The Great Indian Romance

By Suresh Pattali

Published: Thu 25 Feb 2021, 5:31 PM

Vava’s bridal shower is just a few hours away. The no-cost mise-en-scène that we made from natural resources like palm leaves and bamboo is ready. Besties from places as far as Kolkata, Bangalore and Hyderabad have landed. The stuff I picked up from the duty-free has changed hands safely. As contrasting shades of emotions seem to wash over her face, I ask my daughter to rest beside me.

“Dad, how was it back in the day?” she asks, resting her face on my tummy. “Did your bride tense up ruminating how her life would change?”

Vava, emotions are a constant. How a child cried in circa 1700 was as acrimonious as how one hollers in 2021. Charles Darwin had a different view. From Adam and Eve to Romeo and Juliet to Yuri and Lara, feelings have been the same as far as I know. The only thing that has changed over generations is the way we manage our emotions.

“How different was romance in the past?”

Romance never existed. Love did. They say India is one of the most romantic places in the world, with pristine beaches, shimmering lakes, lush green landscapes and pretty palaces alongside a stark display of hardship. It’s ironic then that the country is so romantic, but the countrymen aren’t. In the pages of history and epics, our heroes labour for love. They fight wars in the name of love, use slaves to build monuments and drown themselves in a sea of alcohol and tears. But they aren’t romantic.

Centuries after our epics were written, we would still leave our heartthrobs behind if exiled to 14 years of forest life. How could one miss such a romantic sojourn on flimsy reasons?

“So, how do you differentiate love and romance, dad?”

The biggest Indian tragedy is we still confuse love with romance. They are two different things. All lovers aren’t romantic. If love is an emotion, romance is its celebration. One is a feeling and the other is its expression.

“So how romantic were you in the good, old days?”

How do you expect a country to be a beacon of love and peace when children are told to hold back emotions? At Grade 7, when I offered the girl next door my first love note — a potted rose in watercolour — they said I was too young to colour my emotions.

In Grade 10, when they found Meenakshi’s written feelings stuffed in my pocket during laundry time, they said: “Are you mad? Never think romance in such a crucial academic year.”

In Grade 12, they discovered I was an incorrigible lover, so the advisory was toned down: “Do whatever you want, but after this make-or-break year.”

During under graduation and PG days, I was told to prioritise life. “Think of your ageing parents. They depend on you to give your sisters in marriage. A job should be your priority; romance can wait.”

In the days of student activism, we were told to denounce romance to maintain a clean public image. We were tutored to be celibate communists.

In the townhall, the librarian kept one eye on his register and the other on couples in the aisles discussing Pride and Prejudice. On the beach, people enjoyed ogling more than the sun and the sea. Romance was stonewalled at every stage of life — by the teachers, by the parents, by the siblings, by the politicians, by the religions and moral police and even by the grocers who played James Bonds.

“How was it post-wedding when you got the licence to romance?”

Romance was never given the space it deserved in the typical Indian life. Post-wedding, we were told: “Love but don’t show. Don’t wear it on your sleeve. Celebrations invite danger. Keep it within your hearts and bedroom.”

Being bridled by so many familial and societal rules, inhibitions finally come to rule the roost. They condition you to be frigid: “Go away, dad has come back from office. Behave yourself, my sisters and husbands are coming. Listen, grandma is watching. Are you mad? Don’t talk to me when a whole lot of workers are around the house. Don’t hold hands, kids would get ideas.”

“Dad, so it was like the world is watching, so don’t romance?”

True. And when finally children happen to you some time in the hide-and-seek game, you find more reason to hold your emotions back. “Remember, you’re now dad to a daughter. Get serious, make money when the sun shines.”

In Mumbai, where we shared an apartment with a family, romance was kept outside beside filthy footwear. With Prachi’s (my landlord’s toddler daughter) mum being a housewife and half-a-dozen uncles unemployed, it was like community living in an apartment. She still enjoyed occasional visits by her former fiancé when their two-in-one played, Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan.

In India, romance is like an evening primrose.

“Dad, can I suggest something? Tweak this column headline to The Great Indian Circus.”

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