Friday, October 12, 2018

Twice Bitten Once Shy

Last things first---yes, we fell in love and hope to live happily ever after; no, there are no tricks or twists in the tale[1]. With the end out of the way, let me start at the beginning.
My cousin Paul is responsible for my current predicament[2]. We were rather depressed viewing the Brazil vs. Belgium World Cup match[3].
“I think you will get married soon,” Paul said, between mouthfuls of crisps.
“How so…?” I asked, accepting anything to get my mind off the game.
“The family curse,” he grunted.
That curse has followed every generation of my family: men leading carefree lives suddenly messed it up in middle-age succumbing to matrimony[4].
Paul’s wife, a Belgium supporter, joined in cheerfully, “Do you remember Anita, my cousin…the beautiful one…no? Well, she’s in the market…and she has agreed to meet you…”
“You fixed it up without asking me…?” I complained weakly.
Chetta, it’s time you settled down,” she said. “By the way, she wants to meet you on neutral territory.”
“She doesn’t want parents to be involved till the trade’s settled.”
“Sounds like she knows what she wants.”
“Oh yes, she is terrific.”
I did not cheer when Brazil scored a late-goal.
Paul’s wife decided that she would introduce us at a party at the Club[5]. “That should keep her in good cheer to meet Chetta.
I got there a bit early. A message from Paul’s wife informed me that ‘trfuck sucks’. I guessed that the offender must be traffic. It also said ‘she shud be thr’.
I scanned the crowd. It was mostly well-settled, relaxed families. The few odd ones, like me looked too eager/loud/reserved; observed people too keenly; and, seemed to give every encounter too much meaning. I decided to try a different tack. I took a few deep breaths and urged myself to relax. It had been a while since I tried to be a single ready to mingle.
I spotted a suitable lady seated alone at a table. I went around the target, focused on the food stalls, grabbed a glass of fresh juice and filled a plate with the best of the appetizers. I approached her table and asked if I could sit. Sure, she said. I cracked some weak joke about the food, she laughed politely. She accepted my offer to share the snacks. She had a good appetite. She told me her name. It was not Anita and I assumed that Paul’s wife must have used a pet-name. The lady talked about her family. The details seemed familiar. She then talked about her kids. I tried to remember if Paul or his wife had shared such information[6]. Unnerved but undefeated, I must have gone on with my jokes. Or it must have seemed obvious that I was hitting on her. A man appeared at our table. She introduced him as her husband. Even Paul and his wife would consider that as pertinent information, I thought. I choked on an appetizer, made my excuses and beat retreat leaving an amused couple. Later, I got to know that that lady is a distant cousin. I felt relieved to have kept my folly in the family.
Paul’s wife turned up half an hour later, looking disturbed but determined.
I tried to tell her about my mishit.
Chetta she is not coming,” she interrupted without a smile.
I had expected that punch. “Why?” I asked.
“She has found a guy,” she said.
“She says she wasn’t sure till today.”
“He’s a Bengali in Romania.” She made it sound as if that was a league beyond me.
“I have another one for you, Chetta,” she continued.
“Oh no, you don’t,” I protested.
She brushed that aside and guided me to another lady seated alone at a table.
My first impression of her was that she reminded me of Damien’s nanny in the movie ‘The Omen’, the second nanny, of course, the interesting Mrs Baylock[7].
The second impression was the mutual realization that we were disinterested in each other, almost instantly, quite instinctively[8].
Paul’s wife was not privy to that. She paired us up and left our company to enjoy the party.
We remained together the whole party, discussed movies (including ‘The Omen’) and books (we agreed that Russian literature was best avoided) and travel (she likes hiking and I resting), and a friendship was born[9].
We corresponded frequently, sat together at every party at the Club. We confided in each other about our malignant mid-life crisis---the insecurity and the loneliness that was breaching every barricade built to preserve sanity and happiness. We sought each other’s assistance in finding company. Together, we compiled the checklist for a suitable match. We were excited to be back in the hunt. We soon realized that it was almost like our first attempts (so long back). Almost being the operative word there[10].
The camaraderie forged in the heat of a hunt must be the strongest. I introduced her to my best friend Isaac and she brought her bosom buddy Nikki (actual name Saraswathi) into my life. The four of us met at the Club on double dates. I was surprised to see love (and Isaac) transform Mrs Baylock into an undeniably sexy female[11]. Something and Nikki transformed me too[12].
We were being readied for a bigger surprise which should not have caught us unawares. The excitement and the hectic planning involved in matchmaking must have left our foundation wobbly. The scaffolding around our lives collapsed like a house of cards. We had forgotten the fundamental rule in life: when one gets something one has longed for, never share it. One double date too many had resulted in the pairing of Isaac and Nikki. They not only fell in love, they thought they should share that ‘secret’ with us (and a few others, we learned later). They even admitted having wonderful sex.
We could have taken it on the chin, like kids, and moved on. Instead, we decided to be mature adults, and retaliated. Separately and differently, we attacked on social media.
In my group (which includes Isaac), someone had already started a boy-chat about Isaac’s latest conquest. Every gory detail got pasted on the wall. Even Isaac took part, rather willingly. I did not have to do much. I just kept it alive and kicking rather than let it slip off the guys’ limited attention-span.
Meanwhile, Mrs Baylock contributed to a whisper-campaign in her group (which included Nikki) about supporting Nikki in such distressing times. There was outrage of various types: how could a lady with kids (Nikki) do something like that; a woman owns her sexuality but…; why are guys abusing women. Mrs Baylock defended her bosom buddy and even started some hashtag.
We were feeding stereotypes but it worked. The men kept the issue alive stroking their envious libido and the women refused to let go of another issue of abuse or rights.
There was a bit of overlap between the two groups. The exchange overheated and erupted. Finally, Nikki removed her profile from social media. Isaac did not. We thought that that signalled the end of the matter of the heart. Instead, that trial by fire somehow resulted in the two declaring their love for each other (off social media at first and later on it). They got married.
Our relationship could have ended then. She returned to her old self as Mrs Baylock and I to my-whatever state. We could have carried on with our old lives. But, we were not back to square one.
We had to read the writing on our wall. Even in our fantasies, we weren’t meeting lovely strangers. As for the few acquaintances and friends that remained, it is best not to rock that middle-aged boat. We have only each other[13]. We decided to call it love[14].

[1] No doppelgangers or play on names or multiple personalities/points-of-view, no non-linear timelines, not even madness. If only every story had on its first page a summary. For example, how about crime fiction with the summary:
·         Murdered: the mistress;
·         Murderer: the driver; and,
·         Motive: love and greed (and, to spice it up, an incestuous relationship)?
That would free the writer. The creative exercise could continue without any need to keep the reader happy or eagerly flipping from one cliff-hanger to the next. Is it not sickening when everything in life is done for the benefit of others---even the most selfish acts?

[2] How Paul got his name somehow seems relevant to this three-act play or story or whatever. Paul’s father started his professional life in a factory up North. He lived in a rented room on the terrace of his foreman’s house. He fell in love with that foreman’s daughter. Whether that love was reciprocated or unrequited has remained unclear through the ages. Despite that, it is an irrefutable fact that Paul’s father was chased from that place by a mob incited by the girl’s father. It is also a fact that Paul’s father was nearly castrated as a result of that. History brings in its characteristic murkiness then. In our family’s version, the mob is blamed for that. In a neutral much-whispered version, the blame if any is placed on Paul’s father. How he recovered in the nick of time, from self-castration and from the depression brought on by that and the heartbreak, remains unclear. But, he recovered quickly, that we know. It is usually so in reality even though that goes against the demands of love-lit. He married a girl from his community, found love again and put his much-abused member to good use. Paul’s father wanted to remember his first love through his first child. Since it turned out to be a son, he suggested his old foreman’s name which was Tejpal or Satyapal or some-pal. His wife wisely demurred, softly explained to her thick-headed better-half that that might be misconstrued by the son at a later stage as an act of spite rather than of love. They compromised and agreed on the name Paul. Given such a history, it is hardly surprising that that child would grow up to inflict upon me this play in which the main actor has to endure spite dressed up as love or vice versa.

[3] Fifty six minutes after midnight, sixty seven minutes and twenty one seconds into the game, Belgium was leading 2-0 and the cameraman focused his attention on the forlorn expression of a Brazilian fan.  Paul and I must have looked at each other and seen the same.

[4] For the sake of completeness, let me give a brief history of that curse. A grand-uncle who used to be generous and a darling of the family became the black sheep at the age of forty seven when he married a maid in his employ. A great grand uncle thought he had successfully escaped from the grip of matrimony at the age of nineteen when he ran away from the girl his family had found for him only to be tied down to the same many decades later. For some of the other cursed ones, it was not their first entanglement in marriage or love. Their earlier affairs had had mixed success. Some seemed married to the one they married, some to the one they did not marry. An uncle married for a third time at fifty. His first had died early, the second was neglected and discarded, the third had started as an affair after the first one’s demise and solemnized soon after the second was divorced. All the last late affairs were doubly-cursed with fidelity and virility. All were rewarded with success and stability till death. That was part of the curse’s package deal.

[5] It was either that or the Hanuman Temple. The Club seemed more appropriate for seniors. And, the Temple had its past, or rather, I had a past: former trysts arranged there had not turned out blessed.

[6] In the matrimony business, information deemed significantly relevant changes with age and circumstances. As one approaches middle-age, the only detail that might remain on that list could be marital status.

[7] These ‘associated thoughts’ can be weird. The person might not resemble the famous personality in any way but, subconsciously or not, that aura is created. Every guy would love to have their own Mrs Robinson but rarely meets one outside fantasies. But, they do come across their own Alex of ‘Fatal Attraction’ if they even entertain such fatal dreams. Mrs Baylock must be quite rare, Regan of ‘The Exorcist’ more common. I wonder if I triggered some such thought. Who did she think of when she met me—Peter Sellers’ delightful Bakshi in ‘The Party’ or Mickey Rooney’s awful Mr Yunioshi in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’? 

[8] “The opposite of love is disinterest not hate.” That is from ‘Goliath’, an absurd B-grade TV-show.

[9] Just as physical (and financial and, to a lesser extent, mental) attraction is important in a love affair, disinterest must be the prerequisite for a beautiful friendship. That disinterest keeps it alive. It took me more than two and a half decades to realize that one of my best friends has another best friend who I despise. It takes just a night together for lovers to know all the important if not relevant stuff. Of course, years might bring out trivial details that could be made important, say, an affair or some simply human but dastardly act.

[10] ’Almost’ is almost an understatement here. While compiling the checklist, we were startled to discover how it was a different ball-game altogether. In fact, we could have picked up the checklist we had the first time we tried love or matrimony and changed every point in that list to its exact opposite. Since the compilation is one of the highlights of our affair, here it is in its full glory, ad nauseum et al.
·         We realized that one’s own pluses and minuses were more important than the prospective target’s. Quite the opposite of how it was the first time. Gone were the bravado and overconfidence. There was willingness to compromise but there was also a deep understanding of one’s own failings. Separate bathrooms (if not bedrooms) were a must, sharing would be a disaster.
·         We found that maturity had greatly reduced the types we rejected. Since we were close to retirement, profession hardly mattered. Even lawyers seemed fine. I was still dead against ladies with pets. I did not want to compete for attention (without any chance of winning). Mrs Baylock thought long and hard. Clean-shaven men, please, she insisted. She did not give reasons.
·         In the looks department, there was a topsy-turvy change: we should think of how the other would have looked in the distant past rather than think of how the other would look in the distant future.
·         The only point that did not need change was: start the new love-life by putting the right foot forward...with proper lies. Tell her she looks lovely. She will tell you she does not mind your profuse sweating.
·         A new point was a danger connected with the middle-age problem of comparing everything with the past. If only we were young and virgin and with nothing to compare. But then, there is old age ahead when there would be only the past.
·         Talking of virgin and such, we touched delicately on the issue of sex. Was it really an issue the second time around? Should we expect any action? What if the guy turned out to be a virgin? We decided to temper enthusiasm with experience. “Yes we can!”---is catchy; “Well we might…”---is better policy. We took the opportunity to remind each other of the basics. It is definitely great fun but it is the after-effect that brings so many ardent practitioners. When it goes well, the day seems so much better; people so less irritable; even mountains seem like mole-hills. And hence the converse: there is no fury worse than that when it does not go well. Of course, most people mature and come to grip with it after oft-repeated instances.  It is not so great when one tends to forget the last due to extended and unintended break. Other instances when it is not so great are when it comes along with: suggestion (‘You could try the gym.”); or humour (“You looked so funny.”); or observation (“Yupp, size matters.”); or confusion (“Are you done, love?”).
·         We found good points too. Especially the one about relatives being a non-issue the second time around. Gone were the illusions and expectations. In that way, it felt almost like a love affair. The two people involved had only themselves to blame.
·         Friends matter even less. The first time, one was made to realize almost immediately the unsuitability of one’s friends. The first arguments of newly-weds are usually of my-friends-are-better type. Both sides tend to forget that most friends were kept for variety’s sake and not with any great deal of thought about loftier matters regarding character and opportunity. The second time, it is easier. The best friends tend to be virtual friends.
·         We were frank with each other. She told me to stop dreaming about romancing a nubile nymphet two generations younger.

[11] A Mrs Baylock turning into an Alex can be quite unsettling even though the female protagonist remains in the genre of femme fatale.

[12] At that point, I had no clue I was trying to be sexy too. Alarm bells would have rung somewhere.

[13] That brought along an ‘associated thought’---the movie ‘The Blue Lagoon’. It could have been worse if the movie had been ‘Titanic’—who Leo who Kate? That would have troubled us.

[14] Literature rarely stresses on this point: love is relative. Now, now, don’t call it a twist in the tale.

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