All the world loves a love story

All the world loves a love story

What really is love? It’s a question we all tend to think about around Valentine’s Day, and perhaps the reason we celebrate. Shinie Antony attempts to find answers in literature.

‘Love’ drives just about everyone — the layman, the lover, the littérateur, not to mention the entire greeting card industry. Four letters that launch a million SMSs every day, inspire crude graffiti as well as haunting haiku, turn verbose or tongue-tie. The magic word that bursts forth in titters or tears, arcs across rags and riches, and is decoded constantly in verse and prose to the point, some would say, of obscurity. It justifies celibacy, carnal excess, pedophilia, lunacy, homicide. ‘He/she is in love’ has been reason enough, the only excuse, the raison d'être, motive and central motif.

Who doesn’t love a love story? In the right writer’s hands love is a forbidden fruit; you have to eat it or die. In the wrong hands, of course, it is a cliché, a tried and tested formula aiming straight for the Bad Sex in Fiction award. The obsessive in The Museum of Innocence, the unsaid in Girl With A Pearl Earring, the traveller in Eat, Pray, Love, the illicit in Anna Karenina, the scandalous Lolita, the revealingly reversed Betrayal, the swashbuckling Gone With the Wind, the once-censored Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the ethereal Breakfast at Tiffany’s, even all that delicious abstaining in Twilight make us go aaawww.

Closer home, Meera got a second chance at love in Anita Nair’s Lessons in Forgetting, Devayani chose to stay away from love for all the right reasons in Shashi Deshpande’s In the Country of Deceit, Chetan Bhagat’s Aarti was all modern woman in her dilemma between first love Raghav and the more successful Gopal in Revolution 2020, Jahnavi Barua’s Kaberi learnt when to stop loving in Rebirth, and Nighat Gandhi gave the hearts of the handicapped and the sidelined a rare fluency in Ghalib at Dusk.

So, what do the interpreters of love, those who pen memorable and moving passages on the subject, the fairy-tale happily-ever-after aspect of it, the unrequited passion of it, the delight and despair of it, have to say about it?

Chennai writer Shreekumar Varma explains: “After having researched relentlessly on the subject for several years, I have found that love is an iridescent cell located within ourselves that responds to people, places and situations, but mostly to ourselves. It doesn’t matter that our love is unreciprocated; we are the ones who switch on and off. Love is eternal as long as we last. Love stories last because they teach a few lessons to lovers.”

Bestselling novelist Anita Nair says she can’t think of any definitions of love. “So, does that make love an indefinable proposition?” she muses. Lots of movie scenes that range from Pakeezah to Falling in Love to Bridges of Madison County to Before Sunrise have caught her attention on the subject. She sums up: “There is a greater need to spend real time with each other than get into a courtship built through letters and telephone calls. Time spent together has turned romance into a more physical one rather than an imagined reality.”

Realistic love

About how the new lot goes about romance, Anita says: “I think the younger generations tend to be less soppy and more realistic, especially the urban youth.”
Says Bangalore author Jahnavi Barua: “It is interesting to see how the idea of romance and courtship has changed over the years. In our parents’ generation, love was, usually, found within marriage, after marriage. Very few couples were given the choice to choose their own spouses and thus, there was no question of courtship or romance before that.

At the earliest, following a firm engagement, there was a small window of time and space where some courtship was possible. The central romance began after the wedding and in films, fiction and theatre of the time, this was what was emphasised. Then came our generation, where young people took the choice of their spouses or partners into their own hands. Romance/courtship was now freed from the confines of marriage, but still, it was again, usually, played out once, maybe twice. The norm was to marry whoever you courted. The generation of today has gone several steps further and young people today tend not to take every romantic relationship as the last one, one that leads to the wedding mandap and the altar.”

All-time favourite

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a clear favourite among our writers. While Anita feels Love in the Time of Cholera by Marquez “is probably one book that dealt with mature love in a unique fashion”, writer Vijay Nair echoes her on the book. “One of the most compelling books I have read is Love in the Time of Cholera. Remarkable for the way Marquez blends love into the cauldron of complex human emotions and makes its fragrance linger on for days after you have finished reading the book. I ‘love’ that book about love,” he says.

Journalist-writer Humra Quraishi from Delhi is impressed by Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores, where a nonagenarian falls for a 14-year-old girl. “Love for the first time for this 90-year-old! And without any of the sexual frills involved! As Marquez writes in this novel, ‘Sex is the consolation one has for not finding enough love’.”

Says Chennai-based Mini Krishnan, editor-translations, Oxford University Press: “One of the best love stories I’ve ever read in translation is Qurratulain Hyder’s Kafir which shows the love between a Muslim girl (‘Musalmanti!’ is what her Hindu friend calls her right through their childhood and into their teens) and her Hindu neighbour. Finally, they decide to leave home together, but at the end of the street, they know they cannot break their homes, and return. Not a word is said but the intensity of loss and sorrow is beautifully conveyed. Of course, it is understood that it is love denied, love lost that makes for interesting literature.”

Vijay is also a fan of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. “That’s another terrific novel on the quirky conditions the chemicals of love induce.” He adds: “And yes, however corny you may find it, I completely believe Madhuri Dixit in Dil Toh Pagal Hai, when she says ‘God made all of us in pairs’.”

Humra says: “Today’s romance seems pegged on the superficial and the make-believe. You are left wondering where are the emotions, where is that intensity of want?”

Explains Mini: “Ours is one of the most secretive and hypocritical societies with traditionally rigid barriers (young girls to go no further than the gate or the doorstep). But if you look at Sanskrit poetry — and the dominant languages that are derivatives of it — you will find extremely lush and straightforward descriptions along with the selected messengers, like clouds, birds, the moon, etc.

Nor is it always romanticised. A rather desperate lover says that he might try throwing a ball at his beloved because she is certain to be reminded of her breasts and show some emotion! Some of the best descriptions of hidden love also show forbidden relationships: between in-laws, or when certain sorts of social divisions prevail, say, the love of a man for his employer’s daughter or between people of different castes. The presence of different religious groups is another fascinating context.”

And the thing about romance is that it is amiable to being interwoven into anything — a detective story (Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon), comedy (Fay Weldon’s The Fat Woman’s Joke), adventure (Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days), historical fiction (Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind), swagger (Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire), erotica (Pauline Reage’s The Story of O)... The list is endless. All credible input and insight on love are recognised and duly noted by readers who see in these their own questions answered, their own issues addressed, their own feelings reflected. And there are all kinds of love going under the hammer — gay, hetero, incestuous, controversial — all made explicable only by the depth of feeling expressed on the pages.

In literature, love turns mural for the mind, a mirror where one is able to ‘see’ or Braille one’s wants, make it present tense, in the here and now. It plays plot, sidekick, comic relief, dialogue, applause. It is a word that singlehandedly takes on the world and creates a buzz purely by appearing in and as ‘Love’. And though Science tries to play spoilsport with its surveys and dull stats and all that talk about hormones travelling a prepaid biological path, fiction gives us the emotional experience by proxy, by putting us in someone’s shoes, shifting perspectives and sensitising. There is such a whiff of the first-hand in a classic love story that the reader comes away with the sense of sharing a secret. As Aldous Huxley said: “There isn’t any formula or method. You learn to love by loving.”

And some writers found out en route, tell it well and a love story can take you straight to the bank. Erich Segal might well have hummed: “Where do I begin, to tell the story of how Love Story made me love all love stories…”

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