Love, Loss, And Resistance In A Divided India – An Excerpt From The Girl Who Kept Falling In Love by Rheea Mukherjee

First, I’ll tell you the thing I learnt that made my life excruciating and joyful at the same time. But of course, like all things worth learning, it was a bitch to apply. When it was my time, the knowledge of it crept into my cells while I slept, the vibration of this truth spun through my chest, rose up and crawled onto my tongue. Only then did the words come to me, spilling out into the air.



One should never measure love by its loss. But it’s all we do, isn’t it? Defining life by our losses. Our perceived ones, at least.


Secondly, you must know the mistake I made was something anyone could have made. I mean, if you really think about how much time and care we take to make sure others think of us in a certain way, you’ll see this could have happened to you as well. You, too, could have done it. We spend so much of our lives creating our own version of how things happened. Most of us have an internal PR intern in our heads—one that deletes, evades, exaggerates and doubles down on parts of our lives so we always feel like we are somewhat decent people. We have a version of ourselves in our heads, and isn’t that what we’re told is the most important thing?



But it’s not. We are mostly defined by the outside world. You are perceived differently by each person around you. A lot of people might know you only through your past version of yourself. A ghost of you lives with people you might not even hang out with anymore. You haunt others unwittingly. We all live multiple lives in this way. Sure, it doesn’t matter for the most part, who thinks what of you; but for those of us inclined to examine our lives on the premise that we haunt others while still alive, well then, I think it’s imperative that we move past our own narratives.



Finally, I must preface my story with a hobby I’ve maintained for years: collecting urban myths from anyone who is willing to tell them. Every urban legend has been peppered with some new detail that tends to shift with each retelling. Sometimes the gender changes, or the age, but the moral remains the same, that is if you choose to see one. Every urban myth has an inkling of a shared experience, an admission of personal guilt, or a secret aspiration. This is why they are important to me; a way to seek solace in other people’s secrets or at least their self-perception which they’d rather not have in the public eye. To be fair, I’ll start with a myth of my own—it’s the story I choose to tell others, both because it’s true and because I experienced it firsthand.



Urban Myth 1: The Perfectly Polite Neighbours


My neighbors, an older couple, were renting out a two-bedroomed apartment, which they owned in the same building. This couple was quiet but always full of smiles whenever I bumped into them. You know the kind of run-ins one has in residential complexes, while you’re at your door, jingling your keys, peeling off your shoes by the shoe stand, or walking out the main entrance with your phone glued to your ear. The woman was in her early fifties and the man could not have been more than sixty, but they were youthful in their presence, their clothes meticulous and well-thought-out. I had never even seen them in pajamas or shorts the few times I’d caught them paying their tip for delivered food.



One day, a young man (who looked mysterious enough for me to take notice) knocked on their door. He had a thick ponytail and wore chinos that hung in that perfect not-too-tight-but-not-too-loose way. I happened to be tying my shoelace in front of my door at that very moment. I unknotted my shoelace and started to tie it again, slowly, so I could continue to observe. They didn’t seem to mind, although they didn’t smile at me as they usually did. The man asked about the apartment. He had a mixed accent, slightly British, slightly urban Indian. The woman said she would be happy to show it to him, but why didn’t he come in for a cup of tea first?



He agreed, walked in, and the woman shut the door. This was the only time they had acknowledged my presence from afar without smiling. She just closed the door.



All I can tell you is that this man started to live with this couple, inexplicable as it was. Of course, the reasons could be mundane enough; perhaps they had worked out a cheaper deal for him in exchange for his helping them at home. But that made no sense since this mysterious young man seemed to have a regular job, dressed crisply in ‘office-wear’ every day and came home only at 7 p.m.



Perhaps the man reminded them of a young son they never had, and the young man preferred to live with a family rather than alone. Maybe they were a throuple, lovers, intense friends. The thing is, the energy they exuded whenever they passed me in the common areas effectively squelched any and all personal and nosy questions. This is probably why I became obsessed with it. Because it was odd. Because all three of them seemed so confident in their mystery. They relied on that confidence to keep urban Indian curiosity at bay. And it worked. This insulted me on two levels.



Firstly, why was I succumbing to being stereotypically curious about my neighbors? But that was something I could easily justify. After all, curiosity about other people can be a healthy and intelligent enough trait. One never likes to admit they are a gossip, but aren’t we all, in some shape or form? The second part that offended my sensibilities was my own narcissism. How could their secretive energy work so well on me? I was not the kind to be intimidated—at least that’s the story I’ve told myself. I have always been known to ask awkward, intrusive questions. I’ve deliberately put my foot in my mouth in the past just for the fun of it; just to see people’s reactions. So why was I so afraid to ask about this? I started to hover. In the hallway between our doors. I started walking around our building, where I could see their veranda lined with potted plants and creepers. Just enough money plants to give them privacy, but not enough to make them seem like they hated peeping Toms. We, my mysterious neighbors and I, lived on the first floor; so, from the ground floor, I could only see them if they happened to be standing outside on their balcony. The older man was a smoker. I had often seen him in the evenings, looking out into nothing, the ash growing on his cigarette.



Whenever he saw me, he always raised his eyebrows, a soft smile, a friendly, but quick, acknowledgment. I would always say hello, or something of the like, refusing to call him ‘Uncle’ because he looked like the type who could be offended by it. For a few days, I felt frustrated and angry at myself for never having been polite enough to get to know them before. I just hadn’t had the mental bandwidth to do so. It felt like such a chore, and now I was suffering because of it. If I’d just established some kind of relationship with them, I could have asked about the young man.



It was the day after my birthday. I remember because I had a slight hangover from the day before. It was getting dark, and I was walking back to my apartment from the store with a cloth bag filled with brown bread, chips, and apples. I looked up to see the older man, shirtless, smiling and looking at the young man. Half of the younger man’s face was hidden by a vine. Then the older man chanced to glance out and his eyes looked directly into mine. For the first time, he held my stare. And then he raised an eyebrow, licked his lips, and nodded at me. I was frozen in awkwardness. The older man pulled the young man towards him and pushed his lips on him. They kissed, frantically, for whole, time-stopping seconds. Then they stopped. The older man lit up a cigarette and looked down at me again. ‘Did you want to join us?’ he chuckled. ‘I am so sorry,’ I blurted. And then I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the wife. ‘Sweetie, you’ve dropped one of your apples,’ she said, offering it to me in her palm. She wore a cotton salwar kameez with a brown bindi. She had on sneakers beneath the floaty pants, like she was returning home from an evening walk. The young man looked at her, and his face lit up.


Excerpted with permission from The Girl Who Kept Falling in Love by Rheea Mukherjee

Publishing/ Penguin Random House India (2023)

You can buy your copy here.




Rheea Mukherjee’s work has been published in, Southern Humanities Review, LA Times, Huffington Post, Out of Print, LIT magazine, and Bengal Lights, among others. Her previous fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart and was a semi-finalist for the Black Lawrence Press award. Rheea holds an MFA in writing from California College of The Arts in San Francisco. She co-founded Bangalore Writers Workshop in 2012 and currently co-runs Write Leela Write, a Design and Content Laboratory in Bangalore.