Recently I taught a creative writing course on the memoir to twenty-three undergrad students at Ashoka University. On the final day, everyone read out their favourite piece, a standalone personal essay from the portfolio they’d created through the semester, to a distinguished jury. (Well, okay, it often ended up being my favourite among the pieces they’d written, and the jury was my friend, publisher VK Karthika, whom I’d inveigled into making the trip to Sonepat on this account.)
The students read beautifully, their voices stumbling once or twice, probably at the audacious arcs of their own, raw honesty, cloaked in the velvet of distancing words, in front of a whole room full of their peers. We had spent the last few days feverishly working on the pieces; fresh sentences were added, things were ruthlessly excised, pizza was devoured. But now, in the classroom with its powerful lights, suddenly de-familiarised from the prose (only one was a poetic submission) by the formal setting, I encountered their fresh, youthful sensibilities anew. A wrote about his childhood encounters with MF Hussain, F wrote about her odd relationship with hungry ghosts who cooked invisible potatoes in their village in Kenya. The event was, by all accounts, a success.
It was later that night, as I thought about the readings again, the pieces still fresh in my head, when I realised that only two out of the 23 pieces had been about Love. Romantic Love, the thing with the upper-case L. There were one or two other pieces where love-ish, lower case, had appeared, little side angles to youthful themes – friendship, road trips, bad ideas. But only two serious personal essays on Love.
This was not surprising though. Like marriage, love too has ceased to be the grand theme favoured by writers in recent times, especially for eighteen- or nineteen-year-olds, working in their “now” voices – the “now” voice was something we’d been experimenting with that semester. But what struck me about the two Love pieces were their subjects. Both were intricately linked to identity: the peculiar intimacies of falling in love with someone from a different religion or from the same sex, thereby discovering the possibilities and pretences of Love and Self through the tumult and romance of the unallowed, the liminal. The literary heft came from the intersection of Love with that other, admittedly more critical, well-spring – identity.
It is this sense of intersect – the warp of love meets the weft of identity (or vice versa) – that becomes the leitmotif of an anthology of essays recently published by Penguin, tantalisingly titled Eleven Ways to Love. “People have been telling love stories for thousands of years,” the blurb declares, “And yet, love stories make us believe that love is selective, somehow, that it can be boxed in and easily defined.” The eleven essays in this volume are meant to “widen the frame of reference” of love, bringing in other, less-understood perspectives to the fore. After all, the peculiar strengths of the personal essay – its power to move and wound at the same instant – is best suited to this task.
The eleven essays
“Love’s great desire is not to be commonplace,” begins the very first essay in the collection, by Dhrubo Jyoti, in its note to the readers.
“But our love is different. Our love is not a triumph, it has no great flourish. It crumbles silently. We cannot sermonise or theorise love – after all, the books are for your people, by your people.
Our stories must wrench our own hearts into narratives, preferably in monochrome. We must bear witness to our own devastation so that you don’t have to confront your role in ours. But if the choice is between testimony and death, you know I would want to go screaming.
Hence, these letters.”
We could replace “letters” with “essays” and this note to the reader, preceding Jyoti’s piece, would become the perfect manifesto for this book. The “testimonies”, excavated from contested sites of memory, are offered on a range of subjects: transgender romance; caste; the politics of body-image issues; race; disability; polyamory; class; queerness; long-distance relationships; single life; the poetry of loneliness; the fragility of Love and its other siblings. Each of the eleven essays is preceded by a piece of short, apposite verse written by Sharanya Manivannan, adding to the radiance of the overall presentation.
In “The Smartphone Freed Me: Dating As A Trans Woman”, Nadika Nadja writes about the constant sense of “outsiderhood” she felt even in apparently radical spaces, until, one day she didn’t. In “I Am Blind, So Is Love!” Nidhi Goyal outlines the difficulties – and epiphanies – of dating with disability. “Size Matters” chronicles the body image issues that Sangeeta faced throughout her life until love challenged their hold on her.
“I was taught to chase ‘shadi-wallah-pyaar’ (meaning ‘love that comes from marriage’) and told it was the golden ticket to a content life. All I have now are several real, varied, first-hand experiences of what love can look like,” writes Preeti Vangani in “The Other Side of Loneliness”, after documenting, with great honesty, her quest for permanence. “Presuming ‘This is the One!’ – this had to be – drove my everyday behaviour in each relationship. I would go to great lengths to keep things up and running and joyful between us. My choice of partner was secondary so long as there was someone. I became a serial monogamist. I treated each one of my relationships with the intensity of school board exams, assuming that if I put in enough hard work and religiously did all my homework, I was bound to receive top marks, or the highest rank, or in this case, the coveted ring.”
In “Where Are My Lesbians?” Shreshtha and in “When I Was Cold and New York was Lonely”, Maroosha Muzaffar, tackle the theme of the peculiar loneliness felt by young writers in cities. Shreshtha’s stasis is post-Love, Muzaffar’s pre-Love, but the soaring coldness of life, leavened by the promise of meaning and art and time-wasting-on-the-internet, seep through their lovely lines and open up great hollows within the reader’s.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s signature piece, “A Cross-Section of my Bad Boyfriends”, is clever and funny and bright and might send you to revisit her novels, which had been the first of their kind in India. Shrayana Bhattacharya’s social scientist’s analysis in “The Aristoprats”, on the other hand, with its memorable lines (“In Delhi, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be busy building his harem.”) and baggy structure will lead you to hope that Bhattacharya goes on to write a novel soon, about the ugly-handsome upper-class Lutyens-living men and women of Delhi she has captured so well.
The two voices that lingered in my head most of all were D’s “The One But Not the Only”, the story of the love of his life, M, and their open marriage, and Anushree Majumdar’s remarkable piece, “The Shade of You”, the layered, bittersweet story of her summer fling with the handsome Brian Ochieng (“I never thought I could be racist,” the piece begins, unforgettably, “until I met Brian Ochieng”).
My favourite, though, turned out to be the complicated, cadence-filled first essay after all. In “A Letter to my Lover(s)”, Dhrubo Jyoti harnesses a powerful narrative, that neither shies of wordy lyricism nor gives in completely to its honeyed pit. Positioned at the intersect of caste and class, the audacity of his queerness shimmers with an excessive, flamboyant prose that leaps off the page and casts mirages in the distance. If it is sentimental and maudlin in parts, that, too, works.
In the final analysis, read Eleven Ways to Love, to find yourself confronting the whole of Love, upper-case, from the shards of your own stories that you will invariably end up mining from the essays. A worthy book, if not an easy one to read, my only quibble is the needless foreword that does neither Gulzar justice nor the anthology!
Eleven Ways to Love: Essays, Penguin Books.
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