I remember pausing for a while when a friend, I have known all my growing up years, asked without a warning, “So, why are you two together?” It was a simple question, naive even. Uttered in a languid afternoon we had chosen to spend together, this was a conversation filler. The obvious answer would be: love. But here I was, evidently thrown off by a query that made no effort to blunt its edges. She prodded further about my year-old relationship. “It gives me a sense of stability,” I replied, clearing my throat. Leaving it at that, she went to tell me about the new Zumba class she had enrolled in. I am assuming the answer was satisfactory.
It has been a while since then but I play out that moment often in my head, not so much to re-live my inadequacy but to hold myself accountable in private, and ask, “Could I have said anything different, maybe confessed my love with a bit more vehemence?” I don’t think so.
Many of us associate the idea of a relationship — if not love — with stability. Perhaps, rightly so. The prospect of two people deciding to be together, sharing their solitude and offering each other company, knowing how many spoons of sugar each needs in their coffee (or none at all) invariably seem comforting; to be in an arrangement that gently binds without overwhelming, offers solace without the delusion of a shelter, consoling. Stability is the end goal, the reward if you will, we are all vying to achieve at the end after braving the upheavals. Haven’t we all deliberated and then given in to a temporary lapse of judgement, hoping that we are accumulating stories and when the tide will recede, which we are certain it will, we will narrate all this to someone with a grin while lying snugly next to them? Don’t we all treat the many could-have encounters as sojourn on our way of finding something that will stay? Haven’t we all stayed back, missing the metaphorical flight at sunset in the hope of spending the midnight together with someone, enlivened with the belief that we have travelled enough and now we can rest? Haven’t we extended our hands, unknowingly, only to be held by our partner at a crowded party? Stability, like a long-standing habit that follows you instead of you following it, is difficult to hide. One can spot it when one sees it.
And yet, watching Mragendra Singh’s Normal — a tautly-made, well-acted film about a married interracial couple, Aniket and Leah (Aseem Tiwari and Suzanna Akins) who share their everyday(s) with enviable ease — made me acutely uncomfortable. The premise is simple. The couple’s relationship hits a roadblock of sorts with the birth of their child. For the underprepared parents, their sexual life gets hampered, as Aniket confesses to his well-meaning colleague, “They always tell you it’s tough, but you are never really prepared for it.” Nothing seems to be specifically amiss between them. He kisses her goodbye without fail before going to office, they share inanities while flossing their teeth every night, carry wine at their friend’s house, recount details of their individual past(s) together. He holds the door for her, she thanks him by giving a peck on his cheek. Their days, shared and witnessed for long, follow an automated pattern that dissolves any possibility of friction. And even when they do fight, he quietly takes the pillow and sleeps outside, and does the same the next night till he is told by her to stay. “I did not want to assume anything,” he says, still polite, still smiling. They treat each other well, too well for others to notice and comment on it, too well for others to desire what they have. They are a normal couple, the kind we hope to be someday.
But this normalcy, aspirational almost, appeared frightening not just because it was laced with a stillness that seemed claustrophobic, but because mollified by it, the people concerned seemed to have forgotten what to fight against, what to fight for. The effortless, laboured familiarity — achieved by sharing secrets and stories — now diluted and threatened to erase the memory of the past. The new entrant, who perhaps was anticipated to bring in some change, not just reinforces but compels them to confront how mundanity, like a pall, is stifling their relationship: the child at the cot serving as a painful reminder how their last effort to resuscitate their relationship has failed. Their everyday activities — Aniket eating his cereals while Leah pumping her breast milk — enacted with robotic precision merely attempt to circumvent the demise of their relationship.
Watching them mutely struggle to salvage their relationship while reaching out for each other’s hands as a matter of habit, I remember shifting at my seat uncomfortably and thinking, “Isn’t this what they had always longed for?” Belonging to different races, the journey for Aniket and Leah to be with each other could not have been easy. This life that they are leading now was hard fought for. This was supposed to be their shared, prolonged midnight together, and yet this was threatening to undo it all.
This is a troubling, an upsetting portrayal and Singh’s film throws more questions than it answers, but it mainly entreats the viewers to ask themselves if love can sustain itself without a conflict in sight, or does it become necessary to manufacture some storm to keep the fire burning. It makes one question if a story loses its sheen after the world you were fighting against for validation ceases to care, if it becomes less relevant when one runs out of people to tell it to. It made me revisit that afternoon with my friend and re-examine my answer. Maybe monotony had dulled everything we had gathered together, soothed us and then blind-sighted us, rather me, till I could no longer remember our story. But my response remains unchanged, even after introspection, even when the person concerned and I are no longer together. I still believe the relationship gave me a stolid sense of security, the kind I had not known for a while.
After the screening of the film at the Jagran Film Festival was over, I could see several pairs of hands typing furiously on their phones. Perhaps, they were asking their partners, “Hey, are we all right?” But something tells me they would not send the text after all. Stability, withholding the ability to catch one off guard, might appear scary but it is still the end to our story we are longingly looking at. Besides, how does one question or fight against something one has fought so hard for?