Love, Life and Literature

First, the disclaimer: I know nothing about love, life or literature. In this, I am one with the lyricist who wrote, "I’ve looked at love/life from both sides now… but it’s love/life’s illusions I recall. I really don’t know love/life at all." Choosing to believe that such ignorance qualifies me uniquely to pontificate, not just about each or any one of them, but all three of them at once, I am recording here my own views on love (which fascinates me), life (which challenges me) and literature (of which I quite definitely know absolutely nothing). 

I think that love, or the want of it, is the central preoccupation of most of our personal lives. There are different kinds of love we feel and receive, and different kinds of love that we need but may or may not receive. But today let us talk of the kind of love that is associated with romance, eroticism, lust, procreation, marriage, etc. I am not sure what exactly to call it, since it is sought in so many different places and in so many different ways and for so many different purposes all around me. In recent days, it has occurred to me that such love comes into (and exits) one’s life in a variety of ways that may be represented as different genres of literature. 

Most of the middle class girls I grew up with, grew up with some expectation of what I will call "Love, the Novel." They would grow up, meet someone and get married, and this relationship would underpin the entirety of their lives. They might meet this person through relatives on the arranged marriage circuit or on their own, thus having a ‘love marriage.’ The great debates in school and college were about arranged versus love marriage, and not about whether or not to get married. Lack of interest in the institution set one apart instantly, and the assumption was that in the zero-sum of career-marriage, one had chosen the career. For most girls, the transition to adulthood would be marked, it was expected, by getting married. Life before marriage was merely a preface, and the novel would commence with the wedding ceremony. 

The novel may be tragic or romantic with a happy ending. It would be punctuated by major and minor events—the twenty-four samskaras of the Hindu life-cycle—and all these centered first on the husband-wife relationship and in the Indian context, the complex familial web that weaves in and out of it. In that sense, ‘Love, the Novel’ could also be ‘Love, the Saga.’ In either event, it is important to note that in contrast to most literary love-stories, the Novel really begins after the wedding ceremony.

Most girls I knew grew up expecting their love-lives to be a Novel, but secretly fantasized about the Epic. ‘Love, the Epic’ is that passionate, life after life, forsaking all else and all others feeling that sustains couples through all the obstacles that litter the course of their relationship. It encompasses many Novels, many Ballads, many Sonnets and many, many Dirges. This is that feeling that people in books always seem to feel and that people in soap operas feel five times a television season. The empiricist in me believes it cannot exist; the romantic in me refuses to believe the empiricist. The elusive but enticing Epic is the standard against which even the finest Novel is merely a long story. 

In all our lives, there is the kernel of an Epic. The choices we make in our love-lives are often dictated by the ways in which we deal with this. Some people seek the Epic in every kernel; others forsake every kernel that fails to meet the Epic standard. 

This sets up several other love-life-literature possibilities. There is ‘Love, the Novella.’ Long-term relationships that end short of a lifetime seem to fit this label. You start writing them thinking that the plot and characters can sustain for a lifetime, and then they take over and dictate twists and turns that belie your expectations of a life-length Novel. You have a rich, complex Novella, that although short, still affects you profoundly. 

‘Love, the Short Story’ is the universe of those relationships that although passionate and affectionate, were never intended or expected to last beyond a season or two. They might, in that time, replicate all the features of the Novel. On the other hand, they may focus on one or another facet of the Novel—what would be one strand, one theme, one interval, one mood, one set of characters. 

Are all other Loves lesser imitations of these forms?

Seated in my armchair, I look out at this gloomy autumn day and wonder. My eighty-year old body houses a two-hundred year young soul. I think about my life. No Novel, no Novella, no Short Story, no Epic. But so much Love. Are all other Loves lesser imitations, and thus all other lives, inferior forms of literature? 

As I ponder this question, all the faces of Love in my life pass before my eyes. Voices, gestures, looks, embraces. I smile as my eyes fill with tears—of joy and love and remembering. Lesser forms? I think not. 

There is also ‘Love, the Essay.’ Love writ large through life seems not to require neither meter, nor plot, nor even purpose, but courses free and strong, uncommitted yet passionate, through each page. The Essay is both permeated by Love in an almost-Epic fashion and 

punctuated by Loves more tangible and easier to narrate. 

Some Loves are Sonnets. The familiar metric scheme makes for a pleasant journey, that ends before it palls but also without regret. Like a fragrance or a beautiful view, one enjoys it, perhaps the more for its brevity. Some Loves are like Haiku poems—short, sweet and sublime. One expresses without explicating, caresses without touching and parts without saying good-bye, and all in seventeen syllables. Yet other Loves are Limericks—slick hair, leather skirts, table manners and bank balances. Holding neither promise nor prospect, they are the anti-Loves of a life—the bad blind date, the boring suitor, the mismatched match and the self-absorbed children that masquerade as grown-ups in the merry-go-round of a love-life. Sometimes distasteful, sometimes quirky, they are funniest when they are almost forgotten.

Some Loves are Refrains, showing up from time to time in one’s life. Preoccupied with something or someone else, one suddenly catches a phrase that recalls the deep and abiding love one felt once, and following that second, one feels it again for a while. Powerful attraction and intense caring surge within, and in that moment, in that emotion, Love is no longer Refrain but Epic. The Refrain is the reminder of what might have been, the teasing promise of what might still be. But it comes and it goes, and everything, everyone else pales into insignificance. A haunting Refrain is the ruination of many a promising Novel. 

After eighty years, I would compare my love-life to the ‘Essay.’ A life without confines, through which love has woven freely and abundantly—love without roles and love without expectations. I have known the acute loneliness of the long interstices and the profound companionship of fleeting moments of togetherness, which are the more intense for their transience. Feeling passion—in look, in touch, in words—and also feeling affection—at its most effervescent and in its bedrock-like qualities, I have felt and received so much love in this life-time, that I will venture to say that when Love is a long and complex enough Essay, it is Epic. It endures and its sustains, it defines and it enhances, it shows a million aspects, and all of them are still Love. In all the forms and features of those who are loved and who love, are, vividly and fully, all the dimensions of Love. In compromising on the genres of Love in my life, I have not compromised on the quality or the quantity of Love itself. 

This self-indulgent and labored essay thus claims for an eighty-year old single woman a library of Love, to read and re-read, as the sun goes down on her life. It makes me think that perhaps I do know a little about Love, and by virtue of that, a little more yet about Life. My ignorance about Literature remains and moreover is now proven by the contrived comparisons of this essay, but given the bounty of Love in the pages of my life, it does not matter.

Swarna Rajagopalan
East Lansing, 11-14-00

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