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 way 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 that man, 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?

————————

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.

Reclaiming Fairy tales


New Age Fairytales

Fairy tales have never had it as bad as they do in recent times. But they’ve never got it quite as good either.

They’ve been receiving a bad rap for promoting stereotypes among little girls—persisting in upholding the idea of the damsel in distress, waiting for a prince to rescue her— and with good reason. For times have changed and the stories we tell our children need to change as well. The good part, though, is that instead of discarding them altogether, writers, especially young writers, are reclaiming the fairytale. The fantasy, the magic, even the love— transforming and adapting to a new world.

One such reclamation is ‘New Age Fairy Tales’, a book of short stories published by The Write Place, written and illustrated by teenage author Ariana Gupta. The book comes accompanied with a jigsaw puzzle too, featuring all the heroines from the cover. All of 16, Ariana has not just adapted the timeless tales of The Little Mermaid, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, to the world she lives in and the world she wishes to see, but has also given them a distinctly Indian flavour—with the dauntless heroines sporting sarees and lehengas and bindis!

And Ariana has the freshest take on all these fairytales; certainly not your usual predictable fare. So for instance, Cinderella is not the poor orphan forced to do housework day and night, but the career girl forced by her boss to do double the work at half the pay her male colleagues are given! What’s worse, her contribution is never acknowledged and her unique ideas for the company get appropriated by the boss. So, how does Cinderella get to the grand official ‘ball’ where the new owner would be chosen, and present her ideas as her own? That’s for you to find out!

Then there’s Snow White who takes colourism head on. Instead of merely doing a binary retake and pitting Black against White, the author transforms Snow White into a breathtakingly unique creature altogether, with a face that’s a multi-hued shimmering canvas of all the shades of skin there can be! Now that’s a real fairy tale.

Most importantly, though, the book also reclaims other female characters from the stories. The witch in The Little Mermaid, for instance, instead of being a conniving creature, becomes an advisor and a guide, helping the Mermaid understand how love does not ask you to give up your selfhood. The Evil Queen in Snow White isn’t evil at all, but a caring step-mother. Despite that, her love is typically rooted in tradition, making her the very portrait of an Indian mother—forever trying to find cures for her daughter’s unique skin, forever trying to make her fair!

The stories are refreshing and delightful, not just for children but also the mothers out there. They make you chuckle and nod, and they take you by surprise.

And lest you think the men are all missing, there are positive male characters as well. And that’s important, for our society is unfortunately going through a bit of ‘feminism fatigue’. People look askance at gender rights advocates, and conversations are beginning to reflect alarm and concern at ‘men being alienated’. So people begin to predict what a ‘New age’ fairy tale would perhaps look like—wiping out the men from the scene and vilifying them, which would just be sexism in another form, truth be told. But that’s not the case here.

Prince Charming helps Cinderella in her ultimate goal, but the goal isn’t merely marriage, and one doesn’t necessarily need to be in love to help out a friend in need. A very important message for children, there.

Beauty’s Beast doesn’t morph into a handsome Prince but she loves him nonetheless, for his beautiful mind and for being supportive of her scientific research, for being a person with a golden heart who does not see her merely as a superficial ‘Beauty’ but stands by the love of his life in her intellectual pursuits. Now that’s the kind of love story I would want not just my daughter to read, but my son as well. So that he knows that being handsome is not enough (or even necessary) to be a good partner for someone, unless you are kind and smart and supportive and caring as well. And also, that the person who loves you will not love you for something as superficial as your looks.

While on the subject of sons, though, there is one flaw in the book that needs correcting—and I speak from experience as the mother of a young child. As you turn the cover of the book and come to the very first page, here’s what you find written: “For Little Girls With Big Dreams.”

My 6-year-old son, whom I am doing my best to bring up with an understanding of gender equality and respect for all humanity, was quite excited to see the book when I tore off the envelope that enclosed it. He opened it eagerly because he loves a good story and has not been taught to be prejudiced against things that are apparently “girls’ stuff.” But then he turned the page and saw that it was meant to be a book for “little girls with big dreams.” And he put it back down.

“This is a book only for girls,” he said. I tried to convince him otherwise, by pointing out the other books that had male protagonists in them, but were read by girls as well—Harry Potter being an excellent example. I didn’t succeed too much, though. And learnt something myself in the process.

Stories with girls and women need not be positioned and marketed as only for girls and women—in the same way that stories with boys are not positioned only for boys. Fairy tales are for children, regardless of their gender. Boys need to know about girls and girls need to know about boys. Men need to understand women and women need to understand men. And if we don’t read about and listen to each other’s perspectives, how do we begin to understand each other?

The entire point of reclaiming the fairy tale is to spin a new narrative and set in motion the process of building a more balanced world. A world where both genders can thrive, where all colours are beautiful, and where a relationship isn’t a competition of dominance, but a picture of all-embracing love.

That’s when we all live happily ever after.

 

 

 

The severing of the chord


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Today you came to me and showed me how to remove the cheese slice from the wrapping without breaking it. Because you like the entire square intact.

Little Hasan, you’re growing up.

Every day, I watch you grow up in tiny, imperceptible ways. I notice the change in your tone, in your manner of speaking. How you assert your opinion, instead of just throwing a tantrum. I notice how you want more details, more logical answers to questions. I see you rising like the sun and I’m filled with wonder. Awe.

I could never perhaps, be the kind of mother I wanted to be. I could never be the happiest mom on earth, the doting mother, the sacrificing mother. Perhaps I’d never be the woman who gets everything done on time, in the most patient manner. I was perhaps never cut out to be a mother at all.

But the older you grow, the more I wonder at motherhood. It makes me feel things I’ve never felt before. Because I see you develop into yourself, develop more fully into a human being.

For it is not enough to be born human; we must grow into one as well.

You’re growing into a human now, a human who has been given to me— to love to protect, to nurture. But never to control.

Dear boy, this is what I want to tell you, whenever you read this.

I wish to be the mother who learns from you. Never the mother who is irked by ‘young upstarts telling her how to do things better’. I wish to be the mother who is contradicted by you. Never the mother who cannot stand ‘being talked back to’. I want to be the mother who sees the world in a new light, and the light is shown by you.

I want you to be your own person, little boy. I want you to be you.

Just as I want me to be me, as well.

I have always guarded my independence and my identity, my dreams and my aspirations, and never wished to dissolve entirely into the role of mother or wife. And that is why, I think, I cannot look upon you only as my son. You are your own person. An individual. A human. And it fills me with awe and wonder. Beyond being my son, you are someone who has two eyes, two ears, a nose, two hands, two feet—and a brain and heart. All distinct from mine. Why should you see, hear, smell, touch, think and feel the way I do?

I do not wish to see you develop into an image or shadow of me. Why should you? God made you into a distinct individual, with your own destiny. There was a time, little boy, when all I wanted was to be who my father wanted me to be. He was the one who was most proud of me, the one who most pushed me to achieve. And then, somewhere along the journey, I realised that my dreams are my own. I have a path to follow, a destination to reach. And that doesn’t belong to my father; it belongs to me. That was when I cut loose from the dream of being an officer of the law, like him. That was when I went on to explore who it was that I actually wanted to be.

I am my own person. A person who takes her own decisions and becomes who she wants to be. I am not my father’s shadow, and I’m sure he would never want me to be a shadow at all—anybody’s. We were all put on this earth with our own distinct minds and hearts and senses, to reach out to our destinations and fulfil our destiny.

And that, dear one, is why I hope you’ll show me new facets of the world through your eyes. Filling me with even more awe, for the human that you become.

The umbilical chord is severed at birth, my son. Because that is the end of you being an extension of me.

Now you have come out into the world.

Now be whoever you wish to be.

The laughing bride!


 

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My childhood friend on her big day

A few days ago, I read an article by Taslima Nasreen, saying that Deepika Padukone had shattered an age-old custom and set a precedent for Indian brides, by posting pictures of herself laughing at her wedding.

And though I’m very happy for Deepika and Ranveer, and unequivocally in favour of the laughing bride, I am inclined to disagree with Ms Nasreen a bit. Just a little.

Deepika isn’t the first to shatter the custom. She’s just part of the changing fabric of Indian society, although by virtue of being a super star, she has the ability to grab eyeballs and influence millions, which amplifies manifold the significance of her laughter. However, that said, she is in no way the first.

At the risk of sounding hugely conceited and raising smirks and snickers, I will now give myself a pat on the back and declare that I was the one to break the custom, not Padukone. And I’m not a movie star either. (What the heck—this is my blog, where else can I indulge in such unrestrained narcissism?)

So here’s how it was. I was chit chatting with my friends and grinning away to glory, perched proudly on the bridal stage at my wedding in 2010—eight years before Padukone. I’m the trendsetter here—by a long decade.

The elderly ladies at my wedding would whisper to each other, scandalised at this brazen display of happiness, and one of them was later known to remark, with some displeasure, that the bride looks very contented. “Dulhan badi mutmayeen lag rahi hai!” she would declare with disdain. One of my best friends from school put it very succinctly, sometime later: “Well, you’re the girl who’s never been silent on stage, all through school and college. No one could have expected you to be silent on the grandest stage of your life!”

Touché!

(The funniest, or perhaps saddest, part in all of this is that when the wedding videos came, I realised that the videographer had deliberately edited out all the scenes where I’m laughing, with my teeth on display. Drat the world!)

However, I must give Nasreen credit for one thing: she hit the nail on the head. Mine was a love marriage. The road to wedding tears is often paved with arranged marriage apprehensions. Not just the evil paraphernalia that marriages in our side of the world have become associated with, but the very nature of arranged matches where you step into a life with a complete stranger.  That’s not to say that all arranged marriages are doomed or loveless—my parents were an excellent example of one such match that was always mistaken for a love marriage, by everyone who met this happy couple. But it does bring its fair share of fears, which, at least at the outset, aren’t present in the love marriage scenario.

So it was with me. I knew exactly who it was that I was marrying. I knew his family, I was comfortable with what I’d chosen. We’d been waiting for this day; it was a moment of joyous culmination. No nervous apprehensions of what lay ahead. (That does not, in any way, mean that what lay ahead could have been predicted. What lay ahead was perhaps equally torturous— tears or no tears. But ignorance is bliss, as they say.)

And that moment on stage was preserved perfectly in time, untouched by any sombreness or grief.

However, this would be a very one-dimensional view of the bride’s tears at her wedding if I did not also take into account several other factors—separation from the parents being one of the biggest. Most girls have never lived away from their parents before they get married, and it is a poignant moment when you know that now you shall be leaving the nest, making a new and separate life for yourself. For the parents as well, this brings a wave of mixed feelings—letting go of the precious creature they’d been nurturing all this while. Watching her step fully into a distinct life.

For the boy’s parents, this moment might come at places other than the wedding. I’ve seen boys’ mothers cry softly when their sons leave the nest to go out into the world and make an independent life for themselves. It’s just that for girls, at least in our side of the world, this usually doesn’t happen before the wedding.

For me, though, it did. I’d already been living in Delhi, away from my family, for over a year before I got married. My moment of realisation that I was finally leaving it all had come a year before my wedding, an overwhelming feeling punctuated by silent tears. There’s more to crying than just grief, or fear.

And thus it came to pass that my wedding ceremony went by without me shedding a single tear—not even at the rukhsati, the sending off of the bride.

I was far too busy murmuring rapid instructions to my sister to hold me properly, and heaven help her if she let me fall to the floor clumsily in all my wedding regalia. All this while my uncle stood by me, chuckling softly.

In my family, as is the custom, a sehra is tied to the bride’s forehead (a bit like the groom’s sehra but shorter) before she is sent off. I’ve no clue about the origins or reasons for this ritual, and I’d gladly do away with it when it’s time to marry off my son, if my future daughter-in-law so wishes. The result of all this sehra-tying is that the bride is momentarily robbed of her vision and has to be led away by family members into the groom’s car, entirely blind.  Now I couldn’t even control where I stepped, when I’d controlled half the wedding ceremony and rushed about from banks to tailors’ shops one day before my wedding—complete with henna painted hands.

So it came to pass that beneath my blinding sehra I was fiercely whispering instructions to my sister. “Where’s my vanity box? I hope it’s being kept in the car and not being left behind.”

“Where’s my purse? Did you pick it up? It’s got money in it! For heaven’s sake don’t leave it at the stage.”

“Who has my jewelry case? One set of keys is in my purse. Who’s been handed over the other set? Just make sure it’s sent to my room and not misplaced!”

So on and so forth.

Control freaks don’t cry. They instruct.

But then a few years later, one of my former classmates did me one better, for she posted a picture of herself pinching her husband’s cheek on her D-Day — complete in wedding attire. I’ll have to admit I rued not having done that with mine!

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However, now that I think of it, my family brought in the laughing tradition 20 years ago at my uncle’s wedding. I was about 10 years old, and had been officially stationed by the bride’s side to make her laugh.

My grandma, the bride’s mother-in-law, would keep coming up to her and telling her, “Darling! You can smile! It’s your wedding! No need to bend your head and look demure! Be the happy bride.”

And I, completely smitten by my aunt-bride, kept cracking jokes about family members to make her laugh. We have plenty of pictures in the album with her teeth on full display. I guess it’s in the blood. My family loves laughing brides.

Perhaps these may be exceptions to the norm, but the norm certainly is changing rapidly. We have far more smiling brides— blushing, yes, but smiling too—than crying ones, movie depictions be damned.

Ms Nasreen needs to open her eyes to changing Indian culture. The joyous bride is hardly as big an anomaly now as she was, say, a decade or two ago. Laughing brides are quite in vogue.

The bar was set a decade ago.