Chapter 28: Labours of Love


Official trip to Jordan, April 2011–my work, my love

One of the major casualties of becoming a mother had been my work. The work that didn’t just mean money and prestige for me, it meant the world because it was my passion—an affair de coeur. I don’t write just because I get paid for it, I write because it is essential to my existence.

Like breathing. Like blinking.

Or even like taking a leak—because if you’re forced to hold it in for far too long, you might just die. And prisoners have actually been tortured to death that way—‘holding it in.’

This is exactly the same—I can’t hold it in…  I’d die. I write because once a thought, an idea has its hold upon my mind, I can neither eat nor sleep until I’ve committed it to pen and paper—or laptop, as the case may be. I remember sleeping beside my mom, huddled inside a quilt with a torch in the left hand, writing down poems that would snatch at my sleep and wouldn’t let go… like unruly sylphs that demanded to be put where they belonged… and well past midnight. This was when I was 12.

Now imagine loving something so entirely, so naturally—and then being paid to do it. Like a chocolate addict being paid to taste chocolates. But that’s not even the best part. The best part is that unlike writing privately in your diary, you write in a newspaper—a medium that’s being read and absorbed by hundreds and thousands. You have your name marked on top of what you write, smartly etched out in print, made eternal and exhibited for the world to see. You cannot imagine what that feels like…

Like the rush of first love, every single day.

And then to have this love wrenched from your grasp.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I had to let go of my job around the time I was three months pregnant. That took a pretty big toll on my mental well-being. A job like mine isn’t just a paycheck. It means eight hours of doing something just for your own satisfaction, eight hours of time spent with like-minded people, a circle of friends that have things in common with you. It means going out of the house every day, seeing the world and its minute changes every passing morrow. Meeting diverse people from diverse disciplines—not to mention star achievers in their respective fields— acquiring new knowledge every day. Travelling far and wide on official trips, seeing the world without spending a dime.  It also, emphatically, means having other people to have a good time with than just your husband.

Having no job means being cooped up at home, which puts unnecessary strain on your relationship with your partner, as you begin clamouring desperately for his attention. And that can’t be reciprocated because he has a job and other occupations of the mind, while the only company you have around are women whose conversation centres around either daily soaps or the daily maid—none of which are remotely interesting to the thinking woman. I felt utterly and completely alone, and then I realised I had to be involved in something constructive to stop myself slipping into actual depression. One of my friends suggested joining an MPhil programme in the Jamia Milia University, which was then just a 15-minute drive from my place. But the near-constant retching and throwing up had left me in absolutely no condition to go anywhere on a daily basis. Which was when I remembered the thing called National Eligibility Test. You qualify the NET and you’re eligible to be selected as a lecturer in any Central University in India. When I’d completed my Masters in Mass Communication I’d been advised about a hundred times by well-meaning people to take that test, but that’s not because they thought it would be a great and fitting career option; it was because of the age-old belief that “teaching is the best profession for women.” And then, too, not because it is a noble and honourable choice, but because it’s a ‘safe profession’ with ‘undemanding timings’—basically being a woman you oughtn’t venture into anything too adventurous.

No offense to educators and academicians anywhere in the world—I mean where would I be without all those amazing teachers that shaped me? But here’s the thing: teaching can be the best profession for anyone—not just women—only if they have the aptitude and the inclination for it, not to mention the skill set. It can’t be a career choice based only on your gender, just because it’s stamped as safe.

I remember interviewing Margaret Atwood once, and she mentioned how during her time there were only about five choices open to women as careers: Nurse, secretary, airline flight attendant, school teacher and home economist. She said she opted for the secretarial sciences, because, in her cryptically witty manner, “I thought that if I had to have a job I didn’t want to have, it should be the one that pays the most.”

I remember musing, even then, how far we’d gotten from there in terms of choices available—but not so very far in terms of mental mathematics—mental growth. The safest, staidest choices were still considered ideal for women—and of course the best job for anyone had to be the one that paid the most—aptitude and passion be damned.

To come back to where I left off, I hadn’t the slightest inclination for teaching nor was I ever bothered in the least by social norms or what people thought of me. I had decided to be a journalist—that’s what I’d studied Mass Communication for—and that’s what I eventually became. But in this period of absolute indecision, where the future was mired in obscurity, I grasped at the one straw in my sight—‘teaching’ which was safe for any time, and which, I thought, would certainly save me from the fatal boredom and mental vegetation that accompanies being a lonely woman at home. It would occupy me in the pursuit of knowledge rather than brooding over the turn of my fortunes.

And so, just to keep myself constructively occupied, I sat for the NET during the seventh month of my pregnancy. The results came out about six months later—I had qualified not just the NET but also got selected for Junior Research Fellowship, offered to the top scorers in the exam, which would get me into Aligarh Muslim University’s research programme quite easily, without a written test.

The JRF-NET is a big deal in the world of academics, and I was accordingly hailed by every one of my family, friends, acquaintances—and former teachers.

But here’s the little difference between love and convenience. To use my favourite metaphor, it’s the difference between a marriage of love and a marriage of convenience. You might get a match that is, for all practical purposes, a source of envy for the entire world. You might get beauty, wealth, and resources beyond your imagination. But there’s one little thing on which all the taste depends… the ‘salt’ of life.

It’s love. Love alone brings elation. You cannot settle for something and be elated about it.

This wasn’t my love. I could scarcely revel in it.

In any case, I couldn’t join the research programme that year, because the dates had already passed by when the results were declared. That was just as well, for my baby was far too small and helpless. I had one more year to decide, for I could join the next year, or even the year after, since the JRF is valid for two years post the declaration of the result. But I didn’t care much either way—we were far more focused at that point on Sajjad getting his visa and moving to Oman, after which, so would I.

A big part of me didn’t even want to seek admission, because I didn’t want to end up stuck in Aligarh with a research programme to complete, while the life I had chosen for myself—my love, my marriage and my happiness slowly crept farther and farther away from me—a continental shift, so to speak.

No, this wasn’t what I wanted. I’ve always been pretty clear about what I want, and when. All I wanted was to create my cosy little nest again, for us to be reunited. I would not create any fresh entanglements here. All I wanted was to join my man in Oman, to pick up the broken pieces of that dream we shared and make a shiny new rainbow for us. To redesign those rose-tinted glasses to view the world with: so we see only beauty, only joy. Three glasses this time—an additional smaller, rosier one. Yes, that’s what I’d be doing, and that’s where I’d be going.

Soon, very soon now.

Or so I thought.