Zehra Naqvi is an author, journalist and columnist, whose articles have been published in Indian Express, Reader’s Digest, The Hindu, Financial Chronicle, Women’s Web and Child Magazine. She writes on gender, social issues, literature, heritage, culture and parenting.
Her memoir 'The Reluctant Mother: A Story No One Wants To Tell' is being published by Hay House.
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.
I wrote this letter atop the upper berth of a carriage in the Prayagraj Express, en route to Delhi from Allahabad. I was about to fall asleep on my train berth. I felt cold and drew my blanket over my head, and then idly wondered if I might suffocate and be found dead by morning. Passed away peacefully in my sleep.
That sounds like a nice way to die, peacefully in one’s sleep. Inside a blanket. On a nice little train berth, pleasantly air conditioned, rocking gently to and fro like a cradle, snuggled inside a soft sky blue blanket.
And as I thought this I wondered what I’d like to do if it were indeed my last night in this human form?
I’d had a lovely conversation- sans argument- with my better half after a long time! Check. I’d had a tears-of-happiness conversation with my sister in the evening. Check.
But Little H.
Since he and his cousin little S were asleep together on the berth opposite mine, I hadn’t kissed him or hugged him before sleep as I always did.
And I suddenly knew what I wanted to do if it was the last thing I did.
I wanted to write a letter to you, my son.
I think I’m just projecting myself over here, because I have always yearned to have something written by my father for me to read. I knew he was a man of letters. Of poetry. Of books and deep thoughts. I wish I could have had something with me that would help me know him better. Who he truly deeply was. His fears, his dreams, his worries, his passions. Every day of my life I keep wishing I knew him more.
But in spite of all my morbid death fantasies, I hope you never have to read this letter as my last to you.
I hope and pray that I stay alive to write you more letters. Because I know what it’s like to have only half of me alive at all times—the other half conjured up only through memory and imagination.
I don’t know who exactly I’m writing this letter to. Grown up H? Teenage H? Little H?
We can never really know who reads our letters once they’re out there, can we?
Nevertheless, here’s my letter to you, my son, whenever you get to read it.
Little H, I don’t worry about you, because I see you’re a fine little man already. You’re thoughtful, sensitive, independent. You have the sprouts of universal love in you. You’re truthful and understand the meaning of justice and compassion.
You’ll grow up to be a fine man.
I don’t want to tell you who you should be. All I want is for you to be a good human being. What you do with your gifts is up to you.
And you have many gifts: you love animals and birds and insects and trees and flowers. The natural world excites you endlessly. You love automobiles and machinery – cars, trucks, planes, bikes and their functioning. You love listening to me recite my poetry to my mother although you don’t understand a word of it. You like flipping through my thick books and sometimes make me read from them to you, just because you want to share what Mumma was reading. You have many gifts, dear heart. Life will show you the way and help you discover them as you grow and evolve.
What I do worry about is that there are too many patriarchal systems around you, woven in inextricable ways that undo all the tapestries of equity and gender justice that I try and weave around you.
I do know that I would be very unhappy if a son of mine grew up to be a man who does not think of women as his equals, as people who have the same rights as him, and who deserve the same opportunities as him, whatever differences there may be in physiology. Be the man who considers women and men as equals, my son, but also the man who understands the differences between sexes and the struggles emanating from them.
For it is important to stress that equality does not mean similarity.
Two people may be very different in skin colour, hair colour, eye colour, nose shape, mouth shape, body structure and so on, but they’re still entitled to being treated as equals- in opportunity, in law and in life. In humanity. People confuse equality with sameness. But being equal doesn’t mean being the same.
Equality is the right to being treated as equals despite all the diversity and differences that exists among human beings.
I would be very sad if you did not grow up to respect women. If you saw the privilege that you had as a man and felt smug and entitled about it- instead of feeling that this privilege came to you at a cost to someone else, and knowing that the onus was on you to correct this skewed reality. Knowing that the onus was on you to take enabling action, which allows someone else to flourish and thrive along with you.
Know this, my son: being born into privilege means it is a test you inherited, to see how much of that privilege you are willing to relinquish for the sake of equality and justice in society, in the world. This applies not just across genders, but across groups that are traditionally underprivileged- financially, religiously, socially.
What will matter most is how willing are you to speak out for and support those who are marginalised, whose voices are constantly being stifled and whose presence is constantly being crushed. Nothing would make me happier than seeing you stand up and speak for the oppressed.
When in doubt, always use this mantra—look at the power structure. Where is the centre of power? Who holds the most power? Only then will you begin to understand the lay of the land, only then will you be able to understand who is being oppressed. And if you find yourself in a position of power, remember, power is only given to you to help the maximum number of people you can. That, and that alone, is the correct use of power.
Always remember this: human beings are all fallible. Do not make demi-gods out of them, do not turn your heroes into people you worship. Always be ready to ask questions and be prepared for uncomfortable answers. Humans are always looking for saviours, and from there stems our tendency to put people on pedestals and worship them. Worship no human, my son! Uphold only the principle of humanity above all else. Do not go looking for saviours. People must make efforts to save their own selves. But beyond that, try and save as many others as you can.
Always try to see things from different points of view, even though that perspective may clash with yours. Always try to understand and explore various opposing points of view, and only then make up your mind. And even then, be ready to listen and course-correct.
Happy New Year, little H. May you learn many, many new things this year, and may you grow into a man who is a paragon of knowledge, courage, compassion and fairness. Above all, fairness.
Many of you—my readers on this blog and on social media — so kindly and sweetly message me to tell me that you love how fearless I am, and that it inspires you. I feel humbled by your love.
In truth, though, I am not fearless. Nobody is fearless.
When I was 6 years old, my father, who always wanted to make his daughters bold and undaunted, put an airgun in my hand and taught me how to take aim. Then he pointed at a target he made on the wall and said- “Shoot.”
I was afraid of the gun, and the sound it made. But not once did I say ‘no’ to my father. Not once did I say: I can’t do it.
I took the gun and aimed. I hit the mark.
This is my first remembered experience of moving past fear. From that moment on, I could very easily hold the gun and shoot a target on the wall. I forgot my fear.
I learnt to drive pretty late in life, because my mother couldn’t get past her fear of road accidents- which is perfectly understandable, since she lost her husband in one of those. Ironically, she’s pretty fearless herself, but when it comes to her children she cannot get past her fear. I have felt acutely the restrictive effects of this ‘love guided by fear’ and I have consciously attempted to not love my son in this restrictive manner.
I want to love him like my father loved me- the love that makes you fearless.
When I was 7 years old, my father would make me sit on his lap while he drove his jeep, and late at night on the empty road of our government officers’ colony, he would put my little hands on the steering and ask me to steer. He had such dreams for me, so many things that he wanted me to learn.
However, I actually became a proper driver only at the age of 28. Let me rewind a little and tell you that story.
When I was 20, I decided to learn driving no matter what my mother said, and secretly asked our driver to teach me. I would make him shift to the shotgun seat and try driving to the University myself. Slowly I did learn to drive, but then I needed to practice taking the car to other places and other routes as well, and of course my mother wouldn’t let me take the car anywhere else. She was apprehensive and scared enough when she found out I was driving the car with the driver sitting beside me, and no way would she let me practice alone. So I couldn’t really brush up my driving skills.
A couple of years later, I moved to Delhi for my job, followed by marriage the next year. Being a professional in a demanding field, I hardly had any time left to learn and practice driving, and after 2 years, in 2012 I became a mother. Life gave me no space to even think about driving.
Until 2014. I was in Aligarh then, experiencing the lowest phase of my life. I decided I was going to finally learn to drive properly. Contacted the Driving Training school and began to train again. I had obviously forgotten everything I had learnt earlier. But in 15 days my training was complete and I was asked to practice daily to become an expert. And yet, just like last time, mom refused to give me access to the car. I was stuck again.
So after a few months, I contacted the training school again, and did the 15 day training yet again—I figured this was the only way I could get to practice.
When I got back to Delhi after a year, I finally had access to my own car. S, My husband, would sit beside me and I would drive around the township where we lived, while he guided me. And then one day he gave me the keys and said—now go drive on your own.
I was afraid. I was very afraid of taking the car out all alone. But I took a deep breath, and stepped past my fear. That was the day I actually began to drive.
From that day on, I drove my son to school every morning, and picked him up from school every afternoon, getting plenty of driving practice. But I still didn’t take the car far out into the city.
Until one day, a friend of mine asked me why I don’t drive to Delhi myself. I confessed to her that I was afraid.
“But it’s just like driving here, inside the township. No difference! If you can drive here, you can drive there too!”
So the next day, I drove the car for 30 kilometres. That first day, I felt my heart in my throat. I felt fear pulsating in me. But I didn’t give up.
The day didn’t go by without minor mishap, I must admit. I did graze the back bumper of another car, misjudging the distance. But I learnt and grew. From then on, every day that I drove out into the city, I learnt and I grew, driving across greater and greater distances.
Then one day I took a different route to Delhi—via the highway. The first time that I had to face huge trucks and buses honking at me angrily and coming at me like whizzing arrows. I felt fear in every pore of my body. Every nerve in my head tightened and knotted up in stress. But I gritted my teeth and told myself—I won’t let this get the better of me.
And I didn’t.
Another time, while returning from an assignment at night, I lost my way. Google maps completely betrayed me and took me all around the world (as it felt at the time!) and I was nearly choking with fear. I had no idea where I was and how I was going to get home. Relief washed in waves over me, when I finally found the way back home, stopping by the roadside or at police stations and asking for directions.
That was the day I lost the fear of being lost.
It was the day I learnt how to find alternate routes, the day I discovered that even if I got lost, I possessed the skill to navigate myself back towards the right track. In more ways than one.
Earlier this year, I tasted the metallic, pungent surface of fear in the lobby of the Max Hospital, right before I had my breast biopsy. Those moments before the biopsy, when Sajjad and I sat in the lobby of the hospital, waiting.
Fear gripped my throat, sucking it dry, and churned in the pit of my stomach.
“Game face.” I kept repeating to myself. “Game face!”
Just to prove to my fear that it would never, ever get the better of me, I asked S to take pictures of me in the hospital gown, sitting on the operating table, minutes before the biopsy needle punched into my breast. And so I was photographed—all grinning and making V for Victory signs with both hands—just before I was operated upon.
Doesn’t mean I hadn’t been afraid just two minutes earlier.
We all experience fear. The reason some of us come across as fearless is because we refuse to let fear dictate our lives. We refuse to give in to fear.
We rebel, we protest, we walk resolutely ahead.
So when you all tell me that you love my fearlessness, I want to tell you that you are fearless too. We’re all fearless, though we all feel fear.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to move beyond it.
Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning has been called a life-altering book. And yet, it did not seem so to me. I did not find it giving me something revelatory; I did not find it giving me something I had never thought of.
Instead, I found it unbelievably, utterly relatable. Close to my heart and, incredibly, strangely familiar.
I discovered, to my great surprise, that in spite of never having been imprisoned or sent to concentration camp, I was already acquainted with a significant portion of the suffering reflected in it.
It would of course be highly presumptuous of me, not to mention disrespectful, to compare my own puny suffering with that of the ones who experienced the horrors of Auschwitz.
However, suffering is universal. The ‘types and patterns of suffering’ are universal.
There are wounds that are invisible to the naked eye, wounds whose pain is known only to the one that carries them. Suffering is immeasurable, and therefore, incomparable. There are no statistical tools available to measure and compare suffering – or we would perhaps have been boasting about that too: look how much thicker or heavier my suffering is, compared to yours.
But that is not so, and therefore, suffering can only be defined from the point of view of the person who experienced it.
The fact that this book has sold over 12 million copies, and continues to sell after 7 decades of first being published, means only one thing: all of us, whether or not we have known the inside of concentration camps, have known suffering very deeply, intimately. Maybe not the same kind of suffering, but the very same patterns of suffering.
Thus I found that I had gone through all of the stages of suffering described by Frankl, and could identify with them to an alarming level.
Curiously, every one of these stages of suffering made me think of my forthcoming book, The Reluctant Mother. It made me think of the three years recorded in my book: those three years when I became a person entirely different from who I had been so far.
And that is one of the impacts of trauma upon the human mind and personality, as defined so lucidly by Frankl. Severe and chronic trauma often brings about personality changes in people, making them behave in unprecedented ways, changing them from who they were under non-traumatic circumstances. That is one of the first stages of suffering.
Then there is the moment when, arriving at the concentration camp, Frankl is stripped of everything that has ever belonged to him, including his clothes–including the manuscript of his life’s work that he hid away in those clothes. As Victor writes, he understood in that moment that he had to let go of and say goodbye to everything that had defined his entire life until that moment.
In life we sometimes face moments when we are forced to say goodbye to the dreams and ambitions we had nurtured thus far. And yet, Victor made it out of the camp. As did I make it out of my ‘camp’ and found that, after a significant period of time, life brought back my dreams and meanings to me- in newer, different forms. Just like it did for Victor.
With every word of the book, I found an echo of my own experience.
In particular, the third stage of suffering, in which you imagine freedom as a moment of great and overpowering joy, and yet, when freedom has been withheld for far too long, you lose the capacity to fully experience that joy when it does come.
As Victor wrote of the time they were liberated from the concentration camp:
We wanted to see the camp’s surroundings for the first time with the eyes of free men. “Freedom”—we repeated to ourselves, and yet we could not grasp it. We had said this word so often during all the years we dreamed about it, that it had lost its meaning. Its reality did not penetrate into our consciousness; we could not grasp the fact that freedom was ours.’
‘We had literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly.’
How well have I known this! The numb void that appears when joy and hope have been dashed to the ground, repeatedly and for so long, that when they finally appear on the horizon, you find yourself unresponsive. Vacant. Blank.
I had suffered enough to be aware of these stages, though I am no psychoanalyst or logotherapist.
At the end of my reading of Man’s Search For Meaning, I felt a great sense of peace—a sense of peace that is detached from joy, for it is possible for peace to be devoid of joy.
I felt a sense of understanding that suffering is, as Frankl says, an inevitable part of life. And that we survive only by finding meanings to it. Were it not for the meanings we seek and find in our suffering, life would often become unliveable.
And yet, survival is not, ultimately, what brings meaning to life.
‘Has all this suffering, this dying around us, a meaning?’ questioned Victor. ‘For if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival; for a life whose meaning depends upon such a happenstance—as whether one escapes or not—ultimately has no meaning at all.’
Importantly, though, Victor stresses over and over throughout the course of the book, that a person’s first response to suffering must always be to find ways to remove it. To find ways to alleviate it –whether it be the suffering of others, or his or her own self. There is no courage or glory in suffering needlessly when suffering can be removed.
However, finding meaning in suffering becomes imperative for all those kinds of circumstances that life throws at us, from which we find it impossible to escape, even after our best attempts. When we find ourselves bound inescapably to suffering. In those times, the only thing that pulls us across is the search for meaning.
That perhaps is how a person may arrive at a place of peace with all their suffering—not necessarily happy, but at peace, for all the meanings it imbues their life with. Suffering shows you how much there is to learn from life.
This realisation made me feel a tad proud of myself, too, for I did, independently and through my own reflections, discover everything that Frankl speaks of in this book, which has brought meaning to the lives of millions of people for 7 decades now.
Perhaps I can hope, with some vanity and some naivety, that my book will also give hope and bring meaning to some people, especially since it speaks of the truths that are most often silenced.
Perhaps that shall be the ultimate meaning of all my suffering.
Janice Pariat, author of Boats on Land, Seahorse and The Nine Chambered Heart, in one of her instagram posts, talks about a writer’s life as being characterized by retreat. ‘Long periods of silence. Of aloneness. Of deep listening. Of noticing seasons.’
‘A writer’s life is stark, humdrum discipline,’ she says. ‘A writer’s life, no matter how individually disparate, involves retreat. And always, resurrection.’
Those are beautiful, true words.
But in many ways, also ironic.
Silence, aloneness and retreat can very often be privileges not available to every writer. For some of us, silence and uninterrupted moments of retreat are rare. In a life punctuated by domesticity, motherhood, and myriad mundanities, this is not what being a writer looks like.
For the writer who is also a caregiver, a nurturer, the writing life is defined by working deep into the quiet of the night, exchanging the comforting arms of sleep for the enticing embrace of the muse. Snatching moments of quietude from the midst of an endless barrage of innocent young questions flying at you with the speed of curiosity. Writing inside your head while listening to an elderly parent’s complaints about their life.
This, then, is also often what the writing life looks like: surreptitiously stolen islands of solitude within a volley of sounds. The ‘immanence’ of a writing life that is punctuated by domesticity, and caring for children and the elderly – as spoken of by Simone De Beauvoir in The Second Sex.
At first, I thought this immanence was limited to the lives of women, who have to squeeze spaces and moments from life for their art.
But then I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, and realised that the immanence of mundane life, of domesticity and the demands of making a living, extends beyond the concerns of gender. It envelops every person who is either a nurturer or a provider–even if it is only for himself or herself. In other words, the person who has to make a life, while also making art.
“People don’t do this kind of thing because they have all kinds of extra time and energy for it,” writes Gilbert, ” they do this kind of thing because their creativity matters to them enough that they are willing to make all kinds of extra sacrifices for it.”
“Unless you come from landed gentry,” she adds for good measure, “everyone does it.”
Very interestingly, she gives the example of the famous Herman Melville, who wrote a ‘heartbreaking’ letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, complaining of the lack of time, and how he was pulled ‘hither and thither by circumstances.’ He longed for ‘the calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose.’
But then, Gilbert points out, Melville never got that sort of environment. Yet he somehow managed to write Moby Dick.
This is how writers find themselves forever caught in a state of immanence, surrounded by the clutter of life’s responsibilities and demands. “And yet they still persist in creating,” remarks Gilbert. “They persist because they care. They persist because they are called to be makers, by any means necessary.”
That, precisely, is how even within that immanence, we create our spaces for transcendence.
This ability is perfectly encapsulated in the Sufi understanding of Divinity.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes in his life-altering book The Garden of Truth: “The Supreme Principle is both the absolutely transcendent Reality and the absolutely immanent Self, who determines the ultimate reality of human beings, and defines what it means to be human.”
It indicates that the Divine Essence is, at all times, both immanent and transcendent — merged with the Universe and the life forms in it, yet at the same time somehow beyond it, with the universe ‘mysteriously plunged’ in it.
The writer from a family responsibilities, nurturer or provider background, then, curiously becomes a reflection of the Divine. She, or he, becomes both at the same time: immanent and transcendent.
In this then, I agree with Pariat, that a writer’s life involves transcendence. But for some, that transcendence is purely internal. The ability to withdraw within yourself, the swirling mist of your own thoughts, even in a crowd. To be able to cocoon yourself from the rush, roar and clamour around, and be one with the silence within. Weaving through the hustle and bustle of family, day jobs and domesticity that defines life for some of us, this is our path of transcendence. The ability to be beyond, while being within. Immanent, yet transcendent.