By Poulomi Das Sep. 11, 2019
Three months ago, I met and spent time getting to know someone who spoke the same mother tongue as me. At first, it felt like discovering a whole new part of myself. But soon, the sameness started feeling suffocating. I felt like I knew him too well, too soon, and that his red flags could never have the luxury of just being flags.
There’s a moment in the opening episode of the criminally underrated Ramy that underlines the double standards that some of us employ while considering anyone from our community as a potential romantic prospect. In it, its titular lead, Ramy, a 20-something first-generation Egyptian-American goes on a family-approved blind date with an Egyptian-American woman. In the initial minutes of their meeting, both of them nervously lock eyes, make stilted conversation, and awkwardly smile at each other like two inadvertent lab rats.
For a while it seems as if their meeting is destined to be nothing more than mere footnotes in their lives. But their sameness – they speak the same language, practise the same religion, and even their anxieties and ambitions are coloured by the same cultural expectations – guarantee that their wavelengths are automatically in sync. So it doesn’t take long for them to genuinely enjoy each other’s company or laugh at shared jokes about the odd peculiarities of Muslims. Yet something shifts by the end of their time together. As Ramy walks his date to her car, he becomes visibly aloof. “I didn’t know if you did that,” he tells her in a parental cadence when she asks for a goodnight kiss.
For her, he’s just any other date that has gone suprisingly well and at that moment, she wants nothing more than just to have sex with him. But for him, she’s a reminder of the Egyptian upbringing that he can never really run away from. As a result, Ramy, who didn’t think twice before hooking up with a white girl in a previous scene, is almost horrified by her open sexual advances. He suddenly turns conservative about the woman initiating sex (“I thought we had to get married first”), ending things prematurely. It builds up to a sensational showdown where Ramy’s date calls him out for refusing to see her as just another girl he went out with: “I’m like in this little Muslim box in your head and I’m like the wife or mother of your kids, right?”
When I first watched this scene play out on my laptop screen three months ago, I marvelled at the accuracy with which Ramy managed to distill this dating hypocrisy in chilling detail. Despite the specificity of the show’s premise, this scene feelt universal: a comment not just on the personal prejudices of its lead but also on the double dating lives of an entire generation, who tend to instantly exclude people who sound like us from the ambit of our future and take to imagining a life with someone who has nothing in common with us.
For her, he’s just any other date that has gone suprisingly well and at that moment, she wants nothing more than just to have sex with him.
Perhaps, the scene stuck with me because I happened to find myself in a similar situation at the time. I spent over a month getting to know someone with the same cultural baggage as mine, a bond that felt immediately exclusive, solely based on the fact that we shared the same mother tongue — Bangla. I remember diving in with trepidation for it wasn’t an experience I had any reference for. Until then, my dating history accommodated men whose life experiences weren’t tethered to mine via the commonality of a mother tongue. The men in my past spoke in inflections that I wouldn’t recognise from a crowd, shared a wholly alien relationship with the meat and fish on their plates, and didn’t seem to quite understand why I instinctively searched for a piece of potato in every biriyani I sampled. This guy on the other hand, did. It felt a lot like a pair of eyes instantly locking with yours in a sea of people or someone knowing the tune of your favourite song without you telling them about it.
During this brief period, we exchanged stories about the little rituals we followed in a city that wasn’t our own to remind us of the city that was home. We counted out our days in afternoon naps and addas with our respective set of friends. I even caught myself enunciating words in Bangla that hadn’t yet made its way to my verbal dictionary as well as words whose sounds I’d completely forgotten about. Maybe it felt novel because the life I built for myself away from home rarely offered an excuse to launch into my mother tongue. With him then, I unlocked parts of Bangla to express the length and breadth of my infatuation, words that would be a misfit in quotidian conversation with anyone else. This ease of language felt almost like a romantic homecoming. Dating in my mother tongue meant that I didn’t have to feel an emotion in one language and translate it into another. More importantly, nothing was lost in translation.
To an outsider, this one month would seem like it was rife with potential. And yet, like Ramy, I was unable to fully be myself even as I was discovering a part of myself that had remained out of reach all this while. For the entirety of our time together, I remained on my guard, performing a version of myself that was more coy, more unhurried with my needs, and more submissive to the demands of what a coupling with someone who shared a similar cultural upbringing should really look like.
My dating history accommodated men whose life experiences weren’t tethered to mine via the commonality of a mother tongue.
After a point, the sameness started feeling suffocating: I knew him too well, too soon. His traits felt less like a puzzle and more like an open book, some of which I could easily recognise from a lifetime of being surrounded by older and younger versions of Bengali men like him. His red flags for instance, could never have the luxury of just being flags. And his presence in my life at a period when the topic of my “settling down” was a standard greeting for my parents, carried meaning that went beyond the frivolity of casually getting to know someone. Most worrying of all, it became impossible to see him without being acutely aware of all the innumerable ways he was actually my parents’ choice. Soon, it started to feel less like dating and more like obedience.
I suppose my complicated feelings about internalising the fact that I didn’t want to see a future with someone my parents insist on seeing my future with, stemmed from the fact that I am part of arguably the first generation that is still negotiating the tricky terrains between the freedom that our love lives present in front of us and the conservative restrictions that our parents continue to impose on us. As a recent Lok Foundation-Oxford University survey administered by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy found out, millennials today continue to choose life partners the same way their parents and grandparents did years ago. As of January 2018, more than 90 per cent of the urban respondents in their 20s admitted to having an arranged marriage, just three per cent had a love marriage while another two per cent claimed that theirs was a “love-cum-arranged marriage”, which I assume is what people say when they like living in denial. Even as we look at love and commitment with the exact vulnerability as some of Coldplay’s lyrics, our parents seem to still approach the topic of our marriage with the calulatedness of a business transaction.
As selfish and hypocritical as it might sound, like Ramy, I ultimately chose to self-sabotage to “preserve” myself. But in that one month, I learnt two important lessons: One, that there exists no terms of endearment in any language that could really prepare me for the joy that comes when you graduate from “tumi” to “tui” while addressing someone romantically. And two, that I may not be programmed to approach romance when there’s already a destination in hand. Now, I’m back to letting my present precede my future, which involves counting out hours in mixed signals and incoming texts from someone whose existence doesn’t have the added pressure of feeling like a subtext to mine. If nothing, we can at least simultaneously be something and nothing to each other.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.