Love is in the air at India Fellow! Indeed, not even my previous fellowship can match the rate of romance here. We really ought to use this as a branding tool – “Join India Fellow! Get a girlfriend/boyfriend! :P.”  I imagine we’d have to hire some extra staff just to handle the resulting flood of applications…

This frankly rather annoying circumstance has an interesting effect on me. I’ve previously let slip to others that my last relationship ended quite some time ago and, more pertinently, it ended, to put it in neutral terms, rather badly (I should get an award for understatement for writing that). This, of course, leads said others to draw the obvious conclusion that that is why I’m not searching for love myself, even while it seems that all the rest are. Suffice to say that nothing could be further from the truth.

I actually tend to look back on that experience as a positive one. As nauseatingly common as the advice is, it really was a learning experience in the end, despite the pain. And it certainly didn’t put me off from love. It did, however, leave me with a question that I feel might be relevant to all those aspiring to happily-ever-after. That question is the main reason I don’t go chasing after every skirt (well, actually, jeans are more common nowadays. *sigh* sometimes I feel rather outdated) I see. The question is a deceptively simple one, asked of me at the height of our relationship –

“Why do you love me?”

Told you it was simple – as simple as can be. I had an answer too, one that seemed to satisfy her, though I sometimes fancy I saw a shade of doubt. It didn’t, however, satisfy me. I have asked that question of other couples I’ve come across as well – and have yet to hear a satisfying answer. This is odd, considering they all seemed happy enough with them. But I’m not happy. I wasn’t then and I’m still not.

The answers tend to fall into one of two categories (and often both) – vague (“I feel comfortable with him”, “He’s funny and nice”, etc) or generic (“I feel like I can be myself with him”, “He makes me want to better myself”, etc.). This is problematic because the former fail to identify the unique traits of that person that set them apart from the probably dozens of other people you’d have met with similar characteristics and the latter merely show that you haven’t put much thought into it (and also are lacking in imagination). We are similar, granted, but we aren’t the same. The difference is in the details and you’d expect someone in love to be best placed to identify said details (not all of which are private and hence not shared with outsiders).

In a sense, this reminds me of the problem faced by market researchers back in the past. Early on, they discovered that if you simply ask people why they liked a certain product from among similar alternatives, they didn’t have a clue. Participants hazarded bad guesses and post-rationalizations and basically emerged looking like idiots. It became apparent that the researchers would have to understand people better than they did themselves. And they did, using all sorts of indirect clues.

Couple that with the fact that people in love are probably the worst people to ask about love. Love is like a drug (literally! See the research). While it may make you feel like you’re seeing clearer than before, it actually tends to blind you. Not forever, mind you. The leading love psychologist Helen Fisher has divided up love into 3 broad stages – attraction (“She’s hot!”, “He’s pretty funny!”), romantic love (I just HAVE to call him/her every night and talk for 4 hours straight!) and attachment (“Morning, honey! What’s for breakfast?). It’s primarily the first two stages that are problematic.

Even philosophy, my traditional recourse, is of no help. The only philosopher I know of who’s written extensively on love is Schopenhauer – and if you happen to know anything about Schopenhauer, dear reader, you’ll know why that doesn’t exactly inspire much hope for a satisfactory answer.

And yet the question needs to be asked. It’s important, for it can make or break your long-term prospects. Much as having a clear goal is important for professional success (God! I hate giving leadership gyan. My apologies, dear reader), having a clear reason is, I feel, important for romantic success.

One could legitimately ask the question of why I keep probing. Perhaps, to use astronomy-speak, there simply is nothing more out there. To that, dear reader, I’m afraid I can only give you an aspirational answer – one that is best illustrated by example.

I like star-gazing. One day, I hope to get myself a telescope (I’ve even already selected which one) and spend many a night gazing out at the cosmos through it. Perhaps, if I’m lucky, I’ll have a partner by then to share the pleasure with. There is, I feel, much we can learn from the stars. That is hardly a unique sentiment, but there is one particular sentiment – and one particular image – I wish to share with you today.

In December of 1995, the scientists managing the Hubble Space Telescope (that giant eye-in-the-sky from which many a desktop wallpaper has come) decided to try seeing just how deep space was. They turned their multi-million dollar engine of insight towards a tiny patch of sky that seemed completely and utterly empty. They left it gazing at that black patch of infinity for 10 days straight, patiently allowing it to gather as much light as it could. They expected to see nothing, save perhaps a few extra specks they hadn’t seen earlier. Instead, they saw this…

Hubble Ultra Deep FieldWhere before it seemed there was absolutely nothing, they saw not a few specks of light, but a whole universe of shapes and colors. Every one of those lights, dear reader, is an entire galaxy all its own. There are more galaxies in that image than stars you will ever see in the night sky. I can think of no other image that can better capture the sheer wonder of what is out there if we only ever stopped to look.

It is this sentiment, dear reader, which keeps me looking. I do not know if there is anything to find, but I hope that there is. A few centuries ago, almost everyone believed that the universe was little more than a spherical canvas through which pinpricks of the heavens shone through to encourage, or perhaps to taunt, us. We have gone from that view of a lifeless universe to this; breathtaking cosmic menagerie, filled with multi-hued nebulae, quasars, pulsars, magnetars and stars and planets in a myriad of forms and shades. And space … endless, unfathomably deep space – hiding so much more that we are yet to discover.

I vastly prefer living in the universe we now live in to the one we used to inhabit. I choose, perhaps foolishly, to believe there is more to the world – and more to love – than what I have seen so far…

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