A husband for home, a wife for away. Intrigued by the title, I clicked on the link sent by a friend who is also my travel companion. The premise of the essay; a special kind of relationship between friends who choose to travel together, leaving behind their families; reflected the kind of trips we had taken. For several years, we had been to exotic locations within and outside India, responding to the call that dragged us away from our families, filled us with awe and wonder, and refreshed and rejuvenated us. Like the essay in the New York Times, ours was a story of friendship, but also modern love.
I read this essay in the Modern Love column on my smartphone as I commuted to work in the air-conditioned comfort of a train in Singapore. On the way back, I clicked to related links at the bottom of the first essay and scrolled through several well-told tales of contemporary love, hooked. By the time I reached home, I was transported to the Mumbai of my teens, a phase in my life where I had preferred reading romance over other genres..
I devoured innumerable tacky Mills and Boon and Harlequin paperbacks piled up in hole-in-the-wall second-hand bookstores that doubled as libraries. I didn’t expect anything depicted in these slim books, featuring people whose lives looked nothing like mine, to happen to me. I do not remember putting myself in the shoes of their blue-eyed protagonists. The books were more fantasy than romance. I read them for entertainment and, perhaps, escape.
Over the years, as my logical nature took over my impressionable self, I lost interest in reading romance. With limited time and a refinement of reading tastes, I veered towards fiction and non-fiction titles with more literary merit.
Modern Love essays came to me in midlife; a phase where my children were teenagers, I was remarried, and trying to find my way in our blended family in a new country. Certainly not the best time to idle away precious minutes in light reading when I could have been doing many more meaningful things.
But no matter how old, skeptical or cynical we may be about love, there is something about this ancient, universal emotion that tugs at us insistently, exhorting us to read and respond. No matter how crazy my schedule, I managed to read a handful of essays every so often.
Just like in teenage, reading romance in midlife once again provided an escape. This time the words held deeper meaning, because these were true stories. And they covered a wide canvas. Many featured same-sex relationships and the associated challenges. Some focused on loss; of a child, of a parent, of a way of life, and its consequent lessons.
Except for a few, there were hardly any Indian protagonists. But it didn’t matter. I found more in common with the bibliophiles who flirted than the woman who tried to understand her Indian boyfriend. Although the protagonists didn’t share my skin color or cultural background, I suffered their heartaches and rejoiced in their success, because these were familiar emotions. From my own experience, I knew that love can hide when you go looking for it but show up uninvited, in the most unexpected places, between the most unlikely people.
Not all Modern Love stories were about romantic love. And I found them more interesting. The appeal of the story lay in the evolution of the protagonist and not so much in the specific nature of the relationship.
I used to scoff at my friendly neighbor who, unlike me, was a happy housewife with no personal ambitions outside of her home turf. During a particularly trying time, she sent me food, lent me a gas cylinder, and offered to watch my daughter until I returned from work, thereby enabling my single mom lifestyle. Humbled by her generous gesture and loving offer, I learnt that love can grow between two very different people who respect each other.
Not so long ago, books became movies. Today, essays become Netflix and Amazon shows. When Modern Love episodes showed up on screen, I was not surprised. But when I noticed an essay on Medium.com titled “Is Modern Love Only For White Women?” I was shocked. The writer called out the producers of show for not showing women of color as primary love interests in the eight or so episodes that have been released.
Failure of romantic relationships can be disappointing. But my life experience has taught me that even as we mourn failed connections, or deal with disappointment of interactions that do not live up to our expectations, if we pay attention, we can feel an undercurrent of deep-seated knowledge that we are richer for the experience.
Romantic love, after all, is only one shade among the myriad colors of love that we get to experience in a lifetime.
Resilience in the face of disappointment is an admirable quality. Walking into a romantic relationship after the failure of the first, is foolishness of the first order. But it is also a symbol of hope. A signal that we are deserving of respect, of acceptance, of love. I know this first hand.
Much of our ability to bounce back from failed relationships depends on how we have processed other kinds of love that preceded romantic love in our lives. From the care experienced in a nurturing home, from the mentoring of kind teachers, from the unconditional support of friends, from the solidarity of colleagues and teammates. These are all shades of love. I am sure there are more than fifty.
There is much to learn from Modern Love — not just the column and show, but from our own experiences in these confusing times. In love, as in art, taking the time to understand its subtle shades and nuances is what makes it (and us) special.
Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, former resident of USA and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog
This piece was initially published on November 7, 2019 under the title Fifty Shades of Modern Love.