When I was around 12 years old, I had the (mis)fortune of observing a girl’s (Indian) wedding from very close quarters. While most people partied, danced, ate and generally wasted themselves to death, something about the society’s norms and expectations from a girl and her family turned me off. Like, massively.
My prince charming for most part was going to be no one. Yeah, that sounds unromantic. But through my younger years I came to understand that girls like me had very little place in the world. When I was small, I was too quiet. When I was a teenager, I was too intelligent and just too disinterested in ‘peer pressure’. And when I was a little older, I was too independent. There are no brownie points for guessing what these labels progressed to in the latter years of my life. Here is a sampler: too stuck-up, too ambitious, too self-centered. Sometimes I was an outsider because I was an introvert. Sometimes because I was a girl. Sometimes because I was too different. Sometimes, because I was all three (*1). Pretty much always falling on the wrong side of the stereotype, I was starting to stare down an abyss.
And then, somewhere in the middle I turned out to be a late bloomer. Suddenly I found myself catapulted from being invisible to something of a new shiny object for male attention. The contrast amuses me to this day. The way one looks, elicits such a massive change in the world’s response. In some ways, I am still trying to digest that difference. Many a time little of this attention comes packaged with consideration, respect or curiosity for who you really are.
Systematic sexism is in-built. Which is why some men can joke about it but still be great at a personal level. But girls are more serious about dishing out direct sexism to each other. A certain section of my so-called girlfriends (taking inspiration from ‘Gossip Girl’, maybe) tried their best to give me a hard time for my ambitions. And at some point, their pettiness was so tiring, so exhausting.
It did not help either that I disliked being vulnerable, something that is so nauseatingly acceptable for girls, by everyone.
The rhetoric in that damned institution media is always of guys wooing girls in trouble. Feeding off their vulnerabilities. What is this cultural frenzy that teaches men that their manliness depends on the weakness of girls? Is it not manly to respect someone you feel sexually attracted to?
I was lucky to have landed in a nurturing ‘first’ relationship with all this wariness in my heart, for a brief time, which deserves its own story someday. However, things were taking their toll and in 2012 I found myself in the final year of my college, a deeply unhappy person. By this time, I had outgrown the environment. I desperately wanted to get out and when I couldn’t do so, I descended into a curious kind of depression. I was tired of everyone. It was not that I couldn’t play those games, but I was very, very uninterested in them. Surely there were better and more important ways to spend one’s time? So, followed a year of internal recession. I would go to the library at ungodly hours to catch some alone time. Simply to be away from everyone. ‘Loneliness in a crowd’, the first time I understood that phrase. (Ironically, I did make some of the closest friends I will ever have during this time).
There were no takers for strength. And I simply wanted to disappear.
Amidst all this chaos I took refuge in my work. Sahil was a stranger enough for me. I could work with him and step away from everything familiar and still not be uncomfortable. For the first time in my life, I started enjoying coding and reading with someone else. Two otherwise intensely private activities. From speed coding each other, to giving hilarious names to our compiler versions, to working hours and hours on a pointless compiler to fix the most random errors, it was just so simple and so much fun. For the first time, I found it easy to be in sync with another person. And enjoy activities that I had only loved doing alone.
In my final year, I was set to go to London for 6 months to do research and before we could take it any further, summer had arrived and it was time for me to leave. And leave I did with great happiness. Finally, I was getting out. Sahil skyped with me over my lonely lunches in Regents park and from a million miles away he never let me feel lonely at all. It is an impossible feat I think. To make someone feel such companionship so far away. Here I was half the world away with quite literally no one to call my own and yet I did not feel lonely. In a land of strangers, he made me feel taken care of. All my life I searched for freedom in my solitude but I was starting to find it in his company.
With Sahil, my world was very different. I had someone who could understand my whole perspective so well that it unnerved me. Who offered me a level of partnership that I did not think was possible and did not have a name for. I did not know but at that time I did not care for labels. The rest of the world does not afford you such a luxury, however. For some odd reason, everyone is in a great hurry to define and label everything for anyone but themselves.
Nothing is a bigger turn-off (for me) than a man interested in me who proceeds on that initiative by impressing upon me how much bigger than me he is. Whatever his notions of big are…money, intelligence, achievements etc. Because this instant flurry of attraction is usually followed by a relegation to a chapter in his life. But I did not want to be a chapter in someone else’s life. I wanted someone who could instead read my book with some amount of interest. Even that was good enough. But Sahil came along and at some point asked me, “Hey, by the way, you want to try writing the chapters together?”
I don’t need diamond rings, a nice house and pretty dresses. (I was raised to believe that I was capable of achieving / earning anything in life if I so desired, as long as I worked for it). What I needed was someone who would be as excited about my dreams and ambitions as I was, who would share my darkest hour and my happiest moments with as much intensity as I felt them. Who knew what passion meant and who would understand without explanation the pain that comes in the struggle to venture out into the unknown. Who would be the reason for my strength in my risks, who could see through my façade and help calm the storm raging within. Someone whom I could completely trust in every situation to let me know what was right even if that meant saying something I didn’t want to hear. Someone who was so wonderfully complementary to me and yet so fundamentally similar. Sahil brought all of that to the table and much more. Without asking. Without demanding.
Ultimately, the best gift that Sahil gave me and will ever give me is the gift of an open mind.
He was someone who was more interested in understanding me rather than placing me within the lens that society/culture sub-consciously teaches a male to look at the female.
When Sahil finally asked me out, he said, “I want to win the world with you”. Not for you. And that made a world of a difference.
There is a section of our fore’mothers’ and forefathers who worked hard, put their ingenuity and creativity to rich and painful realizations to show us the freedoms that we are capable of as
human beings homo sapiens. Freedom from labour, freedom from slavery, freedom from chance. These political, economic, cultural & scientific creations strive to make us ‘human’. I live my life attempting to contribute to this effort in my own small way.
I spent the better part of my first quarter-life thinking about the 100s of ways in which I would cope with the eventuality of a marriage with these goals, being a female. And yes, I used the word ‘cope’. The universe gave me a pleasant shock in Sahil. That I could find such a soulmate to be with me on this journey. That I can be his strength and he mine. That we are equals and together more than the sum of persons we could be individually.
Over the past 5 years, I have been pretty silent about my relationship with Sahil. But that was only because I wanted to wrap my head around so many things about something that was so important to me. Also, I am one of those weirdos for whom words fall incredibly short of expressing the magnitude and intensity of everything that I understand and feel. So writing this and even more alarmingly, to ‘put it out there’ has been one of the most unusually hard things I have done yet. (I have mulled over this for at least a year now).
Sahil often says that I am too shy about talking about us. Well, no more. Here I am, 5 years after that starry evening in Dharamshala, on this virtual rooftop, proclaiming “I love you and cannot wait to get started on a new chapter with you.”
J.K. Rowling once said, “…….to have been loved and accepted so deeply, must provide us some ‘protection’ forever……”.
And in that sense, I did find my Prince Charming! 🙂
(*1)-The running stereotype for girls is of talkative shopaholics with high pitched voices who are routinely accustomed to swallowing their self-respect. I am the very antithesis of this idea and I have paid its price. And let only (that intensely male conception of) god help you if you are beautiful or naturally effeminate. Because femininity is usually associated with everything frivolous, trivial, weak or stupid. You will have to work twice as hard, be twice as serious and twice as scary to be taken on an equal footing as men. This would be to make up for all the men who assume you won’t be worth it and for all the women who will be forced to, or worse, willingly oblige them.