How deeply can you fall in love with a man who doesn’t exist?


The BBC recently released its list of 100 novels that shaped our world, and I was mightily surprised to find The Twilight Saga on it, under the category of ‘Coming of Age’. Not because I am one of its detractors—far from it. But because it’s been panned and run down with such fierce intensity and regularity that one becomes shy even of admitting that one may hold some sort of affinity for the book and its characters!

Not that I am the sort of person who’d ever be ashamed of or embarrassed by the choices I make. In fact the protagonist in my own debut book mentions Twilight at one point as well. But when the BBC endorses this as a book that shaped our world, one can’t help feeling validated.

I read the first book in The Twilight Saga exactly 10 years ago— 2009— at the age of 22. Until that time, the authors I’d read included names such as these: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pearl S Buck, Jane Austen, Arundhati Roy, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Hardy. I had read about 3 Mills & Boons romances before I gave up on them. So I wasn’t remotely interested in Twilight, but my best friend had mentioned it several times in conversation, and I thought of buying the book for her as a gift.

At that time I was a sub-editor in the newspaper Financial Chronicle, my first job. I used to take a quick walk everyday on a short break during office hours, and it was during one of these walks in the Green Park market that I picked up the book, for her. She and I were room-mates in a working women’s hostel in Central Delhi. My office hours were such that I got back only after 11 p.m., while she returned even later, around 1 a.m. (News desk timings, of course.) That meant that dinner everyday was usually around midnight for me. And every night, while I ate, I liked to read. Since I happened to have this book with me that day I casually flipped through the pages just to see what it was all about. I also had the strange habit of not reading the back cover before I read the book, because for some reason that seemed to take away from the delicious pleasure of not knowing anything about the book when I dived into it. A pleasure somewhat akin to walking into the mist on a mountainside. Or exploring uncharted waters.

So it was that I had absolutely no information about Twilight and its story before that moment. I had never watched a vampire movie all my life. I knew three things about Count Dracula: that he sucked human blood, transformed into a bat and lived in Transylvania. And I didn’t even know that Twilight was about vampires. I don’t know how I managed to be so entirely oblivious, but I did.

My fingers flipped carelessly through the pages, stopping on one at random.

“If I was too hasty… if for one second I wasn’t paying enough attention, I could reach out, meaning to touch your face, and crush your skull by mistake…” read the line.

That stopped me right in my tracks. Who’s this man lying next to the girl he loves, but would crush the girl’s skull just by carelessly putting his hand on it? I was intrigued.

Flipped backwards to the first page.  Entered the wet, green, rainy town of Forks.

The rest, as they say, is history.

I read the book all the way from midnight until morning and refused to hand it to my friend for whom I had originally bought it.

I had fallen in love. And oh, what a falling there was.

There was something about this book that curved and wrapped itself slowly round me like a predatory creeper from a horror flick. Purposeful. Refusing to let go. And I was quite the willing prisoner.

Edward Cullen.

He was the very picture of 22-year-old romantic dreams come to life. He was, in one word, the ‘good boy-bad boy’.

The boy who was wreathed in mystery, with a whiff of thrill and danger about him, achingly seductive, intellectually superior, and heartbreakingly handsome. And yet, for all these traits, he was the chivalrous sort of hero, with an old-world air around him. Conflicted and deeply flawed, but always wanting to do the right thing.

And—he watched her sleep. Sigh.

Later, I found out that most people considered this distasteful, equating him with a Peeping Tom.

And I asked myself, why did I not feel outraged at the apparent ‘stalking’? The answer was plain as day. Right from the beginning of the story we, the readers, were made aware of Bella’s obsession with Edward, of her feelings for him. We knew that she had fallen in love with him, and therefore we knew of her consent. We knew that she would like him to be in her room. And that, to my mind, made all the difference. As for Edward, the first night he watched her, he heard her say his name in her sleep. And that is when he knew.

She was dreaming of him.

And so was I.

My obsession with Edward was such that the entire office came to know of it. I decorated my cubicle with a Twilight calendar and poster that I especially asked my cousin to bring for me from the US. Hunted out the movie version and played songs from the movie all day during office hours. It’s a wonder I got any work done. People would enquire politely and mischievously about Edward as if he and I were actually going steady (honest to God!). And at night, as soon as the time came for me to go to the hostel, back to Edward, I would get butterflies in my stomach, pretty much the way that one anticipates meeting an actual lover. I would go to my room and read the book over and over again – all the passages that I loved. I would leave the window open and in the dim light of the lamp I would imagine Edward standing by it, watching me read.

(Talk about romancing my own imagination!)

And then I bought New Moon. In the entire series, that’s the book I least liked –because Edward was missing for more than half the book. I probably finished the book too fast, just waiting for Edward to return (no, I don’t turn to the last page to see what happened. I never do that.) But by and by I also found myself getting angry at Edward. For leaving Bella unilaterally, ostensibly to ‘protect’ her. Didn’t she have a say in this, in things done ‘for her own good’? And then Alice coming to Bella after all this time, just because Bella apparently seems to be committing suicide. How did it even matter to all of them when they just upped and left her?

And yet… when he returned… oh, when he returned. He was forgiven everything just for returning. Edward Cullen was back. That was enough.

But now the equation was complicated. There was Jacob in the picture as well. And I found myself getting increasingly irritated at Edward’s over protectiveness. He was the one who left her. So obviously he had to deal with the consequences. But there he was— getting ever more controlling by the day and restricting her, telling her what was right for her. I never identified much with Bella but I liked how she defied him and did her own thing in Eclipse. Good for her!

But I think Edward pretty much redeemed himself in the tent scene, where he sat in a corner watching Jacob hold Bella in his arms. Just so he could save her from dying of frostbite. That one act compensated for all his past transgressions, so to speak.

The last book in the series made me hopping mad at Edward though. How he refused to make love to her just because he felt that he was hurting her and injuring her. The fact the she felt differently meant nothing. The fact that she wanted it meant nothing. Only what he considered right was right. The pattern of denial and withholding was maddening. Utterly, utterly maddening and exasperating. What sort of damaged man was this?

But what came next in the book felt like an even greater betrayal. Bella was suddenly all about being pregnant and having a baby. That I just couldn’t understand. After all this time, after wanting nothing more than Edward, now suddenly she was willing to die just to have a baby! Why, oh why! What was the point of anything then, what was the point of risking everything to marry this man when you would give up your life just to have a baby? Since when did that become important to her? I felt deeply betrayed by Bella.

However, as the story progressed and Bella changed into a vampire, she found the place where she felt completely herself, the place where she felt she belonged. She found her own special strengths and abilities, the power of throwing out the protective shield from herself, the shield which could fight the powers of the strongest vampires. In the end, it is Bella who saves the day. (For that, I suppose, I could overlook the ‘wanting the baby to death’ part.)

In hindsight though, it is never the last three books that I remember. Always the first book. Always Twilight. Always that feeling of discovering Edward for the first time, always that feeling of staying up all night re-reading the book, and listening to Full Moon Night a hundred times on a loop.

I also hunted out Midnight Sun from Stephenie Meyer’s website, and what a treat it was to read everything from Edward’s perspective! To look into the mind of the conflicted, dangerous, and deeply devoted man. The man who appeared too good to be true and yet, when you looked into his mind, there were so many feelings of insufficiency and self doubt. The sweetest, most endearing part of Midnight Sun was knowing how elated and unbelievably lucky Edward felt every time Bella said ‘yes’ to him (when all this time she was the one thinking of him as out of her league). How he imagined that someday she would say ‘yes’ to a normal human male — why would she want a monster like him anyway? And then his indescribable elation every time she said ‘yes’ to him. That emotion, that joy of being accepted by the woman he loved, was unforgettable – because it let me peek into the mind of a man deeply in love. It was beautiful.

Edward Cullen became my reference for the unbelievable, the impossible man. Not perfect. But unspeakably irresistible. And maddeningly flawed.

And for that alone, The Twilight Saga has an undeniable place in my life.

It’s funny though, that BBC placed it under the coming-of-age category, because for me it is the age-defying staple of my life. The book that makes me a young adult again, or perhaps more appropriately, a teenager. It’s comfort food for my teenage soul. Like piping hot tomato soup. A bowl of mushy cornflakes with warm milk. A plateful of steaming Maggi. Never gets boring, never gets old. And you never outgrow it.

Don’t we all have that one sustaining, everlasting obsession? Perhaps not all of us. But those of us who subsist on our own imaginations – we do. Oh, we do.

Old school love


A fortnight ago, I was pottering around the house rifling through my book collection, scrolling through Amazon Prime, looking for something to read, something to watch. Something that came with a whiff of old-school, slow-breathing love.

I’m a romance addict. Anyone who knows me knows that. I could make do with very little food but I couldn’t make do with very little romance. I’d been cranky and angsty all week, for no apparent reason, and I was looking for the one thing that would calm me down.

And then, late at night in the darkness of the bedroom I read on my phone Natasha Badhwar’s Mint Lounge column for that week. Suddenly, there it was: a slice of romantic nirvana.

Small intimacies.

The tiny, mostly unnoticeable details in a marriage that carry a subtle, soft undercurrent of romance. Like the tucking back of torn-off buttons. Natasha used this example from old Hindi movies to illustrate her point: “From Hindi movies, I had internalized other aspirations of domestic togetherness. Like the scene in which it is discovered that the man has a button missing in his shirt just when he is ready to leave for work. The woman steps in to deftly sew on a button while he is still wearing his shirt. She moves her face close to his chest to cut off the thread with her teeth, because real women don’t use scissors.

Unmoved by my romantic yearnings, my husband’s shirt buttons have remained steadfast and immotile over the years.

As soon as I read this line I blushed a furious red.

Despite not possessing the qualities of the sanskari sewing-darning woman in the least, I have to confess that it is with quite a degree of fondness that I stitch together my husband’s kurtas that begin to come apart at the seams. And no, not when he’s wearing them. Merely the act of having this mundane piece of white cloth—his kurta— in my hand and putting the quick four-five stitches to mend it, or tuck the odd button that has fallen off, evokes a deep, familiar sort of affection, a feeling akin to sitting face to face at the dining table and talking long past the food is gone.

This whole love-through-sewing thing was probably internalised by me through the very cinema that Natasha speaks about. Drat those movies!

She then goes on to narrate an anecdote from her aunt and uncle’s life, of them doing their daily puja (prayer) together. “When she is pouring oil into the lamp, she needs his presence to prepare the wick. He holds the prayer book open as she reads out the verses. From a distance, one can see them instructing each other to do what is so routine for them, you wonder why they are speaking at all. They close their eyes together and go silent, probably praying for the same thing. Their temple room is full of images of deities but they seem like they are in communion with each other.”

The image seemed to fill my room as well. Fill my heart, lighting it up like a diya for the puja.

For the past few days or so, ever so slightly, I’d been feeling a wave of restlessness, a wave of irritation at myself.

My husband and I come from diametrically opposite backgrounds. East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet, said Rudyard Kipling. But he only needed to see us together to know how the twain doth meet. All these years, my guy and I have been constantly juggling his intensely traditional background and my decidedly modern one, keeping it together by sheer will power and force of love—and umpteen recalibrations.

Sometimes it overwhelms us.

Sometimes I end up asking myself why I got into this at all. How could I have dumped myself in this mess? For that entire week, I’d been reeling under one of these spells of unexplained restlessness.

And then along comes this. This little paragraph about a couple that lights a diya together and prays side by side.

Takes me back a decade in a swish.

Prayer.

When Sajjad and I were still waiting to get married, one of the most romantic things I imagined with him—much longed for and anticipated—was prayer. Together. With this man who brought immense peace and spirituality to my life.

We would imagine the time when we’d be together in one room—our room—offering our namaz with our prayer mats spread out before us.

Joined in prayer. Joined in soul.

“In communion with each other.”

Suddenly, just like that, I remembered precisely why both of us had dumped ourselves into this ‘mess’.

It’s what we had wanted.

We married each other because we had wanted exactly what our other half brings to the table.

I had wanted him, a deeply spiritual man, a calm man. A man who possessed the capacity to listen. A man I could trust. And I, I was what he wanted. A thinking woman, a woman with a mind and a voice. To quote him verbatim, “A woman whose brain is the most attractive part of her body.”

Had he wanted a more traditional woman to match his traditional background, he could have had his pick from the dozens around him. Had I wanted a more modern man to match my modern background, I could have chosen from the dozens that tried to woo me. The reason we were here, together, wading through these frequently-turbulent waters, cutting through the foliage and battling it out together, was because we had both wanted it.

There are times in every couple’s togetherness, when we begin to wonder how did we ever come to be here? The present, the future and the world around gets too much for us. We resent the sacrifices we made, the life we had to give up in order to live this one. Was it even worth it?

In times like these, it makes sense to close our eyes and remember what it was that we’d wanted in the first place. Why was it that we made those sacrifices at all?

That might, perhaps, bring back the answers we already know, but often forget. The answers that sometimes hide within the smallest of things–the things that make up the essence of old school love.

 

 

 

 

Movies: Men love action, women love romance. Think you know why? No, you don’t!


(I break my narrative yet again, because this is something that just had to be said.)

Wonder Woman

So I finally got a chance to watch Wonder Woman (yeah, I always watch new movies way too late) and oh girl, am I thrilled! It is absolutely mesmerising to watch Gal Gadot aka Diana, Princess of the Amazons, unleash her raw power and true grit. Watching the movie made me realise a few things though—namely why I have never been a fan of action movies and prefer mostly romances. I just thought I didn’t like all the fighting —until I saw this woman kicking, punching, lassoing and sword-fighting away to glory. And it suddenly dawned upon me that the reason I—and perhaps most women— do not enjoy action movies so much is because 99 per cent of all action movies only ever have MEN taking part in all the ‘action’.

Think about it.

What makes a good movie —or any good story— tick? How much the audience/readers identify with the characters. When you watch a story unfold, you identify with at least one person on the screen—mostly, you identify with the protagonist. For that brief span of time, you are transported to the screen, you are the person experiencing it all—and you vicariously partake of all the pleasures and pains unfolding before your eyes. That is why women prefer romances—because the protagonist there, the focus of the story, is always a woman. However, in common discourse this is projected as: women are only interested in love and romance.

Not true.

Women are interested in adventure, intrigue, thrill and action as any normal human being, but one look at the ‘regular’ action fare you get on the silver screen (and the small screen too) and you’d know that women would find it hard to relate to. It’s actually not the ‘action’ that puts us off—it’s the fact that every single time, it’s always a man commanding and carrying out the action. Yes, women definitely prefer peace to war any day—but hey, when it’s about being the hero and saviour and fighting evil and injustice, women absolutely love packing in a mean punch.

A pity then, that our choices are so very limited.

All the way through Wonder Woman, I found myself jumping up and down in glee beside my very amused husband, and almost screaming—“Go Diana! Woohoo! ”

Yes, we love it when women throw the punches and absolutely decimate the baddies.

I remember whooping with joy many years ago when Keira Knightley clashed swords with cursed pirates and sea-demons in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. And I can never have enough of the way she and Will got married right in the middle of slashing up the baddies together!

Keira fight

But I was severely and utterly disappointed by the post-credits scene in the very same movie—where Will returns after 10 years on the Flying Dutchman, and Elizabeth has been waiting for him, bringing up their son all this while. I swear I felt my heart sink right into my shoes.

All that spunk—all that valour—all the sword fighting and dealing with pirates, demons and sea –monsters—all of that for nothing? No, don’t get me wrong. It’s not the child-rearing part that I had a problem with. Nope.

She got married, she had a kid, great —but nobody said she had to stay right there and give him a super traditional upbringing, did they? His dad was Captain of the Flying Dutchman, for cryin’ out loud! And his mom was King of the Brethren Court, lest we forget! She could just have brought up the boy on a ship, having adventures of her own and being the remarkable, doughty woman that she was! But the message we got instead was that once you’re married and have a baby, you really needn’t involve yourself with anything other than said baby.

But now I am beginning to digress. Where were we? Yes, women in ‘action’.

Women enjoy it when women protagonists ‘do the stuff’. When my husband introduced to me the popular TV series “The Arrow”, my favourite protagonists almost all the time were the fighting females —Sarah Lance aka the Canary, Laurel Lance aka the Black Canary, and most of all Nyssa Al Ghul — the daughter of Raas Al Ghul, Chief of the League of Assassins — but above all a shockingly lethal fighter if there ever was one. It was a real delight to watch these women in action. (Of course, Felicity was a great character too, but her fight was more of mental and digital warfare rather than throwing actual punches.)

Among my favourite kick-ass women characters though, right at the top stands the character of Teresa Lisbon from the hugely successful HBO series The Mentalist. Even though she’s not the central character—which is a man, Patrick Jane, The Mentalist himself—yet she’s not reduced to the status of merely a love interest. She’s a super tough cop—the Chief of the California Bureau of Investigation, a smart, fearless character who knows how to fight like a woman. Yeah, I said fight like a woman, because “fight like a man” kind of defeats this whole post—it indicates that only men can fight.

Again, the remarkable thing about this series was that they didn’t have to show the hero Patrick Jane as a super-macho guy, just because his leading lady was a tough-as-diamonds (why don’t they use that phrase, though? Diamonds are the toughest substance on earth!) cop who really knew how to use a gun. He, on the other hand, never even carried a gun. His super strength was his mind– the punching, shooting and capturing part was well taken care of by the lady.

Eventually, of course, Patrick Jane and Teresa Lisbon declare their love—and then comes the part where, for the first time, I felt really annoyed and angry at Jane, because he suddenly begins asking Lisbon to quit her job as an FBI agent—which she had by then become. He kept saying he didn’t want to ‘lose her’ given her high risk job and the fact that he’d already lost once a woman he dearly loved. Which felt entirely pathetic to me, because she had been a cop and a detective long before he even met her. And all these years that he’d been hunting the psychopath serial killer who murdered his family, she had been his partner and closest friend, always taking the lead in this high risk job. And now suddenly when he declares his love for her, he wants her to throw away all she has built up in life just because he’s insecure about losing her? It made me hopping mad.

Thankfully though, Lisbon was a woman after my own heart and she refused to budge. My most favourite, absolutely cherished scene from this series—and in fact my most cherished scene from any series or movie ever, period—is that of Lisbon in her wedding gown, in typical law-enforcement posture and fearlessly holding a gun at another serial killer.

lisbon gun
A smart man isn’t scared of loving a strong woman

That moment, to me, symbolises the very essence of my womanhood: she doesn’t necessarily have to reject love, she doesn’t necessarily have to reject marriage, she doesn’t need to reject femininity either—but she refuses to let go of her passions, of things that are important to her; refuses to let go of who she truly is. She dons the sleek and classy wedding gown, but as soon as the baddies appear, she gets all-out in cop mode—whipping out her gun and confronting the psychopath. Even though there’s a whole law enforcement team there, she doesn’t sit it out just because it’s her wedding day. She remains true to herself and her work, her duty.

That one moment will forever be the essence of femininity to me. Femininity is not about being a damsel in distress—it’s about being a damsel that can remove distress.

And that’s who we fantasise about being when we find doughty women in action onscreen.

This reminds me of exactly what I felt when I watched Jean’s character blast out her mutant powers with full force in the climax of X-Men: Apocalypse. Every pore of my body felt like that woman who is trying hard but frustratingly failing to harness her true powers, that somewhere in me those forces are all accumulating to rip out in one great explosion of fearsome power.

X-Men_Jean_Phoenix

Whether it’s saving your home or saving the world, we vicariously fulfil all our dreams of superhuman strength and fighting power through these characters. But when those characters are only men, we can just salivate or drool over them as fantasy love interests! (Or just appreciate them as interesting characters.) We can’t actually identify with them —obviously.

So here’s my last word on the subject.

Movie makers, you’ll be opening up a whole new demographic if you just create more intrepid, fearless ‘women in action’ characters. That way, you’ll know that it’s not just the romances that draw women in. We love action too— only you’ve got to have the right person doing it.