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First love, last rites
If you go beyond the irksomely kitschy romantic version of love - and 'first love' - projected by Hallmark and other perpetrators of the 'pehla pyaar, pehla nasha' mythology, you may experience first love many times over
The Canadian writer Margaret Atwood once said, "The Eskimos had 52 names for snow because it was important to them. There ought to be as many for love. " Like snow, love is overwhelming. It elevates and subjugates. And there are so many hybrid varieties. First love is distinct from other love. It has its own force, madness and fragility. It is not always pleasurable, but definitely memorable. And it can actually quietly inform future relationships, especially the one you eventually have with yourself. It is one of a kind, like any thing that is 'first'. But here's a little secret. If you go beyond the irksomely kitschy romantic version of love - and 'first love' - projected by Hallmark and other perpetrators of the 'pehla pyaar, pehla nasha' mythology, you may experience first love many times over. Each time, it could catalyse the same orgasmic explosion that makes you numb and blurry and vulnerable and joyful.
Who knows where it begins? In the mother's womb, where it is wholesomely dependent and unconditional? With that kindergarten teacher who lovingly nurtures the miracle of discovery - where discrete letters suddenly start to form words and emotions? With a sibling who initiates you into a subconscious understanding that love can be simultaneously competitive and protective? Or is it those first stirrings of romantic love?
When asked to comment on first love, psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar says, "On matters of love, one should not ask psychoanalysts, love's theologians, but its poets. Shakespeare is a more compelling psychologist than Freud. Romeo and Juliet tells us more about the unconscious and irrational forces, the voracious hungers and tenderest of longings that propel first love, than the dry abstractions of psychoanalysis. Only great writers can convey the sublimity and sensuality of youthful first love, virtually impossible to revive later in their genuine form;to do so at mid-life risks a foolish perversity of the sort half-parodied in Humbert Humbert, the hapless hero of Nabokov's Lolita. However, wearing my psychoanalytic hat, I will point to one characteristic of first love: its attempt to define one's own identity by using the partner as a mirror in which one's self becomes reflected and gradually clarified. This is why so much of the first love is about conversation. "
But isn't what we call 'youthful love' mostly a euphemism for hormonally driven lust - a perfectly valuable imperative, but not necessarily one connected with love? Isn't it more about contact with the opposite sex? The kind that starts with teenage fantasy - a pin-up you can pull out, paste on your wall and endlessly fornicate with. Or in comic books, where gods woo buxom goddesses, and where American teenagers have sweet bubble-gum romances. Then those fantasies get projected on to a real person - the high school crush, the college sweetheart.
Yes, but real life is not like Archie comic books. Most people look back on their first romantic love with some embarrassment and realise that it was neither lasting nor real. Rather, it usually involved hidden desires and fumbling, hurried, surreptitious encounters in quiet parks at sundown, or at that obliging friend's house when the parents were away. Or, it was about nuptial rites, the eternally belaboured suhaag raat, with its scent of stale tuberoses and sweat.
But even so, romantic first love has a magical quality of discovery to it, so it remains with us once the memory has been appropriately photoshopped. It gradually turns into something you can laugh about when you turn the pages of old photo albums - or cry about when you see how the object of your desire has now transformed into a crotchety husband or a nagging, sagging wife. Sometimes, the selective memory is better than the experience itself.
Tishani Doshi, poet and author of The Pleasure Seekers, says, "I think it's only now I understand why parents are so paranoid about whom their teenagers hang out with - adolescence is a perilous time with so many raging hormones and emotions at stake - and the effects of a first love are often lasting. Falling in love for the first time is the most powerful emotion, impossible to replicate or shake off. If you've had a good experience with love the first time around, chances are you'll carry it through with you in your life. If it's traumatic, well, you deal with the scars. If you're lucky, you become an artist or something. "
Indeed, many might argue that pristine first love is best found in movies and books. Literary critic Nilanjana Roy describes some of her lasting impressions: "I still love that description of a young Welsh miner falling in love and discovering the quickening of the flesh in How Green Was My Valley;or Anne Frank's Diary, so poignant and so real, the way she and Peter fall in love with each other, in that attic, with the camps looming;and the non-literary but still riveting Summer of '42, about a young boy falling in love with an older, married woman. And one of my all-time favourites - Apu in Apur Sansar, negotiating his way as a penniless young man into a romantic, tragic first love that starts after an accidental marriage. " But first love is sometimes far more startling and wonderful when you are older. A woman in her late 30s describes the experience: "Falling in love for the first time later in life, as an adult making a conscious, deliberate choice, not a child making bewildered romantic choices, is life-altering - the responsibility for the relationship is in your hands, the awareness that it doesn't need to last or develop in order to give you what you need is very precious, and the serenity of letting go is priceless. "
Then, there is that lovely moment where, after you have been through this love and that love, you actually start falling in love with yourself and no one else matters quite as much. This first love is perhaps the only really lasting kind. Those who get to experience it will cherish it more than any Valentine's Day special.
Finally, there is a first love which is not what the spiritual leader Jaggi Vasudev describes as "a transaction of give and take, a mutual benefit scheme. " It is the love that longs to be unconditionally inclusive. As he says, "For me, my love affair is with everything I set my eyes upon, whether it is a man, woman, child, animate, inanimate, it doesn't really matter. "
That's when you can shut your eyes and understand that first love, last rites are one and the same.
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