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Love Is A Many-Splendoured Thing

If anything will save us, it will be empathy and love in our darkest days

Love Is A Many-Splendoured Thing
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We are asleep until we fall in love.

—Leo Tolstoy

One could never know anything except through desire, real desire, which was not the same thing as greed or lust; a pure, painful and primitive des­ire, a longing for everything that was not in oneself, a torment of the flesh, that carried one beyond the limits of one’s mind to other times and other places.

—Amitav Ghosh

Love is knowledge.  Love illuminates every cell of the lover’s body, morphing into many miniscule fireflies that, one after another, light up the lover’s secrets: the flaws of his body, the potential of his mind, the summits and depths of his feelings, his latent abilities. When you are in love you intuitively begin to know the other with a sharp perspicuity. In the flush of love, you begin to gauge your own self with a nervous curiosity. So lovers almost instantaneously dev­elop a double vision—they begin looking at themselves through the lens of their lover. And the self-consciousness of this experience is so intense to begin with, that it borders on the obs­essive. We begin by finding common spaces and end by fiercely protecting our own. This is a lifelong negotiation.

Plato downwards, love has been considered a valid subject that needs fresh exposition from time to time. Every age warrants a rethink. Even in the most cerebral sci-fi and spec fic narratives, one will invariably find a tangential love interest tucked somewhere. The connection with the reader ignites more intensely in these corners. The portrayal of love in the cinema and arts has fulfilled the many a cathartic need of the lovers, given the many answers they seek. The mooring, silently unleashed in love, finds a home in the words of poets. Art, literature and cinema have offered solutions to love’s multifarious struggles, and provided a refuge where indulgences of their most private worlds sublimated over crusty samosas in movie intervals at mofussil cinema halls.

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Origin Water colour on paper by Pradnya Khandgonkar

With the internet revolution, we are traversing a new era of love. Traditional understanding of sexuality, relationships, life choices is up for radical questioning like never before. Choices have increased manifold. Communication channels are open and ever accessible. These are exciting times. Earlier, what friends did in terms of introduction to a potential lover, now an app can do for you. Efficient, yes. There is no dearth of choice. Relationships are possible. Efficient, yes. The efficiency talisman, the unw­ritten guiding principle of the digital world, the founding principle of app designing and software designing. The bedrock of pruned dimensions of AI permeating in our lives, all come with the bigger mandate of creating efficiency.

But then, when was efficiency an attribute of love? People have transferred that guiding principle of efficiency to love with disastrous results. You can’t expect machines to do your work for you. Once undertaken, love is built on loyalty and trust, principles that are somewhat slow to achieve and gradual to build. The pandemic got us closest to what a dystopia could feel like. In a way we lived through one: what with the foundation of life getting all shaky. People lost old employment, some were stuck in isolation, away from family, some were stuck amid dysfunctional family, life was in peril, access to medical care became a luxury. For those who contracted the virus, human touch became anathema. Social distancing, even otherwise, is the mantra. And yet, one could not make do without considerable social support. What do we think about love these days? Isolation made people ruminate on these basic questions with an intensity that was seemingly lost in the erstwhile rush of making ends meet. It appears we all can do with more humanity, we all can put efficiency in abeyance and concentrate on making relationships which ground and give meaning. But also, relationships don’t have to come predefined in packages but can be understood anew.  But if anything will save the human race, it is the feeling of connectedness with loved ones. If anything will save us, it will be empathy and love in our darkest days—both offered and received.

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Photograph by Chinki Sinha

Love needs connection. While one can find a connection online, the second stage, of being absorbed in love is more challenging. Given the constant stream of distractions, there is alw­ays the possibility to reach elsewhere. While the old world would have held onto the real love interest, in the vein of one-bird-in-hand-is-worth-two-in-the-bush, today the pot­ential one is more seductive, precisely bec­ause it is unknown yet possible. So people rem­ain eternal players. The game goes on in a loop for many, with a hope of a real thing lurking in the corner. It is crushing in a silent way. People are way more casual today while ghosting when they lose interest. They don’t get into difficult conversations, which are the meat of love. So silently we struggle with a ubiquitous fear of abandonment. There is a constant need to sell one’s wares in the big market of potential lays. What we also see is a trauma response of “performance” of love. Mass fatigue threatens to take humanity over, owing to the continuous display of love activities and sheer emotional labour of putting up a show for consumption of ubiquitous cameras and the ever-present ghosts of friends and families. This anxiety to achieve the likeability capital is making us excessively demonstrative of love.

So while we live in a world of endless possibilities projecting outside, private connection rem­ains at best tenuous. Love is a journey of knowing, and sometimes despite the uninhibited sexual interest, real intimacy remains elusive. Som­etimes the shock of real being so damn divergent from the projection online.  Sometimes the naive ones are in for a shock, and this after having given a part of their soul in an online engagement with the person, who app­eared like a spirit and disappeared like a helium balloon.

A certain stability, however, was a given in the earlier notion of love relations. Sometimes that too is unavoidable because love comes with a primeval desire to connect (even if it is brief) and opens fonts of jealousy even in hearts known for their equanimity. There is in love a great pull between inevitable doom and desired deathlessness. We know love will end; lovers fall out of love, feelings also change over time and sometimes it is just an end of a journey. But the energy remains. Sometimes it transmutes, and love is a mighty force because it translates into birthing of all life and recognition of all beauty.

But we know somewhere love is slipping from our hands.  This is the heartache of love. And no matter how much we progress or what models of love we evolve, these human follies surface in love. These go beyond social mores; these are part of our genetic make-up. So, in order to have a semblance of control on something so elusive, we begin to quantify it—they know the exact date and time they confessed their love, that it was a Wednesday afternoon when they made love in the garret on the old oak bed, the lover knows the paisley on her silk scarf, the way she squinted when especially pleased, that his one mole on his cheek quivered when he went into paroxysms of laughter.

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What is problematic today is that levels of disenchantment have gone up everywhere. Our education and environment is making all of us into minor activists primed to diagnose injustice. And love, which is a whole repository of inj­ustice, whose very nature is treacherous, seldom satisfies. It is increasingly becoming a more and more flawed experience for most. Men are still learning to love “new” women who are nothing like lovers of yore, men and women are open to experimenting with sexuality in and out of relationships, people are waking up to new sexual identities, hitherto hidden under layers of social conditioning. There are possibilities everywhere. But sometimes love needs lack of opportunities. So in efficiency, productivity and opportunity, love needs quite the opposite.

Love is a many splendoured thing, as the poet says. Fact is, one joint is out of sync with the other. If we are out to challenge the socially constructed meaning of love, we have to reconcile also to the reality that at another level, of primeval biology, love remains what it was a millennia ago. We cannot minimise the biological urge to mate, for progeny and love and zealously partake of love’s continuing heartbreaking pantomime. There are the primal needs for love, acceptance, power that play out in a myriad mind-boggling way, changing bhes in every age.

So, while this sounds cheesy, love today brings on a delirium with a notification. We still ins­tinctively pine for the sheer humanness of love, to be vulnerable, to be thrown off balance. Love shatters, destroys and yet that is what gives meaning to existence. The red thread of love that connects you to the lover is all you see against the blurry chaos that spins around rel­entlessly.  

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(This appeared in the print edition as "What Is That Feeling Called?")

(Views expressed are personal)

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Sakoon Singh is an author and academic based in chandigarh

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