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.
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.
In my last post, I wrote about how the dream and desire of having my book published saved me and motivated me to have faith in the future. Have faith in life.
That dream is going to be a reality. Very, very soon.
My book, The Reluctant Mother: A Story No One Wants To Tellis being published by Hay House, which as you all know is a reputed international publisher.
So today, I am here to thank you all – every single one of you from the blogging community, and readers from outside the community- for staying by my side on this journey, for sharing my joys and sorrows, for reading and commenting here and letting me know that I wasn’t alone.
First and foremost, I want to thank Kathi Ostrom Gowsell, who was the first person to suggest, way back in 2013, that this story should be given the form of a book. We may live on separate continents, and may have never met each other, but I feel connected to you in a very special way, Kathi. Thank you for being you !
Other bloggers- mothers and fathers- other writers and readers, you have all been such a huge part of my journey.
I cannot tell you all, how much it has meant to me over the years, to read your comments here, and to get private messages from so many of you, asking me to keep writing, telling me that I was brave to write the truth fearlessly, and telling me how much my voice resonated with you, for it spoke of the stories of your lives too.
There are no words to describe my gratitude for the love you have all showered me with- especially those of you who told me that I was your voice- for I was speaking of the truth reflected in your lives too, but you couldn’t speak out because of all the judgements and restrictions the world heaps upon us all. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving me the strength to speak this truth and take this dream to culmination.
The launch of the book has been delayed for a bit, owing to the pandemic, but do watch this space for the happy announcement, and I promise that you will be the first to see the cover as soon as it is launched !
Meanwhile, here is a picture of the first page of the book, of the final draft PDF version, and merely looking at the title on the page before me, fills me with gratitude and joy.
There is a word that I have taken from Paulo Coelho’s book, and quoted it in my own book. I shall just end this post with that word:
It is funny that, ever since I became a mother, life’s aspects appear to me in motherhood metaphors.
The hijab for instance.
My relationship with the hijab is quite a bit like my equation with motherhood: there are times when motherhood frustrates me, times when I feel irritated by it, times when I wish I could just run away from it all. But in the end, when I look at my son and watch his mischievous grin, and hear the thoughts from his inquisitive, philosophical little mind, he thaws my heart all the way through.
That perhaps, perfectly encapsulates my equation with the hijab. There was a time when there was no hijab in my life, but now, it is woven inextricably with it.
People ask me, have I never wanted to take off the hijab? Let’s be honest- yes I have. There are times when it has felt irritating or restricting. But every time, every single time without fail, I have received cosmic communication- signs if you will- nudging me to keep it on. I have received signals from the Universe that this is my way, my path to self-actualization.
Yes, occasionally, it may seem like a restricting space, but the space only seems smaller sometimes because it is my soul that keeps expanding.
Expanding and demanding even more space. On those times, I have to readjust and recalibrate my understanding of religion, to make space for my expanding soul. And it works. It works every time.
And it has changed who I am as a person.
The hijab gives me an outreach and a purpose that is so much bigger than my own little self. Combined with my syncretic upbringing, my literary and cultural sensibilities, the zest for life I inherited from my parents, and my fierce feminism, it becomes a symbol of power for me, a symbol of the infinite possibilities that the universe offers through the channel of life.
On the one hand, it allows me to take my ideas to places where, I feel, they are most needed – to women who would otherwise never have had access to unconventional ideas. On the other, it allows the world to see that a hijabi woman can be as unconventional as any other, a hijabi can be as much of a revolutionary as any other.
Furthermore, it makes me the proud owner of that word which Elizabeth Gilbert speaks of in Eat, Pray Love; the word that she discovered in an ancient Sanskrit text during her stay at an Indian Ashram:
“The Antevasin,” writes Gilbert, “was an in-betweener. He was a border-dweller. He lived in sight of both worlds, but he looked toward the unknown. And he was a scholar.”
The one forever at the cusp of two worlds, two traditions, two streams of life and thought. That is who I am.
There is a verse in the Quran that speaks very eloquently and beautifully of the merging of two seas. “Marajal bahraine yaltaqeyan.”
The verse refers to two seas that flow freely so that they meet together (at one place). The next verse speaks of a “barrier between the two seas by which they do not mix.” It is generally taken to refer to bodies of salt water and fresh water, which merge at a place, a border, but do not mix into each other. Each remains separate and distinct.
But the verse has been interpreted in many other ways, uncovering metaphorical and deeper layers. Certain scholars have interpreted ‘the two seas that meet’ as two of the holiest figures in Islam – Ali and Zahra, who are among the 14 infallibles.
However, the greatest beauty of a spiritual tradition is chiefly that one can draw one’s own mystical, transcendent, metaphorical meanings from it- beyond all scholarly and academic interpretations.
The Quran, as is believed by Muslims, is the channel through which the Creator speaks to the Creation. The conversation between the two, thus, can be a very private and intimate affair, in which the Qalb of the Abd (the worshipper) leads her to the meanings that the Mabud (or the worshipped) wishes to convey. The Qalb being the innermost center of our existence – not the heart or the mind but the point at which all our senses and our abilities and our capacity to love and feel and understand is centered. That point of convergence of the human existence is defined as the Qalb.
And when I read the Quran through my Qalb, these verses speak to me of my very existence as the convergence of two streams, the cusp of two distinct realities. Between and yet beyond.
Belonging nowhere, and therefore, belonging everywhere.
Always on the border, pushing forth, standing at the confluence of past, present and future- reaching out towards that which can be — towards infinite, limitless possibilities.
That, ultimately is what my Hijab is to me. It is the ultimate symbol of the Antevasin.
The seeker, the dervish who does not renounce the world, but lives forever at the border, partaking of both: Sounds and Silence. Fullness and Void. Company and Solitude. Movement and Rest. Rainbows and White Light.
Extrovert and Introvert. Fire and Water.
Within, and Without.
Belonging nowhere, and therefore, belonging everywhere.
(3 days ago, on 29th March 2020, I turned 33 years old. I thought it was the best time to write about one of the most significant aspects of my life- at the end of one of the most life-altering year of my life. It exploded and blew me to smithereens, and in that destruction, brought me into the full reality of who I am and who I want to be. )
The first thing that struck me about Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, when I first read it in 2017, was the heart-stopping dedication from Carl to his wife Ann Druyan.
“For Ann Druyan,” said the dedication. “In the vastness of space and the immensity of time, it is my joy to share a planet and an epoch with Annie.”
The words seemed to fill the page, enveloping the book and the reader in their embrace – in the intensity of love conveyed in a single line.
Last week - nearly three years later – I came across a post on Facebook, no doubt a popular post but one that I’d never seen before, containing the words of Ann Druyan.
Ann’s thoughts about Carl.
“When my husband died,” she said, “because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me-it still sometimes happens-and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous-not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance. . . . That pure chance could be so generous and so kind. . . . That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. . . . That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful. . . . The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”
Let me take a moment here to catch my breath and repeat.
‘We found each other in the cosmos and that was wonderful.’
I’m not an atheist. Never have been. Spent all my years believing in the afterlife, believing in something being present beyond the here and now. But I’m also a curious, inquisitive person, and I like to look at things from various angles. And therefore, over the years several times I have tried to consciously imagine what my life would be like if I were an atheist. If I stopped believing in the things that moulded and formed my life right now, would I live any differently?
And the answer has always been that other than the prayers and community rituals, nothing would really change in my life. I’d be the same person I am now, because human values are universal.
But then, following this chain of thought I’d slowly come to the aspect of afterlife: of life after life, life beyond life. And every time I tried to imagine a world that ends here, ends definitively on this earth, my imagination would bound back with a jolt, the kind of jolt one gets from a high voltage electric fence, throwing you back with unprecedented force. Every time I tried to imagine this being the end, my mind rebelled. For one reason: my father.
I had gone through life, one day at a time, imagining him around me, beside me, asking him questions and listening to his answers. I had gone through life waiting for that moment when I would see him again, in the fathomless beyond. Every time I tried to imagine there being nothing beyond, my mind reared high like an aggressive insolent stallion, refusing to comply. And that would be the end of my atheist imaginings.
Until Ann’s words moved me to tears and I wept for a long moment. “I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”
This was the first time that something different gave me solace, something other than the thought of the afterlife, of seeing my father again.
I saw him. We saw each other.
He was my father and I knew him for 9 years. In the vastness of space and the immensity of time, how beautiful it was that I had him as my father – a man like him, so ahead of his times, so full of energy and vitality, brimming with joy and cheer, and yet steeped in profound philosophy, in poetry, in spirituality – in sync with the rhythm of the universe. It was my joy to share a planet and an epoch with him, to know him and to learn from him, if only for a little while. We found each other in the cosmos and that was wonderful.
This was the first explanation that soothed me, without promising life beyond life. I tried to turn the thought over and over in my mind, absorbing it from various angles.
And then I thought of little Hasan.
My sensitive, philosophical 7 year old, who already reflects so much on life and death, on life after death. And even more than that, cries for his grandfather whom he never met. My astonishing little boy who sheds actual tears for a man he never knew, never saw, never spoke to. He cries for my father because “Why did I never meet my Nana?”
And this is where Ann Druyan’s words fall short. For me, perhaps, her words may work. I saw him. We saw each other.
But what of Hasan? His grandfather never saw him. He never saw his grandfather. They did not have a chance to spend years together. They did not find the opportunity to share a planet and an epoch together, at the same time. What of that?
I think then, that we – Hasan and I — we’ll have to hold on to the idea of afterlife a little longer. To feel and to know that my father – his grandfather – is still there, and even though Hasan did not see him, he sees Hasan. He watches over him, guides him, and answers his questions, like he has answered mine for twenty years now.
We will wait then, I think.
Wait for the time when we can find each other in the cosmos again – for the cosmos is not merely the parts that you can see, is it?
Every person you ever truly loved will find you again. In the vastness of space and the immensity of time; vastness that stretches far beyond human imagination.
The BBC recently released its list of 100 novels that shaped
our world, and I was mightily surprised to find The Twilight Saga on it, under
the category of ‘Coming of Age’. Not because I am one of its detractors—far
from it. But because it’s been panned and run down with such fierce intensity
and regularity that one becomes shy even of admitting that one may hold some
sort of affinity for the book and its characters!
Not that I am the sort of person who’d ever be ashamed of or embarrassed by the choices I make. In fact the protagonist in my own debut book mentions Twilight at one point as well. But when the BBC endorses this as a book that shaped our world, one can’t help feeling validated.
I read the first book in The Twilight Saga exactly 10 years ago— 2009— at the age of 22. Until that time, the authors I’d read included names such as these: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pearl S Buck, Jane Austen, Arundhati Roy, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Hardy. I had read about 3 Mills & Boons romances before I gave up on them. So I wasn’t remotely interested in Twilight, but my best friend had mentioned it several times in conversation, and I thought of buying the book for her as a gift.
At that time I was a sub-editor in the newspaper Financial Chronicle, my first job. I used to take a quick walk everyday on a short break during office hours, and it was during one of these walks in the Green Park market that I picked up the book, for her. She and I were room-mates in a working women’s hostel in Central Delhi. My office hours were such that I got back only after 11 p.m., while she returned even later, around 1 a.m. (News desk timings, of course.) That meant that dinner everyday was usually around midnight for me. And every night, while I ate, I liked to read. Since I happened to have this book with me that day I casually flipped through the pages just to see what it was all about. I also had the strange habit of not reading the back cover before I read the book, because for some reason that seemed to take away from the delicious pleasure of not knowing anything about the book when I dived into it. A pleasure somewhat akin to walking into the mist on a mountainside. Or exploring uncharted waters.
So it was that I had absolutely no information about Twilight and its story before that moment. I had never watched a vampire movie all my life. I knew three things about Count Dracula: that he sucked human blood, transformed into a bat and lived in Transylvania. And I didn’t even know that Twilight was about vampires. I don’t know how I managed to be so entirely oblivious, but I did.
My fingers flipped carelessly through the pages, stopping on one at random.
“If I was too hasty… if for one second I wasn’t paying enough attention, I could reach out, meaning to touch your face, and crush your skull by mistake…” read the line.
That stopped me right in my tracks. Who’s this man lying next to the girl he loves, but would crush the girl’s skull just by carelessly putting his hand on it? I was intrigued.
Flipped backwards to the first page. Entered the wet, green, rainy town of Forks.
The rest, as they say, is history.
I read the book all the way from midnight until morning and
refused to hand it to my friend for whom I had originally bought it.
I had fallen in love. And oh, what a falling there was.
There was something about this book that curved and wrapped itself slowly round me like a predatory creeper from a horror flick. Purposeful. Refusing to let go. And I was quite the willing prisoner.
He was the very picture of 22-year-old romantic dreams come
to life. He was, in one word, the ‘good boy-bad boy’.
The boy who was wreathed in mystery, with a whiff of thrill and danger about him, achingly seductive, intellectually superior, and heartbreakingly handsome. And yet, for all these traits, he was the chivalrous sort of hero, with an old-world air around him. Conflicted and deeply flawed, but always wanting to do the right thing.
And—he watched her
Later, I found out that most people considered this distasteful, equating him with a Peeping Tom.
And I asked myself, why did I not feel outraged at the
apparent ‘stalking’? The answer was plain as day. Right from the beginning of
the story we, the readers, were made aware of Bella’s obsession with Edward, of
her feelings for him. We knew that
she had fallen in love with him, and therefore we knew of her consent. We knew that she would like him to be in her
room. And that, to my mind, made all the difference. As for Edward, the first
night he watched her, he heard her say his name in her sleep. And that is when
She was dreaming of him.
And so was I.
My obsession with Edward was such that the entire office came to know of it. I decorated my cubicle with a Twilight calendar and poster that I especially asked my cousin to bring for me from the US. Hunted out the movie version and played songs from the movie all day during office hours. It’s a wonder I got any work done. People would enquire politely and mischievously about Edward as if he and I were actually going steady (honest to God!). And at night, as soon as the time came for me to go to the hostel, back to Edward, I would get butterflies in my stomach, pretty much the way that one anticipates meeting an actual lover. I would go to my room and read the book over and over again – all the passages that I loved. I would leave the window open and in the dim light of the lamp I would imagine Edward standing by it, watching me read.
(Talk about romancing my own imagination!)
And then I bought New Moon. In the entire series, that’s the
book I least liked –because Edward was missing for more than half the book. I
probably finished the book too fast, just waiting for Edward to return (no, I
don’t turn to the last page to see what happened. I never do that.) But by and
by I also found myself getting angry at Edward. For leaving Bella unilaterally,
ostensibly to ‘protect’ her. Didn’t she have a say in this, in things done ‘for
her own good’? And then Alice coming to Bella after all this time, just because
Bella apparently seems to be committing suicide. How did it even matter to all
of them when they just upped and left her?
And yet… when he returned… oh, when he returned. He was
forgiven everything just for returning. Edward Cullen was back. That was
But now the equation was complicated. There was Jacob in the
picture as well. And I found myself getting increasingly irritated at Edward’s
over protectiveness. He was the one who left her. So obviously he had to deal
with the consequences. But there he was— getting ever more controlling by the
day and restricting her, telling her what was right for her. I never identified
much with Bella but I liked how she defied him and did her own thing in Eclipse. Good for her!
But I think Edward pretty much redeemed himself in the tent scene, where he sat in a corner watching Jacob hold Bella in his arms. Just so he could save her from dying of frostbite. That one act compensated for all his past transgressions, so to speak.
The last book in the series made me hopping mad at Edward
though. How he refused to make love to her just because hefelt that he was
hurting her and injuring her. The fact the she felt differently meant nothing.
The fact that she wanted it meant nothing. Only what he considered right was
right. The pattern of denial and withholding was maddening. Utterly, utterly
maddening and exasperating. What sort of damaged man was this?
But what came next in the book felt like an even greater betrayal.
Bella was suddenly all about being pregnant and having a baby. That I just
couldn’t understand. After all this time, after wanting nothing more than
Edward, now suddenly she was willing to die just to have a baby! Why, oh why!
What was the point of anything then, what was the point of risking everything
to marry this man when you would give up your life just to have a baby? Since
when did that become important to her? I felt deeply betrayed by Bella.
However, as the story progressed and Bella changed into a
vampire, she found the place where she felt completely herself, the place where
she felt she belonged. She found her
own special strengths and abilities, the power of throwing out the protective
shield from herself, the shield which could fight the powers of the strongest
vampires. In the end, it is Bella who saves the day. (For that, I suppose, I
could overlook the ‘wanting the baby to death’ part.)
In hindsight though, it is never the last three books that I remember. Always the first book. Always Twilight. Always that feeling of discovering Edward for the first time, always that feeling of staying up all night re-reading the book, and listening to Full Moon Night a hundred times on a loop.
I also hunted out Midnight Sun from Stephenie Meyer’s website, and what a treat it was to read everything from Edward’s perspective! To look into the mind of the conflicted, dangerous, and deeply devoted man. The man who appeared too good to be true and yet, when you looked into his mind, there were so many feelings of insufficiency and self doubt. The sweetest, most endearing part of Midnight Sun was knowing how elated and unbelievably lucky Edward felt every time Bella said ‘yes’ to him (when all this time she was the one thinking of him as out of her league). How he imagined that someday she would say ‘yes’ to a normal human male — why would she want a monster like him anyway? And then his indescribable elation every time she said ‘yes’ to him. That emotion, that joy of being accepted by the woman he loved, was unforgettable – because it let me peek into the mind of a man deeply in love. It was beautiful.
Edward Cullen became my reference for the unbelievable, the
impossible man. Not perfect. But unspeakably irresistible. And maddeningly flawed.
And for that alone, The Twilight Saga has an undeniable
place in my life.
It’s funny though, that BBC placed it under the coming-of-age category, because for me it is the age-defying staple of my life. The book that makes me a young adult again, or perhaps more appropriately, a teenager. It’s comfort food for my teenage soul. Like piping hot tomato soup. A bowl of mushy cornflakes with warm milk. A plateful of steaming Maggi. Never gets boring, never gets old. And you never outgrow it.
Don’t we all have that one sustaining, everlasting obsession? Perhaps not all of us. But those of us who subsist on our own imaginations – we do. Oh, we do.
“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.
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
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.”
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 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.
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.