Thanks to Bollywood, I grew up a hopeless romantic in Oman. In fact, I would still say I am one. Cute romances can make me melt like an ice-cream on a hot summer day. I was a sucker for Bollywood movies with unrealistic but adorable romances. But the older I grew, the more I realised that my idea of romance was probably not the same as that of others around me.
I remember being 13 and sitting at my best friend’s house along with our sisters, talking about dating and boys. They were discussing sexual expectations from relationships. Who engaged in what acts of sexual intimacy, what more would they want to do, and at what stages in their relationship would they be comfortable doing ‘it’. I did not understand half the things they were talking about, I was not even very familiar with that vocabulary. I also felt strange for another reason. Sexual expectations had never come in my list of expectations in a relationship. I wondered if it meant that I was quite ‘vanilla.’
On our way back that day, I told my friend, “I somehow feel like we all grew up together but I ended up somewhere different.”
The more conversations I had about sexual intimacy with my best friend and my sister, the more I was reminded that something was missing. My sister would laugh and reassure me that I was just ‘a late bloomer.’ She would say that when it’s time, I would experience everything that everyone else was talking about.
The world around tells us that all love ends up in passionate love making, and that romance without sex is a romance that is dying. I remember waiting to feel the rush of sexual hormones that my biology textbook and peers talk about. I thought I’d wake up one day and the need for sex would fill me. But nothing like that ever happened.
So, I felt like I should push myself to be in a relationship. If I didn’t feel the rush of hormones expected out of me, then I would force it. If I didn’t feel any sexual needs, I would fake it. I would push boundaries in my relationships and violate my body’s needs for trust. Only then, I could feel differently. And, I could experience the pleasure that books and TV shows and movies spoke about. The one that came automatically with being in love. Otherwise, who would love me?
I lost a relationship as a result of my lack of sexual giving. This was after I had stretched myself so thin, I thought I would snap in half. I got sexually abused in a different relationship and convinced myself that this is how I would be loved. I thought if I could just push harder, moan a little louder, and lie a little better, I could feel differently. This was love after all, this should have been the next logical progression in feelings, right? But, I just continued to feel disgusted, sick, and a heavy sense of self-loathing in the pit of my stomach.
At some point when I tried to understand myself with compassion instead of judgement, I stumbled across the word demi-sexual. My then partner told me it was absolutely ridiculous. What was the point of all these labels? Everyone wanted emotional connections in their sexual relations, that is how sexual relations worked. A different person in my life who was hitting on me, told me that this distinction between romantic attraction and sexual attraction was all in my head. Everyone experienced them more or less together, that is what was normal. I wondered if that is how it was, how did people hook-up and do one-night stands? But, I was 19 and didn’t know better. I kept my questions to myself and pushed my boundaries some more.
All of my conversations only led to me feeling more alienated and lonely. They all ended with me staring into the night, wondering how I could ‘fix’ my ‘broken’ self. All of my questions always ended with the same answer, try harder. It was apparently possible to want sex without love in a world of hook-ups – but not love without sex.
When I was 6 years old, I wanted to marry Shah Rukh Khan - the king of romance. Most people around me wanted to marry him. He sold romance in his movies like no one could. But I wanted to marry him after seeing him in Chak de India - a film with barely any romance from his end.
At 13, I went on a spree and watched as many of Shah Rukh’s romantic movies from the 90s as I could. I desperately wanted someone to look at me the way he looked at his on-screen partners. His romances made sense to me, even though they are the peak of unrealistic Bollywood masala. He would look at his partners, and spread his arms wide open and I would melt into my seat.
I was so in love with him that I made my parents suffer through DDLJ in the theatre when it was re-released. I don’t think my father could understand how Shah Rukh Khan in the middle of a mustard field was anything but stupid. But I knew better. In fact, I knew the words to every single song in the movie, and nothing said love to me like SRK singing Tujhe Dekha Toh.
Recently, as I stress about my Master’s program ending, in the middle of trying to unravel my multiple queer identities better, I have started to re-watch his films. My ADHD brain has happily hyper-fixated on him and I am lost in the world of the King of Romance all over again. Some things do seem ridiculous now, but I’d still happily watch DDLJ again, completely unironically. I’d sit through the melodrama of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham just to see the way Shah Rukh Khan looks at Kajol on-screen. I feel 13 all over again, sitting and hoping someone looks at me that way.
In my hyper-fixation, I recently found out that Shah Rukh Khan had some ‘no-kissing’ contract when he signed films. I have a brain that reads into this too much.
To me, his romances were hardly ever sexually tense. I just recall intense gazes, romantic dialogues, and of course, Shah Rukh Khan spreading his arms wide open for his lover. They consisted of intimacy and physical affection, hardly ever leading to the bedroom.
Even as a sex-repulsed asexual, I often express love through physical touch. I dream of partners who will kiss me on my neck and my forehead. None of these dreams are sexual in nature. They are sensual and intimate and ways to say ‘I love you’ without saying the words. SRK would kiss his on-screen partner on their forehead and I would feel butterflies in my stomach.
Somehow, Shah Rukh Khan’s romance brought sensuality to my screen without insisting on sex as one thing. Suddenly, it makes sense. Shah Rukh Khan was the only actor who sold romances to my asexual identity. Even before I knew how to label it, the romance in his films didn’t make me feel broken. Didn’t make me feel like I had a ‘still loading sign’ attached on top of my head.
This was opposed to a lot of rom-coms I saw, where romantic scenes made me question what was happening. What was something that everyone knew that I didn’t?
I guess people do know something that I don’t, and I won’t ever know it either. For the most part now, I don’t want to know. I’ll keep my dreams of a partner who will open their arms to me and sing Tujhe Dekha Toh in the middle of a mustard field, and the rest will hopefully fall in place.
Abhramika is a recently graduated Master's student in Work and Organisational Psychology. She is deeply passionate about mental health advocacy, and aspires to help create more inclusive and empathetic workspaces in her future.