Love is

I don’t know quite how to say this, but: to be liked is one thing. And to be loved is something wholly different. Something more hardy, more substantial.

I write about love so much because our love-painted relationships are the most important things, in our worlds. We come into knowing it: the maternal embrace, which soothes the intensity of our anxieties, our wailing with fear. The (sometimes rivalrous) love that is shared betwixt siblings. Grandma, granddad. Aunties, uncles. Teachers and friends, at school.

There are so many questions that arise, as soon as you consider this topic ‘too much’. Which people love you, and why? Is it on account of whom your mother is, or your father? Is it because they had considered you to have been particularly cute, as a child? Do they feel a sense of duty towards you?

Can you trust it? Does it feel real?

To be ‘liked’, perhaps, means: to be looked upon, and heard a little. A smile, an exchange of pleasantries. But it is not quite the same as being truly seen, and listened to.

So many factors enter these considerations. Sometimes, children are ‘loved’, or the opposite, primarily on account of whom their parents are. In Bengali tradition, for instance, there are always, always, always, politics at play: the eldest son tends to be favoured. And the children who have lighter skins. The children of ‘nobility’, somehow. The children of the eldest son, or of, say, the daughter who had become thoroughly used to being ‘popular’ her entire life; came to mistake high levels of ‘popularity’ for high levels of… love, maybe. Tragically.

The children of the eccentric, sensitive, one, by contrast to those of her siblings, also. It would appear as though a big part of this whole ‘adulthood’ thing is… understanding, and processing, oneself in relation to the big wide world, away from how we come into this world, looked upon as being extensions of those whom we had been entrusted to.

So many things at play. But I see it a lot: how people’s children – eldest sons, especially, when it comes to men, and eldest daughters, when it comes to women – come to be iterations of whom they, themselves, had been, to the world, or… are. ‘Miss Popularity/Designer’s’ daughter could be seen to hold the same label. ‘Tomboy-Intellectual’, also. ‘Adventurous-ladies’-man’.

How much of it is ‘natural’? How much of it is because they had seen us as extensions of themselves; projected their own (often-unrealised) dreams and expectations upon us; dressed us in certain ways, and were certain that they, best, ‘knew’ us?

Adulthood seems to be about this fragile, fledgling individuality. A whole lot of processing, unlearning, learning. Growing pains. Seeking to be loved – on account of everything that we may be – as opposed to merely ‘liked’. On account of where, it had been decided, without our own active inputs, we were meant to fit into the world.

“It is not about what the world holds for you –

It is about what you bring to it.

— Cole, Anne with an E

Everybody seeks to be liked, approved of, validated. It is such a fundamental motivating impulse, in our lives. Good grades at school: your parents are meant to like you more, for it. Nice clothes: we like the compliments we get as a result of them, the feeling of being ‘stylish’. Wealth and occupational status: to feel more ‘respected’. More likeable, through the eyes and minds of those whom we, for whatever reason, seek to be liked by.

But love is deeper, truer, and more holistic than this. It begins, shockingly, alarmingly, even: right from where we are. To be massively ‘liked’, we pursue idealised images of ourselves, constructed through our consumptions of various media, images. To be ‘more likeable’, we must be smarter, ‘cooler’, more interesting, more stylish in appearance. Wittier, smoother and more elegant in what we do and say.

But love says, reassuringly, in her idiosyncratic aggressively-loving manner, and in a racist-towards-her-own-kind accent: “Don’t be silly”, promptly before trying to shove you into moving traffic. She is younger than me – and her brother and I used to bully her a little (just a little), when we were younger [she was extremely annoying. And would cry extremely dramatically for the littlest things, constantly threatening to snitch to the adults about us] – but now she is far bigger than I am. Sigh. She could probably easily kill me by succeeding in the whole impulsively-pushing-me-into-moving-traffic business. And the best I have, in retaliation, are… my w o r d s.

Her name is Maryam, and she is my sister, and I feel a love for her that runs deeply. I met her when I was two years old. As the story goes, when she had been born, only close-close family members had been allowed to go in and see her. I was not allowed in. So I started to cry and cry; sobbing, I explained to the nurses, “but that’s my Mami!”

So I was allowed in to see her. The nurses thought I meant that Maryam’s mother is my mother, also. But actually, in Bengali, ‘Mami’ means (maternal) uncle’s wife.

She is half her mother: at once tough as nails, stone-cold, and unbelievably warm and loving. And she is half her father: extremely popular (but she doesn’t seem to really know what to do with it) and socially-oriented.

She also has three brothers (and no sisters); she is kind of a roadman, while I am kind of a geek. We share a bond that is, Masha Allah, uniquely close, and yet unquestionably… interesting. Making the same lame joke at the same time, sometimes. Uniting in order to (fake-)bully our aunt, over something extremely stupid [ref: her ‘other’ niece and nephews]. Randomly bursting out into singing the same (extremely moist) songs. And I think, if we had not been introduced to one another as a result of sharing a ‘connection of the womb’… if we had, for instance, come into one another’s acquaintances at school… I think external factors may have prevented me from ever coming to know, and love, her the way I know I do.

A little illustration of my baby sister, and the strange capacity in which I am blessed to know her: last Ramadan, I had stayed over at her house for a while. [Normally, our ‘cousin sleepovers’ take place at our grandma’s house, where we get drunk on oxygen]. That had been an interesting time: we would wake up – at stupidly late hours (which would make me feel icky, but it had been worth it, because Maryam’s house, especially during Ramadan, tends to light up with life, in the later hours). We would sit outside with her pet rabbits (who have since…been released into the wild) in the calm of the garden, the glass-sharp towers of Aldgate looming over us, in the near distance. Help out with the Ifthar cooking [my disastrous stir-fry and churros. My defence is that I can only properly cook in my own kitchen, when nobody else is there.]. She would do her skincare while watching ‘Prison Break’. I would be… on Twitter, and watching Zaytuna lectures.

Ifthar. Salāh, all together, led sometimes by my uncle, sometimes by either of my two male cousins. And then! A movie [last year we had all died over ‘Extraction’. Namely, because ‘twas filmed in the ol’ motherland, you see] and/or chai around the campfire, and/or a late-night Santander-bike-ride through the dystopian-looking streets of London, and around Tower Bridge. Empty roads, burning off several kebabs, and my beloved cousins lovingly calling me ‘Georgie’ from ‘It’, on account of my yellow jacket.

On one particular evening during Ramadan 2020, my uncle and aunt had gone out. I made some snacks (masala sweetcorn. Not to massively compliment my own work of art, here, but wow. Masha Allah sisطa) and Maryam casually set up her own ‘Roadman School’, to teach Moosa (who is currently fifteen years old) and I how to be roadmen. She started threatening us with a butterknife. Meanwhile, Moosa (rather zeitgeist-ily) decided to set fire to rings of handsanitiser on a plate. And the responsible adult left in charge of these hooligans? Why that, ma’am, would be me. Thankfully, no stabbings or burn incidents had taken place there, that night. So, a job well done, methinks.

Maryam Bint Alam. I love her for the sum of everything she is, and she is my little (big. Arguably a little abusive. Someone help me) sister. When I think about love (and she will likely cringe while reading this) I think about her. Effortlessly, no question. And I also think about Farhana, and Priya. And I think about my friend-whom-people-tend-to-mistake-as-being-my-cousin: Tamanna [but more on her in a later article, Insha Allah].

I thought, for a while, that I wanted to be ‘liked’ by people, and that being ‘liked’ is valuable, and meaningful, somehow. Yet, when people are ‘liked’, what they are ‘liked for’ tends to be too isolable. I like you because you are Bengali also; similar age; we can joke about the same things. I like that you are kind, and have a calming presence. I like that you can comfortably do your own thing; that you, too, enjoy writing. And so on, and so on.

Still, love is bigger. More encompassing. A massive hug of sorts – the soothing embrace that the human soul needs, here in agitating, incomprehensible, dizzying Dunya. And love is holistic. More (albeit undefinably so) than merely the sum of its parts.

“A painting is more than the sum of its parts […] the cow by itself is just a cow, and the meadow by itself is just grass and flowers, and the sun peeking through the trees is just a beam of light, but put them all together and you’ve got magic.”

— Wendelin Van Draanen, Flipped.

I have been there; I have had it. ‘Liked’ on account of the grades I would obtain; ‘liked’ on account of what I would wear and such. Being ‘liked’, I feel, does not really fulfil. Sometimes, it is a bit like eating cardboard. ‘Filling’, maybe, and yet… why on Earth are you doing it? And it leaves some people chasing after more and more of it, on the mistaken assumption that ‘more’ might make things ‘better’, somehow.

I must know to never again confuse ‘like’ for ‘love’. Or a lack of the former, in whatever situation, for a lack of the latter, which glues me to certain people and things like gravity. Maybe the critical distinguishing factors, between ‘like’ and ‘love’ are (something essential, and also) presence. Presence not merely in physical terms, but in terms of the heart and spirit, also.

I think a big part of what ‘maturity’ might constitute is… being okay with being ‘disliked’ or… less liked. By direct consequence of people seeing – or, choosing to see – one or two things about you, and proceeding to (metaphorically) brand you across the forehead with a giant ‘yep’ (I approve) or ‘no’. I do not want to fall for mere symbols; I do not want for people to like me based on them, either. Anything worthwhile takes time and effort, to learn, and to know, and to build. And not to sound mean here, but basic things impress basic people. Surface-level things are known to impress shallow surface-level-inclined people.

I know that, over the last two years, I asked Allah to show me who is mine, and whom I am also to love, in return. Allah showed me that, contingent on a particular and limited set of factors, ‘like’ can come and go, as if it were never really anything at all. While ‘love’ passes those tests without question, and stays, and even grows stronger from wherever it is (pretty much necessarily) frayed, because it is everything.

This is sort of me… processing things, and externalising, once again, but I should be happy to let go of what is ice-cold ‘cool’, widely and shallowly ‘impressive’. Whatever might earn a string of ‘yes’, ‘yes’, ‘yes’, from every Tom, Dick and Harry [or, in Asian terms, from every Abdullah, Bilkis and Bushra] in favour of what is iridescent. Incandescent. Full, and real. Sparkling, and alight — with what it takes to be human! Not merely ‘pleasant’, with all such passions rendering us increasingly… hollow. Though ‘impressive’, somehow. There is so much that people necessarily have to trim down, reconfigure, lose, in order to be ‘admired’. But love is eternal; it does not die. And love is what I ought to be concerned with, all of the time.

‘Like’ is something that must smile, and wave. Always ‘pleasant’, and dainty. Is excessively concerned about images; will drop everything, simply to follow the next trend, desperate to be ‘liked’. One thing before the people, and something completely different when she is away from them.

And Love, instead, (too-)comfortably invades your personal space. Refers to you, unironically at this point, as her “brodie” and her “drilla”. Gets a weird kick out of making you feel really uncomfortable. Randomly kisses you on the forehead from time to time (probably mainly to flex that she is taller than you) and Love, without telling you beforehand, goes and donates to charity in your name. It is a fleecy embrace; an unmatchable comfort of being, defined by contrasts. There is dark, and tired, and lonely – Dunya – but then we come home, close the door, to love.

‘Like’ is a thing of exteriors, facades; would go away in two seconds, say, if your father were somebody else; if they did not perceive you as fitting their ideal beauty standard; if you did not smile at them all the time. And love is a thing of space – place-ness – and time. Love is walking right into another’s life, and vice versa. It is strong, and stays; bursts at its seams, refusing to be contained; arrives quietly, powerfully, and remains; paints your entire life with each of her weird and wonderful colours. Augmented, in value, by her rarity [as things are. One of the few useful things I seem to have learnt from A-level Economics] in your world.

Beginning from you, then, and from them: the ‘mundane’ aspects, the idiosyncratic, ridiculous, tremendously irritating. And everything that is ‘effortless’, stemming from precisely whom we are, have always been, are coming to become.

Dear reader, I hope, for you, a life coloured with (not necessarily ‘like’, but with what we all seek, and want and need…) love. Āmeen.

With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

Is it worth it, to be liked for the sake of itself?

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