In my parents house, my room is a romantic pink. The walls are pink, my blankets are pink, and my headboard is white with ornate swirls. Every night, perhaps instigated by all the pink and swirls around me, I’d drift to sleep dreaming of a fairytale love story complete with a meaningful first kiss, poetic courtship, and sparks when our hands grazed one another. 

Like Zooni from Fanaa, I believed that my prince awaited me. 

If you couldn’t tell from Mindy Kaling’s iterative media, brown girls ditch the idea of a prince the minute they step through their college gates. My first kiss was a sloppy, drunk makeout during orientation week of freshman year with a boy who lived on the same floor as me. I can’t picture his face in my mind and definitely can’t remember his name anymore. 

I racked up quite a lot of moments like this freshman year. Away from my pink walls and parent’s rules— newly aware of my sexuality and personhood beyond my good grades, I had a zeal to explore. 

Every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, be it rain or sun, in my tiny tube top and jeans, I would traverse Cornell’s hilly paths to find solace in a sweaty frat basement. When I’d come home without making out with someone, it was a failure of a night. 

When someone I met asked me to dinner or tried to have a deeper conversation with me, I’d feel sick to my stomach. Not because I couldn’t imagine someone liking me, but because I couldn’t imagine liking someone. I didn’t want to be loving and vulnerable with someone unless they earned it by breaking through the facade of a cold exterior I’d adopt as a test. I wanted someone who liked me enough to be resilient—to be patient for my softness. 

Despite this, I had no problem kissing these people. It’s thrown around that a kiss means nothing, but why? Why did I let a kiss lose its sanctity and romance?

As the year progressed, we all graduated from messy frat makeouts to detached hookups. Craving excitement and touch with a post-coronavirus future nowhere in sight, my friends and I spent our time swiping on Tinder together, coyishly showing each other the Instagram’s of the new men we were entertaining. 

We saw it as a feminist act. After all, female pleasure is linked to power, and we all wanted to harness our power. Besides, men weren’t the only ones who could separate pleasure from emotion. But, I’ve learned that sometimes, in an unfortunate, warped way, when we try to be hyper-feminist, we end in toxic mascultinity. My friends and I towed the line of disrespect for ourselves and our partners; we were no better than the boys you were warned about growing up.

I never lucked in finding somebody. It was an unfortunate mix of being unable to stay detached to the men I liked and  not liking the men that showed interest in me. I would hate them for being too boring, too nice, too short. 

But, I didn’t want to give up. I’d wake up and fall asleep to the glow of Tinder on my phone, would go on multiple awkward dates, and would slide in DMs all the time. My rejections compounded, and my efforts burgeounded, but in the moment, I didn’t realize how tired I was from trying or how desperate I was for connection. I wish I could hold sophomore year me. 

It seems so glamorous from the outside to be wanted by multiple men and to remain perfectly detached from them. But in reality, it’s a blatant denial of the other person’s humanity and our own needs. 

It’s nice to love others and be kind to them. It’s nice and quite necessary to accept love and have ample of it in your life. Yet, my sophomore year, I didn’t have the emotional capacity to do that for someone or to receive it, until I had it role modeled for me by South Asian media. 

I didn’t watch any South Asian media my freshman and sophomore year of college because I blamed it for setting false expectations. But, now, I realize Bollywood isn’t setting up expectations, it’s creating aspirations that set standards. My favorite movies today feature the very female protagonists that irked me in the past because I interpreted them as timid and anti-feminist—but in the end, they’re the ones with the most cultivated personhoods. 

In Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy, my absolute favorite and what I consider an exemplar showing of love in art, the protagonist Lata is a demure Indian daughter. She’s soft spoken, is always seen with a book in hand, and loves her family. 

But I love Lata because her life is beyond just romance. She immerses herself in literature, is such a good friend, and takes her role as daughter, sister, and sister-in-law seriously. So often in the West, we’re taught that the most important relationships are romantic and that we need to seek them and devise tactics to obtain them. Lata never sought romance, and when it did come her way, she was kind, gentle, and simply herself.  

I vicariously experienced an innocent, gentle love through Lata, and since then have craved only that. While a gentle romance in it’s full fledged joy awaits me, I’ve had moments that I jigsaw together to imagine what it would feel like. 

One night, in a European city where I knew no one, I found myself in the candle-lit living room of a new friend who kept my glass of wine full all night long without me asking. 

On the walk home from the club, our hands entangled in one another, knowing we’d never see each other again, he asked me, “Are you hungry? Do you want some churros?” 

When I was bullied in middle school, I would get occasional anonymous messages of love and support. Years later, I found out they were from my now best friend who I didn’t even know at the time. 

Romantic or otherwise, a gentle love is an unwavering partnership that is grounded in the flaws, change, and joy that reality is punctuated by. 

Today, I mourn my first kiss, the two years of my life I spent devaluing romance, and the men I never let be gentle to me. But I celebrate the revival of my pink room, fairytale dreaming self. 

About the author

Pranjal Jain

Pranjal Jain is a senior at Cornell University, founder of Global Girlhood, organizer, strategist, and writer. She writes at the intersection of culture and gender and her previous works have appeared in Teen Vogue, PopSugar, Brown Girl Magazine, and more. Stay connected with her, @pranjalljain everywhere.

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