Back when we were young, we had a verandah. I remember sitting there often after school, silently languishing in the misery that my love for a girl in my class was forever going to remain unrequited. Soaking in the beauty of that love despite the pain it wrought. It was also a verandah where, in the aftermath of one magical monsoon several years earlier, I discovered what it meant to love. By not loving at all.
One day, when I was walking in the garden outside my home (I must have been not more than 10 years old), I chanced upon a giant African snail (no, it didn’t come from Africa; that’s just what that particular genus is commonly called). A big snail. I thought then, I just have to have it. Picking it up gingerly, taking care not to injure it, I took it home and placed it on the floor of my balcony that overlooked the garden whence it came. On a whim, I christened it Dick Whittington. I wonder to this day why I chose this particular name. A Google search leads me to believe it was taken from the book Dick Whittington and his Cat. I was an avid reader back then, and I must have read that book, even though I have no memory of it. The memory of Dick Whittington (the snail), though, blazes like a forest fire in my mind even today.
I was just a boy in love with a snail
I fed Dick fresh leaves every single day for a month or so, making sure they were the most glisteningly beautiful ones I could find. The sight of him gently nibbling on them was one of life’s exquisite joys. There was no dearth of water as even a mere drizzle that wet the balcony floor was enough for a snail. Every day Dick would scale the wall of the balcony and every day I would take him down. Back then, I didn’t see this as cruelty; I was just a boy in love with a snail. I would even talk to Dick every day, certain he could hear me. After all, a snail has a higher form of consciousness than a plant. And if people can talk to their plants, they can talk to their snail pets, too.
And then, one day, nowhere, Dick was gone. Just like that. I ran out into my garden, in the throes of something akin to a panic attack. I scoured the building compound for a sign of Dick. Any sign. But he was nowhere to be seen. I was devastated. And then, right when I was about to give up my search for good, I saw him. Not too far from the verandah. You don’t need me to tell you what I did next. Dick was ferreted back to my verandah, of course, and we lived happily ever after. Well, not quite happily ever after.
It was as though Dick were in a toxic relationship with me
It was only years later that I understood the obvious anguish I must have caused that poor snail. It was as though Dick were in a toxic relationship with me, his toxic half. I’m not going to try and save face here by saying: it was only a snail.
Love is love, after all.
The next time Dick ran away, I never found him again. In my frenzied search I stumbled upon a multitude of giant snails, and in the blink of an instant I thought to myself: “These all look like Dick. He could be any one of them.” Given that there must have been close to 10 snails in the moss-covered garden that day, it was impossible to tell which one of them was Dick; or if Dick was even there at all. The worst feeling was realising that the snail I had brought home after that first escape might very well have been another snail altogether. Thinking back, he might even have been a she. Perhaps I should have marked his shell so I could find him no matter how many times he tried to escape. Needless to say, I went home that evening a broken child.
Looking back, I ask myself the question: why did I love that snail so very much? After all, he looked like any other snail. Why that particular one? That particular consciousness, inside that shell? In hindsight, all I was searching for was something to call mine. We cling to people we’re in relationships with, and call them ours. Never mind that their consciousness is far more evolved than that of a snail’s. If a wife (let’s call her Sarasvati) runs away to her mother’s home because she fought with her husband (Pandu), guess who rings mummy’s bell at 11pm?
I had learned how foolish it is to equate love with possession
The rains vanished, and with them, my tears. I had learned how foolish it is to equate love with possession. Love in the time of possession is not love at all. While it’s perfectly alright to expect people to love us (there was a point when I foolishly believed Dick loved me as well), we can’t go around thinking we own them. Statements like “I’m yours forever” and “you’re mine” never hold up. New love is a feeling, and, like all feelings, it’s transient. What sustains a relationship is not the romantic love that forms the mushy inside of a relationship (the one that dies over time), but rather the shell that binds it– the ability to communicate with and care for one another.
I still remember Dick fondly. Pursuant to his absence, I adopted several stray cats. I’d run to find them when they disappeared, much like I had after my darling snail. And they all came back happily, too (don’t ask me what happened to Sarasvati). Dick, on the other hand, wanted to go right from the very beginning. And it was only after he left that I truly loved him.
Not because he had gone. But because I let him go.
Rohit Trilokekar is a novelist from Mumbai who flirts with the idea of what it means to love. His heart’s compass swerves ever so often towards Kolkata, the city he believes has the most discerning literary audience.