Zehra Naqvi is an author, independent journalist and mother. She has been writing for over a decade on literature, gender and socio-political issues and her articles have been published in Indian Express, Reader’s Digest, The Hindu, The Wire, Outlook, The Quint, Financial Chronicle, Child Magazine, Women’s Web and others.
Zehra has been featured in the RBTC list of 100 Most Inspiring Muslim Women from Uttar Pradesh. She has appeared on international radio as well as national and international television, speaking on gender justice.
Zehra is a quadruple gold medalist in journalism from Aligarh Muslim University.
Over and over, women are being asked to choose careers and not ‘choose men’. To pursue careers and not ‘pursue men’. In effect, society is telling women that they must not ask for, want or need to be loved by a person of the opposite sex.
It is strange indeed, to urge a human being to deny their very human need of love and companionship and physical intimacy, and replace it with a career instead. It is stranger to think that the need for achievement is a replacement of the need for love and belonging.
In the picture below, which carries a small excerpt from my book The Reluctant Mother, I have mentioned the Pyramid of Needs given by American psychologist Abraham Maslow. The other picture shows the actual Pyramid or Heirarchy of Needs as described by him. The need for love and belonging is *separate* from the need for achievement. And the need for love and belonging comes lower down in the pyramid, making it more basic than the need for achievement. And yet, *both* these needs are UNDENIABLE parts of human existence, and one cannot be a replacement for the other.
The need for love, affection and belonging is so basic that it is among the first needs of the infant- to be loved and cared for. The need for achievement and independence starts making itself felt at a young age, when the child wants to do things by himself/herself, to feel a sense of accomplishment. Adult needs are but an extension of these childhood needs.
Love gets expanded to include sexual fulfilment after puberty, but no matter how much modern life may try to separate sex and love, in the end most people want to have a stable intimate relationship with someone they *love*. That is what we all *ideally* want- regardless of whether we are men or women. We don’t want an endless string of casual relationships all our life. In the end, most of us want a person with whom we can feel comfortable and safe and loved.
Traditional society kept forcing women to choose love over achievement, thereby denying that the need for achievement is a HUMAN need – not a male need. Men, however, did not have to sacrifice dreams to have love- they could have it all.
Modern society now, is telling women to choose achievement over love- but men are not being told to pursue careers instead of pursuing women- they are pursuing both. Men still get to have it all.
So how has modernity changed anything for women? It has merely replaced one lopsided ideology with another. It has merely replaced one form of sacrifice with another. It changes nothing. It still allows men to have it all and keeps asking women to choose ONE.
Yes, it is absolutely essential to teach girls that their *survival* does not depend upon a man. That their *self-esteem* does not depend upon a man. That their *self-worth* does not depend upon a man. But don’t tell a girl that if she wants a man to love her and cherish her, she is ‘oppressed’ and ‘backward.’ It is a very *human* need to want love.
And this also brings us to the very core of the issue- why are so many women rejecting the idea of love in the first place? Why are so many women disillusioned with love?
Because men have not been taught to be *WORTHY* of a woman’s love. Men have not been told that they need to *earn* a woman’s love.
When a man is physically or emotionally abusive, society shrugs and says ‘men will be men.’ When a man cheats on his partner, society shrugs and says ‘men will be men.’ When a man is controlling and dominating towards his partner, or when a man is irresponsible and does not carry out his share of responsibilities, it’s the same – men will be men. Whatever terrible things men do in their relationships, they are excused with the help of a sweeping generalisation – men will be men.
In effect what we are telling women is that the very *definition* of a man is someone who is abusive, unfaithful, cruel, heartless and controlling. Or irresponsible and uncaring.
Why, for heaven’s sake, would a woman want such a creature in her life? If women are then being asked to not want men, it is essentially a call to not keep an abusive, unfaithful, controlling – or irresponsible- person in their lives.
As long as we keep condoning unpardonable behaviour by men, as long as we keep saying ‘men will be men’, we are contributing to a society in which relationship structures will be devalued and dismantled.
What we *need* is to change the definition of what it means to be a Man.
When Masculinity gets identified as kindness, gentleness, compassion, love and shouldering equal responsibility, when a man being soft-hearted, polite and respectful towards a woman gets defined as the pinnacle of manliness, when a man sharing home responsibilities and parenting responsibilities equally is not considered an anomaly, when we can see a man deeply and faithfully in love and say that *this* is what it means to be a man, only then we will be able to create a culture in which *both* men and women can rise to the stage of self- actualization- in which *both* men and women can have their needs fulfilled- and nobody has to sacrifice their need for love to fulfil their need for achievement- nor will anybody have to sacrifice their need for achievement to fulfil their need for love.
In an *ideal* world, choosing a man and choosing a career would not be two contradictory options for women. That is the kind of world I want to see.
When I attended the launch of my teacher’s book, The Reluctant Mother, I heard the panelists use the phrase “raw and honest” when they described it. I believed them, but didn’t believe that it needed to be reiterated every 5 minutes. If I’m being honest, it became a little monotonous hearing the synonyms of the same words from every awesome panelist over and over again. But yet I was awestruck, that day and all the while reading the book.
It is raw in a way you can’t imagine. It is honest in a way no other story, told by a mother, has been able to be. The true story revolves around a 20-something young journalist from a small town living her dream in Delhi, until life hits her like a truck. The book is about rage as often mentioned by the author. It focuses on life as a young…
Being able to forgive your parents. It’s a strange notion, is it not? Especially in a culture where parents are hailed as gods. But so many of us carry hurts, pains, and grudges against our parents, for what they did or did not do. We will not say them out loud because we are expected to love and worship them. Perhaps we will not accept this even to ourselves, for that would make you us ungrateful offspring. In the same way that any expression of ‘reluctance’ on the part of the mother makes her an ungrateful woman. And yet, strange though it may sound, it is possible to love someone while having a hundred complaints against them. It is possible for someone to love you, and still hurt you badly. In the end, everyone is human. Parents are humans who are doing the best they can- and yet, and yet, there is a lot to forgive your parents for. For not understanding you. For not giving you the space to open up to them. For being emotionally distant. For being controlling. For constantly comparing you to others. For constantly exercising authority, for trying to make you what they wanted you to be without understanding what you wanted to be. For not understanding your dreams and ambitions. Oh yes, there is quite a lot, sometimes, to forgive your parents for. And when that happens, when you are able to forgive them, you liberate yourself from the bonds of generational oppression. When we acknowledge the mistakes of our parents, we are able to prevent ourselves from replicating those mistakes with our own children. And we are able to see ourselves as humans, not gods. Very often, traditional parents suffer from the God Complex: the idea that the parent is always right. That as a mother or father, I can never do anything wrong. No, that’s not true. We all stumble, we all fail. The important thing is to learn and evolve. By accepting the fallibility of our parents, we accept our own fallibility as parents, too. And once we have done that, we can ask forgiveness from our own children. For everything that we did that hurt them, for everything that we did not do when we should have. That is how we learn to do better. I learnt this first from you, our mother. That a parent can say sorry, that a parent can say thank you. That a parent can learn from her children, and that a parent can be wrong as well. You did not present yourself as the mother who was always right, and if you realised you were not, you openly accepted it. From you we learnt that there is no shame in accepting our mistakes and that the elder can learn from the younger as well. My son seems to have learnt this instinctively – perhaps children learn by watching, or perhaps all children have that instinct until it is crushed out of them. Little H came to me one day, after we had a little tiff, and said: Mummy aapne mujhe maaf kar diya? Mummy, have you forgiven me? I chuckled and nodded, I had forgotten by then what I was angry with him for. And then with sweet innocence he said the thing that gave me pause: Maine bhi aap ko maaf kar diya. I have forgiven you, too. What a lovely boy you are, dearest H. You may not know it yet, but your heart is filled with wisdom. May you find it in that heart to forgive the mistakes of your parents, and may you never pass them on to the ones that you care for.
Not every fairy tale is about finding Prince Charming. Some are about finding yourself.
All Cinderella Stories have some staple features. A grand ball, a dazzling gown, a fancy coach, a fairy godmother, a Prince. And glass slippers.
This one has all of them- with some delicious twists.
On 11th Dec 2021, I witnessed the culmination of one of the most beautiful fairy tales of my life: the launch of my debut book – labour of love and piece of my heart- The Reluctant Mother: A Story No One Wants To Tell.
The launch was held at the Auditorium of the India International Centre, one of the grandest venues in New Delhi, the capital of my country. The programme witnessed a full house turnout, and the panelists Rana Safvi, Manjul Bajaj, Saikat Majumdar and Reema Ahmad, were some of the best writers and thinkers of the country. My entire extended family, my friends, my students- every person that loved me- was present. And many readers and friends who only knew me through social media arrived at the launch for a meet up and for getting their books signed.
It was all as perfect and magical as could be.
Magic, very often, is a combination of vision, planning, determination, untiring efforts, belief in oneself- and a little bit of serendipity. Organising this launch took every bit of these.
Oh, and I definitely had help from a fairy godmother.
No, make that two fairy godmothers: one who was much elder to me, in keeping with the fairy godmother tradition, but the other one, totally breaking all traditions (as is the custom of my life so far) was a much younger girl. A young, sweet, magical fairy who arrived out of nowhere.
The elder one encouraged me at every step, helped with her experience and wisdom, and made me realise how important it was to meticulously plan a grand launch. At one point, when I was trying to book the venue, I realised that the much larger hall was the only one available. What if all the people I invited didn’t turn up? The hall would look empty. What should I do? Should I try another venue? But I really wanted this one- it was the best venue one could have for a book launch.
I called my elder fairy godmother. I told her I was afraid all of my guests wouldn’t arrive, and the hall would look empty.
‘Why won’t they?’ She replied in her usual cheerful, encouraging voice. ‘Of course they will come! What really matters is the khuloos, (the earnestness, the love) with which you invite them.’
So that is how my fairy gave me my magic mantra. And girl, how it worked! Love really works wonders. When you give genuine love to people, they will ultimately turn up for you. In more ways than one.
This elder fairy was Rana Safvi apa – noted author, who was also a panelist at the launch, who is also my mother’s cousin, and who has been a rock and a guiding light both at the same time.
The other fairy, the one much younger than me, turned up magically on my cell phone. She and I knew each other only professionally. She is a public relations professional, and I am a journalist, and that is how we had spoken to each other a couple of times on the phone. Several months ago, she called me for some professional query, and I mentioned to her that I had switched to academics now. We somehow struck up a conversation, suddenly realising how much we had in common, suddenly bonding together fabulously.
Friends who had never even seen each other’s face. And that is how serendipity works.
This young fairy named Nitika is one of the purest souls I’ve met. She hand held me through the organising of the book launch, pointing out the smallest details and being there for me instantly when I needed her. It’s not every day you meet someone who immediately and selflessly helps you, handholds you for no ulterior motive, for nothing that they are going to get from you in return. Someone who loves you without trying to control you, someone who thinks about your needs without projecting their own needs upon you. Someone who understands what you want to do, without imposing upon you what they think you should do. Not all fairy godmothers come with white hair, you see? There are no rigid rules in life. (Unfortunately Nitika fell ill on the day of the launch and could not be there. But she was surely there in spirit)
So it happened, that I organised my grand ball, with the help of my two fairy godmothers. Must also remember to give credit to my publishers for helping out with advice for the launch and other practical details. Especially to Raghav, who designed the backdrop for the event, the standees and the invitation cards. Oh, the gorgeous invitation cards! Although all of them were sent digitally, I got a few printed to present personally to the senior professors and the Vice Chancellor at the University where I teach.
Holding the printed cards in my hand was a feeling next only to holding the actual book.
‘I’ve never been so happy holding a card in my hand since I held my wedding invitations!’ I exclaimed to S in utter glee.
And speaking of S, let’s not forget the Prince.
(And yes, I also had a littlePrince with me, darling Little H, looking all dapper and handsome in a grey blazer, standing smartly on stage.)
S drove me around for all the work that needed to be done- even though I know how to drive. But I have spondylitis and too much driving can sometimes trigger deep neck pain, so he made it a point to drive me around everywhere, so that I could preserve my energy and good health for the launch. He helped me make the right decisions and think with clarity, he took care of the little details that I would have missed had I been working alone. He worked as hard as I did, calling up people to invite them with khuloos.
It was all back-breaking work, I was rushing around like a little typhoon, but hard work can be so utterly satisfying, especially when it culminates in victory. The day of the launch was a whirlwind of epic proportions, especially since my son had a PTA meet in the morning. So I was basically hurtling from school to home to book launch – ‘living my book’, as author and panellist Saikat Majumdar remarked later! The most unique thing about all of this was, in true Cinderella fashion, I was late to my own ball and charging ahead in my scintillating silver Honda City carriage- except that the carriage was being driven by my Michael Schumacher of a husband.
So in a delightfully dramatic modern day Cinderella version, instead of rushing away from the ball and the Prince at the stroke of midnight, I was charging towards the ball to make it on time, at the stroke of midday, with the Prince furiously steering away. Such drama are fairy tales composed of!
But no Cinderella story is complete without a dazzling gown, is it? I had been wondering about what to wear for a long time before the launch. At first, I thought I would wear Red. Red has been my favourite colour for as long as I can remember. But close to the launch, I began having ‘visions’ of a glorious white gown. I could ‘see’ it in great detail; it etched itself in my mind. And true to all traditions of magic and serendipity, when I went shopping with my two best cheerleaders- my partner S and my sister N- I saw just the white gown hanging on the rack of my favourite label.
Standing there, swishing elegantly and beaming at me. I tried it, and it fitted me like it was crafted for me. The ultimate gown for a glorious ball. My sister decided to pair it with a delicate and sheer pink tissue dupatta, though that had not occurred to me. But the moment she added that dupatta, the gown was uplifted into something else altogether. Add a bright pink headscarf to the look – and voila! It became a Cinderella dress with a very Zehra flavour.
Oh, how the universe conspires to bring everything together- including godsent sisters with a great sense of fashion! Which reminds me of some things I had that even the original Cinderella did not. An adoring sister and a beloved mother. (Let me pause for a moment here and say Masha Allah.)
Instead of the ugly step sisters- whose ugliness did not lie in their face but their hatred- I have a sister that adores me, and who, even at the last minute, was rushing around overseeing the preparations for the launch.
Cinderella lost both her parents, but I lost only one. And though it is a loss that is never compensated, a loss that is never diminished, his presence never turns to absence. For the entirety of the 25 years since his departure, my father has never left my side. In each moment of doubt and confusion, I remember him and ask myself- what would he have done? I remember who he was, the values he stood for, the dreams he encouraged, the knowledge he imparted, and there he is- beaming at me, showing the way. The people we love may be taken from us, but can love ever be taken? The ones we love may die, but can love ever die? To quote one of my favourite lines from the movie Interstellar: Love is the only thing that transcends all dimensions, including time and space.
As the latest version of Disney’s Cinderella had a mother who told her to ‘have courage and be kind’, I had a father who told me to be brave, dream big and always speak the truth. And that is what showed me the path. He who has faith will never be lost, as Baba Aziz said in the eponymous Iranian film.
Now that we have all the elements of the Cinderella Story, can glass slippers be far behind? But what are glass slippers, really? What role do the glass slippers play in Cinderella’s story? Are they just sparkling props for a magic tale? Or are they something larger, something more metaphorical?
In truth, the glass slippers are the channel, the zaria, through which Cinderella’s destiny finds her. They are the artefacts that lead her future to her doorstep.
My glass slippers were right there at the ‘ball’. They were none other than the numerous copies of my Book.
The artefact, the channel that led my destiny to me, brought my future to my doorstep, dazzled and sparkled in a magnificent display of fireworks, and wrapped up my fairy tale for me like a gift.
Most importantly, though, when I sit in silence and reflect, I realise that if I hadn’t met some fabulous empowered women, if I hadn’t read books that embodied the Feminist thought, if I hadn’t had the knowledge of an alternative way of thinking and living, I would never have been able to make this fairy tale come true.
For this is what empowered women, enlightened feminists, taught me: the ‘Big Day’ in a woman’s life doesn’t necessarily have to be a wedding day. It can also be the day you launch your company, start your dream job, go on a world trip – or launch your dream book. And yes, there can be as many ‘Big Days’ in your life as you want- they don’t necessarily have to be romantic, they don’t have to be just one. Life can be magical in as many different ways as we can imagine.
If I hadn’t met wise, visionary, pure hearted women- both young and old- perhaps I’d never have known this: Love is important, but there can be so many other things beyond love. There can be so many differentkinds of love. There can be so many kinds of fairy tales. In some of them, you might be seeking a Prince. In some, you might be alone, seeking a path. In yet others, the Prince might be right beside you, looking for what you both want together.
Because every fairy tale is not about finding Prince Charming. Some of them are about finding yourself.
Yes, I said ‘your’ book. It’s not a typo. This book, in fact, belongs to all of you. You are the ones who witnessed the journey of this blog, walked along with me, listened to me spell out my deepest fears and stayed with me in my moments of despair. You heard me out patiently, and encouraged me and came back for more. You showered this blog with attention and care.
In particular, fellow blogger Kathi Ostrom sparked the idea for this book, by telling me right at the beginning- many years ago- that this story needed to take the form of a book. It is truly heartening, is it not, to witness a small act of kindness turning into a huge gift? Thank you, Kathi, for your little kindness that became a huge gift for me. And thank you, all of you, who kept coming back to this blog, cheering me on. This book has totally been possible because of you all.
Here is what the book’s back cover says:
The Reluctant Mother is a book of rage.
Rage at being alone in your pain, having your conflict belittled, and your struggles trivialised. It is the story of a young woman who seeks to find herself in a world that constantly tries to define her and who she should be.
It is the memoir of an anti-mother. The woman who doesn’t fall in love with her baby at first sight but discovers love along the way.
This book is for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the idea of ‘ideal’ motherhood. Be it a woman or a man, one way of confronting trauma is to know that you are not alone in it. To know that someone shares your story and understands your emotions and guilt that accompanies feeling anything other than ‘perfectly blissful’ about motherhood.
It is at once heartbreaking and poignant as it is hopeful and comforting. This is the story of one woman and yet the life of many. It reveals how tradition and modernity, faith and reason, pleasure and pain are all so intimately interwoven for women that their true sense of self is inevitably one of contradictions.
The book’s biggest strength lies in its rawness and honesty. Nothing but the truth stands here.
The book is available for pre-order on Amazon India at this link https://amzn.to/3CnWUwn . The paperback will be available in bookstores in November, and the Kindle version will also be available soon after.
To my readers and fellow bloggers outside India, I must apologise for now, but the e-book will be available very soon, and the paperback may also be available in other countries in a short while.
Watch this space for further updates, and do subscribe to the mailing list to have posts delivered right into your mailbox. Remain up to date with the latest events!
Once again, heartfelt gratitude to you all, and I hope you enjoy the book as much as you enjoyed reading the blog.
When S and I were newly married, we shared our rented apartment with an elderly lady who was the owner of that apartment. What had happened was that the lady was supposed to be leaving in a month or so to stay abroad with her children, but events unfolded such that we all ended up staying together for a much longer time.
It was a very interesting experience to live that way. She was a soft spoken, cultured and well-read lady, and having been a history teacher before her retirement, she regaled us with amazing stories from Indian History at dinnertime, when all three of us sat together at the dining table.
But as it often happens with most people of the previous generation, she too lived with the notion that food was mostly cooked for the pleasure of men. How did I find this out?
In the early days of my marriage, I was staying at home, before I re-joined my job a couple of months later. I used to do all the cooking and washing up myself, and for the first few days, auntie would say in the afternoons: oh, it’s just the two of us, we’ll have leftovers from last night.
Or she would say: Oh, cook all this elaborate stuff in the evening when S comes home.
After a few days, I wondered why the two of us were not worth cooking for, and only S was worth cooking for? So when she said to me that day, ‘oh we’ll have leftovers from last night, S won’t be here anyway’, I laughed and said to her: But auntie we are here! Why should food only be cooked for S? I want to cook for myself and for you as well!
And from then on, I cooked up good stuff for the two of us also. I think she was also trying to be kind to me, and not make me work too hard—trying to make it easy for me by saying that I didn’t need to cook for her. I understand that a lot of it came from a place of kindness wherein she didn’t want me to be exhausted cooking for her.
But I’ve seen this in plenty of Indian homes where the man is considered the primary consumer of food—the food is almost always meant first and foremost for the men.
And the meat—especially the meat! The men are expected to eat a lot of meat, and the women are supposed to not want meat so much. Perhaps it has to do with the belief that meat eating makes you aggressive and dominant- not to mention highly sexual.
Qualities that traditional society wishes to keep away from women.
Well, not this woman.
I love my chicken and my mutton, and am not ashamed of eating as much as I want. (Perhaps that might explain some of my aggression and other interesting qualities. But that’s another discussion.)
So one day, S and I were invited to dinner at an acquaintance’s house. They had cooked shaljam gosht which is practically our favourite meat dish.
Now, the thing is, sucking on mutton bones for bone marrow is considered a delicacy in our culture. So when we sat for dinner, the elderly gentleman asked his wife to ladle out the big bone to S.
“Bhaiyya ko do!” He instructed her. Give it to the young man!
I waited for her to ladle it out to S, while eyeing the other big bone in the curry for myself. But before I had the chance to actually get the bone for myself, the elderly gentleman again urged his wife:
“Doosri wali bhi do bhaiya ko!” Give the other bone, too, to the young man!
Well, really! Why should all the best portions be ladled out to ‘bhaiyya’! Why had he invited me, then? To watch while my husband ate?
Thankfully, however, his wife retorted with: “Arrey woh bhi to khayegi!” indicating me. “But she is eating too, isn’t she!” I cannot explain how happy her answer made me.
Food is not meant for men alone.
More evidence of this attitude can be found in villages, in large joint families, where it is always the women who do all the cooking from dawn to dusk, but are always the last to eat.
The food is served to all the men first, and when they have had their fill of all the freshest and best portions, the leftovers are eaten by the women. Often it happens that very little of the food is left, and the women either have to go back to the kitchen and cook some more, or end up eating only the little that is left. It is unfair and infuriating.
I was not brought up with this kind of attitude, and so became aware of it quite late in life. But then I never stayed in a villag, and neither of my grandparents lived in a village either. They were all town-dwellers who espoused respectful and fair attitudes towards women.
My father was a loving and respectful husband and he would never eat until mummy had joined us at the table. Even when we had guests over, the women ate together with the men.
My partner S and I never eat without each other – unless we are both busy with our professional work, in which case we eat whenever we find the time, without waiting for each other. But those instances are rare.
When we visit his parents in Aligarh, all of us eat together, and if there’s something to be brought in from the kitchen, it doesn’t always have to be the woman who goes and gets it. It could be S and his brothers too.
Sanchari Bhattacharya, a friend of mine, wrote a poignant post on Facebook, about how she knew the food preferences of every member of the family, but not of her mother-in-law. Neither her husband not her sister in law could tell her what their mother preferred to eat – because, like many women of the earlier generation, she proudly declared that she ‘could make do with anything.’
Women’s choices are all supposed to mould themselves to fit the men’s convenience. And so Sanchari’s mother in law never asked for anything for herself, taking pride in ‘adjusting’ to make everyone happy. But Sanchari, ever the determined, caring and empathic soul, persisted in questioning her mother in law about her favourite food.
The lady in question responded with this hard-hitting story:
“When a son came home from his big job abroad, he took the whole family out to a fancy restaurant. He asked everyone to order whatever they liked, no matter what the cost because he was now rich. Everyone but his mother placed an order. When asked, the mother said that she had no preferences, so she doesn’t really know what she should order. At this, the now NRI son jumps in and says, “Oh no worries. She’s MY mother, I know exactly what she likes. She likes tail pieces (lyaja) of fish. All my life, I’ve always seen her save the tail pieces for herself and give us the petties and gadas (bigger, more meaty, less boney pieces) beforehand. Someone get her a big tail piece, please. “
The mother smiles at the son and faintly remembers how, before she got married, she’d always get the big fish head. That probably tasted better, though she barely remembered it. She hadn’t even realized all this while, when her status had got demoted from the head of the fish to its tail in the span of these 30 years.”
Eventually, Sanchari found out her mother-in-law’s favourite- prawns – but this little story demonstrates perfectly how traditional societies erase women’s preferences and individuality, even in such ordinary, simple matters as food.
It reminded me of how I, too, needed to find out what my mother in law liked to eat- she never expressed a preference.
My own mother, however, was a different case altogether. She was an avowed vegetarian in a family of meat-eaters, so an extra dish was always prepared for her whenever meat was cooked.
I say an extra dish was ‘prepared’ for her because, with my father being a government officer, she hardly ever did the cooking – merely supervised the cooking, which was all done by male cooks, appointed by the government for officers’ households.
So I had a childhood where I saw men cooking inside my house all the time, while my mother supervised them and gave them instructions. We did not grow up with the idea that cooking is a ‘woman’s job.’
We also went out often to eat at fancy restaurants, and she loved South Indian cuisine- dosas, idlis and vadas- so my father always picked the restaurants that served these. Always mindful of her choice, of things that she liked and wanted.
Even after he passed away, my mother kept up her boundless energy and zest for life for the sake of her two little girls, and the three of us often went out to eat — where we always knew she would order dosa!
And not only do we know very well the preferences of our mother, we also know the food preferences of our mother’s mother. She, too, liked to cook for herself, and have food of her liking made by the khansama (male cook, again) in her youth. To this day, even at the age of 80, she eats her favourite foods with relish. And like me, she is an avid carnivore- loves her chicken and mutton, and loves feeding everyone chicken and mutton! In fact, my Nanna is at the opposite end of the spectrum – not only does she get food of her own choice prepared, she insists on feeding other family members the food of her choice! (Talk about dominance and aggression resulting from meat-eating, ha!)
In a nutshell then, I grew up in a family of bold, energetic ladies and caring, thoughtful gentlemen – so I never adopted the traditional docile attributes expected of women. And I remained vocal and insistent about my own food preferences.
It is ironic that even though traditional societies consider cooking as ‘a woman’s job’, the first right over the food is always supposed to belong to the men.
The good part is that attitudes have changed by and large in this generation — women are more vocal and open, and men are more considerate and loving. It is a change for the better. A sign of better things to come, a sign of more harmonious relationships and more fulfilling lives for everyone.
Because ‘the family that eats together, stays together.’
‘Every person on this planet can relate to wanting to chase bliss.’ Can you?
Last night I watched the movie Bliss (2021). It’s funny how, sometimes, some things that made no sense thus far, suddenly make sense to you in the most unexpected of places.
Before we proceed: spoiler alert. This post is full of spoilers about the movie, though this is not a review. It is an intensely personal experience reflected through the movie.
On the face of it, Bliss seems like a science fiction film. But it isn’t. It is actually a commentary on drug culture and the grip of drugs on the human brain—and an intense, deep reflection on human psychology anywhere in the world. In fact, the film wasn’t even trying to appear like science fiction, because science fiction makes an effort to convince the viewer of the world that it creates. This film, though, was clearly revealing to the viewer the mixed-up nature of its reality, the hazy nature of the ‘created’ world in it. It was giving signals all along, and yet was crafting a new ‘reality’ in a way that was very convincing.
Greg Witter is a man who is already neck-deep in troubled waters, when he meets a woman who claims to be his soulmate, who claims that the world they live in is all fake, including all the people in it (except for the both of them). And from then on, reality becomes difficult to decipher, as he keeps swinging between two ‘worlds’, not knowing which is real.
Close to the end of the movie, when everything is falling apart and descending into chaos, Greg’s grown-up daughter who has been consistently trying to reach out to him, looks at him, and says: ‘One of these days, you’re going to have to choose between these worlds. And maybe somehow, to you they’re both real. So just… just do what’s best for you, okay?”
Up until that moment, I’d been having flashes of déjà vu throughout the movie. But this was the statement that suddenly brought everything crashing down upon me. ‘One of these days, you’re going to have to choose between these worlds.’
And what if you make the wrong choice?
Watching Greg Witter discover the home he used to sketch over and over, the home he thought existed only in his imagination. Watching him suddenly come face to face with the woman whose face he used to sketch, the woman he thought existed only in his imagination. Watching him discover a new world, one that was incredibly, impossibly picture-perfect. A utopia.
It all landed so heavily on me, reminding me of the time when I had discovered something that I thought could not possibly exist, something that I had always considered a figment of my imagination.
When you find something like that, something that seems to materialize straight from your dreams, out of thin air, then the hold it has upon you is unshakeable. It becomes an addiction.
The movie Bliss is primarily about drug addiction. But addictions can be of various types. There are so many different ways a person can become addicted; so many different things one can be addicted to- particularly the addiction to one’s own dreams. And every addiction produces the same effect.
You. Just. Can’t. Let. It. Go.
Letting go of your illusions is the hardest thing to do, particularly when they appear so real. Particularly when they spread out before you a shimmering dream of everything that could be. The possibilities!
An article on Medium explains so beautifully how this film goes deeper to explore the human longing for utopia- that unattainable ideal of how things are supposed to be. The possibilities of ‘if only’ and ‘what if’. The motifs of heaven, paradise, jannat- all of these are echoes of the human longing for perfection, for utopia.
The film’s story plays upon the insatiable human need for ‘more’. And that ‘more’, in our lives, may not necessarily be materialistic. It may be a need for more knowledge, deeper connection, a better world, more love, more recognition, more ‘you’. The endless chasing of Bliss.
Greg’s amazement and wonder at the utopian ‘real’ world that he suddenly encounters hit home for me, hit so hard. That feeling of incredulity. Am I really going to get this? Is this really going to be mine? All these images in my head, all these crazy visions- am I really going to have them all fulfilled? Is this true? Is this real? How could it be? How could this be so perfect and still be real?
And that is the bitterest pill to swallow.
What is real can never be perfect. What is perfect can never be real.
In the end though, Greg makes the decision to stay back in the ‘imperfect’ world because in spite of everything else, it was still full of beauty, still full of moments of joy, still full of chances of redemption. And there was his daughter.
He makes the right choice.
And yet he leaves you wondering, what if he had had enough ‘blue crystals’ to cross over to the other side? What if he had chosen the other side? Since we know this is a film about drug addiction, we know what the right choice was. Yet you wonder what would have happened had he made the other choice? Could he have found his utopia?
What if you got the chance to make a different choice? Would it have been any better?
Here’s the thing, and that’s the point the film makes earlier on, through the ‘brain box’ experiment. Even in the utopian world, humans had begun to find things to complain about. They had begun to find out that everything does not always remain in a state of perfection. That life is messy, chaotic and unpredictable, and there will always be struggles, no matter how small those may be. There will always be something ‘missing’.
Matt Williams writes in his article on Medium: ‘It is a demonstration of how the human mind inherently questions reality, refuses the world as it is given, and seeks to construct something anew.’
‘Often unbeknownst to us, our brains are constantly comparing the real world to an infinite number of imagined alternatives, and therefore raising the bar of our expectations higher and higher each time we try to reach it.’
For so long I struggled to find answers to what it was that hit me with such force, knocking the wind out of me, turning me into a perpetually recovering ‘addict’. Why it became so excruciatingly difficult to accept what was real and what was not. I looked for answers everywhere, from books to religion to therapy. And all of them had their own particular ways of looking at the questions, their own unique answers.
Bliss opened up new perspectives and delivered new answers.
There will perhaps always be a void inside of us, a gap that we are forever trying to fill. That is what drives us to the point of insanity, to the point where we are unable to discern between the real and the unreal. That unfillable gap is the endless quest for the perfect world. The quest for utopia.
And yet, in that quest, we may discover things about ourselves, we may make other discoveries that ultimately lead us to uncharted spaces. To better places.
Such is the strange beauty of this imperfect, chaotic world.
Untouched books are also unloved. See a child how he scribbles colours and rubs? That’s what love is like – rough around the edges and every so often wears you out.
An unblemished book is lonely, wan displays no signs of ever being held, no lines in the margins – exclamations, notations- no marks of love, of having had someone crawl into it long past midnight.
These wrinkles, my love, and folds of skin, these blemishes and signs of wearing out are but dog ears on the pages of life- marking the lines that reverberate; marking the most loved parts of us.
Most people disapprove of writing inside books. I’m not one of them.
All the books I’ve ever loved are painted over with notations on various pages, thoughts that they triggered in me, my responses to the beauty or tragedy in them. The more loved a book is, the more scribbled over it will be. Many people consider this sacrilegious, they consider it a defilement of the sacred. For me, though, these are marks of love. Passionate love, if I may say so.
Many years ago, when I was around 18, I had English Literature as a subsidiary subject in my undergraduate class. We studied several short stories, one of which was Bernard Malamud’s The First Seven Years. I still remember that story, because at its core lay two people who fell in love with each other through their love for books. Miriam and Sobel hardly ever met, hardly ever spoke. They mostly exchanged books.
Before I speak further about this story, I must add a disclaimer. I could go online and search for the story and be accurate about the details, but I will write from memory instead- the things that I remember and the feelings they evoked in me then.
Miriam is the daughter of a Jewish shoemaker, and Sobel is a Polish refugee, who finds work and sanctuary as an assistant in her father’s shop. Unknown to her father, they exchange books, and they converse only—mostly—through the notes and the lines that both of them scribble in the margins. They are not love notes or secret lines to each other- they are notations about the book, reflections on what was written. It is an intellectual, spiritual bond- a love borne out of a meeting of thoughts and ideas. A meeting of minds and not just hearts.
Every time I write a line in the margins of a book that I love, I remember Miriam and Sobel. I revel in the vicarious pleasure of a love that speaks through books. I wonder what it would be like, to be surrounded by a love like that.
But when I write in books, it is not for a lover to read. Who is it for, I wonder?
Perhaps a part of me hopes that my son would read my books someday, find his mother’s words and be delighted in that discovery, as I am now delighted when I find something that belonged to my parents in their youth. Or perhaps my son’s children will – assuming he decides to have children.
Being a person who for a very long time has struggled against motherhood, and asked myself whether I would really have chosen motherhood if this were a choice available to me, I find myself fearful of the fact that my son may not choose to have children. I hope it does not happen so. I hope he chooses to have them.
I know, now, that if life hadn’t gone hurtling at a dizzying pace for me, if I had had the choice of taking things slow and step by step, I would have chosen to have a child. Or children.
I see women around me who choose to have children well into their thirties, and I imagine that if I had role models around me, if I had these ideas around me, if I had the chance to wait till my thirties to become a mother, I would have perhaps been a calmer, saner, more prepared, more willing parent. I hope that my son and the woman he marries choose to be parents too- in their own time, at their own pace, with their own choice- for choices made consciously and wisely can be carried with a lot more joy.
And as I read one book after another, writing away into the margins, I wonder if these words will be read by generations after me. I wonder if they will even want to read the kind of books I like. Wonder if they will ever want to flip through these books. It is rather vain to assume that future generations will want to know you.
It is enough, I think, to write in a book, knowing that you have loved it, knowing that it has become a part of you, knowing that if no one else, at least you will come back to it. You will read the words of a past version of yourself, a person who no longer exists because she has grown and evolved into someone else, and perhaps you will read those words and smile, and say: Ah!
And then again, perhaps no one ever needs to read these words. Perhaps it is enough to have reflected and contemplated and written them down. Perhaps it is better that they remain like this, locked away in the book’s close embrace, fading away into a yellowed page, as the human existence fades into the yellowed pages of life.
This is a picture of my parents, in times when our lives were still untouched by tragedy.
When the scent of death hadn’t pervaded our lives and settled into the very bones of our bodies, never to be extricated from our veins and skin. Inhaled every day, settling into the lungs like a chain smoker’s X Ray.
Every time my chronic allergic cough resurfaces, doctors are puzzled by my lung X-Rays. They look me up and down in astonishment and then ask, rather hesitantly, ‘Do you smoke?’ (Asking this of a woman in hijab seems strange enough in itself, you see.)
No, doctor, I do not smoke. What you see inside my body is the residue of death. I have been smoking death since I was 9.
You see, a young, untimely death isn’t something you ever grow out of. It isn’t something you ever put behind you. It’s a trick- wound. Appears healed on the outside, but no sooner does a sharp push or unconscious shove land on it that it starts bleeding instantaneously. The shove could be anything. A movie. A poem. A song. A separation. Another death.
With every new death, the smoke billows afresh. Like a Cherokee’s smoke signal. Grief returning home to nest.
We have felt death acutely in every waking moment of our lives.
Lately, though, I realised that my mother had stopped speaking of my father. Where earlier not a day went by without a mention of him- your father this and your father that, now, she has a new interest. Allah. She’d been religious from the beginning, but this is something else altogether. It is what consumes her day in and day out, it is the only thing she wishes to talk about now. My father no longer occupies centrestage. After two decades of hanging his shirts and his ties in her cupboard, two decades of his nameplate hanging on our door right beside her own nameplate, two decades of every lunch and dinner conversation tinged by memories of him, I found her talking less and less about him, until the mentions all but disappeared.
I was hurt, to be honest, when I first sensed it. But by and by, I realised that this is what closure looks like. Perhaps this is what it is like to move on. And it ought to have happened a long time ago, really. For how long should one carry around the weight of grief?
Some of us though, carry grief around in large, mysterious knapsacks. Grief and wound and memory and longing. All bound together.
As a child of 6 or 7, I loved watching a children’s programme on Doordarshan, whose jingle spoke about ‘Chunnu ka Baba’ with a huge ‘Potli’, a large sack, of stories. The old Baba with a snow white beard always had a story to pull out of his potli. When I was little, I used to imagine myself as Chunnu, the one who heard the stories. Now that I have a child of my own, I feel more like the ‘Baba’. With my own little potli of stories; a potli of grief and shards of broken heart.
Perhaps this is how some of us choose to live. With a jute sack of memories that oftentimes weighs us down. But we’d rather not abandon it. We’d sling it on our backs or hold it cuddled up in our arms, close to our heart. We’d rather carry the weight of memories as we puff on death and separation and incessant heartache, and let the fumes settle deep inside us, to be discovered by X Rays. Some of us make memories a way of life. Until we vanish into the ethers and turn into puffs of memory ourselves.
Postscript: I wrote this piece almost 3 months ago. Last month though, when my sister got married, something happened. We watched her walk down dressed as a bride and all of us- her mother, her sister and her cousins- nearly all of us had tears in our eyes. I had them because it was overwhelming to see the kiddo whose diapers I had changed, grow up and get married. Our mother, when I later spoke to her about it, said this:
“I wept because I missed your father. He should have been here to see his little girl.”
I never thought I’d say this, but motherhood grows on you.
I have begun to realise, slowly, that I am so much more comfortable in the role of a young boy’s mother, than I ever was in the role of a toddler’s mother.
I think it is because my primary mode of communication, and expression of love, is verbal. Words are my preferred channel. My primary method of bonding is intellectual exchange, which is obviously done through words. Physical touch comes a close second- I am a very physically expressive mother: kisses, cuddles, smothering hugs. But that is still second, and no substitute for the joy of words.
Thus I find myself taking far more delight in the role of a mother now – now that my son can clearly express and converse with me, now that I can hear the thoughts that go through his remarkable brain and marvel at the fascinating intellect he possesses. I find myself relishing the role of the mother far more with the growing up of my child, as he develops more fully into a distinct human being with a mind of his own, contradicting me and adding to my thoughts with the freshness and depth of his own. It is a great delight to find my son thinking independently enough to contradict his mother – though it’s exhausting as hell, too! But I find myself bursting with pride when he adds a different dimension to my understanding of the world. Pride at the magnificent, compassionate and empathetic person he is turning out to be. It isn’t as though I didn’t enjoy being a mother to Little H when he was tiny. I distinctly remember what a bundle of joy he was, how he listened carefully and began speaking at the early age of 10 months, so that one could chuckle at the nearly grown-up sentences uttered by those tiny lips. How delightful and adorable he was when he tried to copy his father in every tiny thing: right down to how he lay on the bed while talking: lying on his side, propping an elbow under his head, and crossing one leg over another. We roared with laughter on watching 10 month old Little H lying on the bed in exactly this manner: complete with crossed legs and elbow propping up the head ! How marvelous it was to see his wonder and joy at the world, to see commonplace everyday objects with a child’s fascination- a child discovering the new world, a world that holds infinite delights for him. “And children’s faces looking up, holding wonder like a cup!” If you’ve ever seen a child with his mouth wide open in a joyous grin and his eyes sparkling with wonder, you’ll know exactly what this means. And yet, I think I was so exhausted and worn out all the time, because he was such a bundle of energy and mischief, that I couldn’t really appreciate or enjoy it as much as I would have liked.
Not being able to understand his needs, not being able to communicate my concerns with him was the most frustrating thing I ever experienced. Like constantly groping in the dark to find the light switch, and falling in the darkness and hurting yourself countless times in the process. And slowly, you learn where the light switch is- so you can find it even when it’s dark. Little H growing up enough to communicate properly- and understand his mother’s words properly – is the light that’s suddenly been switched on for me. We have finally reached a place where we can, to a largely comforting extent, understand each other.
What an extraordinary amount of hard work it has been! But it’s a beautiful feeling for me, the Reluctant One, to find that I can finally enjoy motherhood, that I, too, can find it fulfilling, instead of constantly and exhaustingly struggling against it.
I feel like ending this with a quote from the Quran. It is my favorite verse, and it is the verse I used to repeat most often when Little H was tumbling around in my belly. It is also the verse I chanted over and over to myself when I was experiencing the most excruciating pain of my life: as Little H was being born.
Fa Inna Ma’al Usrey Yusra. Inna Ma’al Usrey Yusra
Verily, with hardship comes ease. With hardship comes ease. It does, indeed.