463d56fc22871046a30456394f604584-2At a workshop recently I was asked the question, “What is love?” and I instinctively answered, “Love is waking up in the morning and thinking about someone.”

It was then that I thought of the very first time I fell in love. I was a student in the Ph.D. program in Physics at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, or IIT-K as we called it.

One Baisakhi afternoon, I noticed a young man staring at me as I passed him on the walkway between the physics department and the lecture theater. I was wearing an orange guru shirt and bell bottoms, the thick braid of my hair reaching down to my knees.

I knew he would be there again the next day.

Sure enough, next time, the young man, whom I will call Shridhar, stopped me in my tracks and invited me to appear on the campus TV news program. I knew it was an excuse to get to know me, but I could not resist the temptation of being on television.

After the visit to the TV station I refused his overtures several times until one afternoon during the spring break, when a girlfriend persuaded me to accept his invitation for a walk to the canal. I scarcely believed the existence of a canal or the pretext of a walk, but we set off nevertheless, packing the sandwiches he had picked up from the Quality Restaurant on campus, which catered to upper-class parents of boys like Shridhar.

We walked a long while through dust and haze, and to my amazement, a canal did eventually appear out of nowhere. We swung our legs over its grassy bank, watching dhobi women washing clothes as fishermen belted a haunting melody far away, “Ganga aaye kahanse, Ganga jaye kahan re.” (Ganga, where do you come from and where do you go?)

Shridhar leaned on his elbows and proceeded to watch me eat, not making the slightest effort to touch me.

My feminine demeanor notwithstanding, I was an amazon at heart and knew that I was never in any real danger of being taken advantage of.

As if reading my thoughts, Shridhar said in a flat voice, “You know I admire you. You are the first woman I know who has the confidence to trust herself with a man.”

After a while, he asked me what my ambition was; he was the first man to do so.

“I want to see the world,” I replied, “I want to travel in a ship and visit exotic places like Malaya and Zanzibar, as in a Somerset Maugham novel.”

Shridhar seemed intrigued, saying, “You know, I have been thinking of joining the navy. I am not doing too well in school.”

I sighed. “I wish they would take me in the navy,” I said. “I want to go on a ship. It is not fair that just because I am a woman I can’t go.”

Shridhar smiled, saying in a very calm voice, “I will take you on a ship, I promise, in five years.”

I laughed sarcastically. “You? You would have forgotten me by then.”

“Come on,” he pleaded in a wounded voice. “Maybe I won’t take you on a ship. But surely I won’t forget you. I won’t forget all this.”

Shridhar would be the first man to tell me I was beautiful. We would walk into the heart of the sunset and sit leaning against a toddy palm as squirrels would run up and down trees and a tear would run down my cheek for my mother, who at that very moment was sitting on the doorstep of our house in Nagpur, rubbing her forehead because of a nervous ailment, and Shridhar would bend down and kiss me on my hand ever so gently, one knuckle at a time.

It was a gesture totally foreign to me.

We would walk back to campus in total darkness, stumbling against boulders, and Shridhar would hold my hand despite my protestations, and as we would approach the lights of the hostel, he would hold me in his arms and tell me in a hoarse voice that he had fallen in love with me. And in my total naiveté I would tell him that I wished we could get married and be together forever. What I really meant was that I wanted him to make love to me.

And in that moment of its very birth, our love would begin to die a slow death.

For, my passion would terrify Shridhar, he would begin to calculate my value in the Indian marriage market, he would begin to wonder whether I was an asset to him or a liability. I would discover during the succeeding months that Shridhar was not a rich boy but a poor one, that his mother suffered from an ailment similar to my mother’s, and that he was a fickle person who lacked conviction of character.

So despondent would I be at this knowledge that I would leave IIT, breaking all contact with him. He would follow me to my hometown on several occasions, to offer me, not marriage, but a sordid rendezvous in a seedy hotel inhabited by prostitutes, and I would accompany him there only to back out at the last moment. Eventually, I would agree to an arranged marriage with a man I would never love.

But forever I would remember that afternoon at the canal and the possibility of love.

Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.

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