Is love for real or is it just a chimerical figment of our imagination?

‘Ae mohabbat tere nakaam pe rona aya’

In the 1960s the MBS (Mauritius Broadcasting Service) used to dedicate 30-minutes on Fridays to an Urdu programme. Every Friday, almost without fail they used to play the above song by Begum Akhtar at the end of the each programme. And without fail, I used to wait impatiently for it by the huge Murphy radio set. Today it is so much easier; I just go to YouTube and lose myself in her glorious rendition. Without doubt the Begum remains the best lady Ghazal singer of all times.

Aye Mohabbat Tere Anjaam Pe Rona Aaya…

Aye mohabbat tere anjaam pe rona aaya,
Jaane kyun aaj tere naam pe rona aaya

Oh love, your consequences brought me to tears today
I wonder why, the mention of your name brought me to tears today

Yun to har shaam ummeedon mein guzar jaati hai,
Aaj kuch baat hai, jo shaam pe rona aaya

Most evenings were spent living in hope
Something is different today, the evening brought me to tears today

Kabhi taqdir ka maatam, kabhi duniya ka gila,
Manzil-e-ishq mein har gaam pe rona aaya

Sometimes mourning over fate, sometimes complaining about the world
In the journey to the destination of love, every step brought me to tears

Jab hua zikr zamaane mein mohabbat ka ‘Shakil’,
Mujhko apne dil-e-nakaam pe rona aaya

At the mere mention of love in this world, Shakeel (name of poet)
The unsuccessful attempts of my heart brought me to tears today

(Lyrics penned by Urdu poet Shakeel Badayuni)

But is Love always a lost cause? Does it indeed always end in failure as the song’s lyrics imply?

Fantasy. There is a certain romantic belief that modern medical books teach aspiring doctors that treatment of disease consists of medication AND a good dose of Tender Loving Care (TLC). Whilst this may be mere fantasy, there is no doubt that TLC is a major contributor to regaining and keeping good health. This has been confirmed by numerous studies by anthropologists, neurologists and psychologists.

Therefore it is little wonder that every one of us instinctively loves to be loved. Indeed Love is the one single-most asset that no one has enough of, ever. So we are always on the search for more. As a result some of us may find it for some time but, as the quote from the Begum suggests, it seems eternal Love is just impossible.


In our youth, we tend to imagine Love as this sweeping, all-engulfing marshmallow feeling that will permeate our existence and remain with us for the rest of our lives. We dream of pink clouds of joy on which we will float during our passage on Earth. This belief is reinforced by some older couples telling us that they have never had a cross word between them. Those who had an arranged marriage tell us that they fell in love sometime after they got hitched.

Notwithstanding, as we grow older, we begin to ask ourselves certain pertinent questions. If love is really as permanent as these people imply, then how come so many couples — including those who married for love — fall out with each other, driving the divorce rate skywards. Which leads us to wonder if Love is for real or is it just a chimerical figment of our imagination; if it is a permanent state or just a passing, ephemeral phenomenon.

Nutrient. For a possible explanation we need to turn to Science. In his book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’, Jonathan Haidt postulates that true love is simply impossible biologically. This is confirmed by Barbara Frederickson, a psychology professor.

Frederickson calls Love a“micro-moment of positivity resonance” (MMPR). For her Love is a connection we can feel for any person with whom we connect during the course of the day. Physical closeness is necessary to experience that MMPR: away from our partner our body remains completely loveless.

But she also thinks that Love is an essential nutrient for our well-being. If we get enough of it, then the benefits can dramatically affect our biochemistry which perpetuates the MMPR. The more MMPR we experience, the more it can contribute to our good health, well-being and longevity.

Magic Hormone

However there is more. What we need to bear in mind is that, unlike all other emotions such as hate or happiness which are personal experiences, love is a shared experience between two people. It is triggered biologically when (i) neurons, (ii) oxytocin, and (iii) vagal tone connect.

In his experiments Uri Hasson of Princeton University found that when we are experiencing love, first the brains (neurons) of the two people connect in a special way. Second, oxytocin — the magic love and cuddle hormone — helps facilitate these intimate moments. Third, the vagus nerve which connects our brain to our heart allows us to experience love through a variety of biological processes. The higher the vagal tone, the more loving we feel, he suggests.

As oxytocin increases during love-making, the answer to a fading relationship is pretty obvious — make love, not war, to coin an old adage! Provided we can get our estranged partner to agree to make love and not war, of course! Thus by increasing oxytocin every time, we can enter a virtuous circle of L=O=L=O… and possibly achieve Nirvana. But what happens when this cycle slows down in our autumn years or comes to a complete halt in the winter of our lives?

Come to the rescue Richard S. Schwartz and his wife Jacqueline Olds, both psychiatry professors at Harvard and married for 30+ years. They believe that, with the passing years, passionate romantic love metamorphoses into compassionate love. And that our love is still deep but no longer as euphoric as the in the early days. And they may have a point!


The modern media tends to overplay the physical aspect of Love. Open any magazine, watch any movie (particularly from Bollywood) or catch an advertisement on TV, and the picture is always the same. Of young, handsome, happy people having a good time, often with a not-so-subtle hint of the bedroom action to follow. Good Form=Sex=Good Form… is the message.

However not everyone is in good form; think of the old and the sick. Do we just strike them off the register of Life? No… indeed, not! “Love” as Honore de Balzac says, “does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outwards together in the same direction.” In other words, there is more to love than sex.

I personally believe that people can — and many do — live comfortably with sublime, platonic love. Gandhiji would have had something to say about this. As early as in his 30s he pledged never to touch his wife Kasturba again. There is this touching scene in Richard Attenborough’s film ‘Gandhi’ when Margaret Bourke-White (American photo-journalist for Life magazine) asks Ba whether the great man had ever broken his promise. The response of the dying old lady is a soft whisper “not so far” with the hint of a smile.

If this is not sublime Love, then I don’t know what is?


* Published in print edition on 3 August 2018

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