I'm from India, crazy in love

How do I balance these tormenting feelings and chaotic desires? I feel I will lose my mind!

Published January 7, 2011 2:01AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

"Romantic love is an illusion. Most of us discover this truth at the end of a love affair." -- Thomas Moore

The above lines don't seem to hold true for me. I have been a regular reader of your column from the last two years. I really loved your column and the effort you put in for your readers. Even though the distance between India and the States seem to hold true but the heart I have been holding inside me has always been that of a modern liberal inside a conservative India. I know you will help me out of this longing which I'll narrate in following paragraphs.

I am residing in India and I met this wonderful girl on an online chat forum way back in 2004. I had just graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi in 2004 and came home to spend a few days with my family.

Initially, we exchanged messages and phone calls between us. I met her once in New Delhi as she was residing 10 hours drive from my hometown. The first date went sour. I saw in her eyes from the very beginning that she was not interested in seeing me. She told me right away on the first date that she didn't mean to meet me but somehow she managed to meet as she was afraid of something which she didn't tell me. But I could see from her eyes that her obvious look was filled with disgust towards my looks.

Cary, girls in my school and during the years of my graduation didn't ever frown upon me. For the first time I saw this odd look in someone's eyes, a total stranger sending down the shivering in my stomach. But I couldn't comprehend the obvious look right away which would turn out to be a nightmare for me in the coming few years.

We spent a few hours together and she asked me what do I expect from her. I told her I would like to develop a bond with her since I have been missing something human from the last few years after spending grueling days in the tech school.

All said and done and we promised to meet again. But that day never came!

After I came home, a few days later I started receiving messages and e-mails from her as to how she wants to be in a relationship with me. I replied affirmatively. We again started exchanging messages but when I would ask her to meet me she would back off citing her time being consumed by work and family. All of a sudden during one night, she calls me up and asks me to run to the terrace. She laughs on the phone and asks me look on the full moon night and she professes her love for me. I felt the same and I romantically gifted her with my poetic lines during that night.

A few days later I again asked her to meet me in Chandigarh but she again refused. I didn't know what to do as if something was touching me from distance but I was not able to get hold of the moment.

She started sending me erotic messages to which I got addicted so badly that we both started spending our nights on phones exchanging messages in an erotic form. But when the issue of meeting me in real would come up she would not budge and she would state that she's testing me and analyzing me.

I saw the obvious plot in it and resisted her attempts to just keep an illusory phone communication between us. I would drop the urge to talk to her for a few days and usually kept myself busy in my work life and family. But there was sudden awakening inside me during those days, a longing to get hold of the urge of the erotic. I could feel inside me during the days I didn't talk to her, a sudden and engulfing desire to seek the proverbial forbidden fruit of erotic. I would go into a trance during those times my erotic self would engulf me and I would spend my time fantasizing about the sweet emotions of love and sex.

This desire engulfed me so badly that I gave up my job and started staying with family and I would spend days feeling something hidden inside me, the eros. I was so much perplexed that I couldn't even decide what to do practically.

I wanted to share this feeling with her in real and I again started communicating with her on phone. But the day of meeting her would not ever come up. Neither I was able to decide and neither could she.

Ultimately what was left among the ruins was that I started feeling pain in my body and anger which was building up inside against her. I started reacting badly to her that she decided to part her ways. This episode of my life lasted with her for 20 months.

Cary, I then decided to go into therapy. I was told by my therapist that I am in depression and I have general anxiety disorder too for which I have just completed the therapy. I am now fine and I recently took up the Myers-Briggs personality inventory test and I am an ENFP by it.

Cary, now why again I long for something that's not gettable. Why do I always desire the erotic in every girl I meet or date? What advice would you put forward for me and how would I come out of this impracticality which I most of the time keep to myself? Is this an awakening? I don't know yet!

Thanks a lot!

Friend of Eros

Dear Friend of Eros,

Yes, I think this is an awakening, not just for you but for India. You are awakening to the terrifying world of the ungoverned personal, the chaotic and unmoored, the savage realm of secular individuality. We in the West watch with rapt, uncomprehending fascination as you and your countrymen invent yourselves. We are privileged to see this happening in individuals and also collectively.

It is unlike anything we have ever seen. But because we are so distant culturally, there are real limits to how much I can pretend to understand. 

Before we go any further, I must say that the lines you quote above, purportedly from Thomas Moore, don't hold true for me, either, but for a different reason: Nowhere can I find a definitive source for them. Bartlett's, as provided on the Web by Bartleby.com, does not show the quote. Worldofquote.com  lists its source as "none." Another site attributes it to Somerset Maugham, and another to both Thomas Moore and Thomas More. I wrote to the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics and if a Thomas Moore scholar gets back to me with an answer, I'll post an update. Until then, I won't know that Thomas Moore said this any more than Mark Twain said that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.

Was the quote perhaps recorded by Byron in one of the journals that Moore later burned after Byron's death? That would be funny, eh?

Anyway, your writing reminds me of certain things -- writings from the Heian period of Japan, such as the Tale of Genji, and the writings of Sei Shonagon. For starters, we should all read more modern Indian literature. And I am put in mind of the innocent 1950s in America, the last time that youth was young.

You know, I have to say I am charmed, and I am fascinated, but I really do not know how to chart the course you must chart. You must chart it. That alone may be a strange idea. Not that you don't know this intellectually, that India is coming apart and being reborn, but intuitively, how can you know what it is like to invent yourself? We Americans have been doing it for generations, celebrating our independence and trying on new religions and cultures like new sets of clothes. But you don't have generations behind you of parents and grandparents and great-grandparents educated in Enlightenment ideas and shaped by economic forces that favored individualism.

There are so many things we take for granted in the West! We think a certain way but it has been bred into us, as certain things have been bred into you. The challenge for us Westerners  is to remind ourselves how shallow is our sight into what you are experiencing. We can scarcely imagine it.

I wonder how your therapist works. I wonder if "depression" and "anxiety" even mean the same in your culture as they do in the Western culture. Do you watch "In Treatment" on HBO by any chance? The episodes with Sunil? I thought it showed how difficult it is even for a trained psychotherapist to understand what a person from a different culture is saying. Or did you see "The Darjeeling Limited"? These Western expressions of fascination with your world would, I think, show how little we Westerners really know about what you are going through.

So we pretend, you and I. You write to me and I write back but we are pantomiming to each other; I have no idea how to understand what you are "genuinely thinking and feeling"; I have no easy intuition about you, as I do about Westerners. I cannot read your clues as you might read the clues to caste of someone in India.

So it makes it fascinating, and I enjoy the chance to bluntly call attention to our difference, the gulf between us.

What would I say to you if I were your therapist? I might suggest that we sit together in silence for a while, just sit together and see what happened. Maybe you could teach me some Indian songs and we would sing Indian songs.

All I can say with certainty is, Welcome to the craziness of life without rules, "like a complete unknown, no direction home, like a rolling stone."

These are the things about your life that I do recognize: its uncertainty and chaos; its emotional extremes; its obsessive romantic involvement. These things I recognize.

I wrote a column a couple of weeks ago about a woman in a relationship with a man from Turkey, and it seems very harsh in retrospect, and may be viewed as racist by some, but what I was trying to get across is that cultural differences are not trivial, that people from traditional cultures do not simply change who they are when an American shows up. We Americans!

We really cannot see you!

Your letter sent me on a trip around the Internet, and certain things dazzled me:

Hipster Hunter goes to India.

Adland rockstars.

Swami Vivekananda on the caste system.

(Ramakrishna in 1881 Calcutta looks like a rock star.)

And this bit in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, on mysticism.

These are just fragments. I feel fragmented. I feel that our relationship here in this text, lacking context, is like a bunch of fragments. I have no coherent sense of where you are in life or where you need to go next. That is not because you are being unclear. It is because I cannot read you because I do not know your language. For instance, when you talk about sex, are you talking about sex the act, or sex the idea? I am not even sure that the words you use mean the same to me as they do to you.

Your prose is beautiful to me in its strangeness. It has a beauty you yourself may not be aware of. It is a beauty that arises in the reader because of how it differs from the reader's tradition, how it plays on our expectations, warping them and tweaking them in charming ways. I suspect that Indian youth are learning a strange new English, not the English of my parents and grandparents, steeped in a tradition of spoken English, not an English full of nuance and echoes of Shakespeare, steeped in a rich literary and linguistic tradition, but a new, modern industrial-strength, Internet-ready English stripped down to its business function, a universal shorthand.

I think in the coming years you and your peers will need a whole new vibrant language to express all that you are experiencing, your own English, and your own language of art and youth, a vernacular that springs from the urgency of new unnamed emotions. Who will be the Dylan, the Leonard Cohen of your time?

Who will be the person who takes to the road in India, not knowing where he is going, driven to discover who he is by trial and error and the wild wind of his passions, and by discovering who he is help others discover who they are?

Who will be that person?

Who will that be?

Will it be you?

January 2010 Creative Getaway

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By Cary Tennis

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