Janice Pariat and me: the varied lives of writers


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.

And that 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. Much like the Sufi understanding of Divinity, which reveals that the Divine Essence is, at all times, both immanent and transcendent — both merged with the Universe and the life forms in it, yet at the same time somehow beyond 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. Within 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. 

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 an international publisher operating in 5 countries across the world.

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.

How 30-year-old me stopped 32-year-old me from committing suicide


I hadn’t thought I would ever write about this. But now I am. It is refusing to let me sleep, commanding me to write.

This happened in September last year.

I went through a major traumatic event, and despite the staunch and unwavering support of my partner and my sister and my friends, I struggled to come out of it, struggled to find my centre again. I was thrown off-kilter, off-balance, and despite my best efforts, I couldn’t find that balance again.

One night, when my husband and son slept, I decided this was it. I decided there was no point in living on. The clawing agony tearing apart my body and my mind was too much to bear. I decided this was enough.

Quietly I got up from the bed, opened the glass door that led to the balcony and stepped up to the railing. Fingers clutching the balustrade, I peered over the railing and looked at the ground, twelve floors below.

I put one foot on the lower railing and hoisted myself up further. Half my body was above the railing’s level. I could easily topple over, with a gentle nudge to myself.

“It’s not difficult,” said my voice from inside my brain. “You’ll float down gently… like a feather.”

An image of a white feather floating down on the shifting breeze conjured itself before my eyes. Languid, unhurried. With all the time in the world.

“Oh no, you won’t.” This was a new voice. Someone else.

It came from my mind. But who was this?  

“You’re not stupid, are you? You know you’re 60 kg, which is hardly the weight of a feather,” she continued. “Don’t you remember your ninth standard science lessons? Gravitational force and the mass of bodies and everything? Don’t you remember?”

“Uh… you’re talking to me about ninth standard science right now? Now? When I’m jumping off the balcony?”

“Sure,” she quipped. “You’re an educated woman. These are the things your mind thinks about.”

Silence.

I wasn’t amused. It wasn’t funny.

“Don’t do it.” She said. “Don’t. Your husband and child are asleep right there. Imagine their faces if they woke up to this. To your body down below.”

“I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. I’m not a martyr. I don’t live for others. The witch, remember? I’m the witch. The witch lives for pleasure… and there’s no… pleasure… in my life anymore. There’s no joy. Nothing.”

“But … there’s your book.”

Silence.

She sensed my resolve wavering.

“Yes, there’s your book, right? Do you want to go without seeing it? Do you want to go without seeing the cover—and your name on the cover? Don’t you want to hold it in your hands?” She was smart, this one.

I do. I want to see it. To hold it.

“Then that is pleasure, isn’t it?”

Yes. It is.

Slowly I put my feet back on the ground. Then I sank to the floor completely. Leaning against the wall, I sat on the floor of my balcony and wept for a long time.

And then, instead of being just a voice in my mind, she came and sat beside me. She was me. Me, when I was 30 years old. When I had been writing the last few chapters of my book.

She looked at me. “Hey. Don’t you remember what you wrote in your book? About survivors being the ones who get to tell their own stories?”

Yes, I remembered. This was indeed what I had written. I had told myself at one point in my own book, that if I had killed myself I’d never have seen the day that I inked my victory onto the pages of life. I had told myself that it is survivors who get to tell their own stories.

Did I want other people to tell my story for me?

No, I didn’t. If I was going to tell my story—and many other stories—I was going to have to live.

I closed my eyes and leaned my head back against the wall. Propped my left elbow on my knee, with my open palm and spread-out fingers covering my forehead and eyes like a muzzle.

Perhaps I wept a little more. Perhaps I dozed off for a bit.

Finally, I got up, brushed the dust off my clothes and went back past the glass door into my bedroom. Quietly lay back on the bed.

As I drifted off to sleep I marvelled at the strangeness of it all—how my past self saved the life of my future self.

(Like Harry Potter and Hermoine – although it was their future selves who saved their past selves.)

Almost as if I travelled through time.

Now, I can decidedly claim that I don’t need a rescuer. I rescued my own self.

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.}

Are you having an adventure?


The Alchemist is a book I always hark back to, when I’m feeling unsure of myself and undecided. I always recall Santiago and his quest for the treasure – and the point where he realises that the treasure he saw in his dream was in the very place where he had lived all his life. It was buried at the very point from where he began his journey. This makes him wonder why he was brought all this way for nothing; why he had to face everything that he did, when he could have found the treasure right where he had been.

And the wind whispers to him, “But then you wouldn’t have seen the pyramids…”

There couldn’t ever be a better answer.

What Santiago wanted more than anything was to see the pyramids. The treasure was his destiny but what he wanted was the pyramids. In fulfilling his destiny he also needed to fulfil his heart’s deep longing.

And that is why, sometimes when I doubt myself and the path that I set out on, I always remind myself—why did I choose this path? Because it was the path to my ‘pyramids.’ You might have fulfilled your destiny in other ways, I tell myself, but then how would you have seen the pyramids!

Let me explain.

I sometimes doubted why I had joined journalism, particularly when people insisted that I would have been better off had I gone into academics or civil services and so on and so forth.

But then I asked myself—why did I join journalism? The answer was always, because I wanted to know more of the world, to see varied facets of the world, to explore and discover and meet diverse people and have varied experiences. In one word, I wanted to have an adventure.

And that’s the honest truth. I had no altruistic motives. Perhaps I did want to change the world, make it a better place, yes, but the primary motive was to have an adventure. And I have been having one for sure!

Image: Zach Betten on Unsplash

My decade in journalism has been a wonderful and fascinating adventure. Perhaps others have achieved a lot more than me. Perhaps I’m not ahead in the ‘race’. But for me it was never about the race anyway. Never about the destination. It was always about the journey. And as far as the journey is concerned, I have nothing to complain about.

However, as far as the Alchemist is concerned, I do have something to complain about. In the book, as it is in so many books and indeed in life itself, the women do nothing but wait for the men to have their adventure and return to them. I bristled at it then and I bristle at it now. Where is the adventure and the journey for women? Why must they always remain inside the four walls and wait? I felt a surge of anger at the world then, as I often do even now.

The second time a story of adventure made me cringe and feel a surge of anger was when I was pregnant with my son and panic stricken at how my life was falling apart all around me, how my dreams were slipping farther and farther away from my reach. Around the 4th or 5th month of my pregnancy, I had watched the movie ‘Up.’

I still have negative associations attached with that movie.

Here is why.

When the movie began I identified very, very much with the over-enthusiastic, adventure-seeking and headstrong Ellie. I loved how she had made complete plans for her exploration trip to Paradise Falls, and how she was sure she’d go there. But when the movie progresses, the dream goes farther and farther away from her. I felt my heart sink because I saw it as a mirror of my life. Early motherhood had snatched my dream away from me and stolen all my adventures and trapped me. (Or so I thought then.)

And in the end when Ellie’s husband makes it to Paradise Falls, I felt myself seething with rage. Shaking with rage, literally. He had no right to be there! It was not his adventure, he had not been yearning for it all his life, it was not he who had made all plans for it and he did not deserve to have this dream!

It was Ellie’s dream, she’d wanted it all her life!

But where was she? She was dead, gone, nowhere! Did she have her adventure? NO! How dare he have that adventure alone, how dare he pretend that he was doing it for her when she couldn’t even partake of it? I felt myself burning with anger.

I think Carl in the movie had the same feelings perhaps, when he sat in his chair and with a heavy heart opened Ellie’s scrapbook. And saw how she had felt that she did have an adventure in the life they shared with each other. It was beautiful.

And yet, it made me seethe with anger even more.

All those platitudes of happy family life being an adventure in itself are reserved only for women. ONLY for women. Are the men ever told that happy family life is enough? It’s only the women who are told that your adventure is inside the four walls of the house while the men can go have their adventure even on the moon. I was burning with anger.

Over the years, though, I realised that for some people, their adventure might indeed be in a happy family life—but I couldn’t be one of them. Happy family life was important for me, yes—but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t the only thing I wanted. I wanted to go out and embrace the world and have my own adventure.

And I did.

Image: Nurhadi Cahyono on Unsplash

Perhaps not with as much speed as I would have liked, perhaps not in as great a magnitude as I would have liked, but I did.

I may be a slow walker, said Abraham Lincoln, but I never walk backwards. I wrote this line in my diary when I was 14. And I never forgot it since. And that is how slowly, but surely, I found my footing back. Slow walker but never walked backwards. Thanks, Abe.

There’s still far too much to be done, and far too much left undone. But I can see that I’m moving forward, on my very own adventure.

I can see that I’m moving towards the pyramids.

Finding the treasure would be incidental.

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

The way you make love


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

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

Does this sound somewhat familiar?

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Gratitude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the infinite magic of love.

Lullabies for Hasan


IMG_20180612_004840IMG_20180612_004857

“The first time I ever sang a lullaby to my little boy was when he was 6 months old. Since then, we’ve been through many different lullabies—poems from my childhood, songs from movies, even nauhas and marsiyas, songs of elegy, of remembrance, and a quintessential cultural heritage of Shia Muslims—because not only do I feel it’s a good way of transmitting culture, but also because I get terribly bored of singing the same thing over and over again. Sometimes, I also sing to him my favourite Urdu nazm: ‘Lab pe aati hai dua banke tamanna meri’ (My heart’s longing reaches my lips in prayer). This was the nazm my father sang to me every single day, sometimes as a lullaby. He made me memorise it, and I’ve loved it since I was 7.

During the early years of Hasan’s childhood, I was plunged in a terrible depression as our family was split apart. My husband had to move abroad and visited only twice a year, while I took care of our son practically like a single parent. So one day I sang to Hasan a song from a sad Hindi movie I saw when I was a child, from Akele Hum, Akele Tum. The song is sung by a dad, a single father divorced from his wife, to his son, and conveys the hollowness he feels, though tries to be brave about it.

“Akele ham, Akele tum. Jo ham tum sang hon to phir kya ghum… Tu mera dil, tu meri jaan…”

“Oh, I love you daddy!”

“Tu masoom, tu shaitaan!”

“But you love me daddy!”

Father: “You’re alone and I’m alone—but we’re both together, so why worry? You are my heart, and my life…”

Son: “Oh, I love you daddy!”

Father: “You’re so innocent, but oh, so naughty!”

Son: “But you love me daddy!”

When I sang it to my boy, I replaced ‘Daddy’ with ‘Mummy’, perhaps to make it more relatable, but also perhaps because I was living like a single parent and it echoed my grief.

Now this little boy, all of 2.5, who had never seen that movie, had no context to the song, caught on to something. Maybe it was the rhythm or just the words or how I sang it, but something had an effect on him. He began to cry. Not in a bawling, screaming way. His face crumpled up in agony and he sobbed quietly, burying his face in my arms. I stopped abruptly—I had no idea it would upset him so much.

Kids pick up on emotional cues and possess more empathy than we give them credit for. And also, as I realised later, they have a much deeper connect with us than we really understand. I sometimes feel it was my pain, which reached my little boy and affected him thus. I will never really know, but even today, he doesn’t like that song; one day when he found me humming it, he put his hand on my mouth and said: “No, mummy, don’t sing it.”

And I never did.

Even now, these lullabies, these night conversation form the most intimate, personal part of our connections, because we’re ensconced in a dark little bubble, snuggling comfortably and whispering away.

So recently, I sang a Rabindra Sangeet song to him, just on a whim.

Jodi tor dak shune keu na ashe, tobe ekla cholo re…

If no one heeds your call, walk alone.

I had read the poem a long time ago, perhaps in college, when I first fell in love with Tagore. But the first time I heard this being sung was in Amitabh Bachchan’s voice in the movie Kahaani. Vidya Balan as the pregnant woman looking for her disappeared husband. A thrilling albeit deeply sensitive movie. For some reason I remembered it. The rhythm is soothing and lilting, and I wanted to sing it. I sang the one line, only this line, over and over, because I do not know Bengali, and I cannot remember the rest of the song. I carefully watched my son’s reaction, whether he would stop me. But he didn’t.

He was absolutely still, a sign of attentive listening and fascination. I sang over and over, and felt him relax, still completely quiet though. After about 10 minutes of repeating the same line over and over, I switched back to my standard lullaby. This time, Hasan stirred.

“Amma…”

“Yes?”

Wohi wala sunaiye.” Please sing the earlier one.

I smiled.

And sang Ekla cholo again, all the way until he slept.

This, perhaps, is my closest bond with my son— a shared love for things that stir. Our love for poetry, for melody, our vulnerability for things that move the senses.

And this, my son, is the sum total of my motherhood, the pure, distilled essence of me, of what I give you of myself.  Poems from my childhood, strains of spiritual elegies that define my identity and yours, notes of prayer and symphonies of longing, and songs of strength, of purpose, of will.

In the hope that what is good, and fine, and beautiful in the universe, will stick to your soul, long past those times when the world will show you how dark and terrible it can be. When you cross those times, my son, I hope you will still remember things as gentle and ephemeral as a poem, things like tiny blinking glow worms, which though cannot fight the darkness, can make it beautiful nevertheless.”

(This piece was featured in the June issue of Child Magazine)