On love and other demons

What is it that we talk about when we talk about love?

Published : Jun 12, 2024 11:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

Love is like cholera, a deadly disease—it makes us feel nauseated and ill.

Love is like cholera, a deadly disease—it makes us feel nauseated and ill. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock 

We do not talk enough about how awful love can be. When I first watched Celine Song’s directorial debut film, Past Lives, I felt a heaviness that has stayed with me, months after watching the movie. It is one of the most haunting movies I have ever watched. In one of the monologues presented as a voice-over, the protagonist (played with musical effortlessness by Greta Lee) says:

“There’s a word in Korean: in-yeon. It means providence or fate. But it’s specifically about relationships between people. I think it comes from Buddhism and [the idea of] reincarnation. It’s an in-yeon if two strangers even walk past each other on the street and their clothes accidentally brush because it means there must have been something between them in their past lives. If two people get married, they say it’s because there have been eight thousand layers of in-yeon over eight thousand lifetimes.”

Listening to this, I felt as if all other voices around me had become silent. For the brief moment for which the scene played out on the screen, it was as if only I and this scene existed, alone in the world. I had felt exactly the same while reading Gabriel García Márquez’s 1985 novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, over 15 long days of winter.

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I always measure a good book by its ability to make me lose my senses for a while—it should be such that I have to put it down occasionally so as not to lose my senses completely. Love in the Time of Cholera is so profoundly cruel, it could knock me down unconscious. So, I read it in the smallest doses and then all at once. And it changed me.

A deleted scene from Past Lives.

A deleted scene from Past Lives. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

At the heart of the novel, as well as the title, is a parallel between love and cholera, whose symptoms are similar. Both wreak havoc in much the same way. Florentino Ariza falls in love with Fermina Daza as a teenager. What follows is a heady epistolary affair punctuated by the exchange of sigh-filled forbidden glances. Then one day, suddenly, Fermina Daza rejects him and marries Dr Juvenal Urbino. After that, 51 years, 9 months, and 4 days pass, but Florentino Ariza still loves Fermina Daza. Truly, madly, deeply.

Familiar feeling

At places, the book took my breath away. It made me think long and hard about myself and my understanding of love. About the way in which the magnitudes and multitudes of love will possibly never be accessible to me, especially in this world orchestrated by right-swipe “choices”. While all of us may have fallen in love at some point, could we access the emotion in its completeness? So often, love is misunderstood as a pig-headed need to own, control, and/or just a whimsical, passing feeling. But love is so much more than that.

So, what do we talk about when we talk about love? We know it through its effects: it makes us weak and fragile and clingy and embarrassing and sometimes (or often) vain. But against all good sense, we continue to love. In Past Lives, the lives of the two protagonists are intertwined in an irredeemable in-yeon. They are introduced to the viewers first as children, and then they meet many years later in a city far-away from home. They have been seeing other people meanwhile but in a hopeless, heartbreaking way, tied to each other forever. In Márquez’s novel too, Florentino Ariza lives on the fragile, frozen lake called longing. As the seasons change, the water thaws and drowns him, but he stays afloat long enough for the waters to freeze again.

A still from the movie adaptation of Love in the Time of Cholera.

A still from the movie adaptation of Love in the Time of Cholera. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Is that not a familiar feeling? To find our way back to people we hopelessly love, knowing in our heart that our lives will never merge? To live on the mendacious promises of longing and hope, fighting the “whorish tricks of the heart”, as Márquez describes them?

Florentino Ariza survives on stolen glances of a married Fermina Daza. He buys the mirror in which she was briefly reflected because it held her in its frame (something he cannot do). He often finds himself in a pathetic state: bedridden, nauseated, distracted, pining. But where Florentino Ariza stands out, and Tinder lovers perhaps cannot, is that he not only loves the idea of love but his lover too. As such, his kind of love can perhaps exist only in fiction.

Memory and forgetting

I marvelled at Márquez’s writerly talent while reading Love in the Time of Cholera. How does someone write about love in all its forms—unrequited, bitter, unconditional, possessive, jealous, fallible, confused, honest, deep, oceanic—and keep writing about it without making a single word sound unnecessary? That too at the pace of a crime thriller! Only someone who knows words and people intimately can write about them so well that you leap up and scream out on reading it. That is what I did while experiencing Love in the Time of Cholera.

What makes the book brilliant is, of course, the writing. There are sentences that stop the world around you. Long-winded and musical sentences capturing the horror and pain of belated longing and unrequited love. I read these sentences again and again and found something new hidden in the layers every time. With Márquez’s shocking choice of words, phrases sound like ultimatums. Memory and forgetting become tangible. The smell of almond trees—a symbol of longing—and the many, many letters, flowers, and promises exchanged serve as reminders of the deep sense of loss.

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Love, indeed, is like cholera, a deadly disease; it makes us feel nauseated and ill. Nobody conveyed its essence as well as Márquez did. Is it fair to romanticise this deadly feeling in the name of in-yeon and undertake the Sisyphean task of loving? But for all its stings, we give in to love, over and over again. I am reminded of a popular illustration by @archBudzar on social media that is often used in the context of “situationships”. It says: “Yes, the grief is never-ending but so is the warmth of breath and so are the strange ways love will find you again, again, again…” This is the music we hear when we are in love or when grieving its loss.

Kartik Chauhan is a Delhi-based literary reviewer. He can be found on X @karteakk and on Instagram @karkritiques.

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