved in together, because we were simply sleeping with each other every day – but it was at his house, of course, which was in an expensive neighbourhood. My new office was very far from where I stayed, so I decided to search for a house closer to my workplace. I gave my landlord notice, assuming I would be able to find a house in two months. But with all the dinners, flirting and getting to know each other, I didn’t have much time left to look for a house. My boyfriend said I could stay with him until I found another place. So I moved in with him, temporarily. But he never wanted me to leave. Every time I would go out looking for a house, he would get clingy. Then one day he formally asked if I wanted to continue to live at his house. Living with him didn’t seem like a bad idea, only because I might have been able to save some money, which I had not been able to do even after seven years of working. If I’m being honest, if I had more savings or had found a good place for myself to stay, I probably wouldn’t have moved in with him so quickly. But the muscle I needed to say ‘no’ wasn’t fully developed yet – growing up in a way where relationships are hard to be open about, makes it hard to have confidence and a habit of speaking about them.
It had now been around two years since we first started living together. There was not a single day that I had not questioned my decision. It’s not as if ours was a terrible relationship – over two years I had grown to become very fond of him. He was much older than me and loved me like a child. He adored me, cuddled with me, was loyal and intelligent, things I had not experienced in my earlier relationships. But our relationship also felt claustrophobic – he knew about every moment of my life. If I was not with him, then he would ask me where I am, who I am with, when I will come back. All those questions bothered me, and I didn’t want to answer them all the time. I felt guilty if I spent any time without him, as if I felt I was letting him down by enjoying myself with my friends, while he was stressed out and working at home. I could not call my friends home, as there seemed to be a status difference between him and my friends, and he did not gel with them.
I couldn’t bring myself to leave him, nor was I able to be with him fully. I think that being 45, he was looking for a companion and a long-term commitment, which is why he had always been few steps ahead in this relationship. He asked me to move in so quickly, and after four months of moving in, he gave me a diamond ring and called it a commitment ring. I refused to accept it, but he forcibly kept it in my closet. Then, three months later, he pushed me to make him meet my mother, then he made me meet his parents. He announced to all his friends that I was his fiancé. I never wore the ring despite his insistence, which I thought was a good enough signal that I wanted to take things slow, but I am not sure if he understood that signal.
There were several good reasons why I didn’t want to marry him, the first being the power differential. I didn’t feel like an equal in this relationship. There was an unsaid authority and I felt obliged to do a lot of things so that he didn’t feel bad. For example, I was not able to say no to small household chores. Or if I wanted to go out with friends, then I had to build up a story of how I should say this to him. Then there was the sexual incompatibility – even after two years, we had not reached a stage where we were able to enjoy sex with each other. And I was worried about being judged – I thought my friends and family would not be kind about the age gap, and would think that I probably compromised for money. I also know I neither spoke up nor left so I was perpetuating my situation.
But leaving scared me because there is the pressure of being 31 years old and unmarried. Though I feel it’s great to be single because you have the freedom to do what you want, I am worried about being single. Sometimes it worries me that I am not meeting social milestones like marriage, babies etc… what if I regret not doing it later? Since I’d been with him, I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet other people, because my world and 95% of my time was filled with him and his circle of friends and work, which we do together. That made me think that I would probably never find anyone better than him.
Recently, my mother had the ‘serious talk’ with me again. She asked me, “What do you want to do?” Again, I said, “I don’t know, but I enjoy his company.” She said, “You are ruining your life. Either marry him or leave him. We cannot accept this live-in relationship.” I was quiet, thinking, and then something came over me and I said to her determinedly, “Whether I live with someone, or live alone, marry or not marry, have sex with several men or with just one, is my choice.” I knew I was not doing anything wrong living with someone and I had the right to make my own mistakes and learn from my experiences.
We continued to live together and I had been forcing myself to make a decision, but there was no easy answer. When we finished having sex, I still had a feeling of guilt overcome me, like my parents were right there frowning at me. Of course, I know my guilt was not just about my parents judging me. I myself judged the situation and how I came to be in it, I judged myself for lying all the time – whether it was to the world, to my boyfriend about whether I had an orgasm or how happy I was with him, and perhaps to myself, about why I should stay.
So, there you have it. I was afraid to tell people about our relationship because I was scared about what they would say, and I was too terrified to leave because I would eventually face more judgement ahead as a single woman. I didn’t know whom to please and I second-guessed myself constantly, and it’s probably why things stayed the same for so long.
When I exited my first relationship, it was at the urging of a friend. This time, I made the decision to move on, on my own. When I finally gathered the courage to move out, I poured my heart out to two of my friends, who were there for me when I needed them. About two months ago, a week after my birthday, I picked up my stuff from his house while he was away and moved to a friend’s place. Then I found a house for myself in the next 10 days and am now living on my own. I met him for coffee a day after I moved to my friend’s place, and told him that I needed to break up with him. We had a long emotional talk, in which he said that he was somehow expecting this. He tried a lot to convince me to stay, but I had made up my mind. I was scared to live without him, and unhappy while I was with him.
Looking back, I had been so caught up in worrying about everyone else and what they thought, that I had smothered what I wanted for myself. What I honestly want and how to get to it is something I’m still learning. But then I remind myself that it’s okay. It’s okay to test out love and sex, even when there isn’t a perfect ending in sight. Love, just like life, is confusing and drawn out and takes time to figure out. The important thing is that we try to do so and keep moving forward with our new understandings.