The scent of death, the sack of memories


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.”

Sigh.

The potli. Always the potli.

What’s your primary love language?


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.

The patterns of all our suffering


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.

You made this dream come true!


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 Tell is 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:

Maktub!

It is written.

My father, the Yoga practitioner


My father (in grey jacket and green shirt) at a private Mushaira. A mushaira is a gathering of Urdu poets reciting poetry.

Today is Father’s Day and also International Day of Yoga.

There can be no better day to write this:

Arun uncle is my father’s closest friend. They did their PCS training together, and even opted to live in the same house- despite being given different homes as government officers- all because they were so close to each other.

I love talking to Arun uncle, because he is a wonderful person, and also because every time I speak to him I get new memories, new pieces to craft my patchwork quilt.

The last time I had a conversation with him was about a month ago. These conversations with Arun uncle are incomplete without an anecdote or two about my father. Many of those anecdotes are ones I have already heard before, from my mother. But the information he gave me this time had never been given me by anyone else.

“Your father was an avid yoga-lover!” said Arun uncle.

“Really?” I was most surprised.

“Oh yes. Every morning he would practice yoga, and he would be very annoyed if someone disturbed him or prevented him from following his yoga routine. And was he flexible! His body was far more flexible than ordinary people’s!” he beamed.

It was delightful to hold in my mind this new piece of the puzzle. My father was a Yoga practitioner!

Arun uncle continued. “He loved playing cricket as well. We were both young and single, and we would play with the teenage and young adult kids of the officers in the colony. And he would refuse to accept that he was bowled out. We would playfully bicker with those kids over batting longer!”

Yeah, that sounded absolutely like Papa. Even when we played Monopoly or Carrom at home, he made it a point to ‘cheat’ in the game, in full view of everyone else–just to create mischief and a little bit of laughter. That’s the kind of person he was. Always trying to cheer people up, to create little moments of mirth.

“And we played badminton together. He was very good at badminton.”

Yes, that I knew for sure! He made it a point to play badminton with me in the evenings, and encouraged me to take up sports as much as I could.

But the part about yoga fascinated me far more.

My father was so many things. Officer. Poet. Literature-lover. Sports-lover. Public speaker.

And religious orator.

During the days of Moharram, he used to read Majlis in whatever time he could spare from work. Those who heard him addressing the majlis still remember how well he spoke, with such fervour. Majlis gatherings are deeply spiritual Islamic gatherings, commemorating Imam Husain and the martyrs of Karbala. Commemorating the sacrifices of Syeda Zainab and the lady warriors of Karbala.

And now, juxtapose this image with that of a yoga practitioner. And a jolly prankster.

The mischievous mystic. Like a Laughing Buddha.

My father truly made ‘border-dwelling’ a real calling in life.

Discovering my father


My father (centre) with the Dalai Lama. Meerut, India. Year 1996.

It just occurred to me, suddenly, that every day of my adult life has been an attempt at piecing together my father.

Piecing him from memories.

From my own memories, yes, but primarily from the memories of others.

From the memories of my mother. The memories of my aunts who say, “You get your writing skills from him.”

Memories of my uncles, my older cousins, memories of my father’s friends. Memories of people who came to us after his death, and told us that he had sponsored their education; memories of people who came to tell us that he had been instrumental in getting them their jobs. Memories of people who said only this, “I don’t know what I would have done, had it not been for Naqvi Sahib.”

Piecing my father’s image together like an art installation, crafted from memories borrowed from here and there, from every mind and every heart that held him within it. Like a luxuriant patchwork quilt, perhaps, or a queenly tukri ka gharara*.          

The most significant thing, during these discoveries, has been the absorption of the fact that my father, like every other human being, was a flawed person. The most difficult thing, especially in Indian culture, is to accept and understand that our parents are not Gods but human beings. Beautiful, loving, sacrificing—but also human, also flawed.

Being a mother myself, it is easy to see this. I am a mother of a seven year old. Does that make me an infallible, a perfect person, a God who can never do anything wrong? Far from it. Becoming a mother does not make me anything other than what I am- a deeply flawed human being who has major shortcomings and makes her fair share of wrong decisions and carries her fair share of wrong actions. What being a mother does make me is a role model and an ideal person in the eyes of my little son. But what he perceives is not reality. Yes I am his mother, but I will definitely not always be right.

It is this realisation of the human frailty and fallibility of parents that is so essential to people becoming not just more rational about their parents, but also becoming good humans themselves. And also becoming closer to their parents by understanding who they really were or are—as opposed to seeing just a gilded statue of them, meant to be worshiped at all times.

Coming to terms with the fallibility of my father was strangely easy for me—being the person that I am, who can love people for their flaws and warts. (Coming to terms with the fallibility of my mother was harder, I think, perhaps because of how mothers are glorified. And also because she was present in the flesh, to fight with and rebel against. )

Being able to look at our parents as human beings is a blessing. Maya Angelou, in an interview in 1995, had said:

“I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, ‘I never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? – never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.’ They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, ‘Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.’ They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives”

Angelou’s observation is so relevant and so deep. So significant, particularly, for all young people.

It is a blessing to know the flaws your parents had, or the mistakes they made. It shows you that they were human, and that you, too, as a human are bound to make mistakes. But as long as you keep an open mind, and keep making attempts to correct those mistakes—course correction, as it were—you will be fine. Just fine.

Understanding this about my father is strangely uplifting, because it keeps my patchwork-quilt-tukri-gharara-art-installation-of-images dynamic and alive. It sustains my father as a pulsating, shifting, evolving real person, as opposed to just a memory—static and unchanging.

It facilitates the conversations we have been having—my Papa and I—for 24 years now. Conversations across dimensions, conversations across worlds, conversations across life and across death.

In every moment of my life that I have felt weak or confused or angry or furious, I have asked myself: what would my father have done? I have carefully and meticulously, gone through the entire patchwork of memories, pieced together next to each other, sifting through them to find out the one that best suited my dilemma at that moment. There is always a memory, one memory that fits every dilemma. Always.

Sometimes it is a memory of him as a super-honest super-tough officer of the Law, a man who was transferred from one city to another every 6 months or at most in 12 months, because he wouldn’t take bribes and wouldn’t give politicians the time of day.

My father (centre, in plain clothes) was posted in Meerut at the time of the Dalai Lama’s visit, and being an officer of the Law, he was selected to officially escort the Dalai Lama.

Sometimes it is a memory of him as a deeply religious yet extremely liberal man who believed in universal spirituality. A man who never missed a single namaz in the day, or a single fast in Ramzan, yet believed not just in respecting all religions but also in participating in the rituals and customs of his friends from other faiths.

Sometimes it is a memory of him as a poet, a romantic husband who used to string jasmine flowers into gajras with his own hands for his wife, and place them by her pillow as she slept—so she would be woken up by their fragrance.

And sometimes it is a memory of him as a jolly, laughing father, the kind who used to make me sit on his back and be my horse carrying me through the room, the kind who never shut down questions—no matter how strange and nonsensical—the father who encouraged independence in both thought and action, the father whom I felt free enough to joke around with—despite him belonging to a generation that wasn’t always pally-pally with their kids.

There is always a memory for everything I need.

Because my father, like me, was an Antevasin (click for more details). Always living at the borders of worlds, always carrying contradicting worlds within.

The poet administrator. The religious liberal. The sparkly eyed, laughing, mischievous philosopher (reminds one of the Laughing Buddha!)

The romantic, the practical. The sober, the cheerful. The dutiful, the naughty. The modern, the traditional.

Border-dweller. Always a border-dweller.

We are alike in so many ways. That is why it is so easy to speak to him.

I speak to him about the country and its politics. About world politics. I ask him how he navigated through the murky world of government service, despite being such an honest and idealistic man.

I speak to him about my religious dilemmas. About the parts of religion that seem nonsensical to me. I ask him how he managed to retain his faith and still be so liberal, so ahead of his times, so much of an outspoken equal rights advocate. So non-judgemental about people who appeared ‘different’ from him.

I speak to him about family dilemmas, about how he navigated through romance and marriage and heartbreaks and disillusionments and temptations.

Like a bag full of endless stories, there is always something to find.

I do think, had he been here in an earthly form, we would have had such heart to heart conversations. Being the open-minded person he was, he would have listened to my doubts and confusions and questions, and course-corrected me. He would have been encouraging me not just to speak out loud but also to protest.

Perhaps I might have contradicted him, or pointed out places where I felt he was in the wrong. Places where I felt his philosophy was old-fashioned or conservative (thought that was unlikely, given that he was way ahead of his times.)

Perhaps he would have responded by telling me I was wrong—or perhaps he might have taken my suggestions and expanded his thought to accomdate the new world and its new ideas.

We would have shared many an evening and many a morning of poetry in Urdu, Hindi and English—for he was a master of all three.

We would have spent such unbelievably memorable times together.

And we have. Despite the distance, we still have.

In all the 24 years of earthly separation, not once have I been separated from you. Not one day has passed that I did not have conversations with you, that I have not been guided by you; that I have not read out my poetry to you. That you have not held my hand through everything that I went through.

Tomorrow is Eid, by the way. But then, every day that I discover more of you, is Eid for me.

Eid Mubarak, Papa.

The last Eid that I spent with my father in his earthly form. March 1996.

{* A gharara is a traditional festive dress of Indian Muslim women, and tukri is an art where the gharara is crafted by piecing together diamond-shaped patches of cloth in bright, contrasting colours.}

What do you live for?


Picture: Alexandra Nicolae on Unsplash

Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. Both were feminists and magnificent writers. And both committed suicide. 

Sometimes I feel afraid of how much I identify with them. Not just as writers and feminists, but as women who ended up taking their own life. I shudder at how tantalising it feels to view myself as the disturbed intellectual woman who couldn’t take life anymore. It makes me afraid.

It’s not death that I’m afraid of, though. Death and I have been strolling hand in hand for a very, very long time. What I’m afraid of is throwing away my life.

I could kill myself. Easily, so easily. And yet, I don’t.  

What stops me? What do I live for? 

I could be the virtuous mother and say I live for my son, but that would be a lie. I do not live for my son, and I do not give myself so much importance as to think that he would be lost or destroyed without me. I lost my father at 9. And yet, here I am- in a fairly good place, by any measure. A woman in a man’s world and yet I reached where I wanted. My son, along with inheriting his mother’s fire and his father’s steel, would have all the privilege that comes from being a man in this world. He’d do just fine without me as well- not that I’d wish this on him or anyone else for that matter. 

I could say I live for my mother, and it would be the right thing to say. It would also be the noble thing to do. 

But I don’t. 

I could say I live for the man who holds my venomous grief carefully in his palm, smiling like it were an elixir, and drinks it all in, just so he could save me even if he died. The man who married crazy-me and steadfastly refuses to hand me over to the mental asylum.

I wish I could say I live for him. 

But being the selfish woman that I am, I live for none but myself. 

Paulo Coelho in Brida spoke of the virgin, the saint, the martyr and the witch. The saint lives for others.

The witch, on the other hand, lives for herself. For pleasure. Purely for pleasure. 

For the myriad pleasures that life brims with. 

The last time I deliberately chose life, it was by convincing myself I needed to see my as-yet unpublished book in my hands. That was something I needed to see. It was my labour of love. It was my pleasure and my pain. I had to be alive to see it come to life.

And that worked for a long time, until the darkness closed in again, until Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf began to be tantalising again. 

The text of Virginia Woolf’s suicide letter

And I was forced to ask myself, over and over- why do I live? What is it that I live for? 

People live for different things. For family, for success, for love, for serving others.

Me? I live because I love life. Life, which brims with endless possibilities. 

A wise old man once said to me, We are all in a state, not of being, but becoming.

Becoming.

As long as you are alive, there are infinite possibilities of becoming. Every second, every breath, every blink of an eye is a new possibility. And that is the greatest beauty of life. 

I live because life is a gift. A gift of endless possibilities. 

It must never be thrown away. 

Yes, I have done all the things that are written in the good books, too. I write my gratitude journal and list the things I’m grateful for. I list all the things I’ve achieved in life. I list all the milestones, month after month, year after year. But in the end, none of those things seem enough. None of those things seem to tell me- this is what you live for. 

Even if I achieved nothing in material terms, even if I had no tall claims on life, even if I had no one by my side- even then, even then my life would be worth living. It’s not achievements, success, relationships, love, even family – they’re not the only reason for living. 

It is you. 

You alone are reason enough for you to be alive. This alone is enough- that you have the gift of life. 

All those other reasons could be fuel to the fire. They could keep the fire in you burning, they could keep pushing you ahead in life. But what’s most precious and worth living for is your own self. 

The more I searched, the more I found that the one and only thing that has always kept me alive is the endless possibilities, the endless beauty of life. 

Every second that I was alive, I have infinite chances to become anything and anyone I wanted to be. No matter how black or grey my hair turn, no matter how many fine lines I get and no matter how much my skin begins to sag. Every moment, every moment I can explore endless possibilities. Yes, every moment is going to be a fight, but every moment is also an opportunity to win that fight.

Only as long as I am alive, though. 

Death seals everything with an air of finality. Death is solid. Life is fluid. 

And that is what I live for. The fluidity of life. Oh, the witch always lives for the fluidity of life. 

There was a time, 22 years ago, when 10 year old me used to gaze longingly from her front door at thunder storms and lightning streaking across the pitch black night sky, and wish that she was standing in the huge park just opposite her house, arms flung wide open, embracing the storm. She wished she could stand all alone, drenched to the bone, enveloped by thunder, enwreathed in light. She wanted to be the storm. 

Ten years after Paulo Coelho wrote Alchemist, the story of a boy who learns to become the wind, a little girl who had never even heard of the book, stood at the door of her house, watching lightning dance, and longed to be the storm. (And Coelho wrote this book in 1987, the year this same little girl had been born.)

That intoxicating, intense moment is the one moment in all my 32 years, which symbolises perfectly my wild, witch-like love for life. 

That, yes that, is my reason for staying alive. 

All I have to do now is to take that feeling and wrap it into a gift for myself, a reminder for all the times the darkness comes crashing – a reminder that even in the midst of darkness, the thunder and the lightning can deliver you to life. To the fluidity, the endless possibilities. 


Picture: Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

All of these are just my reasons for living. What are yours? What are the things that drive you to be alive? Are you the saint, the martyr, the virgin or the witch? Tell me in the comments below! 

“In the vastness of space and the immensity of time…”


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.”

Picture: NASA

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 now.

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.  


    

Picture: NASA

Letter composed atop a train berth


Image by Ramona Schumacher (Unsplash)

This post was written 4 months ago, atop the upper berth of a carriage in the Prayagraj Express, en route to Delhi from Allahabad. As one of the most tumultuous and bewildering years of my life comes to a close, I thought it appropriate to end it with this post that contains a letter to my sweet little H, the apple of my eye.

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. I’ve loved sleeping in trains ever since I was a kid. 

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 without jhagda (quarreling) with my better half after quite a long time! Check.

I’d had a tears-of-happiness conversation with my sister in the evening. Check. 

But little H!

His face swam before my eyes. 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’s 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 Hasan? Teenage Hasan? Child Hasan? 

We can never really know who reads our letters once they’re out there, can we? 

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 Mamma 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 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.

And when you have made up your mind, my son – (let me say this with the help of a verse from the Quran) – “And when you have made up your mind, then put your trust in the Lord. Undoubtedly, the trustful are dear to the Lord.”

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.

All my love,

Mumma

When you are old and grey and full of sleep


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

(W.B. Yeats)

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

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

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

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

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

World Outside.

The words stung me.

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

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

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

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

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

Cross nursery teacher.

Being addressed like a kindergartener, robbed of all dignity.

Hit me like a punch in the gut.

Hit me with the severity that accompanies guilt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How?

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

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

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

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

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

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