‘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. But for me it was never about the race anyway. Never about the destination. It was always about the journey. And as far as the journey is concerned, I have nothing to complain about.

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

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

I still have negative associations attached with that movie.

Here is why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I did.

Image: Nurhadi Cahyono on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

Finding the treasure would be incidental.

What do you live for?


Picture: Alexandra Nicolae on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

What stops me? What do I live for? 

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

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

But I don’t. 

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

I wish I could say I live for him. 

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

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

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

For the myriad pleasures that life brims with. 

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

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

The text of Virginia Woolf’s suicide letter

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

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

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

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

Becoming.

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

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

It must never be thrown away. 

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

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

It is you. 

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

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

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

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

Only as long as I am alive, though. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Picture: Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

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

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


The first thing that struck me about Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, when I first read it in 2017, was the heart-stopping dedication from Carl to his wife Ann Druyan.

“For Ann Druyan,” said the dedication. “In the vastness of space and the immensity of time, it is my joy to share a planet and an epoch with Annie.”

The words seemed to fill the page, enveloping the book and the reader in their embrace – in the intensity of love conveyed in a single line.

Last week ­- nearly three years later – I came across a post on Facebook, no doubt a popular post but one that I’d never seen before, containing the words of Ann Druyan.

Ann’s thoughts about Carl.

“When my husband died,” she said, “because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me-it still sometimes happens-and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous-not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance. . . . That pure chance could be so generous and so kind. . . . That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. . . . That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful. . . . The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”

Picture: NASA

Let me take a moment here to catch my breath and repeat.

‘We found each other in the cosmos and that was wonderful.’

I’m not an atheist. Never have been. Spent all my years believing in the afterlife, believing in something being present beyond the here and now. But I’m also a curious, inquisitive person, and I like to look at things from various angles. And therefore, over the years several times I have tried to consciously imagine what my life would be like if I were an atheist. If I stopped believing in the things that moulded and formed my life right now, would I live any differently?

And the answer has always been that other than the prayers and community rituals, nothing would really change in my life. I’d be the same person I am now, because human values are universal.  

But then, following this chain of thought I’d slowly come to the aspect of afterlife: of life after life, life beyond life. And every time I tried to imagine a world that ends here, ends definitively on this earth, my imagination would bound back with a jolt, the kind of jolt one gets from a high voltage electric fence, throwing you back with unprecedented force. Every time I tried to imagine this being the end, my mind rebelled. For one reason: my father.

I had gone through life, one day at a time, imagining him around me, beside me, asking him questions and listening to his answers. I had gone through life waiting for that moment when I would see him again, in the fathomless beyond. Every time I tried to imagine there being nothing beyond, my mind reared high like an aggressive insolent stallion, refusing to comply. And that would be the end of my atheist imaginings.
   

Until now.

Until Ann’s words moved me to tears and I wept for a long moment. “I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”

This was the first time that something different gave me solace, something other than the thought of the afterlife, of seeing my father again.

I saw him. We saw each other.

He was my father and I knew him for 9 years. In the vastness of space and the immensity of time, how beautiful it was that I had him as my father – a man like him, so ahead of his times, so full of energy and vitality, brimming with joy and cheer, and yet steeped in profound philosophy, in poetry, in spirituality – in sync with the rhythm of the universe. It was my joy to share a planet and an epoch with him, to know him and to learn from him, if only for a little while. We found each other in the cosmos and that was wonderful.

This was the first explanation that soothed me, without promising life beyond life. I tried to turn the thought over and over in my mind, absorbing it from various angles.

And then I thought of little Hasan.

My sensitive, philosophical 7 year old, who already reflects so much on life and death, on life after death. And even more than that, cries for his grandfather whom he never met.  My astonishing little boy who sheds actual tears for a man he never knew, never saw, never spoke to. He cries for my father because “Why did I never meet my Nana?”

And this is where Ann Druyan’s words fall short. For me, perhaps, her words may work. I saw him. We saw each other.

But what of Hasan? His grandfather never saw him. He never saw his grandfather. They did not have a chance to spend years together. They did not find the opportunity to share a planet and an epoch together, at the same time. What of that?

I think then, that we – Hasan and I — we’ll have to hold on to the idea of afterlife a little longer. To feel and to know that my father – his grandfather – is still there, and even though Hasan did not see him, he sees Hasan. He watches over him, guides him, and answers his questions, like he has answered mine for twenty years now.

We will wait then, I think.

Wait for the time when we can find each other in the cosmos again – for the cosmos is not merely the parts that you can see, is it?

Every person you ever truly loved will find you again. In the vastness of space and the immensity of time; vastness that stretches far beyond human imagination.  


    

Picture: NASA

Letter composed atop a train berth


Image by Ramona Schumacher (Unsplash)

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

I was about to fall asleep on my train berth. I felt cold and drew my blanket over my head, and then idly wondered if I might suffocate and be found dead by morning. Passed away peacefully in my sleep. 

That sounds like a nice way to die, peacefully in one’s sleep. Inside a blanket. On a nice little train berth, pleasantly air conditioned, rocking gently to and fro like a cradle, snuggled inside a soft sky blue blanket. I’ve loved sleeping in trains ever since I was a kid. 

And as I thought this I wondered what I’d like to do if it were indeed my last night in this human form? 

I’d had a lovely conversation without jhagda (quarreling) with my better half after quite a long time! Check.

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

But little H!

His face swam before my eyes. Since he and his cousin little S were asleep together on the berth opposite mine, I hadn’t kissed him or hugged him before sleep as I always did. 

And I suddenly knew what I wanted to do if it’s the last thing I did. 

I wanted to write a letter to you, my son. 

I think I’m just projecting myself over here, because I have always yearned to have something written by my father for me to read. I knew he was a man of letters.  Of poetry. Of books and deep thoughts. I wish I could have had something with me that would help me know him better. Who he truly deeply was. His fears, his dreams, his worries, his passions. Every day of my life I keep wishing I knew him more.

But in spite of all my morbid death fantasies, I hope you never have to read this letter as my last to you.

I hope and pray that I stay alive to write you more letters. Because I know what it’s like to have only half of me alive at all times—the other half conjured up only through memory and imagination.

I don’t know who exactly I’m writing this letter to. Grown up Hasan? Teenage Hasan? Child Hasan? 

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

Little H, I don’t worry about you, because I see you’re a fine little man already. You’re thoughtful, sensitive, independent. You have the sprouts of universal love in you. You’re truthful and understand the meaning of justice and compassion. 

You’ll grow up to be a fine man. 

I don’t want to tell you who you should be. All I want is for you to be a good human being. What you do with your gifts is up to you.

And you have many gifts:  you love animals and birds and insects and trees and flowers. The natural world excites you endlessly. You love automobiles and machinery – cars, trucks, planes, bikes and their functioning. You love listening to me recite my poetry to my mother although you don’t understand a word of it. You like flipping through my thick books and sometimes make me read from them to you, just because you want to share what Mamma was reading. You have many gifts dear heart. Life will show you the way and help you discover them as you grow and evolve.  

What I do worry about is that there are too many patriarchal systems around you, woven in inextricable ways that undo all the tapestries of equity and gender justice that I try and weave around you. 

I do know that I would be very unhappy if a son of mine grew up to be a man who does not think of women as his equals, as people who have the same rights as him, and who deserve the same opportunities as him, whatever differences there may be in physiology. Be the man who considers women and men as equals, my son, but also the man who understands the differences between sexes and the struggles emanating from them.

For it is important to stress that equality does not mean similarity.

Two people may be very different in skin colour, hair colour, eye colour, nose shape, mouth shape and so on, but they’re still entitled to being treated as equals- in opportunity, in law and in life. In humanity. People confuse equality with sameness. But being equal doesn’t mean being the same.

Equality is the right to being treated as equals despite all the diversity and differences that exists among human beings.

I would be very sad if you did not grow up to respect women. If you saw the privilege that you had as a man and felt smug and entitled about it- instead of feeling that this privilege came to you at a cost to someone else, and knowing that the onus was on you to correct this skewed reality. Knowing that the onus was on you to take enabling action, which allows someone else to flourish and thrive along with you.

Know this, my son: being born into privilege means it is a test you inherited, to see how much of that privilege you are willing to relinquish for the sake of equality and justice in society, in the world. This applies not just across genders, but across groups that are traditionally underprivileged- financially, religiously, socially. 

What will matter most is how willing are you to speak out for and support those who are marginalised, whose voices are constantly being stifled and whose presence is constantly being crushed. Nothing would make me happier than seeing you stand up and speak for the oppressed.

When in doubt, always use this mantra—look at the power structure. Where is the centre of power? Who holds the most power? Only then will you begin to understand the lay of the land, only then will you be able to understand who is being oppressed. And if you find yourself in a position of power, remember, power is only given to you to help the maximum number of people you can. That and that alone is the correct use of power.

Always remember this: human beings are all fallible. Do not make demi-gods out of them, do not turn your heroes into people you worship. Always be ready to ask questions and be prepared for uncomfortable answers. Humans are always looking for saviours, and from there stems our tendency to put people on pedestals and worship them. Worship no human, my son! Uphold only the principle of humanity above all else. Do not go looking for saviours. People must make efforts to save their own selves. But beyond that, try and save as many others as you can.

Always try to see things from different points of view, even though that perspective may clash with yours. Always try to understand and explore various opposing points of view, and only then make up your mind. And even then, be ready to listen and course-correct.

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

Happy New Year, little H. May you learn many, many new things this year, and may you grow into a man who is a paragon of knowledge, courage, compassion and fairness. Above all, fairness.

All my love,

Mumma

How deeply can you fall in love with a man who doesn’t exist?


The BBC recently released its list of 100 novels that shaped our world, and I was mightily surprised to find The Twilight Saga on it, under the category of ‘Coming of Age’. Not because I am one of its detractors—far from it. But because it’s been panned and run down with such fierce intensity and regularity that one becomes shy even of admitting that one may hold some sort of affinity for the book and its characters!

Not that I am the sort of person who’d ever be ashamed of or embarrassed by the choices I make. In fact the protagonist in my own debut book mentions Twilight at one point as well. But when the BBC endorses this as a book that shaped our world, one can’t help feeling validated.

I read the first book in The Twilight Saga exactly 10 years ago— 2009— at the age of 22. Until that time, the authors I’d read included names such as these: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pearl S Buck, Jane Austen, Arundhati Roy, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Hardy. I had read about 3 Mills & Boons romances before I gave up on them. So I wasn’t remotely interested in Twilight, but my best friend had mentioned it several times in conversation, and I thought of buying the book for her as a gift.

At that time I was a sub-editor in the newspaper Financial Chronicle, my first job. I used to take a quick walk everyday on a short break during office hours, and it was during one of these walks in the Green Park market that I picked up the book, for her. She and I were room-mates in a working women’s hostel in Central Delhi. My office hours were such that I got back only after 11 p.m., while she returned even later, around 1 a.m. (News desk timings, of course.) That meant that dinner everyday was usually around midnight for me. And every night, while I ate, I liked to read. Since I happened to have this book with me that day I casually flipped through the pages just to see what it was all about. I also had the strange habit of not reading the back cover before I read the book, because for some reason that seemed to take away from the delicious pleasure of not knowing anything about the book when I dived into it. A pleasure somewhat akin to walking into the mist on a mountainside. Or exploring uncharted waters.

So it was that I had absolutely no information about Twilight and its story before that moment. I had never watched a vampire movie all my life. I knew three things about Count Dracula: that he sucked human blood, transformed into a bat and lived in Transylvania. And I didn’t even know that Twilight was about vampires. I don’t know how I managed to be so entirely oblivious, but I did.

My fingers flipped carelessly through the pages, stopping on one at random.

“If I was too hasty… if for one second I wasn’t paying enough attention, I could reach out, meaning to touch your face, and crush your skull by mistake…” read the line.

That stopped me right in my tracks. Who’s this man lying next to the girl he loves, but would crush the girl’s skull just by carelessly putting his hand on it? I was intrigued.

Flipped backwards to the first page.  Entered the wet, green, rainy town of Forks.

The rest, as they say, is history.

I read the book all the way from midnight until morning and refused to hand it to my friend for whom I had originally bought it.

I had fallen in love. And oh, what a falling there was.

There was something about this book that curved and wrapped itself slowly round me like a predatory creeper from a horror flick. Purposeful. Refusing to let go. And I was quite the willing prisoner.

Edward Cullen.

He was the very picture of 22-year-old romantic dreams come to life. He was, in one word, the ‘good boy-bad boy’.

The boy who was wreathed in mystery, with a whiff of thrill and danger about him, achingly seductive, intellectually superior, and heartbreakingly handsome. And yet, for all these traits, he was the chivalrous sort of hero, with an old-world air around him. Conflicted and deeply flawed, but always wanting to do the right thing.

And—he watched her sleep. Sigh.

Later, I found out that most people considered this distasteful, equating him with a Peeping Tom.

And I asked myself, why did I not feel outraged at the apparent ‘stalking’? The answer was plain as day. Right from the beginning of the story we, the readers, were made aware of Bella’s obsession with Edward, of her feelings for him. We knew that she had fallen in love with him, and therefore we knew of her consent. We knew that she would like him to be in her room. And that, to my mind, made all the difference. As for Edward, the first night he watched her, he heard her say his name in her sleep. And that is when he knew.

She was dreaming of him.

And so was I.

My obsession with Edward was such that the entire office came to know of it. I decorated my cubicle with a Twilight calendar and poster that I especially asked my cousin to bring for me from the US. Hunted out the movie version and played songs from the movie all day during office hours. It’s a wonder I got any work done. People would enquire politely and mischievously about Edward as if he and I were actually going steady (honest to God!). And at night, as soon as the time came for me to go to the hostel, back to Edward, I would get butterflies in my stomach, pretty much the way that one anticipates meeting an actual lover. I would go to my room and read the book over and over again – all the passages that I loved. I would leave the window open and in the dim light of the lamp I would imagine Edward standing by it, watching me read.

(Talk about romancing my own imagination!)

And then I bought New Moon. In the entire series, that’s the book I least liked –because Edward was missing for more than half the book. I probably finished the book too fast, just waiting for Edward to return (no, I don’t turn to the last page to see what happened. I never do that.) But by and by I also found myself getting angry at Edward. For leaving Bella unilaterally, ostensibly to ‘protect’ her. Didn’t she have a say in this, in things done ‘for her own good’? And then Alice coming to Bella after all this time, just because Bella apparently seems to be committing suicide. How did it even matter to all of them when they just upped and left her?

And yet… when he returned… oh, when he returned. He was forgiven everything just for returning. Edward Cullen was back. That was enough.

But now the equation was complicated. There was Jacob in the picture as well. And I found myself getting increasingly irritated at Edward’s over protectiveness. He was the one who left her. So obviously he had to deal with the consequences. But there he was— getting ever more controlling by the day and restricting her, telling her what was right for her. I never identified much with Bella but I liked how she defied him and did her own thing in Eclipse. Good for her!

But I think Edward pretty much redeemed himself in the tent scene, where he sat in a corner watching Jacob hold Bella in his arms. Just so he could save her from dying of frostbite. That one act compensated for all his past transgressions, so to speak.

The last book in the series made me hopping mad at Edward though. How he refused to make love to her just because he felt that he was hurting her and injuring her. The fact the she felt differently meant nothing. The fact that she wanted it meant nothing. Only what he considered right was right. The pattern of denial and withholding was maddening. Utterly, utterly maddening and exasperating. What sort of damaged man was this?

But what came next in the book felt like an even greater betrayal. Bella was suddenly all about being pregnant and having a baby. That I just couldn’t understand. After all this time, after wanting nothing more than Edward, now suddenly she was willing to die just to have a baby! Why, oh why! What was the point of anything then, what was the point of risking everything to marry this man when you would give up your life just to have a baby? Since when did that become important to her? I felt deeply betrayed by Bella.

However, as the story progressed and Bella changed into a vampire, she found the place where she felt completely herself, the place where she felt she belonged. She found her own special strengths and abilities, the power of throwing out the protective shield from herself, the shield which could fight the powers of the strongest vampires. In the end, it is Bella who saves the day. (For that, I suppose, I could overlook the ‘wanting the baby to death’ part.)

In hindsight though, it is never the last three books that I remember. Always the first book. Always Twilight. Always that feeling of discovering Edward for the first time, always that feeling of staying up all night re-reading the book, and listening to Full Moon Night a hundred times on a loop.

I also hunted out Midnight Sun from Stephenie Meyer’s website, and what a treat it was to read everything from Edward’s perspective! To look into the mind of the conflicted, dangerous, and deeply devoted man. The man who appeared too good to be true and yet, when you looked into his mind, there were so many feelings of insufficiency and self doubt. The sweetest, most endearing part of Midnight Sun was knowing how elated and unbelievably lucky Edward felt every time Bella said ‘yes’ to him (when all this time she was the one thinking of him as out of her league). How he imagined that someday she would say ‘yes’ to a normal human male — why would she want a monster like him anyway? And then his indescribable elation every time she said ‘yes’ to him. That emotion, that joy of being accepted by the woman he loved, was unforgettable – because it let me peek into the mind of a man deeply in love. It was beautiful.

Edward Cullen became my reference for the unbelievable, the impossible man. Not perfect. But unspeakably irresistible. And maddeningly flawed.

And for that alone, The Twilight Saga has an undeniable place in my life.

It’s funny though, that BBC placed it under the coming-of-age category, because for me it is the age-defying staple of my life. The book that makes me a young adult again, or perhaps more appropriately, a teenager. It’s comfort food for my teenage soul. Like piping hot tomato soup. A bowl of mushy cornflakes with warm milk. A plateful of steaming Maggi. Never gets boring, never gets old. And you never outgrow it.

Don’t we all have that one sustaining, everlasting obsession? Perhaps not all of us. But those of us who subsist on our own imaginations – we do. Oh, we do.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep


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

(W.B. Yeats)

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

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

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

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

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

World Outside.

The words stung me.

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

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

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

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

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

Cross nursery teacher.

Being addressed like a kindergartener, robbed of all dignity.

Hit me like a punch in the gut.

Hit me with the severity that accompanies guilt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.)