By Shikha Sreenivas
Photographs By Anurag Banerjee
On a road in Indira Nagar that I usually take on my way home from work, sat Rati*, the flower lady. She was usually on the footpath, stringing jasmine for a few hours in the morning and evening.
The first time I met her was on one of those Bangalore mornings when the sky tasted of dew. I sat down on the footpath near her, waiting for a friend. She chatted with a regular customer while I stared at the marigolds and jasmine spread out in front of her.
“Did you get those from KR Market,” I asked in Hindi.
“Yes, KR Market. Have you been there,” she asked in Kannada.
“I used to go, when I was in college,” I replied in Telugu.
“You know Telugu,” she asked, a grin forming on her face. “Where are you from? I’m from near Chittoor…” and she began speaking so rapidly I couldn’t follow. I explained, with embarrassment, that I could not speak Telugu fluently, but I wish I did.
“Well, that’s okay,” she said. “You can learn by speaking to me!” So we spoke in a khichdi of Hindi and Telugu, and I told her I was interning, embarrassed to explain that I was working for free, and that my parents were sending me money from Hyderabad, so I could stay in Bangalore. She had been in Bangalore for two decades now, initially working in people’s houses and now selling flowers.
She was in her fifties, her hair was curly and stood all over her head like a crown, and when she spoke she gestured like a Kathakali dancer, bobbing her head and moving her eyes from side to side — I probably didn’t need to know any language.
She noticed my toe ring and asked me if I was married. I explained to her that I wear it because I like the way it looks. She frowned. “Well, only married women wear it. But your anklet is nice.” I told her that her toe rings were nice too — they were dull silver with tiny red gems on the top. I asked her if she was married, when she turned serious and said yes, but he had run away many years ago. ‘See,’ she showed me her right arm that had a short name in dark green ink. “But he was a horrible man; he just left one day, and I’ve never seen him again.”
A sly grin crept onto her face. “But one day, I will introduce you to your Uncle.”
“Who is that?” I asked.
She asked me to read the name tattooed on her left arm. “He used to stand over there and stare at me,” she said, pointing at a tree. “One day, he came over, gave me his number, and asked me to call him. But I forgot,” she giggled. “The next day he was so upset! Then he asked for my number, and bought me food. We have been together ever since.”
“But, I should tell you something. You have to promise not to tell anyone,” she said, looking around to see if anyone was listening. “He has a wife and two kids, so we cannot stay together. But he hates his wife, she does not treat him well.”
My friend picked me up mid-story, and I had to say a quick goodbye. The rest of the day I was thinking about how easy it would be to just assume that he must be taking advantage of her — an older unmarried woman, who had raised a son on her own, and worked to support herself. But I couldn’t think that way about this storyteller. She was in love; she had his name tattooed across her arm, she found it hilarious to sneak him into her house at night.
She continued to tell me about her love story over the next three months. She would always tell me to fall in love, but to be careful. She told me that if a boy walks very close to me, he has intentions other than friendship, and so I should be wary of him. Some mornings when she was filled with the euphoria of being in love, she’d give me flowers for my hair, and tell me how amazing love is.
Their affair ended eventually. She was heartbroken and angry, and I don’t know if they ever made up or if her heart healed. But there is something about love that made her alive, even if it was painful towards the end. She had loved telling me her stories with my “uncle” — they were always about the thrill of having an affair, of having to sneak around and calling him late at night. She’d tell it like she was standing on stage.
Another evening, I was in a cab through the winding roads of Malleshwaram. I asked the driver in Hindi what he was doing before this. He said he used to work as a driver in Saudi, where he had earned much more and loved living with his friends. He had to come back because his wife and child wanted him to spend more time at home.
When he asked about marriage, I told him that I didn’t want to get married at all, that marriage just seemed like a lot of responsibilities and really tying yourself to another person. And I didn’t want to share my space that closely with another person.
He peered at me through the rearview mirror and said, “Marriage does mean so many responsibilities…” He trailed off and we remained silent for a while. “Have you ever had your heart broken,” he asked.
“Not really,” I told him. “I’m happy. I’ve never been in a relationship; I don’t feel like it.”
“Perhaps, not now,” he said. “But you will feel lonely later. Do not completely dismiss the idea of marriage, okay? Because you do need another person and one day you might want a child.”
My head was full of what he said for a few days. Being alone is not as easy as we assume. Perhaps that’s why some of us find comfort in love, in relationships. The taxi driver had made sacrifices, but only love stories teach you about those.
Once, I was in the house of a graceful old Goan woman in Cooke Town. She was a divorcee and had one child, an English cocker spaniel, whose fur was a palette of greys and who sat on my lap as she told me she got the spaniel as a gift from a vet; a man who loved her very much, but whose love she never could return. And once again, like the story of the taxi driver, it was a story of loneliness. I have never been in a relationship, but most of the time, I enjoy my loneliness. I haven’t been able to understand how a single person could become the object of love, and I think that is why I seek out love stories. I prod strangers and jump at the subtlest mention of a ‘love story’ because I want to learn what it is like to love.
It’s not like I haven’t been in love. I love my friends, my dog and my family so much that it has always been satisfying. I find love in conversations, and in what I can never quite completely understand about the other person.
On Nandidurga Road one day an auto driver told me that he used to work abroad, doing something with numbers, but he came back because he was trying to convince his parents to let him marry his girlfriend, a flight attendant.
I didn’t even have to nudge him for the story. “I was trained for a few years in China,” he told me. “And I’d travel in the same flight every month, from Hong Kong to Bangalore. We exchanged numbers, fell in love. My parents don’t like that she wears short clothes for work. She says there’s no way she’ll leave her job. My mother has accepted it, my father hasn’t.”
I suggested they elope, an idea he didn’t like very much because he did love his parents (and some land he wanted to inherit). He asked me if I had a boyfriend. I told him that I didn’t feel like being with anyone. “But you should fall in love,” he said.
When he dropped me off at Cubbon Park, I wished him luck and he said, “I guess we will never find out what happened with the other.” We said goodbye.
After he left, I giggled at how ‘deep’ he had become towards the end, but it was true. We would both go on with our lives, forget each other, and never know what happened. And isn’t that also a love story? Perhaps not a story of romance, but it is a romance of stories.
I ran into a weeping girl on Church Street once, and even though I’d usually be embarrassed to talk to someone in such a situation, she was crying so much that I could feel my own tear ducts respond. I sat with her, and she told me that she hated being in love, she hated who she became. And love “SUCKS”. But as we spoke, we found ourselves laughing. I felt a surge of powerful affection for this girl whom I did not know and even that felt like love.
I seek out these love stories to find comfort. How inspired people are by love, and how they sometimes fail to love. We can’t ever accurately describe love but can we ever decipher the minutiae of love and our profound capacity to love, without stories?
I met a woman in Cubbon Park, who was a regular. When we began speaking, she told me, her mouth full of paan, about a woman she loved. She began loudly singing songs in Tamil for this woman, as her gang of girlfriends giggled.
“What about you,” she asked.
“I have many lovers,” I joked.
But when people ask me for my love story, and when I tell them I have none, the ones who are madly in love express great disappointment.
I think I could tell them that I have been in love. I have one love story to call my own, and it is with Bangalore. It is with the pools of light cast by street lamps, the haggling grumpy auto drivers, the early morning sky, and the way trees bloom into pinks, yellows and purples for brief long moments before returning to an unassuming green. And it is love because of their love stories — which comfort me, because love is better defined by stories than by a dictionary. And my story is with a city that loves me back
I have felt though, for the longest time, odd for not wanting to be in a relationship. I feel all kinds of love for strangers, friends, teachers, classmates. And there was a time when I did not mind even forcing myself to consider being in a relationship just to avoid the oddness of a 21-year-old who has never dated. Then again, love seems to find me in strange ways.
* Name changed
“You look good in the blue light, smoking a cigarette. Let me make a picture of you.”
“Please do. A girl thought I was good looking once, she was in love with me. I didn’t love her.”
“Have you ever been in love?”
“That’s none of your concern.”
(Caption By Anurag Banerjee)
Shikha Sreenivas is a writer and aspiring filmmaker, always caught in a quarter life crisis that Modi memes or Shin Chan can make better.
Anurag Banerjee is an independent photographer based in Bombay. He is currently working on his first photobook ‘Love in Bombay.’