I was 17 at the time, and in a relationship that seemed perfect. Yes, we had our ups and downs, but we were happy, we saw a future together and everything was looking bright. Something, however, did not feel right. Initially, I couldn’t pinpoint what it was, and I would just tell myself that it was nothing. It’s not to do with our actual relationship, I’d think. I was just nervous about how my family would one day react to me, as a Hindu, Indian girl, having a Bengali, Muslim boyfriend. I would spend my time on the bus home from school thinking about what it was in our relationship that was missing, or lost, but I just could never tell.
Then one day, I was at a family gathering; we were all feasting on samose, chaat and rajma chawal and having the time of our lives. The uncles were debating Indian politics while the aunties were gossiping about their mothers-in-law. I was watching my older cousin with his wife and thinking about how in love they were. They had met in high school, made it through university together and were now happily married. This was exactly how I imagined Atif* and I to be. I had it all planned out. We were going to study at the same university in Sydney — I would do law, and him actuarial studies — then we’d meet between classes and spend weekends together. It would be perfect. But as I looked over to my cousins, I knew something was missing from my story.
It was in that exact moment that I realised what it was. My cousin leaned over to tell his wife a joke in Hindi — she got it straight away and we all laughed with them. This was it. This is what was missing. I couldn’t tell Atif a joke in Hindi and expect him to understand it or laugh with me. It was as simple as that. I wouldn’t be able to come home and rant to him about my day in Hindi, or have a conversation with my grandma that he would understand, or even watch a Bollywood movie and expect him to enjoy the whole thing with me.
I was very confused at first, and thought that maybe I was racist for only wanting to be with someone who understood Hindi or Punjabi. It wasn’t even that Bengali culture is that far from Indian culture — they’re almost identical. It was that he couldn’t understand the language I grew up speaking. Initially, I thought I would be able to let go of this need to be able to tell the person I love a joke in Hindi. But, alas, I couldn’t. I ended the relationship with Atif, causing us both a lot of pain. Even though I loved him, it just wasn’t enough.
I had a few discussions about this with my school friends at the time, and while they supported me on a surface level, they didn’t quite understand. Some insinuated that maybe I was “too Indian”. As I was one of the only people with an Indian background at my high school, this was something I’d always struggled with. My family friends, however, really supported me — they understood and had found themselves in similar predicaments. In this sense I was really lucky, because with the support of my family friends, I was able to realise why this was such a big issue. My culture and language are shaping aspects of my identity: I’m a product of being brought up in a diaspora community and I couldn’t just let go of who I am on entering a relationship.
After that, I found myself chasing after this fantasy of finding someone with an Indian background who would be able to understand anything I said in Hindi or Punjabi. I was literally just swiping right to all of the brown guys I saw on Tinder. Then I met Rohan*, who was tall, handsome, funny, spoke both Hindi and Punjabi, and just seemed perfect. We had a lot of fun and he was hilarious, or at least I thought so at first. But I soon realised that the only reason I was with him was because he spoke Hindi and Punjabi. Yes, he had an understanding of being brought up in a diaspora community, but our relationship still didn’t work. After the honeymoon period, the fantasy wore off and I honestly lost interest, as brutal as that sounds. The fact that he spoke Hindi alone just wasn’t enough. Yes, it was an underlying factor, but it wasn’t everything.
Now, you’d think that would be super obvious to me, right? What I was looking for was someone who understood my upbringing in the Indian community in Sydney, who also spoke Hindi or Punjabi, and who was a person who I could genuinely connect with. To be clear, I wanted all of this in one person, not three — is that too much to ask for? Funnily enough though, this took longer for me to figure out than it should have. After two failed relationships — or ‘learning experiences’ — I eventually realised that, in the person I am with, I need a cultural, emotional and physical connection. The reassurance given by my family friends was really important, and without them I would still be doubting whether I was allowed to feel this way.
Fast forward a few years, and I am now in a healthy, happy relationship (knock on wood). He’s been brought up in a similar environment to me, speaks Punjabi and we genuinely connect. Even though it’s long distance, between Sydney and Canberra, it is definitely worth it. It’s a nice feeling being able to switch between languages — especially when we’re out at a café and I want to know what dish the people next to us have, but I don’t want them to hear me ask about it. Jokes aside though, the past few years and a lot of deliberating have made me realise that I do genuinely want, or on some level need, to be with someone who will understand Hindi or Punjabi. It’s just how important my culture and language are to me. I want to be able to watch Kal Ho Naa Ho with my partner and not have to explain what the purpose of “kuwadi kudi” is. (If you’re wondering, it’s a matrimonial service where the girl gets a photo of three guys and has to choose between them.)
So, does love have a language? For me, I don’t think it has a language of its own, but instead my experiences of love are highly dependent on language. I couldn’t be with someone long-term who doesn’t have a shared understanding of my culture, upbringing and connection to language.
*Names in this piece have been changed to maintain anonymity.