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.

‘H is for Hijab’ or ‘Antevasin: The Border Dweller’


It is funny that, ever since I became a mother, life’s aspects appear to me in motherhood metaphors. 

The hijab for instance. 

My relationship with the hijab is quite a bit like my equation with motherhood: there are times when motherhood frustrates me, times when I feel irritated by it, times when I wish I could just run away from it all. But in the end, when I look at my son and watch his mischievous grin, and hear the thoughts from his inquisitive, philosophical little mind, he thaws my heart all the way through.

That perhaps, perfectly encapsulates my equation with the hijab. There was a time when there was no hijab in my life, but now, it is woven inextricably with it.

People ask me, have I never wanted to take off the hijab? Let’s be honest- yes I have. There are times when it has felt irritating or restricting. But every time, every single time without fail, I have received cosmic communication- signs if you will- nudging me to keep it on.  I have received signals from the Universe that this is my way, my path to self-actualization.  

Yes, occasionally, it may seem like a restricting space, but the space only seems smaller sometimes because it is my soul that keeps expanding.

Expanding and demanding even more space. On those times, I have to readjust and recalibrate my understanding of religion, to make space for my expanding soul. And it works. It works every time. 

And it has changed who I am as a person.

The hijab gives me an outreach and a purpose that is so much bigger than my own little self. Combined with my syncretic upbringing, my literary and cultural sensibilities, the zest for life I inherited from my parents, and my fierce feminism, it becomes a symbol of power for me, a symbol of the infinite possibilities that the universe offers through the channel of life.

On the one hand, it allows me to take my ideas to places where, I feel, they are most needed – to women who would otherwise never have had access to unconventional ideas. On the other, it allows the world to see that a hijabi woman can be as unconventional as any other, a hijabi can be as much of a revolutionary as any other.

Furthermore, it makes me the proud owner of that word which Elizabeth Gilbert speaks of in Eat, Pray Love; the word that she discovered in an ancient Sanskrit text during her stay at an Indian Ashram:

Antevasin

Border dweller. 

“The Antevasin,” writes Gilbert, “was an in-betweener. He was a border-dweller. He lived in sight of both worlds, but he looked toward the unknown. And he was a scholar.”

The one forever at the cusp of two worlds, two traditions, two streams of life and thought. That is who I am.

Antevasin.

There is a verse in the Quran that speaks very eloquently and beautifully of the merging of two seas. “Marajal bahraine yaltaqeyan.”

The verse refers to two seas that flow freely so that they meet together (at one place). The next verse speaks of a “barrier between the two seas by which they do not mix.” It is generally taken to refer to bodies of salt water and fresh water, which merge at a place, a border, but do not mix into each other. Each remains separate and distinct.

But the verse has been interpreted in many other ways, uncovering metaphorical and deeper layers. Certain scholars have interpreted ‘the two seas that meet’ as two of the holiest figures in Islam – Ali and Zahra, who are among the 14 infallibles.

However, the greatest beauty of a spiritual tradition is chiefly that one can draw one’s own mystical, transcendent, metaphorical meanings from it- beyond all scholarly and academic interpretations.

The Quran, as is believed by Muslims, is the channel through which the Creator speaks to the Creation. The conversation between the two, thus, can be a very private and intimate affair, in which the Qalb of the Abd (the worshipper) leads her to the meanings that the Mabud (or the worshipped) wishes to convey. The Qalb being the innermost center of our existence – not the heart or the mind but the point at which all our senses and our abilities and our capacity to love and feel and understand is centered. That point of convergence of the human existence is defined as the Qalb

And when I read the Quran through my Qalb, these verses speak to me of my very existence as the convergence of two streams, the cusp of two distinct realities. Between and yet beyond. 

Belonging nowhere, and therefore, belonging everywhere.  

Always on the border, pushing forth, standing at the confluence of past, present and future- reaching out towards that which can be — towards infinite, limitless possibilities. 

That, ultimately is what my Hijab is to me. It is the ultimate symbol of the Antevasin.

The seeker, the dervish who does not renounce the world, but lives forever at the border, partaking of both: Sounds and Silence. Fullness and Void. Company and Solitude. Movement and Rest. Rainbows and White Light.

Always both.

Extrovert and Introvert. Fire and Water.

Within, and Without. 

Antevasin.

Belonging nowhere, and therefore, belonging everywhere. 


(3 days ago, on 29th March 2020, I turned 33 years old. I thought it was the best time to write about one of the most significant aspects of my life- at the end of one of the most life-altering year of my life. It exploded and blew me to smithereens, and in that destruction, brought me into the full reality of who I am and who I want to be. )

B-R-E-A-S-T (and a biopsy)


Breast.

B
R
E
A
S
T

Careful, don’t say it loudly. The female anatomy must never be spoken of.

Except of course, when it is spoken of as an object of male desire. When the male describes the female body in every detail, defining the object of its gaze the object of its lust- then it is alright for the female body to be spoken of.

In pornography, in erotica, in male fantasies, in locker room jokes, in boy talk, in every thing that has to do with men, it is alright for the female body to be discussed.

But the woman must never speak of her body. She must never speak of her

Bee
Arr
Eee
Aayy
Ess
Tee.

No, she must never say BREAST.

She must never speak of her body in relation to herself. She must never speak of her body as experienced by herself. She must never speak of that body in terms of its utility to her, in its familiarity to herself.

She must never speak of its illnesses, its wounds and its pain. She must sashay and only let that body speak of beauty and of sex. She must never reveal the body’s scars and its aches.

B
R
E
A
S
T

No you must never say BREAST.

You must not mention loudly that there are three painful stones – one lump and two cysts- in your Breast. You must speak of it in hushed tones lest anyone hears you speak of your body in relation to yourself.

B
R
E
A
S
T

But I will say Breast. We will say Breast.

We will reclaim our bodies from the eyes of men, we will reclaim them and speak of them for they belong to us.

We will speak of our breasts in relation to biopsies, we will speak of our vaginas in relation to episiotomies, we’ll speak of our uteruses and our ovaries and we’ll speak of our backs and our slipped discs and our PCODs.

We shall speak of our bodies and their wounds and their pain, we shall speak of our bodies as experienced by us.

B
R
E
A
S
T

I shall say Breast.

Don’t tell me to hide illness for I shall not hide anymore.

I shall speak of the doctor injecting anesthesia and the thick biopsy needle piercing my breast, taking out tissue bit by bit, punching in punching out again and again.
‘Does it hurt’, No not yet. But it will. When the anesthesia wears off it will hurt. Your breast.

It will hurt and it will hurt.

And I shall not hush and I shall not hide. I will speak of the bandage that covers my breast.

I shall speak of my body which is a battlefield and not the object of your desire.

Yes I shall say BREAST. We shall say BREAST.

Because our breasts belong to us. Not to the men who desire us. Not to the children who feed on us.

Our bodies shall be ours and we shall reclaim them. We shall stand solemnly and hold each other’s hands and we shall feel each other’s pain and then we shall say, without a giggle or a whisper or a hint of shame, we shall say

B
R
E
A
S
T

BREAST.

{ I wrote this poem yesterday, every word and every line, inside my head while lying on the operating table in full consciousness, watching the doctor perform a biopsy on me. }

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! 

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.

An enquiry into breasts


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

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

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

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

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

“Why doesn’t baba have them?”

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

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

He had understood.

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

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

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

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

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

I came around calmly, and picked up the brassiere.

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

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

No shame, no embarrassment.

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

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

I laughed and hugged her gratefully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sighed inwardly. Here we go again.

“Nipples. They’re called nipples.”

“Okay… and what are the other nipples?”

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

Yup. Here we go again.

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

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

I allow myself to sigh loudly.

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

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

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

Privacy needs to be delinked from shame.

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

(To be continued in the second part.)

In life and in death


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Body!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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