New Relationship Energy

Urban Dictionary has this acronym: NRE. New Relationship Energy.

It’s the molten phase, the early beginnings of a relationship. Urban Dictionary informs me that it’s used mostly for polyamorous relationships, but this seems like an unnecessary containment of an acronym which manages to articulate that languid light sea green feeling when you are just getting to know someone romantically.

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The social expressions both within dating and arranged marriage are so coded and have been on my mind for a while. Everyone in my family, both in the generation before and mine, opted for arranged marriage. I was hoping the younger folks would break the mould a bit but they have not. (Thanks, all)

In some ways, arranged marriage sandpapers the ambiguity involved with dating. Two people arrive at a crossroad with the mutual understanding that marriage is the next step. The question here is whether you choose to walk off into the sunset with the person in front of you or not. Ideally, there is no haziness about intent or the future. I say ‘ideally’ because there are scenarios where the people in question are nudged into an alliance by their family.

When people say ‘forced marriage’, the first picture that pops to mind is someone dragged to the altar kicking and screaming. But it’s a lot less dramatic than that. It’s impossible to discount the social/familial pressure which is implicit but also influences decision making resulting in marriages made from compulsion (South Asian parents are especially good with the guilt trips). Within the community I come from, marriage is seen as a natural progression of age-appropriate milestones.  Anyone who doesn’t adhere to this is viewed as an aberrant,  someone lacking a certain something. Marriage is also seen as an anodyne for problems: ailing parents, an escape hatch towards a new life etc.

The overt social engineering adds layers of complexity to arranged marriage. There are the background checks, dowry, the painfully awkward meetups, the arrangements between family, cultural baggage such as horoscope matching depending on what deity you pray to, as well as the spectre of social class (this is a big one, oof.) and compatibility which loom over arranged marriage. I feel like I’ve missed some stuff, but you get the gist.

But in other ways, arranged marriages aren’t very different from dating. Stepping into the arranged marriage arena can feel like Tinder but with your mother hovering over your shoulder, offering commentary on the profiles.

The self-mythologizing is similar. If every guy on Tinder is a CEO sapiosexual who has visited 53 countries, every guy on the arranged marriage circuit is a God fearing, pious, teetotaller devoid of all vices and who has been saving himself for marriage. The sifting through and sizing up of profiles has the same disposability of Tinder or any dating app. You are given a limited time window to size a person’s life based on a brief summary which strips the person to their age, occupation, education, family background, height, religion.

Of course, the dual anxiety and the thrill of getting to know the right person is also there with arranged marriage. If you take away the orchestrated circumstances of the meeting and if the chemistry is there, the New Relationship Energy (New Arranged Marriage Energy?) is similar.

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I’ve been speaking to my grandmother about her marriage. She was 25 when she got married – late for a Muslim woman of her time. She met my grandfather for the first time on their wedding day. Even typing that made me wince. It’s fascinating in a quietly horrifying way. She was never forced into the marriage but wasn’t exactly an active participant in the process.

There’s a Blink 182 song – Stay Together for the Kids. It starts with a guitar riff, then the drums come in, the first verse sounds like someone’s speaking over the music and then it descends into this gloriously shouty chorus with Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge. The song takes on divorce and is the narrative of a teenager, angry about his parents divorcing. The refrain “Its not right” echoes throughout most of the song.

The marriages I witnessed while growing up were a product of their time and circumstances. Many of them stayed together for their kids the way the narrator in the Blink 182 song wanted his parents to. This isn’t the most inspiring template of marriage to be familiar with; these unions had a resigned “well we’re here so let’s make the most of things because we are all we have” energy to them. Marriages were unions born of social practicalities and norms. Love (or something like it) grew as a result of building a shared life.

My grandmother is in her eighties and my grandfather has been dead for a few years now. I’ve seen the effect his death had on her. A partnership of over 50 years, no matter how nebulous its beginnings, solidifies into something you build your entire life around and his absence plucked something out of my grandmother in a way I didn’t anticipate.

“Were you happy?”

My usually garrulous grandmother is quiet as if this question had never occurred to her. As though happiness in a marriage was an unheard-of prospect.

“I don’t know.”

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NRE has antecedents: drunk in love, the honeymoon period etc. What these phrases fail to capture is that initial emotional intimacy and the tenuous process of making yourself vulnerable. Perhaps vulnerability can be thought of as an emotional muscle you need to flex regularly in any kind of relationship or friendship, or it gets rigid with disuse. It requires careful exercise, constant self-reflection, and a readiness to get bruised, hurt sometimes.

The synonyms for being vulnerable emphasize this alarmist exposure to the possibility of being harmed and aren’t the most reassuring: undefended, unshielded, unfortified, unarmed, without arms, without weapons, defenceless, easily hurt/wounded/damaged, powerless, helpless. Ok then.

This piece is floundering through multiple analogies but another way of thinking about vulnerability (and which has also been written extensively on) is to equate it with walls and boundaries. Putting up barriers gives us the illusion of control and acts as a protective mechanism. But like many have pointed out – the walls that you build to keep out pain, can also keep out joy.

Being vulnerable is hard. And messy, so messy. I know this is a very Breaking News: Water is Wet statement but some of us arrive at this realization at different points in our lives, offloading notions of intimacy we’ve grown up with and armed with our own experiences. Vulnerability takes practice, it means opening yourself to judgement and rejection and relinquishing control. If the thought of someone being intimately acquainted with your deepest hopes and fears terrifies you, well, you’re not alone. Some go through life wearing their heart on their sleeves, some arrive at social situations armed with an emotional hazmat suit – I have helpfully illustrated this below. There really is no playbook here.

Hazmat feelings////

To be vulnerable in a world which privileges coolness and nonchalance is a radical act. And it’s this openness which is so precious in the NRE phase. In the early stages of getting to know someone you often project the idealized version of yourself – the version you think you are, the aspirational self. Somewhere down the line when the contours of a relationship takes shape, you start revealing the fragments which aren’t always visible.

You quietly lay bare your foibles, your weirdness, your past, the most tender parts of your heart, saying this is me. These is what made me. This is what broke me. This is what healed me. This are my darknesses. These are my scars. Stay if you want. This is me.

And oh God, this is so scary – these moments of vulnerability, where things look like they could go either way.

But every now and then when the right person comes along, traces their fingers over your scars, slips their hand into yours and stays beside you – it’s also so very beautiful.

Run from Fear //

 

 

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I was reading Jenny Zhang where she references Tracy Emin and then I  remembered my ambivalence about Emin’s work, specifically her neons (even though I’d walk to St. Pancras station just to gaze at her installation), and then I got to thinking about Bruce Nauman’s neons and then I remembered that I had taken this picture from the Nauman collection at Tate Modern. Somewhere down this meandering thought thread I realized what I was really chasing after was a specific feeling.

It came to me in full force on the afternoon I took this picture – I had played truant from assignments and spent a day with art. I emerged only when the gallery closed and remember walking along a sun-soaked Millenium bridge, with my House of Fashion jacket draped over my backpack, happy but also a little heavy.  Happy with a deep gratitude, heavy with the knowledge that days like these were temporary.

I haven’t fully processed, written or posted much about last year because of this heavy-happiness that kept following me the entire year. A lot of things happened last year that I wouldn’t have dared dream of. For some of us, our dreams are tethered to our middling realities.  Often, we don’t yet have the capacity to dream beyond the things that moor us. Rebecca Elson refers to the “existence of limits” in a poem and it’s a line which keeps coming back to me. A lot of last year was framed through this aching transience, that any moment this would be yanked away from me.

It reminded me of the time I caught a butterfly when I was a child. For a few heartbeats this beautiful thing nestled in my hands, was mine. Then when I touched its wings, it disintegrated into dust and I started crying, horrified at what I’d done.

Anyway, read Jenny Zhang’s prose.

 

 

Airport Observations

I hang up my phone in amusement. My ride was still at home, in a half-sleep stupor but awake enough to brush away my insistence to take a cab. I didn’t mind hanging around for a while. The arrival section of the airport is a lovely place to people watch and I’m usually in such a hurry to leave that I pay little attention to my surroundings. I settle down in a corner, with my luggage at my feet and a book on my lap so that I don’t feel too awkward.

The duration of the flight is visible on some passenger’s faces as they make their way past me. The long haul flyers have pained looks on their faces as they lug around their screaming children and attempt to balance hand luggage, infant, headache and trolley. Too tired to muster a thank you to the cleaning lady who helps them with the trolley, they don’t walk; instead they flop with fatigue towards the luggage belt.

I spot pockets of women wearing abayas but minus their head scarves. My curiosity is piqued. This is rare. The abaya is always, always accompanied by some form of head covering. I suddenly realize that the Middle Eastern flights must have landed and these must be housemaids returning home. Having landed in Katunayake, they had clearly discarded the head covering which is compulsory for women in the Middle East.

There are certain staple characters at every airport and as I sat there, I spot a few.  There is the Frequent Flyer. Usually a business man/woman, impeccably attired – not too casual, not too formal – completely at home in the airport, equipped with a enviable mastery of being able to stuff a week’s worth of clothes and necessities in a smart, medium-sized travel bag.  I say, enviable because I’m usually the Overweight Passenger (luggage weight, not body weight. I feel it necessary to clarify this) who resolutely attempts to get the poker-faced flight official to wave the few excess kilos away. I’m not proud of it but I’ve reluctantly come to terms  with the fact that I will never be able to travel light.

Then there is the Well Dressed Woman. You know the kind. The WDW is a rare species which steps in and out of the flight flawlessly attired, lipstick immaculate and hair in place. While the rest of the populace attempt to smoothen their plane hair (twice removed cousin of helmet hair) and crumpled clothes, she breezes through the airport in 6-inch heels without a trace of the flight visible on her demeanour.

There is the foreigner who has arrived to ‘find herself’ and immerse herself in the Exotic Orient. Harem pants, beads, tattered backpack and a Lonely Planet guide are key indicators. There is also the Elderly Traveller with a perpetual look of bewilderment, determinedly clutching onto their baggage and passport lest someone runs away with it. Every flight is a new adventure and the ET is usually the only person who pays close attention to the emergency rules announced at the beginning of a flight.

There is always a tourist in every airport. The Tourist travels in packs or clusters of 5 or less. The more obvious Tourist is usually found with a fanny pack and sports shoes. The clusters are loud groups which congregate at the airport, cracking jokes among their peers, crumpled printed itineraries stored in their bag.

I hear someone call my name and I look up in surprise. There’s a face looking down at me expectantly and I find myself in a SSM (Small Social Pickle). I know I know this person but I can’t remember how or where I know him from or what his name is. One of the things which strike me as I struggle to place him is that he has a kind, sympathetic face and I experience a strange déjà vu  feeling of having this thought before, when I first met him years ago.

“You don’t remember me, do you?” Clearly I’m more transparent than I realize. He remembers my name and so I’m forced to lie to save face. Of course, I do, I reply. He’s nice enough not to call my bluff and after some cursory small talk, he leaves and I return to pretending to read.

The Duty-Free heavy weights are making their way. A mother-son pair emerges from the lift. The mother is beaming and there is a proud (but not in an arrogant way) tilt in the son’s chin as he pushes a fridge on a trolley. A gift for his mother maybe? As I sit there, the flight crew of various airlines pass by frequently. I keep a lookout for familiar faces – a few friends work in the industry– but don’t spot any. There was a time when the travel perks of being a part of an airline had a strange fascination for me (and seemed worth the toil and flak I’ve seen cabin crew put up with). I was younger then and the attraction of a new country every week was extremely alluring.

There’s a man hunting for a pen to fill out the declaration forms for his brand new LED TV. He’s approached four people by now and the frustration on his face is apparent. He’s yet to ask me, strangely. I’m afraid my Alone Face is also my Leave Me Alone Face – a Delhi survival mechanism I have unconsciously adopted – and I probably don’t look very inviting or pen-friendly. I take out a pen from my backpack and signal him over. His furrowed face breaks out into a grin and he heads over to the other side of the lounge to fill out the paperwork.

My phone rings. My ride is here.  I’ve only read 6 pages of my book. As I clumsily get my belongings together, I realize that I’m exhausted. The frantic dash during a brief transit was finally taking its toll.   It feels good to be back. I wish I remembered that guy’s name though.

Rain

A distant rumble of thunder. Then a sudden burst of wind, whipping my hair out of its pony tail and rattling the sheets of the roof next door. The violent rustling of the leaves of the jak tree is like a restless choir awaiting the main act.
For a brief moment, I stand there – the pile of clothes in my arms forgotten, as the wind rages around me. I watch from my balcony as people on the road quicken their pace, a wary eye at the darkening sky, and as the lady next door scrambles out to salvage her now-empty clothes rack. The jambu tree two doors down is almost bent in two, straining against the force of the wind.
And then it starts to rain.
A throbbing headache and a fragmentary assignment are painful reminders of what I should be doing at the moment but keeping the clothes back inside, I am lured outside. I sit down on the floor of my balcony which shelters me from the rain but isn’t too sheltered to escape the erratic drops which fall on my body.
I sit there, legs curled up awkwardly, back against the wall watching fascinatedly as a burst of lightening splits the sky open. Usually repelled by lightning, today I am strangely attracted and keep my seat instead of bolting indoors. The rain is cathartic; smoothing the worry lines on my forehead and easing my burning head. And so I sit there, my t-shirt slightly damp, the droplets of rain stinging my face.
It stops as suddenly as it started until the only sounds are the rivulets of water trickling from the trees and the occasional squawk from a disgruntled bird.
I get up reluctantly. I’d forgotten how much I loved the rain.

Delirium

A blazing wave of heat has surged over Colombo.

In the bus, the man in front of me takes off his cap, produces a large checked napkin from his pocket and proceeds to wipe the damp on the back of his neck with slow, deliberate strokes. The third beggar to board the bus in 10 minutes, waves a stump for an arm in my face and has me scrambling for my purse.

The couple in the corner exchange vows of undying love over a packet of manioc chips. He feeds her. She blushes and giggles coyly behind her handkerchief. The kid in front is fast asleep, sprawled across her mother’s lap – face shining with perspiration. Her brother on the other side of the aisle, sits with his shoulders slumped forward, the occasional polyphonic tune pealing from the phone clutched in his hands.

Gray faces and clothes covered in dust all around. I huddle in my seat, suddenly feeling exceedingly conspicuous in my too-loud mustard top.

People with forced smiles on garish posters flash past in a technicolor blur – all of them telling me that I should vote for them. For the betterment of our country, of course.

It’s too damn hot.