The Dying Art of Prem?

Let the French celebrate their ménage de troi, the Americans, their prom, we Bengalis have always championed our own original contribution to the global vocabulary of love and sex, thank you very much.
 
It is the much serenaded: prem.
 
Amply inspired by the rain and slush filled afternoons of our parts, the particular colours of our smoke-stained greenery, the sounds of our rumbling buses, and the competitive pricing of our cinema-halls-to-make-out-in, prem flourished robustly in Calcutta for decades. As late as 2002, that is, about ten odd years ago, when I joined college towards the middle of a singularly hot August, I quickly found that prem had yet retained all its characteristics as a seventies institution – long smoky hours at the Coffee House, tiny budgets, college fests, much drama, disapproving parents, passion metamorphed into (bad) poetry over endless cups of mud-coloured coffee and sad little egg sandwiches, vague longings at revolution, and, of course, a delicious old-fashioned nerve-wracking sense of waiting.
 
 
The Coffee House in College Street, Calcutta
 
 
The hall-of-fame love stories were narrated to us by Promod da if we found him in a good mood (or if one had not budged from the canteen in the last three days, ordering historic amounts of food therein).  There was, for one, the millionaire’s daughter R-di who married the commoner P-da – and agitated happily ever after. There was the Naxal leader who adored the Police Commissioner’s daughter, the economist who eloped with the Bangla professor’s son, the internationally famous scholar of postcolonial thought who had exactly fifty-three memorable prems in her three undergrad years. There were several other inspiring tales, and one or two sorrowful stories – of preme-e paagol (in a literal asylum-bound sense) and worse, suicide. 
 
 You’ve guessed by now that I have had a fair degree of hands-on experience in said matter.
 
Therefore, when my editor instructed me to do a piece chronicling the changing nature of romance with a decidedly Calcutta theme, I smugly informed the spouse (the other half of the prem escapades chronicled above) that it would be a cakewalk. I was already a veteran, an insider if you will. In typical spouse-ly manner he threw a few grim terms at me immediately: post-communist society, liberalization and its consequences, decline of institutions as we knew them, rise of consumerism like never before. “Blah blah blah blah blah,” I mimicked, pulling a face. Without pausing, he pointedly suggested that perhaps it might be better if I actually talked to a Few Young People first. 
 
Annoyedly, I picked up the phone and summoned my most available brother (of two) who immediately agreed to be interviewed. “In any case,” he said, “I’ve meaning to come over and see you guys.” I murmured sympathetically. A doctor in making and student leader, he has been involved in a classic ek-phool-do-maali kind of love triangle in the past one year.  Every time Doc tells us about it, S and I end up fighting over the radically different solutions that we both insist he follow – but he doesn’t really mind. (Naturally, he doesn’t follow either’s advice, but that is a different matter.)
 
Doc arrives in the evening, and armed with a notebook and pen, I accost him immediately. His brother-in-law tries to sneak him some chocolate before the grilling session begins but, like a jailor, I rush him through it. “What are young people thinking of prem these days?” I thunder. He pauses to think. “There is no prem these days to think about,” he finally answers, nibbling his chocolate absently.
 
“Come on,” I counter, “you know what I mean. The tradition of prem in Calcutta can’t not be there anymore. It’s as ubiquitous as the Calcutta biriyani. What are you saying?” He nods sagely. “I know exactly what you mean. Coffee House, Lake-er dhaar, dreaming about a future together, screwing up exams, fighting with parents, etc. etc. etc. The whole deal. I know. But it’s just no longer happening. It’s gone out of vogue.” Then, after gravely uncrossing his legs, he comments darkly. “And if you want to know, it’s all because of the girls.”
 
Now, my feminism and Doc’s sensitivity are both family jokes. If anyone else had said something to the effect, they wouldn’t have heard the end of it from me for the next ten years, but Doc is different; if anything, since babyhood he has been a Shakta, a worshipper of only goddesses, and generally he’s very politically correct. He is always winning elections and stuff. So I wait for him to elaborate.
 
“The boys are still willing to commit to relationships these days – the girls are absolutely non-committal. Really, not joking!” He warms up to his theme. “For instance, they may spend the whole afternoon and evening hanging out with you at the mall. They’ll hold your hand. Allow you to whisper sweet nothings in their ears. Anyone who sees you will think you’re a couple madly in love. But then you drop her home, and after that you’re not even allowed to call her for the next few days. Apparently, that’s infringement of her space. Then she’s AWOL for days! Even if she agrees to be your girlfriend, there are problems. For one, at any given time, most girls have at least three leading men in their lives. The boyfriend. The best (guy) friend. And another interesting guy who is not-a-friend-and-not-someone-special. It drives one crazy! Believe me – I am always having to counsel my friends on these matters.”
 
My eyes pop wide. Three! Sheesh! And what happened to the best girl friend? The one the boyfriend was supposed to buy coffee for, the one who played peacemaker during fights? The contemporary of the sakhi. She was very much there when I’d checked last!
 
“And before you know it, the best (guy) friend has become the boyfriend, the interesting guy is now the best friend, and the ex is, well, still a facebook friend. He can come back into her life anytime too. It’s a lot of drama.”  He shakes his head tiredly. “And you can’t be possessive or anything. Then she’ll throw a major tantrum and say you’re not liberal. But you can’t hang out with your friends that much either, or keep in touch with your ex. You can’t smoke, you can’t drink – the new breed of girls are very anti-smoking, anti-drinking. It’s very hard. The tension of the hochhe-hobe na phase is actually better for guys. It’s a lot of stress, but overall better. I tell you, some of my friends are having nervous breakdowns!”
 
S proceeds to pour him a stiff drink while I digest all this silently.
 
I think fleetingly of Bridget Jones – hadn’t thought that emotional fuckwittage in Bengal was primarily the preserve of girls. Talk of having it all. The fight for the fundamental right to choose who to love (that generations of feisty women had waged for years) has been fought and won, it seems, and subsequently declared completely irrelevant. As a hopeless romantic, I feel a little cheated. 
 
“How’s A-?” I ask, changing the subject. A- is a charming young thing, the unwitting phool of the triangle. “Fine,” Doc replies, his face softening instantly, “She said hello to you two. Shall I bring her over next weekend?”
 
*
 
The following morning, Sam and Roo come over. They are budding filmmakers, students of Jadavpur, around 22 or so. He is an exceptional photographer, she sings the blues. In short, they are very very cool. Confronted with such momentous changes to document and analyze, I am doubly charged up and waylay them as soon as they enter. Notebook in hand, I volunteer, even as they are divesting themselves of various tripods and lenses and other shooting paraphernalia. “Would you say there is a clear before-South City and an after-South City in the terrain of south Calcutta in general and Jadavpur in particular? Has that changed the nature of prem?” (For those who don’t quite know, South City is a humongous gleaming-shining siren of a mall, a veritable temple to the buying-and-spending economy, spawning a particular race of new mutants: the South City mall rats.) 
 
Sam and Roo are caught unawares by this sudden attack.
 
After settling down, and safely stowing away their equipment, Sam ventures, “I think that is more or less true. Though, of course, we can’t possibly know what it was really like in the before-South City days. I mean, I know where people used to hang out and stuff – they still hang out at those places – but I think everyone comes to South City all the time.” Roo runs a hand through her gorgeous hair and says, “If you want to know honestly, I think prem is totally different these days. It’s very casual, very non-committal.” She looks at my expression and says comfortingly, “Don’t be too disappointed but things have changed.”
 
I say, “But the quest for love is eternal, isn’t it? Don’t people want love anymore? And what about hormones?” 
 
They pause to think. Then Sam says, “There is a lot of falling in lust of course. A lot of heat, a lot of interest.” I perk up. “That early phase of bliss is very much there. But after that, there are fights. And people break up immediately. Nobody wants any hassles anymore. Who wants a relationship with so much chaap?” Roo replies, a little sadly, a little grow-uply, “I think our generation is just plain lazy. They don’t want to work at anything other than their careers. One fight after that month of bliss, and bam, they are over. I mean, if you want percentages, only about 10 per cent even believe in prem,” she looks at me earnestly. “Most of them aren’t looking for anything serious, they say.”
 
Sam adds, “Plus, there is the matter of long distance relationships. Even if people have been together for two or even three years, before one of them leaves town, it is understood they will break up.”
“You mean,” I ask, “they don’t even give it a try? They break up even before the viraha sets in?”
“Ya,” Roo confirms, “I don’t approve, but people are quite shallow ish. They need to be surrounded by new friends in the new place; it’s understood they’ll get a new boyfriend or girlfriend close by. Some girls, in fact, look out for a boy with a motorbike or preferably a car in the new city. It’s very convenient.” We burst out laughing. “It’s true though,” Roo smiles. But this is an old joke – only now it was probably advice proffered in all seriousness. Everyone knows how difficult public transport is in Delhi. (And most intellectuals-to-be of Calcutta are now bona fide residents of Delhi as it were.)    
 
I’m going to do the unpardonable and say, in our time, most people, while in a relationship, would be more hopeful of a happy ending; not necessarily marriage because I’ll have you know, there were radicals among us too, not even of an ending-ending, but of happiness together. Even when they went off to different cities, when they went abroad. If it didn’t work out, it didn’t. But nobody was cynical enough to end it simply because they already knew that unless the significant other was sitting on their head or hanging out of their pockets, the relationship would be over.
 
Evening falls outside the verandah, the birds chirp noisily and it begins to softly rain. We’ve chatted all day, and now, Sam and Roo begin to leave for home in a flurry of umbrellas. He’ll drop her and then go home. Are they a couple? I wonder aloud. Should I ask? But S twinkles at me, “Don’t bring it to the particular. Let them be.” 
 
*
 
In an organized fashion, I list the following general points in my head. To Be Thought About Regarding Prem:
1) Consumerism. Has it killed the socialist dream? Nobody wants to be poor together anymore. And it is probably easier trying to get rich with no premful complications in one’s head.
2) The illusion of too much choice, the super-market syndrome. (People should commission some studies on this.)
3) Extreme academic pressure. (If 100 per cent is the cut-off in leading colleges, then what can anyone say?)
4) Women’s lib? (So this is what freedom came to? Not to glorious liberty to love dramatically outside religion, against all rules but to a dwindling nothing – the freedom to dilly and dally, to dhori jol na chhui pani? It’s most unhappy).
5) Safety? The great Indian fallback option. At 30, parents will find, through shaadi.com or similar a nice marketable boy or girl, with whom there is much greater security. For the values assigned to individuals at 20 and 30 are markedly different, in the eyes of the word. At 20, the hottest guy in college is the singer, and nobody likes the dork. At 30, the dork lives in NY, has an MBA from ISB, works for some MNC and can effortlessly pay several EMIs at once. The singer has just been thrown out of the 13th band he had co-founded and is now thinking of opening a photocopy shop by the roadside.
 
*
 
My final two interviewees prefer the phone. It is the less available brother, the one who’s studying engineering in an industrial town outside the city. He is a thinker, this one. Has been bruised in love and now reads a lot of Sartre and Murakami; he has modelled himself somewhat on Ted Mosby of How I Met Your Mother. The other is an extremely opinionated bright young girl, M, who has just completed her masters in literature and is applying abroad. She is always interested, always honest, and sometimes prefers women to men. They are asked to answer briefly to the same set of questions.
 
 
QUESTION
ANSWER BY TED MOSBY
ANSWER BY M
1) Would you consider us post-prem?
Yes. It saddens me, but that is, indeed, the case.
Not really. But it’s a different kind of prem. Prem, above all, of the self.
2) Why do you think this is so?
Nobody reads anymore. If one doesn’t grow up reading Pride and Prejudice, Love Story or Tungabhadrar Teere, and only watch stupid serials then what will they know of love? We don’t make romantics anymore.
Girls are less willing to continue in relationships that do not fulfill all their demands. It’s not that girls don’t want to commit, but they now want a lot more. And men don’t seem to be willing to give more. Not that they can’t, they just don’t want to. So… Plus, there seems to be a lot of choice – nobody wants to be an early bird and choose wrong!
3) Is it ultimately a matter of career first?
Often. Most people will leave West Bengal anyway. In interviews people are asked if they are willing to be posted anywhere in the world, anywhere in India – and nobody wants to be tied down. Not boys, not girls.
Everybody wants love but it is too luck-dependent. Economic choice, though, is something I can control myself. So, naturally, bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Girls think that if they work hard and play their cards right, there is a huge world out there for them!
4) Any comments.
Don’t judge by Calcutta though, or its premier institutions. The deep suburbs are not that cynical – and prem flourishes in colleges there.
We see it this way: school and college prem have nothing to do with adult life and adult choices.
 
 
*
 
In spite of that tiny sliver of hope offered by Ted Mosby, I am greatly in the dumps; S suggests a walk. It doesn’t work. So he promises me a chocolate boat at the end of the walk and I agree.
 
And while we walk, we see couples, and groups of friends, and couples again. We see old people and young women with children. Shopkeepers and office-returnees. Absorbed in their worlds. There is comfort in watching strangers from afar.
 
We then walk down to the metro station, and girls and boys, in twos and fours, laugh and chatter, and their voices are like birds in the sky. And the rain is scattered in the wind, and the puddles by road reflect the passing headlights. And it fills my heart with something like relief. Because it is there – in the air – the essence of the unchanged; of youth, passing. That is enough in its own right; that is plenty.
 
We walk down to South City. And S tells me, “Today, let’s just walk around and observe the young people here. Not the ones who are buying but the ones behind the counters.”
 
And we do.
 
On days that one does that, one is blessed by the sight of Sanjay. One sees the Starmark non-fiction guy chatting with the Spencer’s perfume girl, just outside the foodcourt, hands glued to each other’s, oblivious to the world around. They don’t have many breaks but every time they do, they find each other, rushing up and down the four floors. They have long long hours on their feet, but they always lunch together – and take the train to the suburbs together too.
 
I have my chocolate boat happily, and go home, and promise not to fight with S for at least a week. I sleep soundly enough.
 
I have my answer for now. Like the French proclamation at the coronation of a new monarch, we Bengalis can safely conclude, for now.
The prem is dead. Long live the prem.
 
 
Calcutta

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