When Rom and I first became an item, many friends, his and mine, predicted our relationship was going to be short-lived. They made such a fuss about the 27-year age difference; it was as if I was marrying Methuselah. True, the age difference was greater than my age at that time. Instead, if they had said our different personalities and interests made us incompatible, I would have agreed.
Rom was a single-minded reptile freak who loved the wild and the company of wild animals more than people. I was a city girl. I had never been in a forest or seen a wild animal before I met Rom.
I chaffed when trading colourful handloom saris for drab, jungle attire. I left behind armfuls of silver bangles, as they made too much noise in the forest. Beads could get caught in the undergrowth, so off they came. I confined my feet in shoes, a reminder of a hated school life. I didn’t look like me anymore.
While camping, I became hysterical every night. I thought wild animals were dangerous and out to get me at the first opportunity. To be zipped up in a sleeping bag inside a closed tent made me feel like chewing gum waiting to be stepped on. If an elephant came, how was I to make a quick exit? Rom tried to reassure me elephants just don’t do that. But I didn’t trust him or the dreaded elephants.
I preferred camping near a village or staying at a hotel in town. However, Rom felt people were less trustworthy than wild animals. I nagged him so much he gave in on one occasion, and we camped on the edge of a village in Karnataka. Until late in the night, villagers watched us inquisitively, some flashed their torches inside the tent. They had never seen people like us camp in a tent before. Although their reaction was understandable, it irritated me nonetheless.
Early the next morning, they gathered around again, nudging each other, laughing, and staring. I learnt my lesson. Rom, to his credit, didn’t say a word or display annoyance. By this time, I realised he was right: Elephants did not mess with tents. Perhaps they didn’t know humans were asleep inside the flimsy triangular structure. It’s amazing Rom put up with my total forest-naiveté.
The only source of nourishment at camp was instant noodles. I needed much more wholesome food to fuel the all-day, and sometimes, late-night hikes. But Rom lived on little food or sleep. When he needed a jolt of energy, he drained a tin of condensed milk. When we emerged from the forest, I ate unashamedly like a pig in village restaurants.
Speaking of those early days, Rom says, “I was trying not to chase you away. The first time I made tea for you, the leaves caught in your teeth. Remember?” I remember spitting them out with distaste. So the next time, he used a butterfly net to strain it.
He continues, “I knew I was throwing you off the deep end, so I tried to make things easier for you.” I was aware of the effort he was making, and that kept me going.
Despite our quiet attempts to reconcile our very different lifestyles, others only worried about the difference in ages. When I broke the news of our relationship to a friend, she protested, “But he’s so much older.”
“Yup, none of the brash, immature stuff. You ought to try an older man some time.”
“Think about it. You’ll have to look after him at some point.”
“If we were both the same age and we grew old together, we’d be too decrepit to look after each other, no?”
She grew exasperated.
I was less flippant when trying to convince my folks. They too thought the age difference was critical.
(To be continued)