The pain and perfection of one-way love

Like Karan Johar’s ‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’, a non-threatening ode to the object of his unrequited love


Unrequited love is everyone’s favourite romantic phenomenon
Unrequited love is everyone’s favourite romantic phenomenon

Watching Karan Johar’s take on unrequited love made me nostalgic for that almost-forgotten ache. “The power of one-sided love is something else. Unlike other relationships, you don’t have to share it between two people. Only you have the right to it,” one fierce advocate of this approach says in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM).

Ah, the sweet pain of unconsummated love. The freedom to conjure any utopia the heart desires. The joy of directing yourself to overact in your tragic home production. The undivided, undistracted intensity that is only felt in the “quality time” moments of reciprocated love. “Perhaps the greatest love is one that is unrequited, since the banal realities of life can never compete with the perfection of fantasy,” says psychiatrist Shyam Bhat.

The angst (also experienced in heartbreak) gives your creativity a turbo boost. “Unrequited love deepens sensitivity, empathy and compassion, and can be transmuted into great works of art, poetry, music and literature,” says Bhat. The Daily Mail encapsulated it perfectly in a 2012 headline: Who Broke Adele’s Heart And Made Her A Star? My favourite artistes fuelled by unrequited love are Jane Austen and Vincent van Gogh.

One-way love is everyone’s favourite romantic phenomenon—you’ve missed out if you can’t look back in your relationship history and pull out a tale or two. Like waiting for a letter (yes, letter) from that best friend who never thought of you as anything but a buddy with whom he could share anything. Heading casually to the gate to wait for the postman at 3.30pm every day. Struggling to hide the disappointment when there was nothing in your name. Becoming friends with the postman who had probably witnessed enough unrequited love and guessed your secret soon enough. Re-reading and over-interpreting every word when the letter finally arrived. Looking for a hint, something, anything. Not finding it. Living through countless tales of a new love they had found. Anyone could see it was totally wrong and would never last. Meeting her and fake-smiling through the evening. Picking up the pieces when they broke up as predicted. Hoping again. Not understanding how someone who was so clearly a soulmate couldn’t feel the same way about you. Breaking the spell, finally. Sweet twist: Meeting a man who wrote every day when he was away from you. Most importantly, hitting a respectable age and being grateful that early love was never reciprocated. Understanding that soulmates make better friends than life partners.

Everyone’s growing-up years are sprinkled with the salty taste of one-way love. Don’t feel shy to talk about unrequited love, I say. It was sweet and innocent and helped you navigate the relationship roller coaster that followed as you grew older. It can be a little awkward if you are still grappling with unrequited love in your 40s like Johar seems to be, but more power to him for baring his feelings. ADHM is a non-threatening ode to the object of his unrequited love.

Johar’s films have often included love triangles, but one person usually opts out (or as in the case of 1998’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, drops dead) and unfulfilled love is rained out by a wet and wild thunderstorm. “ADHM is a remedy for those of us who thought that Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was most unconvincing,” says Nandini Ramnath, movie critic for Scroll.in. “In that movie, Rahul’s sudden desire for a woman he has regarded as a friend all along is attributed to her improved appearance. From this superficial premise, ADHM is a leap of faith. It at least recognizes that sometimes, some friendships will never change into romantic relationships, either overnight or ever.”

I can’t remember the last time I experienced unrequited love, but it must be an entirely different experience in the Digital Age. “He recently got on Instagram. Yet another social-media platform where I could love him, traverse his life, connect the dots to form my very own perspective of his day,” writes reality TV contestant Priya Malik on her blog. “My phone buzzes again and I realise that he has been belligerently active on Twitter today…It is clear to me that he’s not a big fan of Facebook. He only updates it when he’s forced to show it to the world…I switch to his podcast, to hear him speak...I have a notification. He updates a photo of his new book….I call my local bookshop to order a copy, fervently hoping to find myself pressed between its pages.”

Of course there’s a dark side to one-way love, which is manifested in the narrative of angry, spurned love. Bhat says the pain of unrequited love is expressed differently: “In some, it causes obsession, acts of revenge and violence, in others it fuels a desire for material success or causes depression, anger and cynicism.”

But the best kind of one-way love doesn’t harm, it teaches you about yourself. Brainpickings.org highlights what it taught van Gogh: “What kind of love was it I felt when I was 20?… I only wanted to give, but not to receive,” the artist wrote. “Foolish, wrong, exaggerated, proud, rash, for in love one must not only give, but also take, and reversing it, one must not only take but also give. Whoever deviates either to the right or to the left, he falls, there is no help for it.”

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable. She tweets at @priyaramani and posts on Instagram as babyjaanramani.

Also read Priya’s previous Mint Lounge columns

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