‘At 53-54, you don’t up and leave’
A love story spanning decades, relocations, an adoption and a marriage
Mandira Malik and John Hogenes’ love story is fit for a film script. They often laugh about it themselves. They first met when Malik, known to her friends and family as Ruma, was 19 and studying in Paris. They spent a day walking across the city, much like Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in the film Before Sunrise, except that Hogenes’ then girlfriend, Fetsje Bernard, was with them. Their love wasn’t a possibility then. It took at least 30 more years for them to recognize that they were made for each other. However much of a cliché that sounds, they are convinced of it. As also of the fact that there is a layer of constancy and maturity to their relationship because it got cemented when they were both in their 50s, with the experiences of a lifetime behind them.
Their story is tremendous, filled with impossibilities and roadblocks and miracles. Malik, a 15-year-old in India, and Bernard, who lived in Holland, were pen pals in those pre-Internet years. Soon after school, when Malik went to Paris to study design, they decided to meet. “She came over for a weekend, and brought John along," says Malik. “Fetsje and I became instant friends," she adds, the snap of her finger emphasizing the connection the two of them felt. From the northernmost tip of Paris, she walked them down to the Sienne. “For me, he was my friend’s boyfriend. Fetsje and I were these two giggly girls. We used to laugh our guts out because he would be following us around like a little puppy. He didn’t speak English then. He had two words of English, and I had two words of Dutch."
After that weekend, they didn’t meet for some years. Malik graduated and returned to India, where she set up her company, Something Else, that exports Indian handicrafts. The work took her to Holland. By then, Hogenes and Bernard were married, with two young children. The family even visited India at her invitation; they went backpacking around the country. “It was like stepping into a totally different world," says Hogenes. “John has vivid memories of that trip," laughs Malik, “and I have none. I was their first and last port of call."
“You know, life happened, and we never contacted each other," says Malik. She got busy with her young company, and the Dutch couple went back to their country. They were acquaintances living in different countries who had met a few times and then got immersed in their individual lives. Fifteen years ago, Hogenes and Bernard separated; eight years ago, Malik adopted a baby girl and became a single mother.
It was five years ago, in 2010, that Hogenes started wondering what had become of their old friend. A Google search threw up millions of Ruma Maliks, and he gave up. About six months later, he picked up a scrapbook of their holidays that Bernard had made, and out fell Malik’s business card, with the name of her company. He went on to Google again, found Something Else listed on the IndiaMART website, and sent her an email.
“That mail went into spam," says Malik. “He didn’t hear from me and probably thought she’s forgotten me." Four-five months later, when there was a fault with the company server, the IT department started cleaning the system, and asked one of the administration staff to look into the IndiaMART mail lying in the junk folder. “Credit to her—if it had been me, I would have just pressed delete—she went through 200 mails," says Malik, and found Hogenes’ email, addressed in a rather non-businesslike fashion to Ruma, rather than Mandira. “I was like, yeah, I met this couple a long time ago, what happened to them?"
They started exchanging emails and catching up on each other’s lives, and in November that year, when she had to travel to Europe on work, Malik decided to go to Holland too. She went across to Hogenes’ home; he had called Bernard over too, and they spent the day together, as they had done in Paris. That would have been it had Hogenes not persuaded her to meet him for dinner. “So we went out once, one kind of a date, the first date after 30 years. We had dinner, I finished my work in Europe and came back and that was it," says Malik.
“Then we started Skyping, after a series of emails and WhatsApp messages," says Hogenes. For a story that began when there was no Internet, technology sure did end up playing match-maker. For days, and weeks, they Skyped for 3-4 hours every day, chatting and filling in what seemed like “missing parts of the puzzle" about each other. “Imagine what it did to me," smiles Malik. “I had a daughter, this little mite, and I had to wake at 6.30 in the morning. She was 3 then, and was anyway keeping me awake at night. And this man, till 4 in the morning, every day."
Malik, however, decided she was not interested in a long-distance relationship. “I am about 50 years old, I have a child, work to manage, I have no time for bullshit. If we are looking at knowing each other, then India has to be a comfortable space for you. If it is not, and my daughter is not, then it is not going to work," she told him, asking him to come over to India for a week. The problem was that during his first visit to India, Hogenes had had a severe bout of Delhi belly, and had returned home promising never to step out of Europe again, and certainly never to India. But he did, for her—and the pieces just fell into place.
Malik believes that every relationship is governed by some rules. For her, it is to keep things as simple as possible. But initially it did get a bit more complicated.
They decided to cut off all links with each other for about six months. It was a test, and a way ultimately to be safe rather than sorry. “Every relationship starts with so much intensity, and what if it peters off. I have a young daughter, and the effect on her would be disastrous—to have someone come in, take on the role of her father, and then disappear. That was not something I was willing to trade upon. And for him, it was his job, home, 92-year-old mother, kids, friends—to give those up and come here and figure that it didn’t work would be disastrous. At 53-54, you don’t up and leave and come back and slide in. It doesn’t happen," says Malik.
This practicality in their thought process stemmed evidently from the maturity of their years, and the difficulty in making any decision about themselves without thinking about how it would affect others who were a part of their lives. Possibly this was also the reason that neither really considered this particular exercise excruciating and futile, living through it with rather sage-like wisdom and belief. “When you are made for each other, you meet each other again," says Hogenes.
When the six months were up, he sent Malik an SMS, relocated, and they have now been married for three years. If Malik’s relationship rule is to keep things simple, Hogenes too has one: “Give what you have and ask what you want. If you don’t ask, how will the other know what is going on with you? A lot of people struggle with this, but it’s the base of a relationship." It removes all masks, says Malik, in complete agreement. It makes being in a relationship easy. And keeps power play at bay, adds Hogenes.
Both are bemused when people say that relationships require work or that couples need to give each other space. “You give yourself naked to the other person. Then you get the energy of the relationship. The moment you wear a scarf, it starts getting affected. That’s what we want, all or nothing," says Hogenes.