A blurry picture but a very, very vivid memory of one of the best days of my life. A major milestone on the journey that I set out on 4 years ago. On my birthday in 2019, I had initiated a shift in my life. With every passing year, I align that shift more to my growing awareness of myself; every birthday I become more ‘me’. (As the Kung Fu Panda says in the third movie of the series- I don’t have to teach you to be me, I just have to teach you to be you! )
I wish I could post pictures from my birthday so you would all see the joy that I am absolutely bursting with! (But I’m not in hijab so I will refrain from posting them.)
Just a day before the D-Day, while attending a lecture in a course on Locating the Postcolonial Feminine that I’ve been taking, there had been a discussion on how women are conditioned to privilege their family- their marital family to be precise- over all other relationships in life. That triggered something in me and I decided to privilege my friends this time- my new bunch of young friends who make me happier than ever. Growing up, I had very few close friends, because I was always different from people of my own age group, always too radical in my ideas and notions for my immediate surroundings. The ones that I did have are my friends even to this day, because they were the handful that understood me and I understood them. My friends from Senior Secondary Girls (Abdullah) were the ones that showed me some of the best times of my life!
But the older I grow, the more I bond with people far younger than me – 10 years or even more. I feel a sense of belonging with them, a sense of greater alignment in our ideas about the world. For so many years, I have felt that I belong to the future. The future seems to have found me now.
And so I decided to spend my birthday in my ‘second home’ with my young, exuberant friends. (Those of you who know this will know what I’m talking about. Those of you who don’t- well, you’ll find out in time! )
Not only did they go out of their way to give me a midnight surprise, I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that I hadn’t felt more fully ‘me’ in a long, long time as I did that day with them. Such ease of being, such comfort, such joy, such care. I have often said in my posts that I do not believe that unconditional love exists, or that it can be found anywhere. But that day when my friends surprised me, I experienced what it was like to be loved unconditionally, without any terms and conditions attached. To be loved as I am, without any expectation of sacrificing parts of myself in order to be loved. Without any conditions of ‘propriety’ and ‘virtue’ being imposed on me, without any conditions of ‘acceptable behaviour’ as the price of being loved. Darlings, you know who you are. Thank you for this most precious gift.
To top it all, I had two birthday celebrations. I threw my own party for a large group of friends – the kind of party I would never have thought of having on my birthday, if not for my second home.
A tailor-made party of my favourite kind- candle light, soft Sufi music and everyone singing ghazals or folk songs. So we had a delightful mish mash of Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Multani, Sindhi, Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi and English songs! The best sort of music mix ever. I had never realised that my favourite kind of parties are the ones that have a softness, a sense of poetry and a rich, joyous languidness to them.
Every day at my new home I discover bits of myself in other souls, souls that mirror mine. I discover parts of myself that I had forgotten, or even those that I never knew existed.
To have a second home with friends is an indescribable state of rapture. Words fail me now, so I will use the words of my favourite Professor Bazaz:
‘If you have found a home here, a place that fulfils you intellectually and makes you feel like yourself, then it doesn’t matter where you go in life. You will always carry this home within you.’
Thank you for that, Professor. Thank you.
May we all find such ‘homes’ that become inseparable parts of us and keep us ensconced in the comforting cloud of belonging that comes from holding a home, forever, in the innermost sanctums of your heart.
Not every fairy tale is about finding Prince Charming. Some are about finding yourself.
All Cinderella Stories have some staple features. A grand ball, a dazzling gown, a fancy coach, a fairy godmother, a Prince. And glass slippers.
This one has all of them- with some delicious twists.
On 11th Dec 2021, I witnessed the culmination of one of the most beautiful fairy tales of my life: the launch of my debut book – labour of love and piece of my heart- The Reluctant Mother: A Story No One Wants To Tell.
The launch was held at the Auditorium of the India International Centre, one of the grandest venues in New Delhi, the capital of my country. The programme witnessed a full house turnout, and the panelists Rana Safvi, Manjul Bajaj, Saikat Majumdar and Reema Ahmad, were some of the best writers and thinkers of the country. My entire extended family, my friends, my students- every person that loved me- was present. And many readers and friends who only knew me through social media arrived at the launch for a meet up and for getting their books signed.
It was all as perfect and magical as could be.
Magic, very often, is a combination of vision, planning, determination, untiring efforts, belief in oneself- and a little bit of serendipity. Organising this launch took every bit of these.
Oh, and I definitely had help from a fairy godmother.
No, make that two fairy godmothers: one who was much elder to me, in keeping with the fairy godmother tradition, but the other one, totally breaking all traditions (as is the custom of my life so far) was a much younger girl. A young, sweet, magical fairy who arrived out of nowhere.
The elder one encouraged me at every step, helped with her experience and wisdom, and made me realise how important it was to meticulously plan a grand launch. At one point, when I was trying to book the venue, I realised that the much larger hall was the only one available. What if all the people I invited didn’t turn up? The hall would look empty. What should I do? Should I try another venue? But I really wanted this one- it was the best venue one could have for a book launch.
I called my elder fairy godmother. I told her I was afraid all of my guests wouldn’t arrive, and the hall would look empty.
‘Why won’t they?’ She replied in her usual cheerful, encouraging voice. ‘Of course they will come! What really matters is the khuloos, (the earnestness, the love) with which you invite them.’
So that is how my fairy gave me my magic mantra. And girl, how it worked! Love really works wonders. When you give genuine love to people, they will ultimately turn up for you. In more ways than one.
This elder fairy was Rana Safvi apa – noted author, who was also a panelist at the launch, who is also my mother’s cousin, and who has been a rock and a guiding light both at the same time.
The other fairy, the one much younger than me, turned up magically on my cell phone. She and I knew each other only professionally. She is a public relations professional, and I am a journalist, and that is how we had spoken to each other a couple of times on the phone. Several months ago, she called me for some professional query, and I mentioned to her that I had switched to academics now. We somehow struck up a conversation, suddenly realising how much we had in common, suddenly bonding together fabulously.
Friends who had never even seen each other’s face. And that is how serendipity works.
This young fairy named Nitika is one of the purest souls I’ve met. She hand held me through the organising of the book launch, pointing out the smallest details and being there for me instantly when I needed her. It’s not every day you meet someone who immediately and selflessly helps you, handholds you for no ulterior motive, for nothing that they are going to get from you in return. Someone who loves you without trying to control you, someone who thinks about your needs without projecting their own needs upon you. Someone who understands what you want to do, without imposing upon you what they think you should do. Not all fairy godmothers come with white hair, you see? There are no rigid rules in life. (Unfortunately Nitika fell ill on the day of the launch and could not be there. But she was surely there in spirit)
So it happened, that I organised my grand ball, with the help of my two fairy godmothers. Must also remember to give credit to my publishers for helping out with advice for the launch and other practical details. Especially to Raghav, who designed the backdrop for the event, the standees and the invitation cards. Oh, the gorgeous invitation cards! Although all of them were sent digitally, I got a few printed to present personally to the senior professors and the Vice Chancellor at the University where I teach.
Holding the printed cards in my hand was a feeling next only to holding the actual book.
‘I’ve never been so happy holding a card in my hand since I held my wedding invitations!’ I exclaimed to S in utter glee.
And speaking of S, let’s not forget the Prince.
(And yes, I also had a littlePrince with me, darling Little H, looking all dapper and handsome in a grey blazer, standing smartly on stage.)
S drove me around for all the work that needed to be done- even though I know how to drive. But I have spondylitis and too much driving can sometimes trigger deep neck pain, so he made it a point to drive me around everywhere, so that I could preserve my energy and good health for the launch. He helped me make the right decisions and think with clarity, he took care of the little details that I would have missed had I been working alone. He worked as hard as I did, calling up people to invite them with khuloos.
It was all back-breaking work, I was rushing around like a little typhoon, but hard work can be so utterly satisfying, especially when it culminates in victory. The day of the launch was a whirlwind of epic proportions, especially since my son had a PTA meet in the morning. So I was basically hurtling from school to home to book launch – ‘living my book’, as author and panellist Saikat Majumdar remarked later! The most unique thing about all of this was, in true Cinderella fashion, I was late to my own ball and charging ahead in my scintillating silver Honda City carriage- except that the carriage was being driven by my Michael Schumacher of a husband.
So in a delightfully dramatic modern day Cinderella version, instead of rushing away from the ball and the Prince at the stroke of midnight, I was charging towards the ball to make it on time, at the stroke of midday, with the Prince furiously steering away. Such drama are fairy tales composed of!
But no Cinderella story is complete without a dazzling gown, is it? I had been wondering about what to wear for a long time before the launch. At first, I thought I would wear Red. Red has been my favourite colour for as long as I can remember. But close to the launch, I began having ‘visions’ of a glorious white gown. I could ‘see’ it in great detail; it etched itself in my mind. And true to all traditions of magic and serendipity, when I went shopping with my two best cheerleaders- my partner S and my sister N- I saw just the white gown hanging on the rack of my favourite label.
Standing there, swishing elegantly and beaming at me. I tried it, and it fitted me like it was crafted for me. The ultimate gown for a glorious ball. My sister decided to pair it with a delicate and sheer pink tissue dupatta, though that had not occurred to me. But the moment she added that dupatta, the gown was uplifted into something else altogether. Add a bright pink headscarf to the look – and voila! It became a Cinderella dress with a very Zehra flavour.
Oh, how the universe conspires to bring everything together- including godsent sisters with a great sense of fashion! Which reminds me of some things I had that even the original Cinderella did not. An adoring sister and a beloved mother. (Let me pause for a moment here and say Masha Allah.)
Instead of the ugly step sisters- whose ugliness did not lie in their face but their hatred- I have a sister that adores me, and who, even at the last minute, was rushing around overseeing the preparations for the launch.
Cinderella lost both her parents, but I lost only one. And though it is a loss that is never compensated, a loss that is never diminished, his presence never turns to absence. For the entirety of the 25 years since his departure, my father has never left my side. In each moment of doubt and confusion, I remember him and ask myself- what would he have done? I remember who he was, the values he stood for, the dreams he encouraged, the knowledge he imparted, and there he is- beaming at me, showing the way. The people we love may be taken from us, but can love ever be taken? The ones we love may die, but can love ever die? To quote one of my favourite lines from the movie Interstellar: Love is the only thing that transcends all dimensions, including time and space.
As the latest version of Disney’s Cinderella had a mother who told her to ‘have courage and be kind’, I had a father who told me to be brave, dream big and always speak the truth. And that is what showed me the path. He who has faith will never be lost, as Baba Aziz said in the eponymous Iranian film.
Now that we have all the elements of the Cinderella Story, can glass slippers be far behind? But what are glass slippers, really? What role do the glass slippers play in Cinderella’s story? Are they just sparkling props for a magic tale? Or are they something larger, something more metaphorical?
In truth, the glass slippers are the channel, the zaria, through which Cinderella’s destiny finds her. They are the artefacts that lead her future to her doorstep.
My glass slippers were right there at the ‘ball’. They were none other than the numerous copies of my Book.
The artefact, the channel that led my destiny to me, brought my future to my doorstep, dazzled and sparkled in a magnificent display of fireworks, and wrapped up my fairy tale for me like a gift.
Most importantly, though, when I sit in silence and reflect, I realise that if I hadn’t met some fabulous empowered women, if I hadn’t read books that embodied the Feminist thought, if I hadn’t had the knowledge of an alternative way of thinking and living, I would never have been able to make this fairy tale come true.
For this is what empowered women, enlightened feminists, taught me: the ‘Big Day’ in a woman’s life doesn’t necessarily have to be a wedding day. It can also be the day you launch your company, start your dream job, go on a world trip – or launch your dream book. And yes, there can be as many ‘Big Days’ in your life as you want- they don’t necessarily have to be romantic, they don’t have to be just one. Life can be magical in as many different ways as we can imagine.
If I hadn’t met wise, visionary, pure hearted women- both young and old- perhaps I’d never have known this: Love is important, but there can be so many other things beyond love. There can be so many differentkinds of love. There can be so many kinds of fairy tales. In some of them, you might be seeking a Prince. In some, you might be alone, seeking a path. In yet others, the Prince might be right beside you, looking for what you both want together.
Because every fairy tale is not about finding Prince Charming. Some of them are about finding yourself.
Yes, I said ‘your’ book. It’s not a typo. This book, in fact, belongs to all of you. You are the ones who witnessed the journey of this blog, walked along with me, listened to me spell out my deepest fears and stayed with me in my moments of despair. You heard me out patiently, and encouraged me and came back for more. You showered this blog with attention and care.
In particular, fellow blogger Kathi Ostrom sparked the idea for this book, by telling me right at the beginning- many years ago- that this story needed to take the form of a book. It is truly heartening, is it not, to witness a small act of kindness turning into a huge gift? Thank you, Kathi, for your little kindness that became a huge gift for me. And thank you, all of you, who kept coming back to this blog, cheering me on. This book has totally been possible because of you all.
Here is what the book’s back cover says:
The Reluctant Mother is a book of rage.
Rage at being alone in your pain, having your conflict belittled, and your struggles trivialised. It is the story of a young woman who seeks to find herself in a world that constantly tries to define her and who she should be.
It is the memoir of an anti-mother. The woman who doesn’t fall in love with her baby at first sight but discovers love along the way.
This book is for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the idea of ‘ideal’ motherhood. Be it a woman or a man, one way of confronting trauma is to know that you are not alone in it. To know that someone shares your story and understands your emotions and guilt that accompanies feeling anything other than ‘perfectly blissful’ about motherhood.
It is at once heartbreaking and poignant as it is hopeful and comforting. This is the story of one woman and yet the life of many. It reveals how tradition and modernity, faith and reason, pleasure and pain are all so intimately interwoven for women that their true sense of self is inevitably one of contradictions.
The book’s biggest strength lies in its rawness and honesty. Nothing but the truth stands here.
The book is available for pre-order on Amazon India at this link https://amzn.to/3CnWUwn . The paperback will be available in bookstores in November, and the Kindle version will also be available soon after.
To my readers and fellow bloggers outside India, I must apologise for now, but the e-book will be available very soon, and the paperback may also be available in other countries in a short while.
Watch this space for further updates, and do subscribe to the mailing list to have posts delivered right into your mailbox. Remain up to date with the latest events!
Once again, heartfelt gratitude to you all, and I hope you enjoy the book as much as you enjoyed reading the blog.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.