Do you feel fear?


Image by Hu Chen on Unsplash

Many of you—my readers on this blog and on social media — so kindly and sweetly message me to tell me that you love how fearless I am, and that it inspires you. I feel humbled by your love. 

In truth, though, I am not fearless. Nobody is fearless. 

—————

When I was 6 years old, my father, who always wanted to make his daughters bold and undaunted, put an airgun in my hand and taught me how to take aim. Then he pointed at a target he made on the wall and said- “Shoot.” 

I was afraid of the gun, and the sound it made. But not once did I say ‘no’ to my father. Not once did I say: I can’t do it.

I took the gun and aimed. I hit the mark. 

This is my first remembered experience of moving past fear. From that moment on, I could very easily hold the gun and shoot a target on the wall. I forgot my fear.

I learnt to drive pretty late in life, because my mother couldn’t get past her fear of road accidents- which is perfectly understandable, since she lost her husband in one of those. Ironically, she’s pretty fearless herself, but when it comes to her children she cannot get past her fear. I have felt acutely the restrictive effects of this ‘love guided by fear’ and I have consciously attempted to not love my son in this restrictive manner. 

I want to love him like my father loved me- the love that makes you fearless. 

When I was 7 years old, my father would make me sit on his lap while he drove his jeep, and late at night on the empty road of our government officers’ colony, he would put my little hands on the steering and ask me to steer. He had such dreams for me, so many things that he wanted me to learn.

However, I actually became a proper driver only at the age of 28. Let me rewind a little and tell you that story.

When I was 20, I decided to learn driving no matter what my mother said, and secretly asked our driver to teach me. I would make him shift to the shotgun seat and try driving to the University myself. Slowly I did learn to drive, but then I needed to practice taking the car to other places and other routes as well, and of course my mother wouldn’t let me take the car anywhere else. She was apprehensive and scared enough when she found out I was driving the car with the driver sitting beside me, and no way would she let me practice alone. So I couldn’t really brush up my driving skills.

A couple of years later, I moved to Delhi for my job, followed by marriage the next year. Being a professional in a demanding field, I hardly had any time left to learn and practice driving, and after 2 years, in 2012 I became a mother. Life gave me no space to even think about driving.

Until 2014.  I was in Aligarh then, experiencing the lowest phase of my life. I decided I was going to finally learn to drive properly. Contacted the Driving Training school and began to train again. I had obviously forgotten everything I had learnt earlier. But in 15 days my training was complete and I was asked to practice daily to become an expert. And yet, just like last time, mom refused to give me access to the car. I was stuck again.

So after a few months, I contacted the training school again, and did the 15 day training yet again—I figured this was the only way I could get to practice.

When I got back to Delhi after a year, I finally had access to my own car. S, My husband, would sit beside me and I would drive around the township where we lived, while he guided me. And then one day he gave me the keys and said—now go drive on your own.

I was afraid. I was very afraid of taking the car out all alone. But I took a deep breath, and stepped past my fear. That was the day I actually began to drive.

From that day on, I drove my son to school every morning, and picked him up from school every afternoon, getting plenty of driving practice. But I still didn’t take the car far out into the city.

Until one day, a friend of mine asked me why I don’t drive to Delhi myself. I confessed to her that I was afraid.

“But it’s just like driving here, inside the township. No difference! If you can drive here, you can drive there too!”

So the next day, I drove the car for 30 kilometres. That first day, I felt my heart in my throat. I felt fear pulsating in me. But I didn’t give up.

The day didn’t go by without minor mishap, I must admit. I did graze the back bumper of another car, misjudging the distance. But I learnt and grew. From then on, every day that I drove out into the city, I learnt and I grew, driving across greater and greater distances.

Then one day I took a different route to Delhi—via the highway. The first time that I had to face huge trucks and buses honking at me angrily and coming at me like whizzing arrows. I felt fear in every pore of my body. Every nerve in my head tightened and knotted up in stress. But I gritted my teeth and told myself—I won’t let this get the better of me.

And I didn’t.

Another time, while returning from an assignment at night, I lost my way. Google maps completely betrayed me and took me all around the world (as it felt at the time!) and I was nearly choking with fear. I had no idea where I was and how I was going to get home. Relief washed in waves over me, when I finally found the way back home, stopping by the roadside or at police stations and asking for directions.

That was the day I lost the fear of being lost.

It was the day I learnt how to find alternate routes, the day I discovered that even if I got lost, I possessed the skill to navigate myself back towards the right track. In more ways than one.

Earlier this year, I tasted the metallic, pungent surface of fear in the lobby of the Max Hospital, right before I had my breast biopsy. Those moments before the biopsy, when Sajjad and I sat in the lobby of the hospital, waiting.

Fear gripped my throat, sucking it dry, and churned in the pit of my stomach.

“Game face.” I kept repeating to myself. “Game face!”

Just to prove to my fear that it would never, ever get the better of me, I asked S to take pictures of me in the hospital gown, sitting on the operating table, minutes before the biopsy needle punched into my breast. And so I was photographed—all grinning and making V for Victory signs with both hands—just before I was operated upon.

Doesn’t mean I hadn’t been afraid just two minutes earlier.

We all experience fear. The reason some of us come across as fearless is because we refuse to let fear dictate our lives. We refuse to give in to fear.

We rebel, we protest, we walk resolutely ahead. 

So when you all tell me that you love my fearlessness, I want to tell you that you are fearless too. We’re all fearless, though we all feel fear.

Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to move beyond it.

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


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

This happened in September last year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It came from my mind. But who was this?  

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

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

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

Silence.

I wasn’t amused. It wasn’t funny.

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

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

“But … there’s your book.”

Silence.

She sensed my resolve wavering.

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

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

“Then that is pleasure, isn’t it?”

Yes. It is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almost as if I travelled through time.

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

In life and in death


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Body!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reclaiming Fairy tales


New Age Fairytales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s when we all live happily ever after.

 

 

 

The severing of the cord


Mother-Wallpaper-02.jpg

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

Little Hasan, you’re growing up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now you have come out into the world.

Now be whoever you wish to be.

My numerous ‘wives’


maids

 

I had never, ever imagined in my life that one day I’d be writing a piece on domestic helps. The ubiquitous and yet elusive maid. The subject of endless angst, animated discussions and innumerable internet memes and videos.

It is very common for Indian homes to have domestic helps—mostly part-time workers, but sometimes also full-time ones, in the form of live-in maids, whose services are generally utilised by working mothers like myself.

Lately, I’ve realised that the relationship between a woman and her help is uncannily like the relationship between the man of the house and his woman, as in the days of yore. In fact, the manner in which most women, including me, speak of our domestic helps is almost exactly the way that patriarchy-infested males speak of women such as me.

Let me explain.

You feel they are upstarts, they are getting too big for their boots, and demanding too many privileges. That they have forgotten their place. That no matter how good you are to them, it is never enough.

Yes it is true that there are domestic workers who swindle and cheat and take advantage of their employers, just as there are women who, when they assume a position of power, become more Evil Queen than good witch Glinda of the South.

And yet, these maids belong to that category of people who’ve been exploited, underpaid, trampled over for centuries. They have not had even a semblance of rights. They’ve been at the mercy of the maai-baap. And now, when they have some bargaining rights, when they have the audacity to demand and talk back to power, the maai baap resents the usurping of centuries-old privilege.

So I have to pay my maid a lot more, accept most of her demands, and complain to my friends how these maids are a necessary evil. You wish you didn’t have to tolerate them, but what can you do, you poor thing, you need them to run your life smoothly. Much like the husband that declares how his wife is a necessary evil, how he wished he hadn’t married her but then she is the one who keeps his household running smoothly.

So yes, while this may feel like an ‘inconvenience’ for us—tolerating demands, paying higher prices—it is definitely a good thing for humanity in general, especially as far as human dignity is concerned. Nobody is a maai baap anymore. It’s a straightforward employer-employee equation.

Now if only I could get some loyalty. Sigh.

Oops, there I go again!

Conditioning takes such a long time to be overcome.

——————

Postscript : This blog post was originally written several months ago. In the time that passed I realised that I have actually had several loyal domestic helps, but had to lose them when they relocated to the villages they had come from, for personal reasons. So I’ve had plenty of loyalty as well. And I’ve absolutely no reason to complain.

There are good people in this world and there are mean ones. There are good maids, and there are mean maids. Lord bless the good ones, for they literally keep our lives from collapsing!

Importantly, they also show us the mirror, giving us a glimpse of what we’d do when we’re in a position of power. As the best parameter for evaluating people is to see what they do with power once they have it.

The cabbie and me: love in a ride


You never know what can happen in a two-hour-long cab ride, do you?

Love in a ride

Yesterday, on my way to Gurgaon, I overheard the cab driver talking on the phone. I was nervous at first about him talking while driving, because for one I’m paranoid about safety and for another, if a traffic policeman caught us and gave him a ticket, I’d be late for my meeting.

I requested him to put the phone on hands-free mode, both for his sake and mine. And that’s how something he said on the call snagged my attention.

“Arre na, na bhabhi. Isey to main divorce doonga bas. Divorce. Beta ho gaya mera, ab kya fikar hai?”

(Don’t worry, sis-in-law, I’ll divorce this woman for sure. Now that I have a son, what’s there to worry about?)

I was shocked and saddened to hear these words, and thought of saying something to him. But then I reminded myself that I have to stop making everyone’s business my own, and learn to keep my mouth shut at times.

However, fate decided it wanted me to intervene. So within 10 minutes, the guy made another call. I realised from the tone of his voice that he had called his wife. He spoke very gruffly, in a voice one uses to reprimand someone severely and assert one’s superiority over them.

“Kahan hai tu? Phone kyun band kar rakha hai? Kab se mila raha hun phone!” Where the heck are you?Why is your phone swtiched off? I’ve been trying to call you since ages!

I couldn’t hear what the wife said. But apparently her reply calmed him somewhat.

“Hmm.” he said, still gruff but not rebuking her. “Beta kaisa hai?” How’s our son?

I think she must have said he’s crying, because the man replied, “To chup kara na usko pehle!” So soothe him first, idiot!

Slowly, as the husband and wife talked, I saw a change come over the man. His voice softened, his tone mellowed, he began to smile and talk in an intimate manner that is typical of young lovers. “I’ll come to take you back tomorrow… you can go shopping tonight, there’s this place which has nice clothes..” It seemed like he was trying to woo her, like young husbands will often do when their wife is mock-fighting with them.

I was surprised. This does not sound like a couple on the brink of divorce! Not at all. Why then…?

The man disconnected the call. I couldn’t stop myself.

“Bhaiyya…” I addressed him as ‘brother’ (which is generally how we address  strangers in India.) “Aap bura to nahi manege, ek baat puchun?” You won’t mind if I ask you something?

“Kya hua madam?” What happened?

“Why do you want to divorce your wife? I’m sorry I couldn’t help but overhear…”

“Arrey madam! Bohot pareshan karti hai. Dimagh kharab kar rakha hai!” She is such a nuisance, a huge trouble. She’s become a headache for me!

“Why? What does she do?”

“She keeps asking to go to her parents’ house and then doesn’t want to come back from there. I let her go when she wants but when it’s time for me to get her back she does all kinds of drama!”

“Bhaiyya,” I said in a sympathetic tone. “Everyone misses their parents, that’s why we want to visit them frequently. But yeah, she shouldn’t create a fuss about coming back. After all she married you…”

“Arrey madam, what shall I tell you, I have a love marriage! Love marriage! I love her so much! I left my family for her! I came here to Delhi to earn money and left my family in the village! And now she doesn’t want to come back from her parents home!” He had launched headlong into his tale now. I suspect he’d been wanting to talk about it for some time. “I haven’t met my parents since two years now!”

“Oh,” I said, sympathetically. “That’s sad! You should go and meet your parents once in a while, even if you’re working here. Maybe not very frequently, but don’t desert them altogether. You can speak with your wife and try to make her understand, try to find a middle ground…”

“Madam what should I tell you! I left everything for her. I give her all the money I earn. I bring her expensive gifts. Still she is not happy!”

“Why? Did you ask her why she is not happy?” I was genuinely concerned.

“I don’t know Madam! She keeps asking stupid things. Now she doesn’t want me to be a cab driver, says there are too many accidents happening on the road. Well, I am not so educated. I am barely a high school pass-out. I won’t be able to earn as much from a job as I can earn from this cab. And she says these things despite being more educated than me! She is a graduate! She has a bachelor’s degree in science!”

“So you please drive carefully, and you reason with her that even in a job you’d still have to get out on the road, and accidents can happen anywhere. But please be careful in your driving as well. She will see reason, I’m sure. But please don’t break up your family. That’s a very sad thing to happen.” I smiled inwardly at how easily he praised his wife and openly accepted that she had a higher degree in education than him. He did love her in his heart. He only had to be reminded of it.

So on and so forth we went, him detailing his problems with his wife, and me trying to help him see that these were not issues that couldn’t be resolved. At one point he spoke about the ‘bhabhi’ (sis in law, though not necessarily. In India, even neighbours are addressed fondly as brother and sister in law) whom he had just spoken to, and revealed that his wife didn’t get on well with her. She had major fights with the woman. And I had understood, from the beginning, that the bhabhi had issues with this man’s wife.

“Do you all live together?” I asked him.

“No, we live next door to her. But bhabhi comes over to help my wife with the baby, and also because I am at work all day and then Radha is alone.” Radha being his wife.

“Hmm. Well, if they don’t get on well together, maybe you should limit bhabhi’s visits to your home. Ask your wife to minimise contact with that woman.” And then I added, “Bhaiyya, lots of people in this world will try to poison your mind–or your wife’s. They will provoke you into doing something that you will regret later. If you break your home now, who gets affected? Your wife, your son, and you. Bhabhi will go on living her life as she was earlier. Her life won’t be spoilt, yours will be. So beware of people who urge you to break your home. These are but trivial issues.” I said somberly.

The man grew thoughtful now. “Yes… there will be nobody to give me food even.” He mused. But his mind rebelled. “But she is such a nagger. I can’t live with her,” he insisted. And then added, “But I will surely take my boy away from her. Larka to main nahi dunga usko.” He spoke menacingly.

“Arrey bhaiyya kaisi baatein kar rahe ho! Ye to bohot bara paap hooga, chhote se bachhe ko maa se alag karna!” This will be such a grave sin, I said, a crime to separate a small boy from his mother. “You are a grown man, and yet, tell me can anyone love you more than your mother? Do you think anyone would be able to take care of your boy and love him like his mother?”

The man smiled guiltily and said, “You’re right madam. Baat to aap sahi kar rahe ho…”

“How old is your son?”

“One. He is one year old.”

“What! Just a year old! He must still be drinking his mother’s milk!” I was distraught at the very idea.

“Yes ma’m, he does drink his mother’s milk…” he said slowly, thoughtfully, as if he had never considered this fact.

“Then? How big a sin will it be to separate a suckling boy from his mother?” I pleaded with him.

“Par main kya karu madam, mujhe bhi to koi chahiye hoga jiske sahare zindagi guzaroon!” He was adamant. What can I do madam, I would also need someone (the son) in my life for happiness!

“Arrey baba, you keep both of them, na! Why do you want to break up your home? All three of you need each other!” I insisted. “Bhaiyya when you’ll be old and weak, nobody will look after you more than your wife! I have seen this with my grandfather. His two kids took good care of him when he was ill, but no one served him day and night tirelessly like his wife. She stood by him till the very end. Patni se zyada pati ki seva kaun kar sakta hai?” I added pleadingly.

“That’s true madam…” he was thoughtful now.

“Aur aapki to love marriage hai bhaiya!” I turned a bit filmy here, “Sachha pyaar agar mil jaaye life mein to usey chhorna nahi chahiye!” You had a love marriage, and when a person finds true love in life, one mustn’t let it go.

“Madam, college time se!” He impressed upon me, smiling. “I began seeing her when she was in college!” He was reminiscing about the good things now, which was a good sign.

“You know mine is also a love marriage?” I told him. ” 7 years Masha Allah. It’s been 7 years now. It’s not like we never fought. We had major ups and downs. Major fights. But we didn’t break up our home. We did our best to resolve our problems because we both knew that we loved each other.”

“Madam, love to karti hai woh mujhe…” Now he was softening. My wife loves me, he said. “When I told her I will divorce you she burst into tears and cried and cried and cried.” He said softly, with a little smile of love.

“See? She doesn’t want to leave you. You talk to her, reason with her. Ask her does she want to break up her home? She wouldn’t want that, would she? The way you tell me, she doesn’t seem like a bad person. Just immature. Childish. That can be sorted.”

“Arrey, madam. She IS immature. She is 18 years old.”

“What!!” I was honestly astonished. Only 18 and a mom!

“And how old are you?” I questioned.

“I am 21, madam.”

“Oh, Good heavens! You are so young! I am 10 years older than you!” I blurted out. ” Oh my goodness, now I can see why this is all happening! You both are so young and already have such responsibilities upon you!”

And then I literally begged him, “Bhaiyya main aapse vinti kar rahi hun, please, please don’t break up your home! You both are so, so young! You need to give your marriage a chance! For God’s sake please, just think of me as your elder sister! I am 10 years older than you and I have more experience in this department, and I’m literally pleading with you. Give your marriage a chance!”

I continued, “I heard you talking to your wife. You were talking sweetly with her! It doesn’t seem at all that the situation between you two is so terrible that it can’t be salvaged. You two are still in a good place, you can sort it out.”

He smiled when I mentioned him talking sweetly to her. “Arrey madam, I buy her expensive gifts! She asked me for a phone, I just asked her to name the brand! I give her whatever she wants!”

“That’s sweet,” I said, happy because he was smiling now.

“Well, you know what,” he said sheepishly, “I just threaten her with divorce. I…. I love her. I don’t really want to leave her.” He spoke with emotion, and what he said next lifted my spirits. “Madam, apni JAAN hai woh!” She is my life!

I grinned at him. We had reached our destination, both physically and metaphorically. I took out cash from my purse and paid him.

“Okay bhaiyya, thank you for the ride–and remember, whenever you begin to think of divorce, just remember that there is a sister of yours whom you met in this cab, and you remember her words–if you have found love, don’t let it go.”

He smiled at me, and I smiled at him. And got out of the cab.

I’ve no clue whether this divorce will actually be averted or not. But I can say at least this much: he began to remember the good things about his marriage and his wife. Began to remember how much he loves her and how much she loves him.

Sometimes, that’s all we need–to talk, to try and fix what’s broken and not just throw it out. Sometimes all we need is to remember the love.

 

 

 

It takes a village to raise a Mother


 

Recently, on a mothers’ group, someone posted an anonymous post, and it was a very distressed mother from the looks of it.

The mother was extremely upset—to the point of hitting her child, locking him up in the room and letting him cry himself to sleep—and the reason was that he “preferred” her mom-in-law over her. He followed his grandma around wherever she went but he didn’t do the same for his mom. The kid even followed his grandfather—her father in law—but just didn’t seem to care about his mom. It made her so furious that she refused to breast feed her child that day. And then she also spoke about how she had left a high paying job for the kid and she is not back in shape after having had a baby.

At first look people would judge this mother, calling her horrible and irresponsible and all sorts of insensitive things. Almost everyone was on the ‘side’ of the baby, little realising that the mother and the baby are always on the same side. When one is angry and hurt, the other cannot remain happy.

This post was a cry for help. This lady needs a lot of love and tons of hand holding and hugging—and more importantly, empathy.

Having been there myself—hitting my son and unintentionally taking my frustrations out on him—I truly, deeply feel for mothers who are so distressed.

The problem in the above case, the way it appears to be, is that the lady in question has many frustrations piling up one upon another. She is hurt and upset by the fact that she had to let go of a successful career, and she probably has major differences with her in-laws, so the idea of her son—whom she considers a part of her soul, and for whom she made major sacrifices—preferring those people over her, people whom she probably dislikes intensely, makes her feel unloved and defeated.

The lady didn’t speak of her husband, but I’m guessing there’s a lot of frustration there as well. If the husband were supportive and affectionate, she would find the love that she craved from him and not feel quite so possessive of her son. The boy in question is merely 2 years old.

This mother is perhaps a quintessential example of distressed moms in our society, who suffer intensely on account of a lack of love and appreciation. Lack of love makes us lonely and angry. Lack of love makes us bitter.

In addition this is also a showcase of the problem that ails women by and large, even unconsciously: having to let go of all your dreams for the sake of motherhood, and then attaching all those unfinished goals and unfulfilled expectations with your child.

People expect the mother to be mature, grown up and sacrificing and able to handle every problem even at the cost of her own wellness. That is too much pressure on a young woman, especially a first time mother, and especially one who had to let go of a successful career. People forget that the world of parenting is as new to a young mother as the world of people is new to the baby. The child and mother are both growing together, both learning to navigate in and make sense of an unknown environment, facing stresses they never faced before, coping in a high pressure world. The new mother is almost as vulnerable as the newborn. She needs to be taken care of and soothed and loved as much as the little baby—and yet she is the one responsible for the rearing and nurturing and keeping alive of one whole human being, while no one pays the scantest attention to her needs.

Inevitably, her pent up frustration pours out on the child. And then the world shames the mother for being cruel to her child, the world shames her for being incompetent, the world shames her for not being “mother enough”.

What’s to be done in this scenario?

Let me hark back to the famous statement: it takes a village to raise a child.

Now let me twist it a bit: It takes a village to raise a mother.

What we are used to is the idea of insta-mothers served up in 9 months with garnish on top. Mothers, on the contrary, are created over years and years; they grow and evolve and learn on the job. A mother is a human being first. She is an individual first. She has her own needs and desires and dreams and problems and expecting them to put everything aside and just focus on being a mother is downright cruel. It takes a village to raise a mother because when everyone chips in to ease the burden on her, only then can she be a happy woman and, by consequence, a happy mother.

Unhappy women do not make happy mothers. How can they? You can only give what you have in the first place, and if you have no joy in your heart, how can you share it with others?

It is the imperative therefore, of the entire village—the new age village that includes not just spouse, in laws, parents, friends but also bosses, co-workers and flexible workplaces—to raise the child and also raise the mother. Raise her happiness levels, raise her self-esteem and her self-worth so she does not have to live her life bearing only the burden of sacrifices.

In the case mentioned above, the mother is plagued with extreme insecurity related to her child, she is stressed by feelings of rejection that arise from her child following his grandparent about, “preferring” them over her.

Herein lies another major problem that I’ve talked about on several previous occasions: making your child your only source of joy and love in life, attaching all your dreams to him/her. It has happened for decades in previous generations— when women were deprived of love from every other source, focusing solely on the child—and still happens when women give up all their dreams for motherhood.

The child was not born to fulfil your expectations or fill the gaps in your soul. Every child is born with a destiny of his/her own, with a purpose in life to be fulfilled by him/her alone. Your children will not remain attached to you forever, they will—and they need to—become independent and find their way in life and find other attachments and people to love. It is important for them to have healthy relationships not just with grandparents but also siblings, friends, classmates, teachers, girlfriends/boyfriends, spouses, co-workers and so on. With each new relationship their circle will get bigger and you will naturally have to share more and more. How then will you find the strength to let go?

It is extremely important, therefore, for a mother to have other people to bond with—spouse, siblings, friends, co-workers, neighbours. Other sources of love and joy in life. And also to keep following one’s own dreams, perhaps a little more slowly than before, perhaps with some breaks, but keep following them nevertheless—to keep a sense of purpose and direction in life. To have other sources of achievements and fulfilment than just ‘parenting’.  Not only does it ease the misery of your heart, it will greatly ease the debilitating burden of expectations upon your child.

Lastly, but most importantly, when you’re under extreme stress, get help. Get professional help from a therapist or counsellor, or at least approach your closest friends and confidantes. You mental wellness is paramount, and approaching a psychologist/counsellor does not mean you are ‘mad’, any more than approaching a doctor means that you are disabled for life. (No offence to differently abled people.) It merely means that you’re facing a health issue at a certain point in time, and proper care and treatment will lead you to wellness once again.

To the lady who was facing those issues, if you happen to be reading this, let me first hug you. One big, squishy hug to let you know you are not alone. We’ve all been there, and it’s terrible, but trust me you’ll come out of this, and both you and your baby will be happy. You are loved, my dear, especially by all of us mothers out here. One big solidarity bump.

But one word of advice to you—and to all those mothers reading this.

Mothers, please put yourself first.

Yes, you heard that right. The world will tell you to put your baby first, put your family first, and some people will go to the lengths of calling you selfish if you dare to voice your own desires and any kind of ambition for yourself.

Don’t pay any attention to them.

Tune them out like static and ugly sounds from a bad radio. Turn them off like that hollering news anchor on TV (you know who I mean). Shut them down like the gaping smelly mouth of a toilet seat.

The child does not come first. The Mother comes first.

Mothers, please learn to value your sanity, your happiness and your dreams as well. And most of all learn to focus on your health and wellness, because that is crucial to happiness.

Relatives and family members, stop pressurising the woman to sacrifice everything for her child. Stop putting a halo atop the heads of mothers and turning them into martyrs.

Stop worshipping the kind of mom for whom ‘nothing is more important than her child’.

Everything has its due importance in life. Friends, family, work, ambition, children and yes, the self. The mother must not be pressurised to give up all of them and keep just one.

And yes, I’ll say it again to you— the mother must come first. Before you think of what’s best for the child, think of what’s best for the mother. Because unless she is in the best state of mental, physical and emotional wellness, the child cannot thrive.

Think of it this way: the mother is most important for the child’s well-being, and if anything bad were to happen to her, who would be most affected? The child. If you would not be functioning one hundred per cent healthy and happy, who would be most affected? Your child. So, for the sake of your child, put yourself first. Treat your health, wellness and happiness as paramount. That’s what I always tell my mother. If you don’t take care of yourself, who’s going to be there for us? Who will we turn to whenever we are down and out?

And that’s what I say to all mothers out there: For the sake of your children at least, take care of your own self.

For you must always remember, you can only give what you have.

Mom n Child

 

 

 

Waiting for the story?


So what happens next? 

All you lovely folks out there who’ve been waiting for the story of The Reluctant Reproductionist to continue, please don’t worry. You’ll get to read the rest of the tale. Just bear with me awhile, and I promise you’ll get the whole story straight from the horse’s mouth. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy being my companions on these other little trips through life!

 

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