Fallouts of a Gaslight Romance

Nine months ago, I extracted myself forcefully from the dregs of a relationship that had lasted, off and on, for two years before that. It left me a seething mass of guilt and self-hatred. He wouldn’t let go. He was stalking me and hurting himself, letting me know at every possible chance what I was making him do. How I had ruined his life. I would be threatening to call the police if he ever contacted me again, and then crying into my pillow, wondering when I had turned into such a nasty bitch, believing that I would never meet anyone to love again, believing I was incapable of love, a psychic vampire, a ruiner of lives, a breaker of the people who tried to love me. Believing I deserved every single bad thing that happened to me, because somewhere the karmic cycle had to give.

The last few months, every time I narrate this story, more frequently to myself than to anyone else, I have swung between calling him a monster and just a guy whom I happened to not get along with though we both tried too hard. He was polite, introverted, but also well-spoken and extremely sharp. Everyone who met him found him nice. His friends – largely consisting of the drunks at the local pub, whom he enabled with his own (not infinite) money when they ran out of theirs – found him nice. His ex-girlfriend – a girl whom I’d never met because she was Romanian, living back in Bucharest, and had no interest in meeting me; and whom he openly called a high-functioning psychopath – found him nice. His mother – who lived in Calcutta at the same time as I did, and also had no interest in meeting me – found him nice. Even the few of my own friends (four, to be precise) who met him briefly found him nice, although he had no interest in furthering the acquaintance.

He voted Labour. Called himself an anarchist. Called himself a feminist. Looked after me when I had chicken pox, my skin all blistered open and oozing pus; then looked after me when I was debilitated with depression, never mind that part of the depression was triggered by him. 

He didn’t want me to go anywhere without him, even to see an innocent tourist attraction in London, even to meet a friend over a cup of coffee, but refused when I asked him to come along as well. (So, basically, neither of us would go.) He was irritated when I talked about my friends. He was irritated when I talked about my writing, my studies, my family, my dreams, anything at all. He was irritated every time I expressed an opinion he didn’t feel equally strongly about, because it’s all very well to have an accomplished girlfriend, as long as her accomplishments are validated by him.  I wasn’t even entitled to have a private thought that differed from his. I wasn’t allowed to have a hobby that he didn’t find exciting (merely didn’t find exciting, not even one that he objected to). Every thought would be pried out, ceaselessly argued, endlessly yelled at, until I would give up and “see the light”, and only then we could go get dinner.

I remember so much yelling, so much yelling, so much yelling. Sometimes I would be too scared to respond to a call, yet not picking up the phone would only make matters worse, because the yelling would only escalate the next time I did pick up. Sometimes I would just zone out, cower in a corner of my brain, and let the noise wash over me. The words no longer made sense – it was all a red, bristling haze. I am the child of an abusive home. I have cowered all my life from loud noises. Sometimes people have difficulty hearing my voice in a conversation, because I have a maladjusted sense of what’s loud enough, and I always go for the lower end of the spectrum. He knew this, just as well as he knew every other bit of my life that he’d forcefully pried out.

But he was a nice guy. He cried too. He tried his hardest to keep me with him. He sent me a bouquet of roses in Calcutta for our one-year anniversary, and another in Seattle for my birthday. This second time we were actually broken up, but he never stopped trying. No other guy would do so much for me.

He was avidly against the Sad Puppies, but when I got through at Clarion West, he told me Clarion West was frivolous and, frankly, useless. Go have fun if you want to, I’d like you to get out of home and be social, but don’t expect to learn any serious writing from that kinda place. Writing is an act of rigour and self-sacrifice. Everything else is shallow self-promotion.

He had been writing a novel for ten years. That monstrous tome of self-obsession was better than anything I would ever write.

He wasn’t the traditional chauvinist. When I got sexually assaulted, he called me dramatic and delusional. Not like your average MCP who’d like to punch the face of any dude who so much glances sidelong at his girl. I should’ve known it when he called the women who had crushes on him dramatic and delusional. Called his friends’ girlfriends annoying when they were tired of nagging their good-for-nothing partners to perform the simplest household chore. Called the woman who winked at him at the pub a rapist. But, to his credit, he never called anyone a slut or a whore. A self-proclaimed feminist doesn’t do that. Fat girls, however, were just lazy and not trying hard enough to deserve nice things. (His worst insult for a woman was to call her an SJW. He yelled at me every time he suspected I might be turning into an SJW.)

He cooked for me. We never went out to eat. We were stuck for hours in the kitchen – him cooking, me keeping him company, because that was the least that I could do, even though I had deadlines, I might want to talk to someone else for a change, I might even want to do something else with him. If I so much expressed the intention, there was yelling.

The yelling, the yelling. There was nowhere to hide from it. My ears wouldn’t stop ringing, my brain wouldn’t stop reeling from the last one before he’d set off again with the next. If we were doing reasonably fine, if there was nothing immediately to yell about, he’d invent one – from the Internet, from the news, from the news five years ago. I could never recover myself well enough to smile. I could never recover myself well enough to want to have sex. (No, I don’t enjoy steamy make-up sex. I run the fuck away from a violent situation.) And then there would be more yelling, because this meant I was sexually inert, because this meant I didn’t love him enough, because I had embedded sexual dysfunctions that I was refusing to address. Yet every time we broke up and I went on to have sex with other people (after those break-ups, each of which felt final, I always, vehemently went on to have sex with other people), the sex turned out to be fun, spontaneous, an earnest and life-affirming respite.

Here I was, dysfunctional, stuck in love with this guy and absolutely without any desire for him. Why would I break up with him, why would I find another person to love, when the problem was inherently with me?

He was two years younger than me. He would grow up, if only I gave him the time.

For two years, I waited for the day I would stop wanting to spontaneously break into tears all the time, because he was such a good boyfriend otherwise. Liberal. Generous. Faithful. Holding down a prestigious job and being a responsible citizen. Genuinely interested in being with me. No one else I’d ever loved had made me so much of a priority.

No one else I’d ever loved had made me so much of a project.

By the time I finally cut him off in November, I could no longer connect with the person I had been before. I had irretrievably changed. I was living on a third continent. None of the people I regularly talked to were the same, except my mother and my best friend – a guy from college whom my ex had tried his hardest to make me quit. It is completely to this friend’s credit that he was right there to listen to me cry for three hours on the phone, at the middle of the night Indian time, on a weekday, when I called him up for the first time in nearly a year. I had quit him – disappeared from his life without notice – although at another end I was ceaselessly fighting for my right to stay friends with him, my right to talk to him, against mounting accusations of emotional unfaithfulness. I had quit my other friends too, and some of them justifiably drifted away.

I extracted myself, and the first thing that hit me was… nothing. The dark, scary void. I didn’t have any friends except that one guy. It’d been months since I stopped seeing my psychiatrist, who was by now halfway across the world. No one I knew in a vague, social sense could fathom what I’d just gone through. I couldn’t even write an article – not just about relationships, but any opinion piece about politics, sexuality, identity, not even a fucking book review, because I was no longer sure of anything I had formerly believed. I could not even copy-edit – even my sense of grammar and syntax had been blasted to its foundations. My diary entries from one day are contradictory to the next.

I tried to flirt with other people – beautiful people, who were nice to me at least at that first acquaintance – and recoiled every time they reciprocated. I remember kissing a stranger at a party, and then coming home the next day, diving under my blanket, shaking and wanting to die. I remember getting an anxiety attack and rushing to the university therapist, struggling to breathe, because a boy who reminded me of him (self-righteous, sarcastic, insistent) said he’d come to see me at a social event that I could not avoid attending. Is this PTSD? Or am I too dramatic and delusional?

I do not recognize this person. No one who has known me even a little bit at any point in my life (besides the last two years) would be able to recognize her. I was always the fighter, always the one who had a grip on her emotions, even if she didn’t have them all sorted out. I had my demons, but I always got the better of them. I externalized my fears and insecurities – the more uncertain I felt about my place in the world, the more I achieved to seal it. I always dodged romantic bullets – I’ve had my indiscretions, but never really let in anyone who felt unwholesome; I believed I had an instinct for it. I feel like I’m talking about a character from a story – none of these characteristics resonate within me any more.

I don’t know who I am any longer. I don’t trust anyone’s validation. Not my several degrees’. Not my psychotherapist’s. The least of all my own.

But of course, I broke up with a really great guy, broke his heart, messed him up. He went and had a brawl at the pub, got himself a black eye. He temporarily quit his highly desirable job. He fucked a random, collateral girl who had a crush on him, and then dumped her when she started being dramatic and delusional – and all of that is my fault. I do not deserve anyone else’s love, because I’ll break them just the same way again, because I’m inherently toxic like that.

The best thing about this entire post is that I don’t even know which parts of it I intend to be ironic. They fluctuate, just like all my other intentions, just like everything else I hold true. I’ll look at it after clicking “publish” and the only thing that will feel true is the last paragraph. Are you supposed to be laughing with me? Are you supposed to be laughing at me? Am I the villain of this entire story? I have no idea. If you try to reach out to me, I’ll probably snap your fingers off. I don’t know what I expect to achieve by posting this, except that I’ve cried my heart out as I typed these words, and I’m hoping one day my reserve of tears will run dry. And maybe when it does, eventually this fog will clear, and I don’t know what I’ll see when it does, but I’ll see something. Seeing something – any one thing – will be good enough. I’m so tired and giddy from always seeing double.


Some people REALLY don’t like Wendy Doniger, right?

The first was the book called The Hindus: An Alternative History from Penguin Books India, published nearly four years ago. I hear that the organization called Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti has been campaigning to pull it down ever since then, and in February 2014 they succeeded. SBAS (and its representative Dina Nath Batra) has promptly gone and petitioned against On Hinduism, another book by Doniger, this time published in India by Aleph Book Company. Not being in India, not even being at any particular city centre where conversation about Indian writing goes on (say London), not having any particular resource into the Indian publishing scene any more, besides having been physically ill for a long time, I have not participated actively in the discussion. More knowledgable, more experienced people were speaking, so I kept quiet and read. I also read a lot of comments by the public on the Internet – in the comment section of the Change.org petition, on Reddit and other places. Someone also put up The Hindus for download on a blog, making it accessible for everyone who wanted to read the book before they talked about it.

I downloaded the book from the blog but haven’t managed to read it. Hinduism is not my area of scholarship. I was born into a Hindu family and haven’t changed my religion, but most of my knowledge about Hinduism come from mother and grandmother, the occasional temple visit, a Sunday column on the Mahabharata written by Nrisinghoprosad Bhaduri in Bartaman in the late 1990s… all in all, nothing that makes it an expert opinion. Reading one book out of the blue wouldn’t have made my opinion relevant in any larger scheme of things. I may be Hindu, but I’m not an expert on Hinduism. Notice the difference.

Who is an expert on Hinduism that you should listen to? Unlike people under different sects of Christianity or Islam, most Hindus I know seem to be brought up under very different traditions. Wedding rituals vary in detail from family to family, besides varying widely from community to community, usually to gentle confusion and overall amusement. In Calcutta, where I grew up, no one was vegetarian, not even the Brahmins. (Pledging to sacrifice a goat at Kalighat if a wish was fulfilled was quite a common practice among the faithful.) We all gave aaroti at Durga pujo – the biggest religious event on the calendar – and we all did Lakshmi pujo and Saraswati pujo at home. Some of my friends’ parents also did Biswakarma Pujo at home, and Ganesh pujo during Haalkhata in April, but my mother had explained to me that you only did those if you were into business, for Biswakarma was the god of craft and Ganesh presided over industry. (Both of my parents were into professions.) That was Hinduism enough for them, and for most people around whom I grew up. They never thought of themselves as anything but faithful Hindus. Growing up, I never felt encouraged to defy Hinduism, proclaim atheism or any other kind of thing that the conservatives decry. We were conservative, even though that was not the primary agenda of our lives.

This is the reason why I have always felt profoundly alienated by the uniform model of Hinduism that has steadily grown in strength over the last couple of decades. These radical, adrenaline-dripping, violence-threatening men in saffron. (In my childhood, the only men in saffron around were the monks of the Ramkrishna Mission, who ran schools and charities. The only ‘role model’ in saffron was Swami Vivekananda, who seemed to have written more or less reasonable things.) This whole controversy about the Ram Mandir, these demands for an apparently idealistic Ram Rajatya. (Ram was not even a deity we actively worshipped in Bengal. I’ve never stepped into a Ram Mandir.) These TV shows that build such huge deals out of Karva Chauth or Shiva Ratri, neither of which I have seen any of the women in my family celebrate, even though they were sufficiently religious and devoted to their husbands, probably to extents that a feminist wouldn’t approve. The condescending vegetarianism, the refusal to even touch a utensil that a non-vegetarian has eaten in. The caste distinction. This Hinduism has very little to do with my Hinduism. How much does it have to do with yours?

I can’t say I like The Hindus or any of Doniger’s work, not even read her ever. There is very little definitive that I know about Hinduism. I’m not sure if there is much definitive to know. If I judged solely by what my family has taught me, hey, even not giving aaroti at Durga pujo is offensive. (That’s the first step towards atheism, don’t you know?) But we don’t get offended if our friends from other communities don’t follow rituals that are absolutely essential in ours. We didn’t get offended by The Immortals of Meluha, filled with so much inaccuracy about history and religion, and read by such a large number of people who were gullible enough to take its narrative for truth. (This might not have been the author’s plan or intention, I agree.) Surprisingly, nor did these purveyors of eduction and religious correctness. On the other hand, how many of us had read The Hindus before this controversy broke out, even though it’s been around for nearly four years? How many of our religious feelings have been outraged? How much enmity promoted between different groups on the grounds of religion, etc?

You see, it’s really not a concern with the quality of a book, or the amount of misinformation in it, or the extent of its possible impact. That’s not the concern of the bringer of the petition, and that shouldn’t be yours when you choose to respond to it. It’s not about whether you like or dislike a certain book. It’s about resisting people who call it their right to dictate other people’s actions. If you’re not absolutely similar to those people (as most people in India, even Hindus, are probably not), one day they may object to one of your beliefs, and then you will be required to get rid of it. How would you like to stop eating your meat? What if one day Durga pujo or Pongal is declared to be incongruous with ‘mainstream’ Hinduism? (Kali pujo has already fallen out of favour. Everyone celebrates a sanitized, vegetarian, laddu-eating kind of Diwali now; there isn’t much craze for that dark, bloody, rapidly exoticizing form of goddess worship.)  Section 377 has been reinstated. Raped woman are being officially accused of ‘having asked for it’. Is it so difficult to see the country fast being driven into a kind of militant, hardlined ‘Hindu’ dark age? Is it so far-fetched to be afraid of it?


The other conversation about Wendy Doniger’s books has been how easily the publishers have yielded to the threats. Both Penguin Books India and Aleph Book Company have withdrawn the books, without going to court or standing up to the threats in any other way. Criticism has been levelled especially against Penguin, which has a glorious history of supporting its controversial books, whether it was Lady Chatterley’s Lover or The Satanic Verses. A couple of years ago (and obviously on a different context), Chiki Sarkar, the publisher of Penguin Books India, had issued a statement about banned books. According to her, in India it’s possible for anyone to bring an injunction against a book, and from any part of the country, which would be effective nationwide; and which makes it that much harder to fight them.

I somewhat understand where Chiki is coming from. Book-publishing over the last decade or so has become a far more difficult business than it used to be. The cultural authority of publishers has diminished a great deal. This whole matter is another can of worms, but suffice it to say that increasing literacy, Internet and social media access mean that a lot more people today find it possible to call themselves authors, experts, critics, publishers etc without having arrived through the conventional channels. This makes the mix much more democratic, which means it also adds a lot of factors – both positive and negative – which makes it several times more complicated. Penguin Books India publishes more than 200 books a year. Aleph publishes fewer, but its parent company Rupa publishes nearly as many. As physical commodities, books are fragile, inflammable, easily destructible in several ways. Both companies have to depend on mass-market sales to survive, and the mass market is easily influenced by populist Hindu nationalism. The profit margin of books is low. Publishing houses, even the large ones, are nearly always short on manpower. Where are the time, money, people to fight these difficult legal battles?

It’s not as if legal battles were easier in an earlier generation. But they were somewhat more tenable because they still added to the image of the publishing house, and image was the cultural capital that converted to profit. These days, when the biggest profits of Rupa possibly come from the sales of Chetan Bhagat and the biggest profits of Penguin Books India possibly from Ravinder Singh, that old theory of cultural capital does not strictly hold true. (In simpler terms, the people who spend the most money on these publishers’ books are probably not the same people who would like to see/support the publishers in fighting for Doniger’s books. What’s worse, they may even lose some of these buyers if they choose to stand by her.)

On the other hand, I wonder if this wide reach of the social media can’t be used to the greater good in more innovative ways. We have already seen how more people downloaded and read The Hindus last month than they did in the last four years of its existence, even as Penguin Books India was recalling stocks from the bookstores. As of today, the Change.org petition has over 4,000 signatures. If each of these signatories could be persuaded to contribute a small amount of money – if we crowdsourced the funds, if one or more people with the legal expertise volunteered their time and skills – would Penguin or Aleph agree to contest these injunctions? Could that be done?