Half-lives of love

Poorna Swami | Updated on February 02, 2018

Set in stone: When Shah Jahan had the Taj Mahal built as Mumtaz’s tomb, he wanted the world to remember forever that he had loved her   -

No earthy matter: Marc Chagall often depicts himself and his wife, Bella Rosenfeld, flying in his paintings, as though their love was gravity-defying   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Declarations of love — be it the colossal Taj Mahal, a small poem or deletable social media posts — carry within them the impulse to be seen, read and remembered, for a love that may have died or dysfunctioned but mattered as long as it lived

In 1936, my great-grandparents fell in love in front of the Taj Mahal. It was the first time they had met, and there and then they decided to spend the rest of their lives together. Theirs is a story fit for Bollywood — a brief encounter, and then a grand declaration of love against its most iconic monument. After two generations, and a story told over and over, the events of that day seem fantastical — my great-grandparents’ love story has outlived them, though I don’t think they meant it to.

Looking at the lone photograph of my great-grandmother that day, I am struck not so much by her dishevelled white sari, or her coy gaze into the camera, but by the marble inlay and trellis behind her. The armature of the Taj Mahal is coloured with many love stories, an eternal reminder that Shah Jahan loved Mumtaz long before, and long after my great-grandparents loved each other.

When Shah Jahan had the Taj Mahal built as Mumtaz’s tomb, he wanted the world to remember forever that he had loved her. But why tell the world of this intimacy? Why turn to stone the tenderness of romance? Shah Jahan isn’t alone this breed of romantic. Through the eras, humans have been declaring their love for each other in colossal ways. They have ensured their love transcends the privacy of a bedroom or the intimacy of an embrace, and endures beyond them. For Shah Jahan, it meant getting 20,000 men to build a marble edifice, and today, it might just need an Instagram post to declare we are “Insta official”. Today, I could share a picture of a beloved, caption it with brevity, and send it out into the virtual world so that my love can be searched and known by hashtags.

Of course, it is easier to delete a life event from a Facebook timeline than obliterate the Taj Mahal, and so, maybe it is easier now to declare love publicly simply because we have the option of undoing our broadcasts. We don’t have to be burdened by the idea of an ever-after. But to dismiss the love declared on social media as superficial would also be a dismissal of the simple courage it takes to come out about an illicit love, or to admit publicly that you believe this love is lasting. It would also mean to rate loves against each other. That very evaluation seems misplaced for a thing as complex, immediate, and unconditional as love. Although different, both the Taj Mahal and an announcement with selfies and emojis, somewhere are made of the same impulse — to declare to vast populations that we have loved, and that our love is worth being remembered.

Such substantial, public declarations of love are all around us. In India, there is the Taj Mahal. In Austria, the Mirabell Gardens. In Scotland, Sweetheart Abbey. In Japan, Kodaiji Temple. Architecture, if it survives bad weather, war, and plunder, can abate our fear that our love might end with us. Perhaps there is something catastrophic to love. Unable to resist it, we unwittingly “fall” into it, never knowing how long it will last. And we fear that when it ends, we will not survive the pain. Because when we risk loving someone with everything we have, we then also have everything to lose. The novelist Junot Diaz, in his This Is How You Lose Her, writes, “The half-life of love is forever”. In that sense, love, even as it decays, takes an eternity to do so. So declarations, with their promise of being witnessed by others, remembered by others, guarantee that even when our own love stories decay with time and dysfunction, it will be a long time before they truly turn to dust.

Although not as ostentatious as a marble mausoleum and or a perfectly-grafted garden, several other declarations long for similar permanence. Names enclosed with hearts and arrows, carved with unsteady hands into dilapidated monuments and tree trunks, are ways, too, to inscribe the outside world with a personal, specific love. Bearers of this graffiti, trees become unmoving sites that can be mapped as coordinates for where our love once played out, where we met, or first kissed, or just confessed to a lover how we felt. Often, a tree that holds meaning for a couple might slowly get covered by many other names connected by a verb reduced to several bulbous hearts. Some people might not give their declarative inscription so much weight. It might just be a charming gesture at an afternoon picnic. Still, that tree becomes a palimpsest of declarations big and small, with love written over and over itself. A single place for many loves. A monument that can both be stumbled upon by strangers and revisited by those wanting to remember what once was.

Etched Trees with hearts and names carved on them become monuments that can both be stumbled upon by strangers and revisited by those wanting to remember what once was   -


A tree keeps growing and, symbolically, so does the love writ on its skin — it stands, a tangible witness to declarations of indescribable feelings, itself a declaration, growing into its half-life until, one indiscernible day, it will indeed be dead. A declaration on a tree may not last forever, but when it disappears, it is absorbed into the landscape, earth that can renew itself. There is eternity even in this finite declaration. No wonder, we often measure our love by the distance to the moon and stars, the breadth of the ocean, the steadfastness of mountains. Held by the landscape, perhaps our love continues to live its half-life — to the romantic declarer, all is not lost.

Declarations in verse

While inscriptions are a sure way to have our love known for a long time, history is embellished with declarations that weren’t written down or set in stone, that disappeared or morphed and, yet, whose love stories continue to be recalled. The Kashmiri poet Bilhana, imprisoned by king Madanabhirama for having an affair with princess Yaminipurnatilaka, wrote 50 verses about his longing for her as he awaited his sentence. These verses together make the poem we know as “Chaurapanchashikha”. In E Powys Mathers’s interpretative translation of the poem, Bilhana seems desperate for us to know that he loves every part of his Yaminipurnatilaka, even though he won’t see her again:

Even now

Death sends me the flickering of powdery lids

Over wild eyes and the pity of her slim body

All broken up with the weariness of joy;

The little red flowers of her breasts to be my comfort

Moving above scarves, and for my sorrow

Wet crimson lips that once I marked as mine.

Although Bilhana’s fate is unknown, we know that people carried his verses orally to faraway places. Because, when his story was finally written down, it had many versions. It is hard to say who shared these verses with whom and how they changed them, but it is clear that someone did listen to Bilhana when he yearned for them to. In doing so, they allowed him a declaration that fulfilled itself into many lifetimes.

But declarations, particularly spoken ones, don’t always realise themselves in such precise ways. The tale of Layla and Majnun, known to most through the Persian poet Nizami’s epic poem, is made of several declarations that have disappeared. Separated from Layla and crazed with heartbreak, Majnun recited poems in the desert, writing them with a stick in the sand. These declarations were lost to the wind but, fatefully, they weren’t lost forever. Travellers saw the bereft Majnun and took news of him back to the city. Perhaps they couldn’t repeat his exact words, but they had witnessed the magnitude of his utterances, and carried that on to other people. They gave his love a life that has continued into one of the most widely known love stories of all time. After Layla had died, Majnun was found dead by a rock, into which he had carved three verses for his Layla. But even if he hadn’t finally written these down for posterity, people had borne witness to the passions he had declared in the wilderness — passions they would, and still do, repeat.

Most often a declaration needs to be repeated for its love to endure — it needs to be remembered again and again. But a declaration repeated many times over by the one who made it might be another way to historical permanence. The Russian painter Marc Chagall painted his wife, Bella Rosenfeld, over and over. In more than one painting, he depicts the two of them flying, as though their love was gravity-defying. In one painting, they are getting married, in another, they are kissing indoors, in yet another, they are soaring in each other’s arms above their town. Even after Rosenfeld died, Chagall continued to draw her in her own old notebook. Because Chagall found success as an artist during his lifetime, he painted for his works to be seen widely. And so, he painted his love with Rosenfeld for all to see. In his autobiography, My Life, he explains, “All I had to do was open my window and in streamed the blueness of the sky, love and flowers with her. Dressed all in white or all in black, she has long been haunting my paintings, the great central image of my art”. We do not have to know that it is Chagall and Rosenfeld in these whimsical, sensual paintings. We just see the same couple through different scenes, in different colours, and we believe these are people who really do love each other.


No earthy matter: Marc Chagall often depicts himself and his wife, Bella Rosenfeld, flying in his paintings, as though their love was gravity-defying   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES


If love is as perishable, ephemeral, as we often describe, it is curious so many people, through centuries, have wanted to preserve it, wanted others to witness, remember, and repeat it. It is not as though people want us to remember them when they declare their love. We will never know who those names on the tree trunk are, just as we may never know the couple in the proposal video that went viral. In declaring our love beyond ourselves, perhaps we don’t so much hope that we live on through love but that our love might live on without us — nameless and lasting. Jeanette Winterson, in her bookThe Gap of Time, reinterprets William Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. Her Perdita (in the original, a heroine who must suffer many travails to consummate her love), ponders the legacy of her own love:

[“A]lthough history repeats itself and we always fall, and I am a carrier of history whose brief excursion into time leaves no mark, I have known something worth knowing, wild and unlikely and against every rote.

Like a pocket of air in an upturned boat.

Love. The size of it. The scale of it. Unimaginable.”

The way Perdita sees it, love — and its impermanence — is cyclical. And yet, we can never be certain of what love is. We can know love only as we have ever known it. Maybe, then, when we declare our love for a history beyond us, we don’t want to tell the world of what our love was, who it involved and how it went. Maybe, we just want to gift to time the knowledge that we loved, and that it mattered for however long it lived.

Poorna Swami is a writer based in Bengaluru


Published on February 02, 2018

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