About Zehra Naqvi

I am a woman, and a writer. I was a full time journalist before I landed a full time job as a mother. Now, I'm a columnist and freelance journalist, including Associate Editor for one of India's leading online luxury magazines. This blog is just my way of sharing with the world a different take on motherhood, away from all the sugary, sachharine-dipped stuff people usually associate with it. If you think I suck, let me know it. And if you can actually empathise, do do do let me know that too!

When you are old and grey and full of sleep


“When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep…”

(W.B. Yeats)

Last year, in this very month of August, a couple of elderly men ‘escaped’ their old age home to attend the world’s largest heavy metal concert in Germany. Many people found this funny. But I was deeply moved by these two men, ‘old men’ still young at heart, who wanted simply an evening out from their own lives.

The first time I ever came to know of elderly people ‘escaping’ from institutional homes was when I read a story in Joanne Harris’s book A Cat, A Hat and a Piece of String. The story was titled Faith and Hope Fly South— Faith and Hope being two elderly women living in Meadowbank Retirement Home in the UK. The story moved me to tears.

Actually, Hope is the one that moved me most. She’s a former Cambridge professor, very dignified, witty and possessing the right ‘airs’ for a cultured lady. Quite the formidable woman. But now, she’s blind.

Faith, on the other hand, is wheelchair bound. What both women share is a feisty spirit and dollops of zest for life.

Hope has a daughter who never turns up to show her face and merely sends her postcards from all over the world—which the mother carefully collects in a box. Faith, though, has a son that visits her every week—but with “petrol-station” flowers and merely stories of the “World Outside.” Never an offer to take her with him.

World Outside.

The words stung me.

The implication of being imprisoned. Not knowing what was on in the world outside the walls that caged you. And this, after having been out in that world for so long, after having partaken of its pleasures and its pains, its wonders and its routines, after having savoured every one of them for decades, you’re suddenly shut off from all of it.

What’s worse was reading that they needed permission slips to join the rare outings that occured.

“I have to say I don’t much like the idea of Tom having to sign a slip,” says Faith. Tom is her son who has to sign her permission slip. “It reminds me so much of the times when he used to bring those forms home from grammar school, wanting permission to go on trips to France, or even skiing in Italy, trips we could barely afford, but paid for anyway,” says Faith. To have your children become your parent. It seems an almost indulgent thought, but it isn’t really—not if it is unaccompanied by the respect that is due to those elder in years. It can carry an edge of humiliation with it, which I realised for the first time.

Worse, far worse is this—which Hope and Faith had to endure. To have people that are half your age tell you that you’ve been ‘naughty’ because you ‘escaped’ for a daytrip of your own- because you dared to claim one day of your life for yourself. To be taunted for expressing your need for independence and dignity as a human being.

“Lorraine (the warden at the old age home) is equally appalled—for a different reason—and often speaks to us in the syrupy tones of a cross nursery teacher, explaining how naughty it was of us to run away, and how worried everyone was on our behalf…”

Cross nursery teacher.

Being addressed like a kindergartener, robbed of all dignity.

Hit me like a punch in the gut.

Hit me with the severity that accompanies guilt.

Do I sometimes speak to my mother this way? Like I know more than her, like I know better? Like I’m the one instructing her on what was best for her? It’s hard to own up to this, but I do. Sometimes I begin talking to her like I’m writing one of my articles, going on and on about a point I’m trying to make.

Having it said straight to my face, even if by a fictional character, dropped me into reality with a painful thud.

Into the truth of what it meant to be a ‘senior citizen’. Especially when your children begin to exercise control over you.

This is common even in societies like ours, despite the fact that we don’t send off our parents to old age homes. The way we look askance at elderly women wanting to wear jewelry and make-up. At elderly women wanting to enjoy life beyond just grandchildren. The way we expect the elderly to have no dreams and desires, no need for enjoyment and revelry— no need for anything more than a prayer room.

Hope and Faith are ‘punished’ by Lorraine, the young warden, for ‘flouting her authority’ and going off on their own. She restricts them to the confines of the Home the next time everyone else is taken on an outing. A greater humiliation, one that hit badly where it hurt. It hit their desire and their one chance to be out in the world, even if for a day.

And then, something beautiful happens. Faith’s young friend Chris, who is a helper at the old age home, decides to bring the world ‘in’ if they can’t go out into it. He makes a beach ‘setting’ for them right inside the Home.  He hands them glossy travel magazines with mesmerising pictures and makes them sit with their backs to the window, so that the wind ruffles their hair like it would do on an actual beach. Then he lights scented candles on the sideboard, and all over the walls of the room Chris puts up posters of beautiful islands, “islands seen from the air like flamenco dancers shaking their skirts; bare-chested, beautiful young men standing hip-deep among green vines.”  And then, much to Faith’s surprise, she begins to actually hear the ocean. 

“Now I could hear it; the soft hissh of water with a throatful of stones. Behind it, a burr of crickets, above me, the wind.”

How?

Because Chris has turned on a recording of ocean sounds in the Lounge recorder! He then proceeds to complete their experience by dipping Hope’s feet in a tub of water and pebbles, like one finds on a beach, and Faith’s in a tub of sand, “soft, dry, powdery sand that tickled my toes and made small crunching noises in my insteps.” He brings them tiny bits of “forbidden” delicacies to celebrate, and plays the piano for a long time until they nod off peacefully in their chairs, with the ocean whispering in their ears like Nature’s lullaby.

It’s remarkable what one can do with love and empathy and a little bit of imagination.

The story ends with these lines that tug at your heartstrings long, long after you’ve finished reading. “We went to bed early, Hope to smell the candles that Chris slipped in her bedside drawer, and I to read my brochures and dream of orange groves and strawberry daiquiries and plane rides and yachts,” says Faith. “Next week we can try Greece, I think. Or the Bahamas; Australia; Paris; New York… as Hope always says, travel broadens the mind.”

Faith and Hope never left my heart once I became acquainted with them. They made me see, for the first time, what it was like to grow old and fragile, after you’ve been young and strong. They made me also see how it’s easy, when you’re young and full of self-importance, to be dismissive of the elderly, dismissive of their nostalgia and their longing for a beautiful, familiar world that is now long gone.

The story of Hope and Faith very subtly and beautifully reveals how, in caring for the elderly, what’s important is that we do not grow patronising and high handed. That love cannot be love until it is layered with patience and respect.

And also, that no matter what the body’s age, every person has a child in their heart that deserves to have some fun once in a while, a child in their heart that deserves to have the freedom to whoop with joy.

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The way you make love


(This post is the second part of the series on body awareness and answering children’s questions about intimacy.)

A person I know, once told me that when he found out ‘how babies are made’ his first thought was to be horrified and think “Oh no! My parents could never have done such a thing!”

Does this sound somewhat familiar?

————————

Gratitude.

It’s one of the most important things in life. Gratitude towards Nature, towards the Universe, towards God—however you like to think of it. And one of the most significant things we must be grateful for is this body, this home for the spirit. A precious, sacred gift, which deserves to be treated as such.

Growing up with the feeling that some parts of the body are shameful and ‘dirty’ creates associations of guilt and doubt, which has long lasting effects right into adulthood.  One of the most prominent effects of this is negative body image— inability to accept one’s body in all its natural beauty, the way that the creator crafted it. Skin colour, hair colour, height, build, features—everything. Every person is unique, beautiful in their own special way. Only when we understand the precious gift that our body is that we can come to understand this.

The second deep seated effect is felt in the expression of romantic love later on in life in the most intimate way possible.

The way that adolescents come to know of physical intimacy and lovemaking plays a very crucial part in how their attitudes will shape out in the future. I think I was lucky in this respect.

Around the time that I was 12-13, I chanced upon a book that belonged to my literature-loving, extremely well-read aunt—my uncle’s wife. This book was titled: ‘So You Want To Get Married?’  The year was 1999/2000.

I had been pottering around the house, going through the many bookshelves, looking for something new to read since I had temporarily exhausted my own book haul. It was then that I decided to rifle into my aunt’s bookshelf which was actually not supposed to be accessed by me. I was not supposed to be nosing around in my uncle and aunt’s room in their absence, but as it happens, the forbidden is always exceedingly tempting and appealing. I had had my eye on her bookshelf for a while, merely because the books she read seemed new and fascinating. So as soon as I had the chance, I invaded it. I still have no idea why I picked this particular book, because of course, at the age of 13 I was not contemplating getting married at all!

I opened the book merely out of curiosity I think, and flipped through some pages. I can’t remember if I read the entire book. Perhaps not. But there are some portions that I will never forget as long as I shall live.

“How many people think of God when they are making love?” asked the book rather audaciously.

It went on to say that we do not think of divinity when we are making love, because we associate physical intimacy with shame or at best a ‘guilty pleasure’. Either we think of it as something ‘dirty’ and thereby unholy, or something associated with the pleasures of the flesh and thereby ‘worldly and materialistic’. The association of pleasure with guilt gets so deeply ingrained that it prevents us from finding the sacred within.

On the contrary, there is no better way to experience divinity than through love.

Later, when I delved into the Islamic understanding of lovemaking, what I found was quite the same. Lovemaking with your sacred partner is defined as an act of worship, an act of piety –bringing you closer to God. In the end, though, the most important thing is ‘intention’. It is what’s in your heart that matters. The way that you approach intimacy will determine what it becomes.

“The way you make love is the way God shall be with you,” said Maulana Jalal Ad-Din Mohammad, better known as Rumi.

When two souls are so merged with each other, so in sync with each other that every fibre of their being connects at a sacred level, when what they share in that moment is not superficial but profound and mystical, that is when it connects both of them to the higher self, the spirit that pervades the entire cosmos. In this transcendental view of love, the physical becomes so deeply fused with the emotional and the spiritual that it rips apart the element of shame, moves far beyond mere reproductive function and also beyond the shallow realm of ‘fun’ and ‘enjoyment’.

Let me reiterate. Pleasure, joy and fulfilment are different from recreation and fun. The ocean is the same, but the surface scarcely resembles the depths, in terms of all the treasures it holds within. Those who are skimming the surface haven’t the faintest idea about the great wonders ensconced in the depths.

About a year ago, I was having a conversation with a very learned and wise elderly person, a septuagenarian who reminds me always of my mother’s father. He and I were discussing religion. And this is what he said to me: “God can only truly be experienced through love.” And then he went on to say how important it is to let our children know that they were brought into this world through an act of love—love as ordained by God.

But how often do our children get to hear that? How often does it happen that adolescents are introduced to the concept of physical intimacy in such a mystical, spiritual and profound manner?

This reminds me of an anecdote. A person I know once told me that when he came to know about ‘how babies are made’ his first thought was to be horrified and think “Oh no! My parents couldn’t have done such a thing! That’s so wrong!”

We’ve all somehow been conditioned in such a way that our first reaction to the idea of physical intimacy is to view it as ‘wrong’. Like an awful secret. And why does that happen? Because it involves parts of your body which, since childhood, have been associated with dirt and shame in your mind. So how could you ever associate something that involves those ‘awful, dirty’ parts of the body with any kind of spirituality and sacredness?

The idea of lovemaking as something filthy and shameful gets further perpetuated if your introduction to it is through pornography. If ever a beautiful thing in the world can get debased and brought down to the lowest level, it is the disfigurement of lovemaking through pornography. And that is why it is important for your children to get to know about lovemaking from you, and not from porn.

Think again. The person whom I just quoted said that his parents couldn’t ever ‘do such a thing’ because it’s wrong. Parents are generally, in the eyes of the child, the embodiment of all that is sacred and righteous in this world. If we were told about lovemaking by our parents, in a dignified spiritual manner, we would never think of it as something ‘shameful’ or ‘wrong’.

My son’s only 7 right now, but the day isn’t far when he would ask me about the birds and the bees. I used to dread the day and wonder how I’d tackle it, but now I feel calm. Prepared. No, I am not going to sit him down and give him a talk. I will let him come to me with his questions—the way he always does, knowing that I would never shut him up. And when he comes, I won’t tell him just about reproduction, but about love. That every person on this earth was crafted through an act of love— love as ordained by God.

(While also hoping fervently that the details have been covered by the biology teacher in school. Give me a break, okay? I’m a MOM.)

Jokes apart, though, I really would tell him about the sacredness and beauty that one experiences – while also, significantly, emphasising that it is an expression of love meant only for adults. Just as there is an age for studying everything, and you cannot cover your high school syllabus in third standard, or do your PhD in high school, there is an age and a level for expressing love in a certain manner as well.  

And because I adhere to a certain belief system, I would tell him that this expression of love must be reserved for the person whom he decides to spend his entire life with – his sacred wedded partner. Not necessarily because of sin, but because turning lovemaking into something casual would completely hollow it of its beauty. Oneness and divinity through love cannot be experienced if it is restricted to the shallow realm of ‘fun’. You must delve into the depths and for that to manifest, you need to wait for that one soul who shall be completely in sync with you.

(However, that brings us to the important concept that marriage alone is no sanction for sex. It is imperative to learn the importance of consent and mutual respect, of understanding and caring for each other’s wishes and desires. And all this shall be the subject of the next blog post.)

Perhaps my ideas are outmoded and old-fashioned. But then the idea of spirituality and God is also outmoded in the eyes of many. You don’t have to agree with me. All you have to do is hear me out. Ready? Thank you.

So now that things are coming back to me as I write, I just remembered that I accidentally watched Shahrukh Khan’s ‘Maya Memsaab’ movie on TV, in the same year but just a few months before I came across that book of my aunt’s. The reason I was watching that movie was that I was a Shahrukh-obsessed 12 year old and little could I have known that a Shahrukh Khan movie might have ‘forbidden’ scenes in it. (And it was on TV in the late 1990s.) I still remember that neon-drenched, awfully cinematised, horrid scene from the movie, which shocked the bejesus out of me and for days I went around horrified, thinking, “No way on earth is this ever going to be something I do!”

And then a few months later, God sent me that book to read (or so I’d like to believe) so I could see things in a magnificent, pristine light. See what a difference it makes!

The child does not need to be told that there are parts of him or her that are dirty. What the child needs instead, is to understand that the body is sacred, beautiful—a gift from God. The reason we cover it is not because we are ashamed of it, but because it is deeply personal and private and, quite like the deepest of our feelings, we reveal it only in the presence of special people instead of sharing it with strangers.

And yes, every child – or adolescent or teen – deserves to believe in magic.

In the infinite magic of love.

An enquiry into breasts


{This is the first part of a two-post series on how making children aware of their bodies, without guilt and shame, helps in the formation of healthy attitudes and beautiful relationships in adulthood.}

All they’re looking for are answers they can understand in uncomplicated ways and make sense of this huge confusing world

Two years and six months ago my son came up and tugged at my T-shirt and, with all the curiosity of a four year old, pointed to a certain body part and asked, “Mumma, what are these? Why do you have them and Baba doesn’t?”

I would have been caught entirely unawares if I hadn’t been reading voraciously about child psychology and concepts of body awareness, right from the time that little H was tumbling around in my womb. If I hadn’t been thinking deeply all these years about the best ways to be a communicative mother, the kind of mother whose child never has to think twice about opening up to her. Having done all this thinking much in advance, I wasn’t flustered. I was calm.

“This is a body part, honey. Like any other. Like the arms, legs, stomach, back, neck. These are breasts. Parts of the body.”

“Why doesn’t baba have them?”

“Because he’s a man, sweetheart. Men and women have some differences in body parts. Baba has a beard, but Mumma doesn’t—right? Lions have manes but lionesses don’t. Peacocks have long tails but peahens don’t. There are some body parts that are specific to males, while others are specific to females.”

He beamed at me, then. And promptly went back to his toys.

He had understood.

No shame, no embarrassment, no humming and hawing. Children are not looking for us to heap our own mental blocks upon them. All they’re looking for are answers they can understand in simple, uncomplicated ways and make sense of this huge confusing world that they’re still very new to.

One year after this incident, it so happened that my sister was visiting us at my place. I’d brought a pile of freshly dried laundry into the room and dumped it onto the bed. I had made a habit of asking little H to help me out with folding the laundry—smaller clothes like his own T-shirts or handkerchiefs or hand towels. And he used to be very happy doing it. Now while we were doing all this, little H happened to come across an undergarment of his mother’s. A brassiere.

He held it out in the most normal way, but in a split second my sister snatched it from his hand, muttering embarrassedly: “Hain, hain!” (Which is the Hindi equivalent, loosely, of a mild reprimand.) I knew exactly what had happened here.

Given the highly sexualised image of women’s undergarments in our society, leading to a whole lot of shame and taboos being associated with them, ‘boys’ and ‘men’ are not supposed to see women’s undergarments. (The same rules however, do not apply to men’s underwear. Women can even wash men’s undergarments. The sheer hypocrisy of it!)

My sister was merely doing what we had always seen around us. Preventing the boy from seeing something that would ‘pollute’ him perhaps.

I came around calmly, and picked up the brassiere.

“It’s okay, he’s only handing it to me,” I addressed my sister, while my son looked on, decidedly confused about why he’d been reprimanded. “It’s just an undergarment you know, like a baniyan—a vest.” I was addressing my sister but speaking in the tones I would use to speak to my son. My words were intended for him, of course. “Baba wears a baniyan, a vest, because he’s a man. Mumma wears a brassiere because she’s a woman. It’s just the female version of a baniyan.”

And then very normally, I folded the garment and put it away in my wardrobe. Very, very normal.

No shame, no embarrassment.

Our bodies aren’t minefields of shame. No child of mine is going to grow up with that attitude.

My sister gazed extremely proudly at me and smiled. “You’re an awesome mom!”

I laughed and hugged her gratefully.

Just about six months ago, I was discussing with another adult about mother’s milk and the difficulties of breastfeeding in certain cases. My boy who was now six years old immediately came up to me with a flurry of questions: “How, mumma? How does the mother feed her own milk to the child? What is mother’s milk? Where does it come from?”

This time I was caught unawares. I burst into nervous laughter… a bit amused by his innocence but also jittery about the right way to answer this. I was, however, also acutely aware that it was crucial for me to answer this in a normal, matter of fact way, without attaching embarrassment to it.

I pulled him into my lap and said, “When the mumma gives birth to a little baby, God sends milk into her breasts. The baby does not have teeth to chew and cannot eat with his hands. So the mumma takes him into her arms and feeds him from her breast.  That is how God provides food to the little ones.”

Rather mystified, he took a moment to digest this information while staring at my face. (While I mulled over the fact that he wouldn’t have been quite so mystified had we decided to have another baby.)

“You know it’s somewhat like our cat in Aligarh feeding her kittens,” I added helpfully. “You’ve seen that, right?” Recognition gleamed in his eyes. He understood then, I think.

Yesterday as I was changing his clothes, little H looked up curiously at me while I slipped his T-shirt on his head, and pointed to his own chest this time. “What are these called, mumma?”

I sighed inwardly. Here we go again.

“Nipples. They’re called nipples.”

“Okay… and what are the other nipples?”

I was a bit confused but soon realised he meant the silicone ones that baby feeders have.

Yup. Here we go again.

“Well, you know how God sends down milk in mothers’ breasts for little babies, right? But sometimes babies have to be fed from bottles. So the bottles have nipples to let the babies feed in the natural way.”

Understanding gleams in 6-year-old eyes again. And off he goes to play.

I allow myself to sigh loudly.

It becomes difficult, sometimes, to have an answer ready at all times for all questions in a way that is age appropriate and does not induce feelings of shame. Especially for a small town woman like me who was never explained things in this manner.

But I don’t want my son to grow up with taboos about body parts— associate shame with underwear or the parts that are covered by it. I want him, as he grows up, to slowly understand the concept of privacy, the need for certain things to be merely private, not shameful.

There are parts of our selves—not just of our body, but parts of our soul, our mind and even our heart—that we’d like to keep to ourselves or share only with some specific people whom we deeply love. We would not want to reveal them to the whole world at large. That does not, in any way, indicate that we are ashamed or embarrassed of them. There are certain acts we would prefer to indulge in privately, without the intrusion and assault of prying eyes. Acts such as breastfeeding. Or making love. That does not, in any way, indicate that the acts themselves are shameful.

Privacy needs to be delinked from shame.

Our bodies are sacred, beautiful — and normal. It is only when children learn to embrace and accept this, can they grow towards forming fulfilling and healthy relationships as adults.

(To be continued in the second part.)

Happy Father’s Day, across worlds


The last time I visited my father was in March this year. I was in Allahabad to attend my cousin’s wedding.

I was visiting him after 6 years. There was much to say.

When I visit my father, I prefer being alone. Because not everyone understands the depth and significance of father-daughter conversations. Especially when one of us lies beneath the earth.

Even if they do understand, I still prefer being alone. So I can have a heart to heart conversation.

The last time I came here, I insisted upon my mother, sister and husband leaving me alone at the grave, and going on ahead to the adjacent mosque without me. My mother protested—she couldn’t fathom this at all—but my sister who understands me better than my mother, and can deal more firmly with our mom, insisted on leading her away.

I don’t think I spoke to him at all then. The tears wouldn’t stop long enough for me to speak. I sat and cried to my heart’s content, if one could call it that. I hadn’t ever properly cried for my father, I think.

I was 9 when he passed away. It was a car accident. We were all in the car, traveling at night. It was an Ambassador, the car given to civil servants, with the driver behind the wheel, a gunner and an orderly sitting beside the driver on the long front seat of the car. Our family of four sat in the back.

I was asleep when the truck rammed into our Ambassador and made short work of it.

I remember nothing. All I know now is by hearing other people’s accounts—my mother’s and the driver’s.

In the hospital, I was in and out of consciousness for about 3 days while my injuries were taken care of. Upon asking repeatedly about my father I was told that his condition was far more critical than ours and he had therefore been taken to Delhi for treatment. Meerut being barely a couple of hours away from Delhi, I began to insist on being taken to him. Which is when I was told that he had a critical head injury and had to be whisked away to the US for treatment.

The United States of America was far enough to put an end to my insistence.

But for the next couple of months, after I got home from the hospital, I would be found mostly hovering around the telephone, hoping to get that one awaited call. The one call telling us that he was better and would now be coming back.

The constant stream of friends and relatives offering their condolences were told, with sharp nods and winks, not to mention my father’s passing in my presence. And yet there was something… an air of stifled secrets… somehow always on the verge of splitting at the seams and giving themselves away. I was beginning to suspect.

Two months later I finally found out, quite by accident, when I overheard my mother discussing things with her father. It wasn’t a shock. I knew already, almost. It was just a confirmation.

Perhaps the two month gap of finding him gone and waiting—with some glimmer of hope—softened the blow. Or perhaps, a 9 year old doesn’t really grasp the reality of death.

The gravity of it. The extent of it.

The enormity of it.

I don’t think I cried much for my father then. There was no format or structure available to cry for him. I hadn’t even attended his funeral.

The earliest tears I remember happened when a person from the household staff spoke of Papa’s funeral to me. Of him being carried on a state plane to Allahabad. Of him getting an official send-off with guns and other paraphernalia.

Of my father in a white shroud.

My mother was furious with the man for telling me all this.

On hindsight, I am grateful I never got to attend his funeral. That is not an image of him I’d have wanted to live with. The image I have now is the one that’s best suited to his memory. Impeccably dressed as always, handsome and splendid and cheerful, with his booming, infectious laugh. Opening his arms to me and sweeping me up every time I rushed towards him, even when I was 9. Lighting up any room by his mere presence. That’s the man I remember.

There was no crying for him then. The crying came in intermittent bursts over the years, when the enormity of death began to sink in, year by year. Crying while reading a book that reminded me of him. Crying while watching old videos of my birthday parties. Crying while listening to old casettes of nauhas that were recited in my ancestral home. Crying while listening to poetry.

Trying not to cry when looking at a friend’s father reminded me of what I didn’t have. Trying not to cry when I brought home medals and awards.

I’ve been grieving backwards for two decades now; grieving with heightened intensity as time takes me farther away. The chronology of grief is strangely fashioned. The more time passes, the deeper it takes root.

The first time I visited my father as a grown up, the crying was still not proper. It was of the choking, surreptitious kind, the kind that you wish to hide from others—the kind that is so private you do not want people to see. The involuntary, incessant flow of tears like blood flowing ceaselessly from a gaping wound. I wanted to stay back and ask the others to leave. I couldn’t.

The second time around, I had come prepared. Prepared to weep. Prepared to grieve. To be alone and cry. Which is just what I did, caressing the earth of his grave with my palms.

And now, this time, this year, I had known again what it was I wanted to do. I wanted to talk to him now. Tell him of the things I held inside. A dear friend had told me recently about how he visited his grandparents’ graves and sat and conversed with them, speaking to them of all that he held within his heart. Instantaneously, I knew that this was also what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to my father and talk to him. The way I would always have talked. The way I had not been able to, for 20 long years.

And then I did.

Sending the others ahead into the mosque I sat once more beside him. And talked to him like I hadn’t talked in two decades.

I complained to him of my mom. Huffily telling him how difficult it was getting to reason with her and how much more stubborn she was now than when she had been with him. Told him of the wedding and the festivities. Of how everyone was. What they were doing in life. Who had how many kids. Where everyone was. Who missed him the most.

About my son and how he loved hearing about Nana.

About my book that I was working on. My articles. My travels. My successes and my failures.

The innermost crevices of my heart.

Somewhere along the way, the tears came back. I put my palms upon his feet.

Suddenly I felt very tired. Weary of the world. Of life. I was overcome by a desire to lie down right there, right next to the earth upon his grave. Lie down like I needed rest, and put my arm over him.

I looked around to see if the graveyard was empty. It wasn’t.

There were a few men standing and talking in the distance. They’d easily spot me lying down within the rectangular boundary of the grave and most likely think that I’d become possessed by some djinn or evil spirit. Most unhelpful.

I sighed. Maybe next time, then.

Kissed my fingertips and placed them upon him.

Until next time, Papa. Always in my heart.

——————————————-

Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers and daughters, sons whose bond transcends worlds and survives even death.

To Sanity… and Beyond!


If you’ve grown up in the nineties, you’d know that I ripped off the title of this post from Buzz Lightyear’s immensely memorable line: “To Infinity and Beyond!”

For the mother of a little boy, sanity is a lot like infinity. Undefined, blurred at the margins… always tantalisingly calling out … and always a little beyond reach.

It’s something you’re always aspiring for, never able to attain. Except that as your child grows older, it feels less unattainable.

The kid is almost 7 now, and lately I’ve been feeling a lot saner. For over five long years we’ve had daily—and I mean daily—battles over brushing teeth (both morning and evening) and washing face with baby soap or face wash or anything other than water.  Every single day for almost 6 years, 365 days a year, my mornings began with battle cries and tiny foot stomps and failed negotiations and failed reasoning and explanations and in general every day started off with a black mood. Insanity and more insanity.

And now, two episodes happened that suddenly made our mornings amazingly smooth, because kiddo meekly goes and brushes his teeth without even being told to, and washes his face carefully with baby soap. No battles whatsoever. Zero. Zilch. Whew!

What happened? Two awful things. Kid got a terrible skin infection with sores on the face and had to take antibiotics along with local application of ointments, and was told by the doctor that he hadn’t been keeping his face clean enough. I glanced at him, half agonised at his predicament and half I-told-you-so. The infection went away soon, thanks heavens, but it left something important in its wake: a lesson.

The second thing was a cavity in one of the teeth, and no, I’m a very strict mom when it comes to chocolates and junk food. Nevertheless, the dentist informed him gently that he’d probably missed brushing his teeth quite a few times, which is when the bacteria attacked. And this was true. He would miss the night brushing quite often simply because I used to be exhausted with the constant fighting and give in. Thankfully, these are just his milk teeth and will be replaced by the permanent set anyway, and a filling is all it took. But as with the other case, what was left behind was more important. The lesson.

(I was actually apprehensive writing about this bit, because I would immediately be judged for being a bad mom or a neglectful one. However, now that I look back at my childhood, I got measles around the age of 6 and I too had a cavity by the age of 7—despite not being the candy chewing kid at all—and no, my mom wasn’t a neglectful one at all. More of the constantly anxious, helicopter variety of parent. Do I think she didn’t do a good enough job of bringing me up? Do any of us ever think our moms didn’t do a swell job of raising us? My point exactly. Every mother is doing her best.)

So just like that, within a month, two of my daily battles were won.

But the battles were won at a cost to the child (and therefore to the mother as well). The child had to suffer—and I use the word suffer in a loose, relative sense because suffering for a child is completely different from ‘suffering’ as it’s meant for adults. The smallest grief to a child becomes as great as ‘suffering’, simply because his capacity to take it is far less. Compared to what he can hold, the pain is far greater. And that is why, as we grow older, our sufferings increase in size— because our capacity to take them also multiplies, bit by tiny bit of pain.

From what Khalil Gibran said, that should also mean a proportionate increase in our capacity to hold joy: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can hold.” But that strangely doesn’t occur, does it? The child seems to have a much greater capacity for joy than the adult. Perhaps… perhaps that happens because we begin to shut ourselves off to joy, for fear of the pain that comes alongside. Perhaps. Who knows?

Pain is a good teacher. It helps you understand things far easier than all the logic and science and reasoning in the world. That, at least, is what I’ve concluded, having watched my son transform almost overnight.

So yes, I’m a saner mom now. And every day when little H snuggles in my arms at night, (yes, he still sleeps in our bed and yes, I’m a total sucker) I feel fortunate and overflowing with love. It’s a simple, uncomplicated feeling. One that I’m astonished to feel, given the sort of conflicted mom I’ve always been. It makes me see how the world goes on and on about the ‘bliss of motherhood’. Just took me longer to experience it. A WHOLE lot longer.

Or maybe, it was just pain carving into my being, enabling me to hold a lot more joy.

I suppose things will get easier from here onwards. But who knows? I may yet be carved further. For the moment though, I’ll just keep moving ahead steadfastly like Buzz Lightyear, believing I can reach the unreachable.

To sanity… and beyond !

In life and in death


The first post of the New Year. I’ve been wanting to write this for quite some time now, and I wanted this post to be about love.

As it happens, though, this post is about death.

Today morning, the first message I saw on my phone opened all by itself. I picked up the phone to check the time, but what appeared on the screen was this message instead. It was from a religious site called Ali-Walay. I get messages every day from them, but I think I almost never check these.

My relationship with religion can best be defined, in Facebook terms, as: ‘It’s complicated.’

Religion has been my refuge and my anchor, but it’s also been my anguish and my conflict. I have been both consoled by it and tormented by it. It is my sanctum sanctorum, my ‘safe space’ in this world—the place I go to when I feel ambushed and weary and defeated and lost. The place I seek solace in, like a mother’s lap. Or more appropriately in my case, like a father’s arms, for my mother says I never called out to her whenever I fell down— I always called out to my father.

I find my solace in prayer, in abiding by the guidelines of the illuminated path. But also constantly keep pushing against it, trying all the while to evaluate and test the boundaries, seeking the truth of what has actually been revealed, attempting to sift from what has merely been passed down as a filtered narrow version. It reminds me a little of the 6 year old headstrong son of mine, how he keeps questioning every word I say, probing and probing and pushing against the boundaries until he is absolutely convinced. It doesn’t, in any way, lessen his love for me, or the comfort he finds in my embrace.

So too it is with me and faith. A constant symphony of solace and angst, a choreography of embracing and withdrawing.

Tending more towards a gentler spirituality than a strict religiosity, I have strived hard, often maddeningly and torturously, to find a balance wherein I can be religious without being restrictive, and try, at least try, to be moral (somewhat, I suppose, though that’s not for me to say) without being judgemental, attempting to stay rooted while remaining open to the world.  How far I have succeeded, I cannot say, because it is an endless, infinite journey, never a destination. The ultimate destination and the moment of evaluation can only ever be death.

Which brings me back to the message that manifested before me today. I say manifested, because it appeared suddenly without any attempt on my part to read it, or even to open my WhatsApp. I just unlocked my phone, and there it was, staring at me.

“What is the first thing to be snatched from me when I die?” said the message, which was in Urdu. “It is my name.”

“For when I die, people will not ask where I am, but they will ask, where is the laash (corpse)? They will not call me by my name!
When they read my namaz e janazah (funeral prayer for the departed) they will not ask where I am, they will ask where is the janazah (dead body)? They will not take my name!
And when it’s time to bury me, they will say, bring the mayyat closer! No one will take my name!”

The lines struck my heart. Not because it was something I’d never thought of, but because it was something I’d always thought of. The first time being in 2010. My second rendezvous with death, the first of course being my father’s.

This second death was the death of a college-time friend. She wasn’t my best friend or anything, and in a sense we weren’t very close. We’d been in the same school though and even shared our last names. But it was actually in college that we attended an inter-varsity workshop in Naintial together, and stayed in the same room for a few days—even ending up having a fight—which ultimately brought us closer to each other. Or at least, I felt closer to her. Later we would sit together sometimes and share some very personal things.

Ima, for that was her name, departed from the world in November 2010, a month after my wedding. The news of her death reached me, ironically, as I was watching my wedding video with the entire family. It was a great shock.

Vivacious, energetic, a brilliant mind and a kind heart. Devil-may-care attitude and a desire to live life to the fullest. Her passing seemed a travesty of life itself. It felt like a personal brush with death to me, as in the case of my father. Ironically, just like my Papa, Ima too passed away in a car accident—wrenched forcefully from life.

The day that she was flown in from Bangalore to Aligarh for the funeral, I was at my in-laws house, about to get ready for a community celebration. I was picking out my clothes when I overheard my mother in law on the phone with someone, saying, “The body will be here around 4 p.m.”

Body!

A sharp stab of pain pierced my heart to hear of my friend being referred to as a body!

Is the physical manifestation of a person so unimportant, that as soon as he or she ceases to be ‘alive’, they become merely a body? Where does this thought arise from? Is it because only the spirit is important, only the spirit that is the truth of the person? Or is it because we are afraid of death, of the cold pallor it spreads upon the ones it claims, of the perennial stiffness and silence it brings in its wake? We are made so uncomfortable by death that we distance ourselves from the ones claimed by it—we relegate them to the status of a body, an impersonal, indifferent description, proclaiming tacitly that we have nothing to do with this physical manifestation that has been claimed by death. Distancing ourselves from the person, thereby distancing ourselves from death. The spirit, pure and indestructible, belonged to our realm—the realm of the living—and this body, weak and easily overpowered, bears no affinity to us.

Our rejection of the earthly, physical self of those we love hides in itself an inherent fear of death. We do not want to associate ourselves with it.

And yet, for as long as I can remember, I have never once referred to a loved one as a body. Even when they’re in their final abode, hidden beneath the earth.

For many, many years after his passing, I never even spoke of my father in the past tense, preferring always to say, “My father is this,” or “My father does this.” Never was. Never did. Because he is forever living, a constant presence in my life. I refused to allow ‘Late’ to be written before his name even in my wedding card, as is usually done. To my family, I explained it thus: “Those who know he has departed, don’t need to be told. And those who don’t know, don’t need to be told either. He is here, and will always be.”

Even now, when I speak to my husband about going to Allahabad, I always say. “It’s been so long. I have to go to Papa.” Or “We need to go to Papa soon.”

He was, is and will always be my Papa. In life and in death. Forever mine.

When my dearly beloved grandfather passed away, I winced every time people referred to his ‘body’ being given the ritual funeral bath. I winced when people called out: put the ‘body’ here on the bed. Why, oh why! He is a person! He has a name. Not half an hour ago you were all calling him by his name. How dare you call him a body! Watching my kind, gentle, pure-hearted, poetry-loving grandfather who was always so full of life, being carried away to his abode beneath the earth was perhaps the saddest, most deeply grievous moment of my life. Watching his face get covered by the white cloth of the kafan, hearing the marsiyekhaans of Jalali recite the heart-rending elegies of Imam Husain as we stood around Baba and wept with loud wails, watching the khaake shifa on his closed eyes…they are all the saddest moments of my life. And yet! There was such tenderness in his death, an inexplicable gentleness that was perhaps a remnant of the kindness pervading his soul.

He was my grandfather, my beloved Baba even in the shroud. Even on the shoulders of the men of the family. Even in the van that carried him away. He is my Baba, even in his final resting place. Never was he a body to me and never shall he ever be.

For I am not repulsed by death. It does not frighten me. My love is not restricted to the land of the living, for death is merely a passage. And beyond death lies the truth, the land of the forever living.

A person is always a person, whether walking upon the earth or hidden beneath it.

The ones we’ve loved deeply and truly cannot be reduced to mere bodies, just because we cannot watch them walk or hear them talk, just because we cannot hear their heart beat anymore, just because we cannot see them breathing in and out. They were and will be people, real people, in life and in death, forever ours.

I suppose I did end up writing about love, though, for love encompasses death and moves with it, beyond it, all around it.

Even the Taj Mahal, a monument to eternal love is, after all, a mausoleum.

Reclaiming Fairy tales


New Age Fairytales

Fairy tales have never had it as bad as they do in recent times. But they’ve never got it quite as good either.

They’ve been receiving a bad rap for promoting stereotypes among little girls—persisting in upholding the idea of the damsel in distress, waiting for a prince to rescue her— and with good reason. For times have changed and the stories we tell our children need to change as well. The good part, though, is that instead of discarding them altogether, writers, especially young writers, are reclaiming the fairytale. The fantasy, the magic, even the love— transforming and adapting to a new world.

One such reclamation is ‘New Age Fairy Tales’, a book of short stories published by The Write Place, written and illustrated by teenage author Ariana Gupta. The book comes accompanied with a jigsaw puzzle too, featuring all the heroines from the cover. All of 16, Ariana has not just adapted the timeless tales of The Little Mermaid, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, to the world she lives in and the world she wishes to see, but has also given them a distinctly Indian flavour—with the dauntless heroines sporting sarees and lehengas and bindis!

And Ariana has the freshest take on all these fairytales; certainly not your usual predictable fare. So for instance, Cinderella is not the poor orphan forced to do housework day and night, but the career girl forced by her boss to do double the work at half the pay her male colleagues are given! What’s worse, her contribution is never acknowledged and her unique ideas for the company get appropriated by the boss. So, how does Cinderella get to the grand official ‘ball’ where the new owner would be chosen, and present her ideas as her own? That’s for you to find out!

Then there’s Snow White who takes colourism head on. Instead of merely doing a binary retake and pitting Black against White, the author transforms Snow White into a breathtakingly unique creature altogether, with a face that’s a multi-hued shimmering canvas of all the shades of skin there can be! Now that’s a real fairy tale.

Most importantly, though, the book also reclaims other female characters from the stories. The witch in The Little Mermaid, for instance, instead of being a conniving creature, becomes an advisor and a guide, helping the Mermaid understand how love does not ask you to give up your selfhood. The Evil Queen in Snow White isn’t evil at all, but a caring step-mother. Despite that, her love is typically rooted in tradition, making her the very portrait of an Indian mother—forever trying to find cures for her daughter’s unique skin, forever trying to make her fair!

The stories are refreshing and delightful, not just for children but also the mothers out there. They make you chuckle and nod, and they take you by surprise.

And lest you think the men are all missing, there are positive male characters as well. And that’s important, for our society is unfortunately going through a bit of ‘feminism fatigue’. People look askance at gender rights advocates, and conversations are beginning to reflect alarm and concern at ‘men being alienated’. So people begin to predict what a ‘New age’ fairy tale would perhaps look like—wiping out the men from the scene and vilifying them, which would just be sexism in another form, truth be told. But that’s not the case here.

Prince Charming helps Cinderella in her ultimate goal, but the goal isn’t merely marriage, and one doesn’t necessarily need to be in love to help out a friend in need. A very important message for children, there.

Beauty’s Beast doesn’t morph into a handsome Prince but she loves him nonetheless, for his beautiful mind and for being supportive of her scientific research, for being a person with a golden heart who does not see her merely as a superficial ‘Beauty’ but stands by the love of his life in her intellectual pursuits. Now that’s the kind of love story I would want not just my daughter to read, but my son as well. So that he knows that being handsome is not enough (or even necessary) to be a good partner for someone, unless you are kind and smart and supportive and caring as well. And also, that the person who loves you will not love you for something as superficial as your looks.

While on the subject of sons, though, there is one flaw in the book that needs correcting—and I speak from experience as the mother of a young child. As you turn the cover of the book and come to the very first page, here’s what you find written: “For Little Girls With Big Dreams.”

My 6-year-old son, whom I am doing my best to bring up with an understanding of gender equality and respect for all humanity, was quite excited to see the book when I tore off the envelope that enclosed it. He opened it eagerly because he loves a good story and has not been taught to be prejudiced against things that are apparently “girls’ stuff.” But then he turned the page and saw that it was meant to be a book for “little girls with big dreams.” And he put it back down.

“This is a book only for girls,” he said. I tried to convince him otherwise, by pointing out the other books that had male protagonists in them, but were read by girls as well—Harry Potter being an excellent example. I didn’t succeed too much, though. And learnt something myself in the process.

Stories with girls and women need not be positioned and marketed as only for girls and women—in the same way that stories with boys are not positioned only for boys. Fairy tales are for children, regardless of their gender. Boys need to know about girls and girls need to know about boys. Men need to understand women and women need to understand men. And if we don’t read about and listen to each other’s perspectives, how do we begin to understand each other?

The entire point of reclaiming the fairy tale is to spin a new narrative and set in motion the process of building a more balanced world. A world where both genders can thrive, where all colours are beautiful, and where a relationship isn’t a competition of dominance, but a picture of all-embracing love.

That’s when we all live happily ever after.