Unrequited love or simply ‘self love’?

Shivani Nag

 -Shivani Nag

"...A woman’s no means NO. No matter what the mainstream movies show you, a woman’s smile is not always indicative of her interest in you, it may just be sheer politeness. While there is no harm in expressing to someone what you might be feeling, in face of a ‘no’, ‘try try try till you succeed’, is not the mantra. Stalking, forcing, intimidating, blackmailing, teasing are not ‘wooing’ but actions that can get you booked for harassment..."


In the days following the brutal rape and murder of a young woman in December last year, I remember waking up each day and being out on the streets raising slogans on women’s freedom and liberation. For months after that, there were a series of mobilizations, vigils, parades and protests, and my strongest recollection of those events is the resounding reverberation of ‘mahilaayein maangi azaadi... khaap se bhi azaadi aur baap se bhi azaadi, shaadi karne ki azaadi aur na karne ki azaadi...’. It WAS about justice for that one woman, but it wasn’t ONLY about that... it was also about many other such women – some forgotten, some not, some dead and some still around... it was also about all women, demanding not just justice but their right to life as equal citizens. We did not come out on the streets to be told how to be safe, but to convey it loud and clear that we cannot spend our entire lives trying to be safe without actually getting to live it. We came out to demand and defend our right to choice!!

The recent incident in JNU involving a young man brutally attacking his classmate and then killing his own self has shocked the entire JNU community and sent us all in a deeply introspective mode. We are not shocked because we suddenly began to feel that society had transformed, we are shocked because somewhere we did believe that in JNU we have been able to transform some notions to quite an extent and create a space that is democratic and gender-just. I have reasons to believe that this space still exists in JNU, as the majority of calls for introspection have come from within the campus, but this in no way means, that all is fine. And there are several reasons why it can’t be fine.

To begin with, an educational institution is not meant to merely certify those who already know or are already equipped with certain kinds of skills or theories. An educational space ideally should be an enabling and a transformative space. This is the kind of space we envision JNU to be. So when something happens that threatens this democratized and potentially transformative space of JNU, we do feel pained but we also try to face it with a renewed commitment towards preserving this space. However, it still can’t all be fine, because our world doesn’t begin and end at JNU. The mindset that led to this incident wasn’t a product of what the university inculcates, but a reflection of a larger malaise that is just so terribly hard to fight. And it is this that is really angering me right now and what I wish to write about.

Just when I was about to get slightly hopeful after hearing some people talk about how men must learn to accept a ‘rejection’, I came across a headline in Dainik Bhaskar’s online edition (dated 2 August 2013) that screamed- “बदले के लिए करना चाहता था मर्डर: सेक्‍स तक कर चुकी थी गर्लफ्रेंड, पर बाद में उड़ाने लगी मजाक[i]” (For taking revenge, he wanted to murder: girlfriend had gone on to the extent of having sex, but later started mocking him). I do not even wish to comment on the imagined content of this headline and the writing that follows, which infers they had sex from an excerpt from the boy’s note that says they were ‘close’ and then goes on to describe how after being close to him she chose to end their relationship or made fun of him and thus making her out to be the villain in the entire episode. What is striking is the pains that this write up takes to point out how the earlier explanations of the incident that said that the attack on the girl and the subsequent suicide by the boy were perhaps caused by his inability to accept a ‘no’ had suddenly been proved false!! And seriously, how? So a ‘no’ is an acceptable choice only at a certain phase of the relationship (actually at that early a phase, it isn’t even a relationship) and thereafter it becomes inadmissible? Suddenly the seemingly progressive sounding bytes on how the boy should have let her go after she refused his proposal have started appearing hollow.

Doesn’t it somewhere bring us all back to the same notions of modesty, chastity and honour when you begin to realise that the acceptance of woman’s ‘no’ as a legitimate response is only as long as one is able to view the woman as safeguarding something ‘virtuous’ in her, and thus being hardly reflective of an acknowledgement of a woman’s right to make her choices and decisions. I am neither an expert, nor someone close to either the woman or the man, who can talk about what really happened and more importantly it isn’t even mine or anyone else’s business to know what was the exact nature of the relationship between the people concerned. All that I do know is that at a time when a young girl is battling for her life, a girl who was brutalized simply because a man felt that his ‘ego’ was far more important than both her life – and his, the last thing we should show tolerance for is the usual tirade that a highly patriarchal society almost always reserves for a victim of its own oppressive clutches. And for record, I do not believe men and women to be equal victims of patriarchy.

So here is something that I strongly feel and while it doesn’t address all that is wrong with patriarchy, I feel at a time like this, it is important to reiterate.

No matter what the Hindi or the Tamil or the English or the Bhojpuri or any other film industry tells us about the beauty of the unrequited love, if there is no respect for the other’s choice, it is simply not love. Here I am reminded of something I learnt long back in Psychology classes. One of the most crucial transitions in the life of a human being is the transition from the phase where one believes one is omnipotent or even the centre of the universe to one where the realization that there are others who feel or have their own needs like us begins to take shape. For a newly born infant, the world revolves around him or her. A baby experiences a need, lets out a cry and almost immediately gets what it wants. A mother who tends to the baby at that point of time is what psychoanalysts term an ‘objective object’, i.e., an object of desires that is perceived to have no desires of its own. The transition happens when this object of desire or need begins to be seen as a subjective object, i.e., an object that also has desires and needs of its own. This is the point where the sense of omnipotence and narcissism begins to end. Now if I were to re-examine the kind of ‘love’ that one sees in our mass media and in particular in movies like Devdas, or Raanjhaana, one is forced to ask if indeed it is ‘love’ or ‘self love’? Far from anything mature or gracious, it uncomfortably appears closer to the infant whose first love for the mother is indeed not ‘love’ for the mother but for the ‘objective object’ that tends to its every basic need, and thus in some ways is more a love of the self.

A man desires a woman and wants her to be with him irrespective of whether or not she wants to be with him. How is this love? How is it any different from wanting a particular kind of food or a car or a toy? After all we often hear people say “I love biryani”, “I love my playstation”!! If wanting a food item badly enough can make people term their want ‘love’, is it so difficult to understand that it is a similar desire or a want which also guides them to call their desire for a particular woman ‘love’! And so while an independent woman in a mutual relationship is still to be condemned for an act of consensual intimacy, a man can merely term his need or desire ‘love’ and be exonerated for even the most brutal of acts. I do not believe men and women to be equal victims of patriarchy. This is not to say that patriarchy cannot be oppressive for men with all its demands of overt and regular demonstrations of one’s masculinity, but men are not helpless pawns of patriarchy. Men do have a choice to accept and respect rather than resent a woman’s no.

A woman’s no means NO. No matter what the mainstream movies show you, a woman’s smile is not always indicative of her interest in you, it may just be sheer politeness. While there is no harm in expressing to someone what you might be feeling, in face of a ‘no’, ‘try try try till you succeed’, is not the mantra. Stalking, forcing, intimidating, blackmailing, teasing are not ‘wooing’ but actions that can get you booked for harassment. When Govinda sings “kab tak roothegi, cheekhegi, chillayegi, dil kehta hai ek din haseena maan jaayegi”, what he is demonstrating is not a way to a woman’s heart but a way to the prison gates, since any action that elicits displeasure, shouts and screams cannot by an stretch of imagination be deemed as indicative of love or concern.

An understanding of notions of choice and agency are absolutely essential if we wish to challenge such popular discourses where obsession masquerading as love is instantly glorified and accepted as a reasonable way of being. Unless we are talking of narcissism, a romantic relationship entails more than one person, and unlike familial relationships into which one is just born, it should be characterized by a choice for all involved, a choice to be in it or to walk out if it. People may grow apart, their objects of affection may change or there just maybe a late realization of incompatibility. Nobody can deny the pain or the hurt that is involved when a relationship breaks, or where a relationship that one may desire does not get formed, but one needs to realise that a relationship forced on someone is also painful and oppressive for that other person who does not choose to be in it and here one has to recognize one’s own agency in letting go and maybe feeling hurt for sometime, or forcefully holding on and causing pain to both.  All choices in life are not easy, but that does not take away from the fact that they still are choices and the very fact of them being choices makes us an agent of life and not a victim of it. And this is why I feel that though patriarchy is oppressive for both women as well as men, in case of women, deprived of choices, they are forced to be the victims of patriarchy, while men, with some of their choices intact end up being not victims but more often agents through which patriarchy unleashes its terror. Therefore to simply turn the discourse of how patriarchy oppresses women into one focussed on finding rationales absolving men from the responsibility of their own choices or failure to respect the choices of others can only serve the agenda of the same structures that continue to deny women the right to exercise choices or vilify those who actually do still manage to.

[i] The online news article has been since then withdrawn after leading to much outrage, but a glimpse of the headline can be seen in this facebook link- https://www.facebook.com/arun.worldpeace/posts/10151541059405814?comment_id=215645538&ref=notif&notif_t=like 

(you can also read this article at Kafila.org)

Shivani Nag is a Research Scholar 
at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. 
She is an activist with the All India Students’ Association (AISA).