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Part 3: What is love?


As far as I can figure, the way that it works is this: everyone has something that happened to them. The thing that we each carry. And you can see it in people, if you look. See it in the way someone walks, in the way someone takes a compliment, sometimes you can just see it in someone’s eyes. In one moment of desperation, of fear, in one quick moment you can see that thing that happened. Everyone has it. The thing that keeps you up at night, or makes you not trust people, or stops love. The thing that hurts. And to stop it, to stop the hurt, you have to turn it into a story. And not just a story you play over and over for yourself, but a story that you tell. A story’s not a story unless you tell it. And once you tell it, it’s not yours anymore. You give it away. And once you give it away, it’s not something that hurts you anymore, it’s something that helps everyone who hears it. It’s the kind of thing that’s hard to explain. It’s probably best if we just show you how it works. ― Daniel MacIvor, How It Works.


Dheeraj Khare woke up hypnogagic. The best thing about dreams is that fleeting moment when you are asleep and awake when you don’t know the difference between reality and fantasy, when for just that one moment, you feel with your entire soul that the dream is reality, and it happened. You know that place between sleep and awake, where you can still remember dreaming? That’s where I’ll always love you, Monica. That’s where I’ll be waiting, he thought to himself. He didn’t want to wake up. He was having a much better time asleep. And that’s sad. It was almost like a reverse nightmare, like when you wake up from a nightmare, you’re so relieved. Dheeraj woke up into a nightmare. And thus began the most solitary day of his life.

Old and frail, his body bogged down by age, he was no stranger to this moment. It had been a part of his life for as long as he could remember. Only there was something different about it today. He couldn’t exactly put his finger on it, but he woke up with a sense of inevitable finality that had never been a part of his usual transition from being asleep to awake. On other days, he just realized that an imaginary bubble that had warmed him had suddenly popped, and he was back in the cold, real world. But not today.

He then went about his morning routine. He placed the eggs to boil in a pot of water on the stove, inserted two slices of bread in the toaster, set the temperature to high, removed the butter from the fridge, and placed it near the stove's flames to let it melt. He started the coffee pot and the home stereo to listen to his age-old playlist of classic instrumentals, which also drowned out the sound of the kitchen appliances. After completing his morning ablutions and having breakfast on the porch with a spectacular view of the valley in front of his hilltop villa, he walked down the hill on the nature trail that led straight to the market downhill. He bought that day’s newspaper and paid the newspaper girl his monthly fee, including a large tip, which brought a massive smile to that innocent face, as it had done for the past two years.

Childhood, he thought. When we are children, we seldom think of the future. This innocence leaves us free to enjoy ourselves as few adults can. The day we fret about the future is the day we leave our childhood behind. Then he trudged up the hill, sat on the swing in front of his house, and opened the ‘Obituaries’ section to find out who he had outlasted this day. The second name on the list and the accompanying photo sent cold shivers down his spine.

“Monica Shrikanth Karanjkar, aged 88, breathed her last and was found deceased by her maid on Monday, 3rd June, at her residence in West Andheri, Mumbai. She will be fondly missed by all the people whose lives she has touched in her long, illustrious life. She is survived by two sons and a daughter. The final cremation rites will be performed on Tuesday, 4th June morning at Boregaon Crematorium.”

Monica… No more…


65 years earlier

“Of course, I will die before you, you idiot”, Monica said and looked down at her plate, trying to decide whether to devour the noodles first or to munch down the scant remaining crispy, dark brown French fries. Dheeraj smiled wryly. “Happy Birthday, Monica. Would it be inconvenient for you if we didn’t speak about dying on your 23rd birthday?”

It had been three years since they had come to this eatery for lunch, and everything was almost the same, yet different. Monica still didn’t know what to order and where to eat, and even after he had decided on the restaurant and ordered food, she raised her eyebrows in her characteristic way and wrinkled her nose, which made her look so adorable that he couldn’t help but grin at her innocent indecisiveness.

“I would rather you talk about what your plans are. You are already of a marriageable age, and you’ve not yet decided what you want to do with your life. Dare you die before me, though? I will turn the world upside down to find a way to bring you back”, he continued, and to help her make her decision, he poured ketchup freely on two of the crispiest fries, gobbled one up, and offered another to her. She gave him the faintest smile, and then they returned to their everyday conversations. She made him talk like no one else did. He opened up to her and let all his thoughts freely in her presence, and she took it all in her stride. And she understood. She understood everything he said, why, and what made him say it. And he understood that she understood—every single time.

“Just because I am a girl, I must decide what to do with my life. What have you decided? Except whom you want to marry. Because that is one decision, it seems you have already made.”; she beamed at him, knowing he would blush at her outright accusation, which was ironically true, although she didn’t realize that herself.

And that’s why he loved her. Only once in your life, he truly believed, you find someone who can completely turn your world around. You tell them things you’ve never shared with another soul, and they absorb everything you say and want to hear more. You share hopes for the future, dreams that will never come true, never achieved goals, and the many disappointments life has thrown you. When something extraordinary happens, you can’t wait to tell them about it, knowing they will share in your excitement. They are not embarrassed to cry when you are hurting or laugh with you when you make a fool of yourself. They never hurt your feelings or make you feel like you are not good enough, but rather, they build you up and show you the things about yourself that make you unique and even beautiful.

Only if she realized what she meant to him without him having to say it outright to her, he didn’t want to risk the misery of having his heart broken again.

Dheeraj had known heartache before, and he blamed it on love. He had made wrong decisions, with imperfect information, having permanent consequences, he told her. But Monica taught him that that was not true. “Loneliness hurts, rejection hurts, losing someone hurts,” she said. She thought people confused these things with love, but in reality, love was the only thing in this world that covered up all the pain and made us feel wonderful again. “Of course, you’re going to get your heart broken. And it isn’t just going to happen once, but a lot. That’s just part of growing up, and it makes you stronger. Then you can handle it better next time. You may not get through it yourself, but your friends will help. And you’ll be a stronger person because of it. Then one day someone will come along, and it’ll all pay off, and no one will ever break your heart again”, she said.

And so, following the dialogue of a movie he had seen years earlier, (“You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.” – We Bought a Zoo) he asked her, “Will you marry me?”

But real life hardly follows reel life. That’s why people make movies and write novels. It’s a way of escape. Imagine a world where things happen differently; people meet differently and live differently. It’s only because they borrow heavily from the real world that we feel the reel world is just a reflection of reality. And that was the moment the imaginary bubble burst for Dheeraj. He didn’t remember the details. He just knew that the whole of her body language was signifying something else. She loved someone else. Only she wouldn’t tell him. He wasn’t the person she went to to tell everything. She meant the world to him. He was just another person in her life, replaceable. And if not replaceable, her world wouldn’t crash about if he wasn’t there.

He always wanted to marry the person he met on his terms. The person whom he approached with no reason in particular. The one who went from stranger to friend to confidante, from the person he never spoke to who kept you up at night. He wanted to marry her because he felt from the bottom of his heart that she would always have been those things — friend, confidante, and perhaps even accomplice in all of his journeys because he thought she loved him too.

Monica said bluntly, “I will marry when it feels like I should. And I don’t feel that way about you.” She didn’t love him. She loved someone else. She didn’t say it outright, though. It was one thing to accept: he couldn’t have Monica. It was something entirely different to realize someone else could. Losing an illusion makes you wiser than knowing the truth. You never know enough until you see what is more than enough. And Dheeraj had had enough.


Monica married Shrikanth Karanjkar, who had become an essential part of her life when she needed an escape from everyone constantly expecting her to act a certain way. With Shrikanth, she could be herself. There was never any pressure, jealousy, or competition but only a calmness when he was around. She could be herself and not worry about what Shrikanth would think of her because he loved her for who she was.

But something was missing. Honesty was not an integral part of their relationship. Before Dheeraj abruptly went out of her life, she remembered him telling her how much he valued honesty. He had told her, “I love unmade beds. I love it when people are drunk and crying and cannot be anything but honest at that moment. I love the look in people’s eyes when they realize they’re in love. I love the way people look when they first wake up, and they’ve forgotten their surroundings. I love the gasp people take when their favorite character dies. I love it when people close their eyes and drift to somewhere in the clouds. I fall in love with people and their honest moments all the time. I fall in love with their breakdowns, smeared makeup, and daydreams. Honesty is just too beautiful to ever put into words.” But she had not valued honesty ever that much. People are who they are, and you must accept them that way. She could never be an idealist as it only led to a world of hurt.

Shrikanth could make her laugh. Laughter seemed a part of daily life where, before, it was infrequent or didn’t exist at all. And she always had wanted that. Always trying to make others smile, she had mastered the art of plastering a fake smile on her face and pleasing everyone, not letting anyone see how she felt, and with Shrikanth, she found that he was content to let her be. He was not interested in knowing how she felt; their personalities somehow complemented each other. She was cooperative, and he was the dominant decision-maker. She was a faithful wife to him all his years, and though it was not a fairy tale, there were fights, there were times when she felt that he didn’t understand her, that he had so many stereotypes about her, and at the end, she started letting most of them go unnoticed as she trudged through married life. She had two sons and a daughter to care for, and her plate was too full most of the time to react to Shrikanth. She knew real life was tough. She had prepared herself all life to be disappointed, so she believed things would have been the same had she married someone else.

This is why almost every story, novel, stage play, and movie dealing with romance ends with “And they lived happily ever after.” However, had the author continued to describe living happily ever after, they would have put the audience/reader to sleep because, while living happily ever after is great for those who are great for oneself, it is boring to read about or view it in others. Sure, we may be happy for them and even slightly envious of what they have, but most want something with more action, suspense, and tragedy for an entertaining diversion. Perfect relationships are not perfect. It’s just about two people who never gave up.


Dheeraj decided to focus on other things in his life in the coming years. The quarter-life crisis he had faced had taught him many things. He had lost out on close friends. He had had to make tricky, complicated decisions in his work life that made him question his own personal ethics and moral beliefs. Monica had been there throughout to guide him in making those choices. He had opened himself to her completely, leaving himself vulnerable even to the slightest hurt. And he had never anticipated or even considered the possibility that life wouldn’t be slightly like what he had always pictured in his head.

He had opened his heart, knowing there was a chance it may be broken one day, and in opening his heart, he experienced a love and joy that he never dreamt possible. But there are so many fragile things, after waster all. People break so quickly, and so do dreams and hearts.

He thought of her on every occasion and in everything he did. His wish had always been to write his story and create a worthwhile life. But is a story worth anything if he had no one to tell it to?

Dheeraj thought he fell in love with her a little bit. Wasn’t that dumb? But it was like he knew her. Like she was his oldest, dearest friend. The kind of person you can tell anything to, no matter how bad, and they’ll still love you because they know you. He wanted to go with her. He wanted her to notice him. And then, that day, she stopped walking. Under the moon, she stopped. She looked at him. Maybe she was trying to tell him something; I don’t know. She probably didn’t even know he was there. But he’ll always love her. All his life. It was strange how he loved her: a sidelong and almost casual love, as if loving her were simply a matter of course, too natural to mention.

With Shrikanth and every guy before Shrikanth, what passed for love had always been eye to eye, nose to nose; he thought she must have felt watched, observed, like the prize inhabitant of a zoo. At the same time, he was always beside her. Maybe that’s where he went wrong. She didn’t want someone to walk with her; she wanted someone to take her hand and lead her somewhere.

To sum up, there exist only three kinds of love:

  1. Where you love someone, and they love you back.

  2. Where you learn to love someone who loves you.

  3. Where you love someone, and they don’t love you.

The first one is the happiest.

The second is the strongest.

The third, he wouldn’t wish even on his worst enemy.

Actually, there is a word for that. It’s love. I’m in love with her, okay? If you’re looking for the word that means caring about someone beyond all rationality and wanting them to have everything they want no matter how much it destroys you, it’s love. And when you love someone, you just, you…you don’t stop, ever, even when people roll their eyes and call you crazy. Even then. Especially then. You just– you don’t give up. Because if I could just give up…if I could just, you know, take the whole world’s advice and– and move on and find someone else, that wouldn’t be love. That would be… that would be some other disposable thing that is not worth fighting for. But I– that is not what this is. – Ted Mosby, How I Met Your Mother


Present day

Monica… No more…

Dheeraj felt a stab of loneliness like he had never felt before. He had lived all his life with the one hope that she would be his someday. His eyes grew hazy momentarily, and he thought of the conversation he should have had with her. The smoke coming from the road turned into their 25-year-old young selves. He knew he was hallucinating and was replaying another scene he had watched somewhere, editing it to suit his convenience. He imagined a world where Dheeraj and Monica met differently and lived in their own way. They talked beyond the world of right and wrong without boundaries.

Both of them started the conversation with the same sentence.

Both: I knew exactly what love looked like… In school.

Monica: Even though I hadn’t met love yet, I would’ve recognized him at first glance if love had wandered into my life. Love was an athlete.

Dheeraj: I would’ve recognized her at first glance; love had long, beautiful hair.

Monica: Love played acoustic guitar and knew all my favorite movie songs.

Dheeraj: Love wasn’t afraid to eat lots of sweets with me.

Both: And I knew,

Monica: I just must be searching the wrong classrooms,

Dheeraj: just must be checking the wrong hallways; she was there; I was sure of it.

Monica: If only I could find him.

Both: But when love finally showed up,

Dheeraj: she didn’t have long hair.

Monica: He wore the same clothes every day for a week.

Dheeraj: Love hated sweets.

Monica: Love didn’t know anything about most of the movie songs.

Both: Instead,

Dheeraj: every time I try to kiss love,

Both: our teeth got in the way.

Monica: Love became the reason I lied to my parents.

Dheeraj: I’m going to go for a walk.

Monica: Love had terrible rhythm on the dance floor, but made sure we never missed a slow song.

Dheeraj: Love waited by the phone because she knew that if her father picked up, it would be:

Monica: “Hello? Hello? *heavy breathing* I guess they hung up.”

Dheeraj: And love grew,

Monica: stretched like a trampoline.

Dheeraj: Love changed.

Monica: Love disappeared, slowly, like baby teeth, losing parts of me I thought I needed.

Dheeraj: Love vanished like an amateur magician, and everyone could see the trapdoor but me.

Monica: Like a flat tire, there were other places I had planned on going,

Both: But my plans didn’t matter.

Monica: Love stayed away for years, and when love finally reappeared, I barely recognized him.

Dheeraj: Love smelled different now, had darker eyes,

Monica: a broader back, love came with scars I didn’t recognize.

Dheeraj: New birthmarks, a softer voice.

Monica: Now there were new sleeping patterns,

Dheeraj: new favorite books.

Monica: Love had songs that reminded him of someone else,

Dheeraj: songs love didn’t like to listen to.

Both: So did I.

Dheeraj: But we found a lakeside bench that fit us perfectly,

Monica: we found jokes that made us laugh.

Dheeraj: And now, love makes me fresh homemade food.

Monica: But, love will probably finish most of them for a midnight snack.

Dheeraj: Love looks great in lingerie but still likes to wear her pajamas.

Monica: Love is a terrible drive but a great navigator.

Dheeraj: Love knows where she’s going; it might take her two hours longer than planned.

Monica: Love is messier now,

Dheeraj: not as simple.

Monica: Love uses inappropriate words in front of my parents sometimes.

Dheeraj: Love chews too loud.

Monica: Love leaves the cap off the toothpaste.

Dheeraj: Love uses smiley faces in her text messages.

Monica: And it turns out,

Both: love sucks!

Monica: But love also cries. And love will tell you, you are beautiful

Dheeraj: and mean it,

Monica: over and over again.

Dheeraj: You are beautiful.

Monica: When you first wake up,

Dheeraj: “You are beautiful.”

Monica: When you’ve just been crying,

Dheeraj: “You are beautiful.”

Monica: When you don’t want to hear it,

Dheeraj: “You are beautiful.”

Monica: When you don’t believe it,

Dheeraj: “You are beautiful.”

Monica: When nobody else will tell you,

Dheeraj: “You are beautiful.”

Monica: Love still thinks – you are beautiful.

Dheeraj: But love is not perfect, and will sometimes forget,

Monica: when you need to hear it most,

Both: you are beautiful,

Monica: do not forget this.

Dheeraj: Love is not who you were expecting; love is not what you can predict.

Monica: Maybe love is in another city, already asleep, and you are in New York, wide awake. Maybe love is always in the wrong time zone,

Dheeraj: maybe love is not ready for you. Perhaps you are not prepared for love.

Monica: Maybe love just isn’t the marrying type.

Dheeraj: Maybe the next time you see love is sixty-five years later; love looks older now but just as beautiful as you remembered.

Monica: Maybe love is only there for a month.

Dheeraj: Maybe love is there for every firework, every birthday party, every hospital visit.

Monica: Maybe love stays-

Dheeraj: maybe love can’t.

Both: Maybe love shouldn’t.

Dheeraj: Love arrives exactly when love is supposed to, and love leaves exactly when love must.

Monica: When love arrives, say,

Both: “Welcome. Make yourself comfortable.”

Dheeraj: If love leaves, ask her to leave the door open behind her.

Monica: Turn off the music, listen to the quiet,

Dheeraj: whisper,

Both: “Thank you. Thank you for stopping by.”

For a fleeting moment, he imagined hundreds of scenarios of how those two youngsters could have come together.

His eyes, however, closed for one last time, and then there were none.

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