I can’t remember how old I was when I first read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. It had just been released in paperback, so I was probably in my mid-teens. But along with all those other semi-seminal teenage cultural encounters that make up my sapiophile scrapyard subconscious[*], elements of it have echoed throughout my subsequent misadventures, bobbing to the surface at inopportune moments and knocking hollowly against the fragile fencing of my mind. Top of the list is a scene somewhere in the middle where a mother returns to her two young children, who’ve been abused in her absence by the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man with whom she left them. The boy (iirc) has been rude to the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man, and his mother is angry: she says to him ‘every time you hurt somebody, they love you a little less.’
(In fact – I’ve just googled it, read the page if you can, Roy is genius – the whole speech runs: “D’you know what happens when you hurt people?’ Ammu said. ‘When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.” But I think the particular inaccuracy of my remembered version is, in context, pretty telling. My words are rarely careless along axes I’ve considered, and I consider a fair bit.)
I struggled with that when I read it; I struggle with it now. Partly because the injustice and the misunderstanding and the blocked communication burn like acid behind my eyes. But also because for me, it’s not – and never has been – particularly true. For me, love sticks around. More than hope, faith, reason, certainly more than resentment or anger, possibly even more than my other two driving forces – curiosity and (the always imperfect drive toward) empathy/understanding – love stays as long as the person does. It changes, sure, changes tone and form and function, shifting like smoke around whatever difficulties or obstacles lie in its way and accommodating changes in circumstance and psyche effortlessly where reciprocated and inconveniently when otherwise. But also like smoke it clings, and it takes a bloody long reality shower to get the smell out of your hair. If it turns out my original sense of someone was faulty, which happens every now and again, then fair dos – I stand (or fall) by my judgement on a daily basis, and I’ll take that fall without a murmur. My bad. (What’s more common, and I suspect not only with me, is being aware of certain unpleasant aspects of a person without ever having them ranged against one, and then suddenly being brought up short when something that’s always been inexplicable and alien but irrelevant and thus acceptable becomes a hostile gulf, but I digress.)
It’s possible to map out the Freudian origins of this relentless, agonising, frustrating, triumphant ability to take it and take it and take it, to be beaten and banished and come back, bloodied and gasping, for more. My mother was loving and affectionate but conflicted about it, not least because my father often found her(/my)emotionality inexplicable and frustrating; both parents saw my ‘oversensitivity’ as (her)vulnerability; my rational father was in equal parts alienated and frustrated by it. Somewhere in between an unshakable sense of my own wrongness and unlovability, the conviction that love was inextricable from pain, rejection and inadequacy, was formed. And in some ways, it’s stood me in good stead. I’ve never expected anything to be perfect. I can recognise and deal with my faults and mistakes as they arise, mostly if not always without hiding or shame or unnecessary self-flagellation, because I’ve never been able to ignore my flaws, foibles and frailties. Loving and being loved by a person whom I feel knows me, romantically or otherwise, makes me really, really happy. And it’s the flip side of the way I genuinely value the feelings of people I love above my own. I can’t ignore my own, I am incapable of denial, and these days I am just about capable of assessing degree, but when it comes to making life choices or relationship decisions I will go for the other person’s emotional wellbeing above my own almost.every.goddamn.time. (A tendency which has been known to infuriate my poor and very much beloved friends, less inclined to require self-abnegation than my inevitably intense relationships and unwilling, unendingly patient, unaskably wise witnesses to me spending more time in hell than out of it these last few years.)
In some ways, it’s got better. I have some barriers now, largely constructed around what it is reasonable to ask, and consistency, and deserving – but they’re pretty fragile, and subject to drastic relocation without notice. But still, somebody hurting me doesn’t make me love them less. Perhaps if they did so deliberately, with forethought and malice, or an unreasonable insensitivity or inconsideration. Perhaps if they did it without empathy, through thoughtlessness or assumption. Perhaps if they weren’t in pain themselves. But so much of the time, people hurt me because they too are broken. We’re all broken. Most of my loved ones, anyway, friends and lovers alike. We’re all scarred. It’s where the beauty lies. There’s a crack in everything, it’s how the light gets in. I really wish, to all hell and every deity, that any kind of pain made me love people a little less, but it doesn’t. Not if I can understand it. Not if I know why. Not if I can recognise the pain they speak from because I know my own. Not if I love them. Which is the trouble, really.
There are consequences, of course. I find choosing to hurt others rather than oneself alien and unforgivable. I have nothing but contempt for those who can leave a trail of devastation in their wake without stopping to look at the damage they’ve caused, because their own path, their own pain is overwhelming. (Many people’s pain is always overwhelming. Mine is not infrequently so. Not everyone is a dick about it. And not everyone neglects to try clear up the mess.)
In the process of recent agonising breakup, beloved asked tentatively about my feelings for traumatic ex-beloved, who will himself admit that his behaviour toward me was horrific. To this day, I’m not sure he knows how much he broke me, or how hard it was to come back, and how different I am because of it. But to me, it wasn’t even a question. ‘Do you still love X?’ he asked. ‘Of course. Not like I did. But I’ll always have love for him. I don’t stop loving people.’
Which is my truth, my triumph and my tragedy.
[*] For the curious, other examples include: Stephen Fry’s discussions of love in Moab is my Washpot, Jarvis Cocker performing Pulp’s Acrylic Afternoons, falling for Doc – yes, the seventh dwarf – at the panto aged eight because he was skinny and dark with glasses, or the first time I saw Marlene Dietrich in a pinstripe suit or Brian Molko in eyeliner. Or the scene in High Fidelity where Laura leaves her father’s funeral to fuck her ex because she ‘just wants to feel something other than this.’ Some things just resonate.
 “The only dream worth having is to dream that you will live while you are alive, and die only when you are dead. To love, to be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of the life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”
― Arundhati Roy