Let us call her A. A is not what her first name begins with, but then, that’s okay. Many people she knows don’t know her by her first name. A is in her late twenties, living in Mumbai, galloping from strength to strength in her professional career. Her love life is a series of train wrecks punctuated by sudden, intermittent relationships that go from 0 to 180 kmph in a week or two and then end up as expressway casualties.
“I have bad relationship karma,” she tells me laughing, and then fishes out her phone again to click click click swipe swipe swipe and check out her Whatsapp, her FB, her Twitter, her Instagram. For the hour we are together, to ostensibly catch up, over coffee, she spends more than 30 minutes peering into her phone.
She is to meet, in the flesh, a person she has recently connected with over on Facebook the next day. Her face has the glow of new love. “We met on a common friend’s wall,” she tells me. He sent her a friend request, she accepted it, they’ve been chatting for weeks on FB, and then Whatsapp and have done the occasional Facetime. Now it is time to take the relationship to the moment of truth, meeting in the flesh. She’s nervous, who wouldn’t be?
“What if he has bad breath? Or we don’t connect, don’t have any chemistry?”
She already knows his favourite colour, his favourite book, his favourite television show, the name of the first girl he kissed, and some stuff she will not share with me, because, well, its rather risqué. She has shared with him the story of her previous break up, they’ve found friends in common, they have DMed each other for days. It has been a bonding experience. They have already sexted.
“Mild stuff,” she tells me. “Nothing hardcore.”
I sit upright when she tells me this.
“Come on, don’t be such a prude, this is quite normal, sexting someone doesn’t necessarily mean I will sleep with him,” she laughs, as she sees my face rearrange itself into a disapproving prune.
I’m a dinosaur, from an age of love-letters and Hallmark cards. Kind souls would call my notions of romance antique in this day and age of love over the electronic medium, when the most romantic thing in a day can be the ping of an incoming notification, and when you agonise over the interminable delay between the message read notification and the reply received.
I can’t help but think back to how much simpler things were back when I was dating. Given I dated one man and then eventually married him, I don’t have much experience to draw on for comparison, but I do realise that we were definitely just barely just one level higher from the days of Meghdootam and subsequently carrier pigeons, who could be relied upon to bring back a return message if trained well. Both of us had no telephones in our homes, which made fixing dates rather difficult. Consequently, this meant that the hapless to be boyfriend took recourse to haunting every potential spot I would be at like a well fed spectre. (On an aside, this was back in the day when you applied for a telephone and waited for years, grew old and lowered both legs into the grave, ever hopeful that your landline allotment letter would come someday. And when it did, you would spend the month never leaving home, or even getting into a long shower, in case the telephone company man came to install your phone and went away finding the door locked.) Mobiles of course, were still a nasty gleam in telecommunication’s eye. Letters came in via snail mail and a postman who knew your first name and enquired kindly about the health of the elderly members of the family, telegrams meant bad news and you just landed up, with luggage, at a relative’s home and hoped they were happy to see you visit.
But then, those were different times. Relationships moved as slowly too. First there was the introduction, or the wrangling of one to be orchestrated. There was mystery, there was yearning, there was waiting. There was, that delicious word, anticipation. Then there was the getting to know process, which could be long and cumbersome, especially cruel when adolescent hormones were involved. And then there was the consolidation of the relationship into something that brought the shehnai players in, or the break up which was trauma and tears and face to face.
Face to Face is a luxury in these times. We probably began when Tom Cruise broke up a marriage via a fax machine, and then Russell Brand told Katy Perry he was ending their marriage via text. Relationships now ending via email and Whatsapp are more common than one would think. Endings are becoming easier. Beginnings are becoming easier. What is getting tougher is the in between—the staying in love.
Things, they are different these days. The young ones today are in a different zone where love and relationships are concerned. One where they learn all that there is to learn about the object of one’s affection, sometimes, even without meeting the person. Google and Facebook stalking is convenient to find out all that one can about the person, without needing often, the heart to heart conversations that are an integral part of the getting to know each other. Chats are emojis and whatsapp, sometimes snapchat, which is as ephemeral as conversations should be, how does one relive conversations that fade out into the ether at the touch of a button, how does one recall a tone of typing.
“It helps you cut through the clutter faster,” A tells me. “What if you spend time and effort going out with someone a couple of times only to realise you don’t like the same music or the same shows or the same kind of food? What then?”
I nod. “But it shouldn’t matter,” I should say, with the limited experience of one who has married another who is completely on the other side of the coffee-tea/ beach-mountain/idli-vada divide, and knows it really doesn’t but then I don’t.
We cheek kiss and part. She promises to tell me how it went. She messages me a couple of days later. “When is a good time to talk?”
I call her back. “We had nothing to talk about. It was awkward. We already knew everything about each other. Well most of it. And he was shorter than I thought he would be. It was strange,” she said. She had a list in her head and boxes to be ticked. Like most of us do when it comes to romantic partners, only sometimes you cannot really know how you react to a person until you meet him or her. Face to face.
It was a risk, meeting someone she knew only through mutual acquaintances on Facebook and had accepted a friendship request on a whim. But it was a risk she took well. We are ourselves just one generation away from those who got married to strangers they met barely once. And then, everyone is a stranger until one gets to know them, in this, the era of six degrees of social media separation.
“We just didn’t click in person. It was like meeting someone who should have been so familiar, but was actually a stranger.” Like a pen friend, I think to myself, of the antiquarian custom of exchanging letters with strangers from around the world, back in the days where hitting send meant changing out of your pajamas and hitting the post office to get stamps and an aerogramme envelope, and sometimes sending pressed flowers you’ve made yourself to those you really like. One cannot press flowers in an e-reader. One does not pick flowers anymore to press them for eternity and a day. One orders flowers, and arranges them in neat vases, and disposes them when they fade away. There is no time to press flowers for eternity when we change status updates and DPs on an hourly basis.
She sighed. “He’s actually more fun on chat than in person. I’m going to continue chatting with him, but I don’t think I’ll meet him again.” There was a brief pause. “He spent all the time we were together on his phone, he was probably chatting with someone else.”
Love perhaps, in this generation, is when you finally put the phone down with no overwhelming urgency to reply to that mail just now this very second, check your notifications as they come in, shut down that app, remove your profile from that dating site, change your relationship status to “In a Relationship.” Perhaps love is when you can bear to stare into the other’s eyes for longer than you stare into your phone. Love is when you discover that there is a music to laughter that an emoji can’t convey, that there is a longing in a glance that a Good morning text cannot measure up to, even if it stands up on stilts, love is the waiting for a call, a reunion, a meeting of, the feel of a person, the smell of a person, a touch, a glance, experiencing the layers fall away as one reveals more and more of oneself without really getting into what is out there for everyone to know on your online social media profile. Maybe romance today is wooing via emoticons. But how does one press a Whatsapp message to one’s heart, how does one even begin to understand the bittersweet joy of waiting, of not knowing, of yearning, in this the era of instant messaging, skyping, facetime, where there is no lack of instant availability, where the only lack perhaps, is that of focused attention.
But then, love and relationships are different these days. I do know lovely stories of folks who have met online, and realised they’ve met their soulmates. But those are few and far between. Technology is a wonderful tool for meeting people one might have never met in one’s everyday routine, outside one’s normal circumference of friends, family and workplace. The good stories exist. But do they outnumber the other stories, those looking for love and thinking they’ve found it, only to begin looking again.
For every tentative “what’s up” message sent across, the “you’re in my thoughts” version of the generic joke forward so it doesn’t come across as too needy, there’s the walk of shame from the hell of the drunk text sent at 3am to the sobering light of the morning, where there is no recall of having sent it. That moment when a quick glance at the phone show multiple drunk texts sent out at an hour when spirits prowl the earth, is a not good thing when the morning after hangover is still hard at work on your temples, and any thought of food induces nausea. Some of the messages sent out have replies. Some of the messages you wish you could unsend, but then this is what it is, a touch of a button and a missive fired off into the void of space where the recipient will know nothing about what has been the precursor to the sending of it. There is no context, only characters, emoticons, some misspelled words and a trembling emotion that hides behind the blue white light of the expressionless screen.
Maybe this is what romance is now. A plethora of options, pick and choose what is available at that moment in time when you need to be needed. It is limitless, always available, beautiful strangers available at a swipe of an app screen. All looking for love. Everyone around seems to have it perfect, they display this perfection of relationships on their Facebook feeds, the couple statuses, the photographs of them cuddling, the cootchie cooing on public timelines, the Instagram updates. Relationships are made for mass consumption these days. Except the ones that are meant to be hidden in the shadowy recesses of DM columns. Then comes the disillusionment. It doesn’t work anymore, there is something out there that is better, shinier, newer and that comes without the baggage, and at an off season discount. Of 140 characters of an tweet being dissected for deeper meaning. A status message meant to be a sly post targeted at the one you’ve fallen out of love with about the state of your heart. The fragility of your emotions put out for the consumption of the flotsam jetsam of the egghead followers. Another break up. Because breaking up is now as easy as falling in love was. It is just an email away. Or a Whatsapp message away. A chat history deletion away.
Till the next connection. Till the next emoticon that thrills your heart. Till the next shy, tentative connection made via a hesitant ‘hi wassup’ via DM. And the roller coaster begins all over again.