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We got mail: My 1990s’ romance

LiveMint logoLiveMint 02-06-2017 Priya Ramani

Ours was an Internet romance in a no-frills time. We didn’t upload our love on video. There was no tweeting of proposals. No intense WhatsApp flirtation. No Facebook to announce and update our relationship status. No FaceTime to see what the other was wearing or having for lunch. No stalking each other’s Instagram accounts. We didn’t swipe left or right.

There were no filters and no role-play games where two invented avatars meet and fall in love. Strike that. Everyone role-plays in new love, right? He was all swagger, I was cool and seemingly unaffected.

In an age when eye contact was still the first step of a good romance, our story played out on email.

“I turn on my computer. I wait impatiently as it connects. I go online, and my breath catches in my chest until I hear three little words: You’ve got mail. I hear nothing. Not even a sound on the streets of New York, just the beating of my own heart. I have mail.” That’s Meg Ryan in 1998’s You’ve Got Mail.

Our romance began a few months after she fell in love with Tom Hanks over an AOL server, and while I can’t deny I felt pretty much the same excitement every time I checked my Inbox at work, the similarities ended there.

We were not business rivals, our emails were sexier, we knew each other’s identities and place of residence (he was in Delhi, I lived in Mumbai). The Big Letdown came at the start—and not before the climax—when he discovered I was v-e-g-e-t-a-r-i-a-n. We had only a few clear requirements: no photos, no meetings, no commitments.

Really, the only thing our romance had in common with that film was that she was Apple, he was IBM. Their brand preference was just product placement; ours still results in marital conflict. He finds my iMac keyboard “maddening”.

We met over the office email at the country’s leading news magazine, where we worked in the late 1990s. Back then, computer screens were black and white. We never exchanged pictures though I confess I looked him up in a back issue. Mostly, we fell in love because we were both writers.

The husband shared a bit of our tale to explain the magic of the Internet in the prologue to a book he wrote about the tech boom and the bust that followed on the cusp of the decade. “Behind the twin veils of a cathode-ray tube and those gazillions of electrons, I—your uncertain, average everyman who usually became tongue-tied before everygirl—found the courage to dig deep into my thoughts and put them into Microsoft Word,” he wrote.

“So here I was, the grown version of a small-town boy, who rode buffaloes during a childhood in the Deccan…fearlessly chatting up and matching wits with a sharp, bindaas financial writer from the ‘it’ city Mumbai,” he added.

As our lurid journalist colleagues excitedly monitored our progress on the incoming-mail server and as our relationship hurtled from random flirtation to intense virtual passion, the husband said he understood the power the Internet wielded over people’s lives. He decided to write a book about it. Around the time we were romancing, entrepreneur Rajesh Jain sold Indiaworld.com for Rs499 crore.

While the relative anonymity of online relationships allows people to express themselves more uninhibitedly, researchers now say all those algorithms and the excessive choice available to anyone who logs on for a relationship is killing modern love. In the age of hate, it’s easier than ever to reinforce all your prejudices by filtering out potential partners with a single click.

Our story almost seems like the Stone Age equivalent of virtual love. A back-to-basics lesson in Internet dating.

So what if he couldn’t eat fish with me, as he suggested in his first flirtatious email? We concurred on most big things that decade: Babri Masjid had changed India irrevocably; The X-Files was better than Friends; the portable CD player was the coolest new gizmo.

We agreed that religion was overrated, parents were important, the best way to spend money was to see the world, life was so much better with a shot of Old Monk. And that the Internet would be the world’s longest-running revolution.

We also learnt about our differences. He was jazz, I was rock. He was non-fiction, I was fiction. He was cheery, I was dark. He loved to pause, I was always on the move. He was mountains, I was sea. He loved to eat, I ate to live.

After three months of a concentrated online exchange, he suddenly announced he urgently needed to attend a family wedding in Mumbai. He claimed he was the official photographer. Since he would be in town we should meet, he said. I was sure this would be farewell to the perfect lover. Who wanted a real man, when I had this too-good-to-be-true virtual partner? Luckily for us, eye contact only deepened the relationship.

After we met, the emails we exchanged during office hours were no longer enough. It was the era before wireless Internet and smartphones. Back then if you lived in a rental in Delhi and wanted to communicate with a potential partner in Mumbai, the only way to do this was to walk down to the neighbouring market, wait your turn and “book” a call. You could pick from Ordinary/Urgent/Lightning depending on the intensity of your need and the thickness of your wallet. Then you had to conduct your conversation with strangers listening in impatiently. He also began taking red-eye flights over the weekends.

Working hard for love certainly worked for us. It was probably why we went from first email to let’s-get-married in four months. There’s only so much virtual love a person can take.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable. She tweets at @priyarama

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