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My Transformative Experience At The Floh Singles Festival 2020

This is a blog post by Floh member, Darshana Ramdev

“What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done”, Karan asked with a grin. The rest of us chuckled. Earlier that afternoon, we sat huddled, shy and slightly awkward, at the orientation session of the Goa Singles Festival 2020, inside a conference room that was aptly named ‘Drama’. When Simran produced a colourful little ball, we raised an eyebrow. How will this break the ice? That’s how the ‘Ask Me Anything’ game began, with the 20-odd of us standing in a circle, a deck of cards on the floor in the centre. If you had 24 hours to live, what would you do? If you had to eat one food for the rest of your life, what would you choose? (By the way, the person who answered that said ‘weed’). Have you ever had a Bollywood moment? If you had three wishes, what would you wish for? “A lot of money,” said Shruti, who answered that question. “Everything else comes under that umbrella – travel, success, citizenships!” But more on this later.

That evening, with eight or nine people crowded around a table for two, with midnight pots of chai and coffee, the laughter broke the ice, any reservations we may have had, that little group of strangers sitting around a table, fell away like dead skin. We went from small talk to real conversation. United by a loneliness, by the eternal pursuit of love and companionship, I found myself humming a song I loved as a child, one I didn’t understand until many years later –

“Walked out this morning, don’t believe what I saw, A hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore, Seems I’m not alone at being alone, A hundred billion castaways looking for a home.”

We sat there for hours, attended to by staff who had resigned themselves for one more long night, finding an unexpected camaraderie and friendship in the very thing that has for so long confounded us – love.

Here, we were in a safe space, ‘safe’ in many ways, all of them important. In fact, the Floh team set the tone for safety during the introductions to ensure that every member understood them. This made sitting with a group of strangers, which can so easily lead to unpleasantness, a total breeze. Floh is very particular about its code of conduct, any misbehaviour can result in one being asked to leave the event and maybe in expulsion from the community itself. Second, having broken the ice through the afternoon and realizing that being vulnerable isn’t so hard at all, brought depth and meaning to our own interactions.

What Sidman said:

After lunch, we headed for the first order of business – the sessions that would set the tone for the event and help us open up. “What can he possibly do to make us shed our inhibitions,” I wondered, as Siddharth Mangharam, co-founder, Floh, began his session.

“What happens when people open their hearts? They get better”

Haruki Murakami.

That’s what Siddharth described, a journey of confronting one’s own demons and fighting them with courage, for as he puts it, “Crises will come. You have to find a way to be prepared.” In 2005, in the throes of divorce, dealing with deep emotional wounds, he turned to Lord of the Rings for comfort, recalling Gandalf’s fight to the death in the mines of Moria – “I would watch that scene and think, ‘this is me’.” The emotional struggle, he says, was like “falling into an abyss.” How did he emerge? “That is an expression of my own triumph, of coming out of the depths of despair.”

After a year embarking on a journey of introspection, one that would continue for many years to come, he quoted Nietzsche:

“Only great pain, the long, slow pain that takes its time, compels us to descend into our ultimate depths. I doubt that such pain makes us “better” but I know it makes us more profound. In the end, this is the key: From such severe sicknesses, one returns newborn, having shed one’s skin, with merrier senses, with a second dangerous innocence and joy, childlike and yet a hundred times subtler than one has ever been before.”

Friedrich Neitzsche

I quote it in full. And I’m sure there were many among our company fighting back their own tears. As the ‘Love Letters’ exercise which came right after would show us, everybody has demons and we’re all looking for ways to cope, and someone with whom to share the process.

Today, watching Siddharth and his wife, Simran, light up around each other, this heartbreak is difficult to imagine. It is also a great harbinger of hope. He found, as he crawled out of his own abyss, that many of his friends had similar woes – “They are all intelligent people, successful and well-travelled and they were all having trouble navigating their relationships. I wondered why that was.” He realised then that while there were some wrong choices, there were many that had been right and these stood him in good stead when he needed it the most.

These he calls “Sidman’s Sacred Seven“.

1.      Nail your finances early – You may deal with a lot of things that make you sad but please, don’t be poor. Women, don’t assume that the men in your life will manage your finances (or theirs!) any better than you. We are all responsible for our own wealth creation.

2.      Attain excellence in any one thing – You get great self worth from that. If it generates income, great, but it doesn’t matter that it should. It could be knitting a sweater, or Sudoku, but it will bring you confidence.

3.      Connect with the right people – We become the average of the five people with whom we spend the most time.

4.      Act like a big dog and you will become one – Look in the direction you want to go and not to what you want to avoid.

5.      Know yourself – What is your definite purpose in life? We get inputs from people, but we have to develop the wisdom to know what works for us.

6.      Live honestly – Don’t expect anything from others.

7.      Marry the right person – This one decision determines 90 percent of your happiness or misery. Be the kind of person you want to find, and that will help attract the right people into your life.

Sunset on the beach

Later that evening, after the sun had set and the beer cans, courtesy of the Arbor Brewing Company,  had been cracked open, we wandered down to the edge of the waves and sat in a cluster around Simran, pelting her with questions. She heard us out, tackling each one with great empathy, yes, but also with an indomitable sense of humour – the rumour is true – fears are Boggarts and Ridiculo is a very effective spell. There were difficult questions asked that evening – of married men on Tinder, of married couples who seek satisfaction outside, of older men with a roving eye on obliging youngsters, always up for a great lifestyle. My own private nightmare, conjured to life. “Relationships take work,” she said. “Human beings are not monogamous – we believed so far that women are, more so than men, but that isn’t true either. If one person doesn’t get physical or sexual satisfaction from a relationship, they will look outside.” It’s still a risk but there was comfort in her words and the honesty helped.

In the age of Tinder and instant gratification, where everything we want seems to be right there, on our smartphones, just a touch away, dating is hard. It can be boring. It can be hurtful. It is definitely superficial. There is always competition, temptation is never ending. It boils down, in the end, to the choices we make. And why, I wonder, as we walk back up to the hotel for dinner, do we make the choices that we do make? What drives us in our pursuit of love? What are we hoping to find? Does love even exist, or is it just a neurochemical reaction, our brains playing a deadly little trick on us? When do we decide something is love? By finding a match who looks perfect on paper? We go from day to day, doing everything we can to forget that some answers are difficult to find, if they exist at all but that night, we found it in ourselves to ask the questions.

“Do you guys want to go gambling?” A small group is making plans to head out to Deltin Royale, the casino in the cruise liner. Several of us wanted to sit where we were instead and those who lingered pulled their chairs around the table at which I sat. “Why don’t you want to go, Kanchan? Does gambling scare you?” “No. I’m a VIP member at Deltin,” she said, much to my surprise. I was impressed – Kanchan, in all honesty, isn’t the likeliest candidate for a blackjack champ. And as the night unfolded, I was surprised over and over, by this remarkable, intelligent group of people gathered around me. “There will be time, there will be time, to wear a face to greet the faces that you meet,” wrote the poet, T.S. Eliot – but that Saturday night, after the house band went home and a couple of staff at the Taj lingered to make sure we were alright, the masks fell – mine included.

We told stories – from our most interesting dates to our most depressing rejections. Of the craziest things we had ever done – I once fired a former gangster’s gun, just for kicks. Tarun has been sky diving – without an instructor, hurtling head first out of an aeroplane strapped to a couple of people whose lives, in that moment, depended on him. Anuj – well, Anuj had many stories, my favourites being the ones where he took on the MLA Ajit Singh and nearly got beaten up by his goons and the time his date wanted to bring an ex to a party at his friend’s house. Dipti, who worked in women’s rights, was in organisation’s office when it was raided by the Intelligence Bureau, Ryan missed the last bus home in Japan and walked through a forest, alone, in the dark.

Dipti and I, given to late-night chats, talked about whether being independent and self sufficient can be detrimental to finding love. “You have to say to the other person, ‘I need you’, and I can’t bring myself to say that and mean it,” she told me. I saw her point, but disagreed – I had felt need and it had been my ruin. I had learned then, to seek fulfilment within, to be my own inspiration, my own guiding light, to share that light with those I love.

Day 2: Of yoga and asking questions

I was to take a yoga class before breakfast on Sunday morning and having been well and truly awoken by my roommate, Dipti, I headed down to the sea-facing lawn, expecting no more than three students, all of them organizers. To my surprise, I found half a dozen of the participants had made it there before me.

The word ‘yoga’ means union, a uniting of the body, mind, heart and soul. We carry emotional and mental stress in our physique, usually lodged in our chests and between our shoulder blades. My session, I knew, would focus on this, on the practitioners opening their hearts to the universe, to love, to themselves.

“I like that you told me to melt into my yoga mat, it made such a difference,” one participant told me after class. “You told us to relax our facial muscles, I didn’t know I carried so much stress there,” said another. This was pleasant to hear – my own relationship with yoga, which began when I was a child, has bloomed on many levels, from physical fitness to spiritual calm and dealing with anxiety, to which I have always been prone. I remembered a line from the Sidman’s Sacred Seven – be excellent at any one thing. While I lay no claims to excellence, I do feel good doing this, to see my years of practice actually reach out and touch someone else.

Many of our worries, I found, had made it to the question board in Drama on Sunday afternoon, where Simran was to answer them. “Chemistry or compatibility?” “Both,” she said, at once. “When you love someone, you’re willing to go to extraordinary lengths to adapt, but you need that love to be there in the first place.” Divyanth said he rejects the many proposals his family sends him, by simply looking at a single picture of the women. “The persona we present to formal set ups can be very different from who we are outside of that,” Simran told him. “You never know what you like until you try it, so meet them, at least.” Divyanth has an active social media persona – it troubles him that so many women aren’t visible on social media. Is that something to drop? Dipti fielded that one, wisely: “If your social media life is important, it might help to find someone who shares that passion.” He also worries that women want a knight in shining armour, while he wants a partner and an equal.

Many women, especially those our age, said Stuthi, speaking up from the back, are confused between wanting a partner and a knight. Millennials are far more accustomed to breaking away from gender-defined roles, and while we have been acquainted with that, we cannot shed our old ways completely either.

We spent an hour outside, in the little porch outside the conference room, where our Love Letters hung from lines of red string. That session, which happened on Saturday afternoon, was driven by Dipti, with great empathy, subtlety and wisdom – one of my favourite parts of the weekend. Write a love letter to yourself, she told us. Start with, “Dear Self, I love you.” Write down the things that you hope for, picture the life that you want. And I was faced, through all of this, with a question Simran had posed a little earlier: Do you know everything there is to know about yourself? My answer to that is ‘very little’, but I do know now that I would like to find out. There is nothing I would like more, in fact.

What’s love got to do with it?

So what do we want from love? 72 percent of the respondents in a survey conducted by FLOH say they aren’t single by choice. The top reason for this is that they haven’t met “the right one.” Others are busy with work, or unable to meet people after chatting with them online and being hamstrung by a painful breakup. Despite the proliferation of dating apps, the survey found that people are dating less than earlier – a phenomenon FLOH calls ‘Dating Fatigue’. On Saturday night, as we went over how to write the perfect bio for a dating app, it did appear that most people felt this, that if there was a way to bring it down to statistics and research, they were willing to do so. The FLOH survey found we want to meet our life partners naturally, through something we enjoy doing, or through friends – why then, are so many of us unsuccessful? Do we find love through checklists? Or suddenly? Out of the blue? Ineffably? In someone we would never, ever expect?

As the event wound down, I gave Simran a hand taking down the installation of love letters and remembered a poem, one that I read in my early twenties: Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere, they’re in each other along. But no matter what the case, we have to be willing to play the game. In the words of the poet and saint Omar Khayyam:

“The river of love runs in strange directions. Those who jump in, drown. And those who drown, get across.”

The world is dramatically different today from what it was three decades ago. Marriage, which was once driven by practical concerns is now about finding the right person and making meaningful connections. That is difficult too; a single person navigating modern day romance deals with many things: Demanding professional lives, the profusion of dating and hookup apps and the wide array of choices they seem to present, as well as learning to balance families who are still rooted to older traditions. We end up feeling more alone than ever, believing that nobody out there can understand. That was the biggest takeaway from the Goa Singles Festival – it was a safe space and an empathetic one – confronting one’s insecurities was suddenly easy. And there is great comfort in knowing that there are good friends to be made along the way. That we are not, in fact, as alone as we imagine.

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