Now, heartbreak advice on e-mail! Will YOU take it?
Nursing a broken heart? Breakuphelpline.com is here to help -- but how good an idea is it? Rediff.com's Abhishek Mande finds out. Illustrations: Uttam Ghosh
It started with a break-up.
When Anubhav broke his heart late last year, he discovered falling out of love with a person isn't one of the easiest things in the world.
Anubhav then underwent the same process that a newly-single person goes through -- from moping around and withdrawing into a shell, to then stepping out and finding his own space and eventually the will to move on.
Registering for the Mumbai Marathon in a way was his first real step towards getting out of the shell he had withdrawn into. "As I started training, I found a new purpose to my life. I was training for the half marathon, a distance I had never run in my life before," he tells me from across the table at a small Udipi joint, a stone's throw from the office where he currently works as a marketing executive.
He is dressed in a red tee-shirt, his hair is gelled and he carries an iPad. Anubhav is employed with a prominent corporation (and therefore refuses to give out his full name or be photographed), one that he plans to quit soon to concentrate on the project that he's started with three other people, a break-up helpline that is called just that -- Breakuphelpline.com.
The online helpline is arguably India's first to exclusively counsel broken hearts. The site is quite evidently in it early stages with a dozen or so authored articles on dealing with break-ups, besides a Facebook and a Twitter page where they post inspirational messages or re-tweet links about matters of the heart.
Nowhere does the site mention Anubhav or his colleagues. There is, however, a mention of just how 'the founder' came across an interesting part in a book whilst waiting for the writer to sign a copy for him.
That book was Chocolate Guitar Momos by Kenny Deori and Anubhav recollects turning to the page where the protagonist finds himself wishing there was a break-up helpline to deal with heartbreaks.
"That was my 'Eureka' moment," Anubhav tells me.
But it would be weeks before he even got started on it in earnest.
Meanwhile, Anubhav managed to get over his break-up, which gave him a much-needed morale boost.
"I discovered soon after my break-up that it helps to get into some sort of physical activity. The training for the marathon helped a great deal. When I completed the half marathon in under two hours, I really felt a great sense of achievement."
In a way, the fact that he got over his break-up also gave Anubhav the confidence of being able to counsel those who've been through the same agony.
During one of his visits to Bhubaneshwar, his hometown, Anubhav bounced the idea off a friend, who thought it was fantastic. He in turn introduced Anubhav to two of his psychologist friends, Anshuman and Sandeep. Back in Mumbai, Nainy, a young filmmaker who works as a freelance assistant director also decided to offer her services to the idea.
This March, Anubhav decided to start off by hosting the helpline on a blog. Between themselves, the four spread the word through social media websites and sure enough enquiries started trickling in.
Eventually they decided to buy a domain name and get it rolling.
'A lot of our customers seem to have broken up because they are unable to convince the parents'
Currently, Breakuphelpline.com offers free advice via e-mail with the option of upgrading to a video counselling session via Skype at a cost of Rs 2,500.
By Anubhav's account, the website has a little over 80 registered users in less than two months, though he isn't very clear with me about how many of them are paid clients and just how many others are availing only of the e-mail service, which doesn't cost a dime.
He also tells me that while there are the urban Indians who log in with their woes, most of his clients are from the tier II towns. "We also have a few foreigners who we count as clients," he adds, with some amount of beginners' pride.
Anubhav tells me that the most common issue that his users face is that of parental opposition. "A lot of our customers seem to have broken up because they are unable to convince the parents of their choice of partner," he says, adding that one of the most interesting trends he's seen amongst the young and restless is that a lot of them call off their relationships in the second half of the year.
"New relationships blossom around June and July, when colleges start and young people meet new, interesting people their age. A few months down the line they either realise they are with the wrong person or simply want a change. So around September or so you'll notice a lot of young people have gone through a break-up or are going through one," he says.
It does make sense. You don't need a survey to tell you that there are a lot of single fish in the sea around the festive season, starting Navratri and extending all the way to New Year's Eve.
Image: Parental pressure is one of the most common problems Indian youth face, says the founder of Breakuphelpline.com
'They'd rather talk to a friend than a psychologist'
It would perhaps be unfair to doubt the intentions of Anubhav and the folks at Breakuphelpline.com, but it is however, a matter of some concern to know that 50 per cent of the team that handles this is, in fact, far from qualified to counsel.
Anubhav is an MBA and Nainy a filmmaker, with no background whatsoever in counselling.
When I bring this up, Anubhav points out that they ensure they don't advertise the fact that they have psychologists on their team.
"There is a lot of stigma associated with psychologists in India. People believe that psychologists are only meant for those who are -- you know -- crazy. When someone is going through a depressing phase after their break-up, they'd rather talk to a friend than a psychologist," he says.
The way the system currently works is this: You write an e-mail to them; they respond; you respond and so on and so forth. If you're interested, you could upgrade to a Skype service, where they will counsel you over webcam.
Anubhav tells me that Anshuman and Sandeep have drawn out a flowchart where they tell you the appropriate response to the standard queries they get. Usually the first e-mails are pretty basic and you don't necessarily need much to get through. The challenge, Anubhav says, is to get people out of their shell.
"A lot of times after a break-up, people withdraw into a shell. You need to bring them out of that zone before you get them to talk," he tells me.
To do that, the folks at Breakuphelpline.com go all out. Anubhav says for one particular client, they recorded a dance video because the person was into dancing. For yet another client, they would send hand-written letters because they sensed it's what would help connect with her.
Anubhav also tells me about a 50-something divorcee who made his way to Dharamsala hoping to give up the ways of the world and ended up falling for a foreigner there. "After being in the relationship for a while, when he brought up marriage, she told him she wasn't interested in getting married to him. He was devastated, of course and then came the self-doubt. In one of his e-mails he asked us if there was something wrong with him. It took us a while to reach out to him and tell him that it was okay. And that it wasn't necessary that the other person must look for the same thing in a relationship as him. Today he's been backpacking across the country and is a keen photographer. He keeps sending us pictures that he takes in the course of his travels."
Photography, in this case, helped Anubhav and his counsellors to connect with the anonymous divorcee. Anubhav tells me they got talking about lenses and lighting and other aspects of the art and before they knew it they were talking about his life. The key, as he points out yet again, is to be able to connect with the person and pull him/her out of his/her shell.
Image: One of the greatest challenges, Anubhav says, is getting newly-single people out of their shell
Putting Breakuphelpline to the test
After I met Anubhav, I registered under two different pseudonyms to experience firsthand how the service works. The first response came about 12 hours after my e-mail and was standard, asking basic questions about myself and the relationship I was in.
The next one was a little more prompt and personal, but neither (somewhat curiously) carried a name at the bottom.
It was greatly disconcerting to deal with a nameless person, until at some point in the correspondence, upon being asked, he identified himself.
One of the concerns I had was that the responses to my queries took a long time to return. For someone who's just had a break-up, these long spells of radio silence are not necessarily comforting.
In many ways, what Anubhav and his team do is run a personalised agony aunt column -- where you go to them with your problems and they provide you with solutions. Neither party knows or crosses the other's path.
It seems like a great idea. You don't need to be a genius to figure out just how popular an agony aunt column in a publication can be. Yet, it is equally true that the success of it depends wholly upon just how well the person doles out advice.
A column like 'Dear Sugar' takes this business of agony aunt-ism to another level altogether. Others are, well, not so great. Giving advice to heartbroken people is indeed a serious business, one that needs a great amount of maturity and most certainly a flair for the written word.
In the interactions I've had with them thorough my aliases I suspect they perhaps could do with a bit of work on the latter, so as not to sound amateurish.
Image: Will you log onto breakuphelpline.com?
The only real challenge is the perception that people have about such services
In the coming months, Anubhav and his colleagues are planning to plunge fulltime into the venture. He tells me that Nainy is not taking up any new filming assignments. Eventually, Anshuman and Sandeep will also join them full-time, after one completes his PhD and the other returns from the US after completing the course he's signed up for.
"I am quite certain we will break through by the end of this year. Since this is entirely an online initiative, there isn't a lot of heavy investment," he says.
Eventually, they do hope to start a call centre, but for now, Anubhav is planning to ride on the rising Internet penetration in India.
He tells me that the only real challenge he foresees is the perception that people have about such services, although he is quite confident that with the anonymity the Internet offers, there will be more people opening up.
He wasn't, however, able to give me a satisfactory response as to how he hopes to convert the free subscribers into paying ones. On that issue, he remains either lost or secretive.
In more ways than one though, Breakuphelpline.com is an idea whose time has come. With suicides becoming more rampant than ever and one-night stands more commonplace, a helpline that deals exclusively with broken hearts is indeed the call of the hour.
It does, however, remain to be seen whether Anubhav and his team can turn it into a successful business venture.
You can nurse your broken heart by registering on www.breakuphelpline.com
Image: Breakuphelpline.com is an idea whose time has come