She is from Rich Family, I’m not
Now you have dating apps around where you can find a right match of who you want. But decade ago, only schools and small gatherings work like dating apps.
However, these small gatherings of schools are not a good memory for me. I know because I spent a brief and suffocating stint inside me when I met my first girlfriend, Pooja, at 17.
The likelihood of our meeting was slim. Although our family homes weren’t far apart, our paths would rarely cross within the social jungle of middle-class society. Only by chance we ended up meeting outside the school.
Looking at us, it was not immediately obvious that Pooja and I came from different universes. We both wore similar zip-up hoodies with band T-shirts underneath. We drank the same budget whiskey (Kingfisher), topped off with mixtures. We both had fake English accents formed watching Hollywood flicks, though her was cut from glass and mine shaped out of plastic, inconstant and moldable, depending whom I was with. But if you looked a little closer, we were as far apart as distant planets.
The biggest differences were the schools we attended. The rooms we sat in when our minds would fill up with gold and junk, the people we would talk to every day and the teachers who would boost and destroy our self-esteem.
Her school, private one, was designed to make its students feel comfortable in the job interviews and room filled with people. It’s the school of future billionaires. If you visit Government schools, then you’ll likely see the students skipping even the prayers of the mornings.
When we drove past it one day, my brother said, “Are these schools take admissions only on donations.” Many of the graduates (From private schools when they leave) then jump neatly into good colleges and springboard from there into high ranked jobs.
My Government school looked like a rain-stained cardboard box. While Pooja’s teachers were novelists, composers and scientists, ours were asked to combine teaching and social work. One of my abiding memories of music class was my teacher giving me an F for “showing off.” Languages were taught lazily, I believed, because the teachers knew we would not go into any job that would require English.
Pooja claimed she was different from her classmates. I think she believed dating me was proof of this. Her hair set her apart from her school friends and symbolized her individuality, falling about in chaotic curls that sometimes knotted in the nighttime. Although it was against her school policy, she had convinced her teachers to let her keep it. Her schoolmates’ hair toed the line, groomed in submissive straight lines.
I had assumed Pooja had a better understanding than I of everything, even love. She had understood what Shakespeare meant, knew poems by heart. For my birthday one year she gave me a copy of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which I loved but never discussed with her, fearing I had misinterpreted.
When she asked for my opinion a few months later, I lied and said I hadn’t read it yet. Sometimes I open it now and see her childish scrawl in blue ink — “Happy Birthday Chandu. Love, Pooja X” — and regret my feelings of doubt and shame.
Her tribe brimmed with confidence while mine was riddled with insecurity. Sometimes the lads in my neighborhood would pretend self-assurance with aggression, but it wasn’t nearly as convincing as wearing a coat and other fancy rich dresses. The aspirations of her tribe were close and deep while mine seemed flimsy and distant.
Pooja didn’t see it this way. She said she wanted to be a rock star but feared that world would never accept her to be like one. I had to choke through my “poor you, poor you, poor you.”
When Pooja stepped into my house for the first time, I watched her closely. Years later I would realize that the expression on her face reminded me of how decent rich women look when they step inside factories or visit working class towns, a kind of well-considered strangeness, as if they’d practiced in the mirror and in front of their spin doctors.
But they know they can leave. Just as Pooja knew she would. Pooja wasn’t being deliberately disrespectful. She wasn’t a bad person. She bore witness to my life up close, saw my family struggle to pay the bills. We had conversations about it. She said she wanted to “save” me.
Our kitchen was wreckage. Dirty plates piled high. The floor was constantly wet. For a few years, there was a hole in the ceiling, a gaping wound formed after my brother left the bath water on upstairs. My bedroom, which I shared with my siblings, was painted in five different shades of pastels by me. Paint flaked and peeled off the walls, and small craters had been left in the plaster from all the posters we had tacked up and ripped down. Pooja touched one, eyebrows raised. She acted like a tourist, fascinated by our disorder.
Her family home (where she had spent little time, having separated while schooling) was a five-bedroom mini-mansion 2 hours outside Delhi. When I stepped inside for the first time, my eyes glazed over. Everything shone. The clothes Pooja and her parents wore had a warm, clean smell; the towels in the bathroom were always dry.
Sometimes when her parents went out, and Pooja fell asleep, I would wander around each room, smelling the scented candles — vanilla, rose, pear. I would open the refrigerator and look at the food, which had been thoughtfully categorized. There was a shelf for cheese that actually contained cheese. A vegetable drawer that actually had vegetables in it, neatly stacked. Everything felt safe.
Dating Pooja, I felt as if I had opened a door. I saw that what class gives is a belief that you can achieve things. I did not have faith in our relationship. I had seen something I wasn’t supposed to see. I came to realize that many of Pooja’s school friends would never come to houses like mine. Or if they did, they knew they would leave. They wouldn’t see the chaos in an intimate way.
In her world, nobody ever says anything, but they notice everything.
Our bubbles drifted apart for good when the time came to go to university and the vanity of small differences between us became starker than ever. She passed her exams breezily and was accepted into a prestigious university with red brick buildings. My grades were disappointing, and I decided to not even attend school, not immediately. Instead, I spent a lot of time with Pooja at her, not doing much of anything. This lasted for about one year.
After our breakup, I saw on Facebook that she was dating someone from a college named SRCC. Eight years later, they’re still together. This class system is never wrong. People from similar backgrounds do stick together. What they like in each other is the equality, perhaps, safe in that dark goop.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Pooja and her school and her house and her friends and her world that had briefly collided with mine. I think of all the ways that our backgrounds came between us, and how, no matter how hard we tried, we could never feel comfortable in each other’s lives.
What we need more than ever, it seems to me, is more understanding on both sides. I think about how such understanding could improve our system.
After drinking half a bottle of wine, I decided to message her. I wanted to know if she ever thought about this part of our relationship.
“It’s been a long time,” I typed. “How are you?” Then I deleted it. Type and delete. Until I finally typed and hit “send.”
She replied: “The only meaningful bit of news I have is that I’m pregnant.” I saw in her profile picture that her belly is coming out. With this figure of her, she looked like all her other school friends.
I told her a bit about what I was up to, and she replied with a predictable, neutral response — “I’m glad you got in touch” (or some such) — in a way that reminds me of how decent women speak. I wanted to ask her if she ever thinks about the class aspect of our relationship. Whether she learned anything from my life, because I learned a lot from seeing her.
“Our relationship taught me so much,” I typed. “The class system is not designed for people like us to fall in love. Do you ever think about that?”
Then I deleted it.
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