If there’s one thing I have learnt in adulthood, it’s that a relationship is always more than the sum of the people participating in it. It’s also the people around those people, the daily drill they go through, what someone says to them, what they say to others, the food they eat, the smells they smell, the places they inhabit. Maybe, most of all, it’s the places they inhabit. The cities. The towns. The villages. The first-floor flats across the lane from whose windows they see each other a little before bedtime, the metro stations where they see each other across the platform, maybe even swipe their cards at adjacent entry gates, the office building where they narrowly escape accidentally brushing each other in the lift, the expansive cities with never-ending skylines where they live scores of kilometres apart, with only a phone and internet to keep up with each other. Especially these expansive cities.
Relationships were probably not invented in accordance with modern dating, but like everything else, the human race adapted to it. We have made it okay for two people to not talk to each other more than once a day and still be in love. We also made it okay for two people to talk to each other all day long and only want to get in the other one’s pants. Whatever works. Despite having spent all my growing up years in one of the biggest cities in the country, I only started dating when I went away for college to a Tier II town, a small, mildly hilly, mildly sylvan place. Actually, it was a village a few kilometres outside this town. A university town. And dating and relationships in a university town are mostly innocent because of the restrictive nature of the place. There’s very little place for lies and cheating, for hiding, for manipulating or influencing. Because you are constantly in each other’s company in front of a hundred other people who are also constantly in your company. Everyone is in everyone's company. There isn’t enough space for anyone to try to do something else. The structures of a small community are firmly in place. People who attempted to try to outsmart the University Town Dating Life learnt the hard way that it was nearly impossible to do so. Some tried to be smarter, cheat outside the campus, but it was again near-impossible to keep up. You’d rather give up and be in love with that one person than travel all the way to town for another.
Bigger cities, though, were different. So drastically different. Nobody would know if you were cheating on your Significant Other with five more people, provided you were really efficient. Things got a pass because that was the default. Dating was a game of catching and holding, especially casual dating. And rarely did someone else peep into what you were catching or holding if it didn’t mean a catch for them.
When I moved back into a Big City after my stint in the college town, it seemed to be the default setting for dating to be casual. For it to not have the gravity it earlier had in a smaller place. Bigger cities meant more people, more opportunities, more catching and probably more holding. Or that’s what everyone hoped for. You were not supposed to care too much unless you were already in a relationship. Serious relationships? Pfft, you were going to go find a hot person and make out with them behind the car park lot or, if you really liked them, their house. You might do each other the honour of pretending like that wasn’t your intention, waiting for each other to show up in cafes playing soft blues jazz, or in pubs playing loud Madonna songs. Trying to be respectfully friendly in a warmly-lit place, or trying to talk over songs and other people in the middle of dimly lit alcohol havens.
I was newly single then, so it made sense for me too, or so I thought. I had convinced myself, out of no reason except to feel more assimilated into the city, that I needed to be flippant in my approach to love. Or whatever it was called when it wasn’t really love. I went on dating apps I absolutely hated. I met men I never wanted to meet. And I made up an imaginary on/off boyfriend to get out of ever progressing anywhere with those men. The only dating app on the circuit back then was Tinder—I am old—and the entire idea made me uneasy. I did it because everyone was doing it, and I needed companionship didn’t I?
A few months into this, my ex and I rekindled, for no other reason apart from convenience and comfort, and the rekindling was only physical. We were friends, or something, and I felt relieved that I could finally be Casually Dating or Hooking Up without a relationship, that now I was a part of the Big City’s dating map. Of course, I brushed away the fact that I was hung up emotionally, and not processing my pain. All that came later. At that moment, I was ready to jump into familiar arms and bed. As was he, in all likelihood. Because as much as we want to convince ourselves of how metropolitan we were in our romantic lives, our hearts don’t move at the same speed of our life. Everyone I knew around me, of my age, was struggling to come to terms with their romantic needs and not expressing it, for fear of wanting too much. Because nobody wanted too much right? We all wanted casual sex. Except that secretly, a lot of us wanted too much.
And that was the inherent nature of dating in a city. Of being a part of a new generation of that age that thought it wasn’t very cool to be a romantic. You were supposed to not care about love. Unless of course, as I said above, you were in a serious relationship. Then you would be accorded respect and distance by your peers, who didn’t want to intrude into your life out of fear of ruining something sacred or of the fear of catching it themselves, the bug of wanting to be more in love.
Dating in Big Cities, especially if you lived there with your family, also meant hiding. Maybe it was poetic justice Those privileged enough to work and have family in the same city—those with more exposure and opportunities, a readymade roof over their heads and a family to look after them, with no need to pay rent—also had no place to ‘date’ in. Their houses were family homes, shared with siblings and parents, if not also grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. You couldn’t really bring a date home. Those are not our good Indian values. Compare this to those coming from smaller towns and villages, those who worked probably much harder to earn a spot working in the same offices and tall glass buildings as the City kids, and maybe still working in the peripheral smaller buildings that looked less fancy, they had their own home. Small, devoid of a loving family, due for rent every month, but also their own, one where they could bring in dates, one where they could see each other in warm low lighting, the kind that often illuminates growing love.
So yes, dating in cities was hiding. In hotels, Oyo rooms, friends' apartments, or even cars. Sometimes in plain sight, like a couple sitting on a bike parked on the side of a flyover at night, facing the edge together, their back to everyone else. The first time I saw one such couple, my first thought was about how risky it would be. Either could fall over. One could Baazigar the other over this. A speeding car could hurl both off the fence. There were a hundred ways this could go badly. But maybe that was part of the thrill, as much as there was in meeting in covert rooms, in taking your love ‘to the edge’, in stretching your limit of love, in taking your partner’s hand in yours, sitting with your back to fast-moving traffic, staring off into the night. Maybe it was a fundamental part of ishq, the risk. More so in a city.
Sometimes there is hiding in the middle of a crowd, in metros and Durga Puja pandals and Ramlila maidans. In McDonald’s outlets thronged by kids for birthday parties, where food is cheap and no intrusion guaranteed, because kids won’t morally police a stranger. In Dilli Haat on weekends where the crowd is too involved in themselves and the wares to notice a couple in the corner at the Manipur stall sharing a plate of noodles. In Connaught Place on New Year’s Eve where you can spot love on the sidewalk every few metres, two people sharing their Wenger’s pastries which would sell out any minute.
There was hiding in the metro routes you’d take to get home. Travelling end to end on a line in the opposite direction to get more time with your partner. Sharing earphones to listen to mildly romantic songs. Staying till later in office to be able to hang out more with that co-worker you might have something going on with. There was so much hiding that full relationships would spark, form, bloom and end, and nobody else would be any wiser. Because that was what the whole thing was, right? Nobody would ever get to know anything. Good or bad. The Big City remained an impersonal behemoth with millions of such hidden romances, with love and relationships, with cheating and breakups, with flyovers with a bike parked to the side. And whatever happened in the midst of all this, however many people you met, loved, tried to love, fell out of love with, and maybe just kissed once after a good date, it’s all a part of the City.