The patterns of all our suffering


Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning has been called a life-altering book. And yet, it did not seem so to me. I did not find it giving me something revelatory; I did not find it giving me something I had never thought of.

Instead, I found it unbelievably, utterly relatable. Close to my heart and, incredibly, strangely familiar.

I discovered, to my great surprise, that in spite of never having been imprisoned or sent to concentration camp, I was already acquainted with a significant portion of the suffering reflected in it.

It would of course be highly presumptuous of me, not to mention disrespectful, to compare my own puny suffering with that of the ones who experienced the horrors of Auschwitz. 

However, suffering is universal. The ‘types and patterns of suffering’ are universal.

There are wounds that are invisible to the naked eye, wounds whose pain is known only to the one that carries them. Suffering is immeasurable, and therefore, incomparable. There are no statistical tools available to measure and compare suffering – or we would perhaps have been boasting about that too: look how much thicker or heavier my suffering is, compared to yours.

But that is not so, and therefore, suffering can only be defined from the point of view of the person who experienced it. 

The fact that this book has sold over 12 million copies, and continues to sell after 7 decades of first being published, means only one thing: all of us, whether or not we have known the inside of concentration camps, have known suffering very deeply, intimately. Maybe not the same kind of suffering, but the very same patterns of suffering. 

Thus I found that I had gone through all of the stages of suffering described by Frankl, and could identify with them to an alarming level.

Curiously, every one of these stages of suffering made me think of my forthcoming book, The Reluctant Mother. It made me think of the three years recorded in my book: those three years when I became a person entirely different from who I had been so far. 

And that is one of the impacts of trauma upon the human mind and personality, as defined so lucidly by Frankl. Severe and chronic trauma often brings about personality changes in people, making them behave in unprecedented ways, changing them from who they were under non-traumatic circumstances. That is one of the first stages of suffering.

Then there is the moment when, arriving at the concentration camp, Frankl is stripped of everything that has ever belonged to him, including his clothes–including the manuscript of his life’s work that he hid away in those clothes. As Victor writes, he understood in that moment that he had to let go of and say goodbye to everything that had defined his entire life until that moment.

In life we sometimes face moments when we are forced to say goodbye to the dreams and ambitions we had nurtured thus far. And yet, Victor made it out of the camp. As did I make it out of my ‘camp’ and found that, after a significant period of time, life brought back my dreams and meanings to me- in newer, different forms. Just like it did for Victor.

With every word of the book, I found an echo of my own experience.

In particular, the third stage of suffering, in which you imagine freedom as a moment of great and overpowering joy, and yet, when freedom has been withheld for far too long, you lose the capacity to fully experience that joy when it does come.

As Victor wrote of the time they were liberated from the concentration camp:

We wanted to see the camp’s surroundings for the first time with the eyes of free men. “Freedom”—we repeated to ourselves, and yet we could not grasp it. We had said this word so often during all the years we dreamed about it, that it had lost its meaning. Its reality did not penetrate into our consciousness; we could not grasp the fact that freedom was ours.’

‘We had literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly.’

How well have I known this! The numb void that appears when joy and hope have been dashed to the ground, repeatedly and for so long, that when they finally appear on the horizon, you find yourself unresponsive. Vacant. Blank.

I had suffered enough to be aware of these stages, though I am no psychoanalyst or logotherapist.  

At the end of my reading of Man’s Search For Meaning, I felt a great sense of peace—a sense of peace that is detached from joy, for it is possible for peace to be devoid of joy.

I felt a sense of understanding that suffering is, as Frankl says, an inevitable part of life. And that we survive only by finding meanings to it. Were it not for the meanings we seek and find in our suffering, life would often become unliveable. 

And yet, survival is not, ultimately, what brings meaning to life.

‘Has all this suffering, this dying around us, a meaning?’ questioned Victor. ‘For if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival; for a life whose meaning depends upon such a happenstance—as whether one escapes or not—ultimately has no meaning at all.’

Importantly, though, Victor stresses over and over throughout the course of the book, that a person’s first response to suffering must always be to find ways to remove it. To find ways to alleviate it –whether it be the suffering of others, or his or her own self. There is no courage or glory in suffering needlessly when suffering can be removed.

However, finding meaning in suffering becomes imperative for all those kinds of circumstances that life throws at us, from which we find it impossible to escape, even after our best attempts. When we find ourselves bound inescapably to suffering. In those times, the only thing that pulls us across is the search for meaning.

That perhaps is how a person may arrive at a place of peace with all their suffering—not necessarily happy, but at peace, for all the meanings it imbues their life with. Suffering shows you how much there is to learn from life. 

This realisation made me feel a tad proud of myself, too, for I did, independently and through my own reflections, discover everything that Frankl speaks of in this book, which has brought meaning to the lives of millions of people for 7 decades now. 

Perhaps I can hope, with some vanity and some naivety, that my book will also give hope and bring meaning to some people, especially since it speaks of the truths that are most often silenced. 

Perhaps that shall be the ultimate meaning of all my suffering.

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.

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.