When you are old and grey and full of sleep


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

(W.B. Yeats)

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

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

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

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

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

World Outside.

The words stung me.

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

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

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

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

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

Cross nursery teacher.

Being addressed like a kindergartener, robbed of all dignity.

Hit me like a punch in the gut.

Hit me with the severity that accompanies guilt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The way you make love


(This post is the second part of the series on body awareness and answering children’s questions about intimacy.)

A person I know, once told me that when he found out ‘how babies are made’ his first thought was to be horrified and think “Oh no! My parents could never have done such a thing!”

Does this sound somewhat familiar?

————————

Gratitude.

It’s one of the most important things in life. Gratitude towards Nature, towards the Universe, towards God—however you like to think of it. And one of the most significant things we must be grateful for is this body, this home for the spirit. A precious, sacred gift, which deserves to be treated as such.

Growing up with the feeling that some parts of the body are shameful and ‘dirty’ creates associations of guilt and doubt, which has long lasting effects right into adulthood.  One of the most prominent effects of this is negative body image— inability to accept one’s body in all its natural beauty, the way that the creator crafted it. Skin colour, hair colour, height, build, features—everything. Every person is unique, beautiful in their own special way. Only when we understand the precious gift that our body is that we can come to understand this.

The second deep seated effect is felt in the expression of romantic love later on in life in the most intimate way possible.

The way that adolescents come to know of physical intimacy and lovemaking plays a very crucial part in how their attitudes will shape out in the future. I think I was lucky in this respect.

Around the time that I was 12-13, I chanced upon a book that belonged to my literature-loving, extremely well-read aunt—my uncle’s wife. This book was titled: ‘So You Want To Get Married?’  The year was 1999/2000.

I had been pottering around the house, going through the many bookshelves, looking for something new to read since I had temporarily exhausted my own book haul. It was then that I decided to rifle into my aunt’s bookshelf which was actually not supposed to be accessed by me. I was not supposed to be nosing around in my uncle and aunt’s room in their absence, but as it happens, the forbidden is always exceedingly tempting and appealing. I had had my eye on her bookshelf for a while, merely because the books she read seemed new and fascinating. So as soon as I had the chance, I invaded it. I still have no idea why I picked this particular book, because of course, at the age of 13 I was not contemplating getting married at all!

I opened the book merely out of curiosity I think, and flipped through some pages. I can’t remember if I read the entire book. Perhaps not. But there are some portions that I will never forget as long as I shall live.

“How many people think of God when they are making love?” asked the book rather audaciously.

It went on to say that we do not think of divinity when we are making love, because we associate physical intimacy with shame or at best a ‘guilty pleasure’. Either we think of it as something ‘dirty’ and thereby unholy, or something associated with the pleasures of the flesh and thereby ‘worldly and materialistic’. The association of pleasure with guilt gets so deeply ingrained that it prevents us from finding the sacred within.

On the contrary, there is no better way to experience divinity than through love.

Later, when I delved into the Islamic understanding of lovemaking, what I found was quite the same. Lovemaking with your sacred partner is defined as an act of worship, an act of piety –bringing you closer to God. In the end, though, the most important thing is ‘intention’. It is what’s in your heart that matters. The way that you approach intimacy will determine what it becomes.

“The way you make love is the way God shall be with you,” said Maulana Jalal Ad-Din Mohammad, better known as Rumi.

When two souls are so merged with each other, so in sync with each other that every fibre of their being connects at a sacred level, when what they share in that moment is not superficial but profound and mystical, that is when it connects both of them to the higher self, the spirit that pervades the entire cosmos. In this transcendental view of love, the physical becomes so deeply fused with the emotional and the spiritual that it rips apart the element of shame, moves far beyond mere reproductive function and also beyond the shallow realm of ‘fun’ and ‘enjoyment’.

Let me reiterate. Pleasure, joy and fulfilment are different from recreation and fun. The ocean is the same, but the surface scarcely resembles the depths, in terms of all the treasures it holds within. Those who are skimming the surface haven’t the faintest idea about the great wonders ensconced in the depths.

About a year ago, I was having a conversation with a very learned and wise elderly person, a septuagenarian who reminds me always of my mother’s father. He and I were discussing religion. And this is what he said to me: “God can only truly be experienced through love.” And then he went on to say how important it is to let our children know that they were brought into this world through an act of love—love as ordained by God.

But how often do our children get to hear that? How often does it happen that adolescents are introduced to the concept of physical intimacy in such a mystical, spiritual and profound manner?

This reminds me of an anecdote. A person I know once told me that when he came to know about ‘how babies are made’ his first thought was to be horrified and think “Oh no! My parents couldn’t have done such a thing! That’s so wrong!”

We’ve all somehow been conditioned in such a way that our first reaction to the idea of physical intimacy is to view it as ‘wrong’. Like an awful secret. And why does that happen? Because it involves parts of your body which, since childhood, have been associated with dirt and shame in your mind. So how could you ever associate something that involves those ‘awful, dirty’ parts of the body with any kind of spirituality and sacredness?

The idea of lovemaking as something filthy and shameful gets further perpetuated if your introduction to it is through pornography. If ever a beautiful thing in the world can get debased and brought down to the lowest level, it is the disfigurement of lovemaking through pornography. And that is why it is important for your children to get to know about lovemaking from you, and not from porn.

Think again. The person whom I just quoted said that his parents couldn’t ever ‘do such a thing’ because it’s wrong. Parents are generally, in the eyes of the child, the embodiment of all that is sacred and righteous in this world. If we were told about lovemaking by our parents, in a dignified spiritual manner, we would never think of it as something ‘shameful’ or ‘wrong’.

My son’s only 7 right now, but the day isn’t far when he would ask me about the birds and the bees. I used to dread the day and wonder how I’d tackle it, but now I feel calm. Prepared. No, I am not going to sit him down and give him a talk. I will let him come to me with his questions—the way he always does, knowing that I would never shut him up. And when he comes, I won’t tell him just about reproduction, but about love. That every person on this earth was crafted through an act of love— love as ordained by God.

(While also hoping fervently that the details have been covered by the biology teacher in school. Give me a break, okay? I’m a MOM.)

Jokes apart, though, I really would tell him about the sacredness and beauty that one experiences – while also, significantly, emphasising that it is an expression of love meant only for adults. Just as there is an age for studying everything, and you cannot cover your high school syllabus in third standard, or do your PhD in high school, there is an age and a level for expressing love in a certain manner as well.  

And because I adhere to a certain belief system, I would tell him that this expression of love must be reserved for the person whom he decides to spend his entire life with – his sacred wedded partner. Not necessarily because of sin, but because turning lovemaking into something casual would completely hollow it of its beauty. Oneness and divinity through love cannot be experienced if it is restricted to the shallow realm of ‘fun’. You must delve into the depths and for that to manifest, you need to wait for that one soul who shall be completely in sync with you.

(However, that brings us to the important concept that marriage alone is no sanction for sex. It is imperative to learn the importance of consent and mutual respect, of understanding and caring for each other’s wishes and desires. And all this shall be the subject of the next blog post.)

Perhaps my ideas are outmoded and old-fashioned. But then the idea of spirituality and God is also outmoded in the eyes of many. You don’t have to agree with me. All you have to do is hear me out. Ready? Thank you.

So now that things are coming back to me as I write, I just remembered that I accidentally watched Shahrukh Khan’s ‘Maya Memsaab’ movie on TV, in the same year but just a few months before I came across that book of my aunt’s. The reason I was watching that movie was that I was a Shahrukh-obsessed 12 year old and little could I have known that a Shahrukh Khan movie might have ‘forbidden’ scenes in it. (And it was on TV in the late 1990s.) I still remember that neon-drenched, awfully cinematised, horrid scene from the movie, which shocked the bejesus out of me and for days I went around horrified, thinking, “No way on earth is this ever going to be something I do!”

And then a few months later, God sent me that book to read (or so I’d like to believe) so I could see things in a magnificent, pristine light. See what a difference it makes!

The child does not need to be told that there are parts of him or her that are dirty. What the child needs instead, is to understand that the body is sacred, beautiful—a gift from God. The reason we cover it is not because we are ashamed of it, but because it is deeply personal and private and, quite like the deepest of our feelings, we reveal it only in the presence of special people instead of sharing it with strangers.

And yes, every child – or adolescent or teen – deserves to believe in magic.

In the infinite magic of love.

Happy Father’s Day, across worlds


The last time I visited my father was in March this year. I was in Allahabad to attend my cousin’s wedding.

I was visiting him after 6 years. There was much to say.

When I visit my father, I prefer being alone. Because not everyone understands the depth and significance of father-daughter conversations. Especially when one of us lies beneath the earth.

Even if they do understand, I still prefer being alone. So I can have a heart to heart conversation.

The last time I came here, I insisted upon my mother, sister and husband leaving me alone at the grave, and going on ahead to the adjacent mosque without me. My mother protested—she couldn’t fathom this at all—but my sister who understands me better than my mother, and can deal more firmly with our mom, insisted on leading her away.

I don’t think I spoke to him at all then. The tears wouldn’t stop long enough for me to speak. I sat and cried to my heart’s content, if one could call it that. I hadn’t ever properly cried for my father, I think.

I was 9 when he passed away. It was a car accident. We were all in the car, traveling at night. It was an Ambassador, the car given to civil servants, with the driver behind the wheel, a gunner and an orderly sitting beside the driver on the long front seat of the car. Our family of four sat in the back.

I was asleep when the truck rammed into our Ambassador and made short work of it.

I remember nothing. All I know now is by hearing other people’s accounts—my mother’s and the driver’s.

In the hospital, I was in and out of consciousness for about 3 days while my injuries were taken care of. Upon asking repeatedly about my father I was told that his condition was far more critical than ours and he had therefore been taken to Delhi for treatment. Meerut being barely a couple of hours away from Delhi, I began to insist on being taken to him. Which is when I was told that he had a critical head injury and had to be whisked away to the US for treatment.

The United States of America was far enough to put an end to my insistence.

But for the next couple of months, after I got home from the hospital, I would be found mostly hovering around the telephone, hoping to get that one awaited call. The one call telling us that he was better and would now be coming back.

The constant stream of friends and relatives offering their condolences were told, with sharp nods and winks, not to mention my father’s passing in my presence. And yet there was something… an air of stifled secrets… somehow always on the verge of splitting at the seams and giving themselves away. I was beginning to suspect.

Two months later I finally found out, quite by accident, when I overheard my mother discussing things with her father. It wasn’t a shock. I knew already, almost. It was just a confirmation.

Perhaps the two month gap of finding him gone and waiting—with some glimmer of hope—softened the blow. Or perhaps, a 9 year old doesn’t really grasp the reality of death.

The gravity of it. The extent of it.

The enormity of it.

I don’t think I cried much for my father then. There was no format or structure available to cry for him. I hadn’t even attended his funeral.

The earliest tears I remember happened when a person from the household staff spoke of Papa’s funeral to me. Of him being carried on a state plane to Allahabad. Of him getting an official send-off with guns and other paraphernalia.

Of my father in a white shroud.

My mother was furious with the man for telling me all this.

On hindsight, I am grateful I never got to attend his funeral. That is not an image of him I’d have wanted to live with. The image I have now is the one that’s best suited to his memory. Impeccably dressed as always, handsome and splendid and cheerful, with his booming, infectious laugh. Opening his arms to me and sweeping me up every time I rushed towards him, even when I was 9. Lighting up any room by his mere presence. That’s the man I remember.

There was no crying for him then. The crying came in intermittent bursts over the years, when the enormity of death began to sink in, year by year. Crying while reading a book that reminded me of him. Crying while watching old videos of my birthday parties. Crying while listening to old casettes of nauhas that were recited in my ancestral home. Crying while listening to poetry.

Trying not to cry when looking at a friend’s father reminded me of what I didn’t have. Trying not to cry when I brought home medals and awards.

I’ve been grieving backwards for two decades now; grieving with heightened intensity as time takes me farther away. The chronology of grief is strangely fashioned. The more time passes, the deeper it takes root.

The first time I visited my father as a grown up, the crying was still not proper. It was of the choking, surreptitious kind, the kind that you wish to hide from others—the kind that is so private you do not want people to see. The involuntary, incessant flow of tears like blood flowing ceaselessly from a gaping wound. I wanted to stay back and ask the others to leave. I couldn’t.

The second time around, I had come prepared. Prepared to weep. Prepared to grieve. To be alone and cry. Which is just what I did, caressing the earth of his grave with my palms.

And now, this time, this year, I had known again what it was I wanted to do. I wanted to talk to him now. Tell him of the things I held inside. A dear friend had told me recently about how he visited his grandparents’ graves and sat and conversed with them, speaking to them of all that he held within his heart. Instantaneously, I knew that this was also what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to my father and talk to him. The way I would always have talked. The way I had not been able to, for 20 long years.

And then I did.

Sending the others ahead into the mosque I sat once more beside him. And talked to him like I hadn’t talked in two decades.

I complained to him of my mom. Huffily telling him how difficult it was getting to reason with her and how much more stubborn she was now than when she had been with him. Told him of the wedding and the festivities. Of how everyone was. What they were doing in life. Who had how many kids. Where everyone was. Who missed him the most.

About my son and how he loved hearing about Nana.

About my book that I was working on. My articles. My travels. My successes and my failures.

The innermost crevices of my heart.

Somewhere along the way, the tears came back. I put my palms upon his feet.

Suddenly I felt very tired. Weary of the world. Of life. I was overcome by a desire to lie down right there, right next to the earth upon his grave. Lie down like I needed rest, and put my arm over him.

I looked around to see if the graveyard was empty. It wasn’t.

There were a few men standing and talking in the distance. They’d easily spot me lying down within the rectangular boundary of the grave and most likely think that I’d become possessed by some djinn or evil spirit. Most unhelpful.

I sighed. Maybe next time, then.

Kissed my fingertips and placed them upon him.

Until next time, Papa. Always in my heart.

——————————————-

Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers and daughters, sons whose bond transcends worlds and survives even death.

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.

Old school love


A fortnight ago, I was pottering around the house rifling through my book collection, scrolling through Amazon Prime, looking for something to read, something to watch. Something that came with a whiff of old-school, slow-breathing love.

I’m a romance addict. Anyone who knows me knows that. I could make do with very little food but I couldn’t make do with very little romance. I’d been cranky and angsty all week, for no apparent reason, and I was looking for the one thing that would calm me down.

And then, late at night in the darkness of the bedroom I read on my phone Natasha Badhwar’s Mint Lounge column for that week. Suddenly, there it was: a slice of romantic nirvana.

Small intimacies.

The tiny, mostly unnoticeable details in a marriage that carry a subtle, soft undercurrent of romance. Like the tucking back of torn-off buttons. Natasha used this example from old Hindi movies to illustrate her point: “From Hindi movies, I had internalized other aspirations of domestic togetherness. Like the scene in which it is discovered that the man has a button missing in his shirt just when he is ready to leave for work. The woman steps in to deftly sew on a button while he is still wearing his shirt. She moves her face close to his chest to cut off the thread with her teeth, because real women don’t use scissors.

Unmoved by my romantic yearnings, my husband’s shirt buttons have remained steadfast and immotile over the years.

As soon as I read this line I blushed a furious red.

Despite not possessing the qualities of the sanskari sewing-darning woman in the least, I have to confess that it is with quite a degree of fondness that I stitch together my husband’s kurtas that begin to come apart at the seams. And no, not when he’s wearing them. Merely the act of having this mundane piece of white cloth—his kurta— in my hand and putting the quick four-five stitches to mend it, or tuck the odd button that has fallen off, evokes a deep, familiar sort of affection, a feeling akin to sitting face to face at the dining table and talking long past the food is gone.

This whole love-through-sewing thing was probably internalised by me through the very cinema that Natasha speaks about. Drat those movies!

She then goes on to narrate an anecdote from her aunt and uncle’s life, of them doing their daily puja (prayer) together. “When she is pouring oil into the lamp, she needs his presence to prepare the wick. He holds the prayer book open as she reads out the verses. From a distance, one can see them instructing each other to do what is so routine for them, you wonder why they are speaking at all. They close their eyes together and go silent, probably praying for the same thing. Their temple room is full of images of deities but they seem like they are in communion with each other.”

The image seemed to fill my room as well. Fill my heart, lighting it up like a diya for the puja.

For the past few days or so, ever so slightly, I’d been feeling a wave of restlessness, a wave of irritation at myself.

My husband and I come from diametrically opposite backgrounds. East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet, said Rudyard Kipling. But he only needed to see us together to know how the twain doth meet. All these years, my guy and I have been constantly juggling his intensely traditional background and my decidedly modern one, keeping it together by sheer will power and force of love—and umpteen recalibrations.

Sometimes it overwhelms us.

Sometimes I end up asking myself why I got into this at all. How could I have dumped myself in this mess? For that entire week, I’d been reeling under one of these spells of unexplained restlessness.

And then along comes this. This little paragraph about a couple that lights a diya together and prays side by side.

Takes me back a decade in a swish.

Prayer.

When Sajjad and I were still waiting to get married, one of the most romantic things I imagined with him—much longed for and anticipated—was prayer. Together. With this man who brought immense peace and spirituality to my life.

We would imagine the time when we’d be together in one room—our room—offering our namaz with our prayer mats spread out before us.

Joined in prayer. Joined in soul.

“In communion with each other.”

Suddenly, just like that, I remembered precisely why both of us had dumped ourselves into this ‘mess’.

It’s what we had wanted.

We married each other because we had wanted exactly what our other half brings to the table.

I had wanted him, a deeply spiritual man, a calm man. A man who possessed the capacity to listen. A man I could trust. And I, I was what he wanted. A thinking woman, a woman with a mind and a voice. To quote him verbatim, “A woman whose brain is the most attractive part of her body.”

Had he wanted a more traditional woman to match his traditional background, he could have had his pick from the dozens around him. Had I wanted a more modern man to match my modern background, I could have chosen from the dozens that tried to woo me. The reason we were here, together, wading through these frequently-turbulent waters, cutting through the foliage and battling it out together, was because we had both wanted it.

There are times in every couple’s togetherness, when we begin to wonder how did we ever come to be here? The present, the future and the world around gets too much for us. We resent the sacrifices we made, the life we had to give up in order to live this one. Was it even worth it?

In times like these, it makes sense to close our eyes and remember what it was that we’d wanted in the first place. Why was it that we made those sacrifices at all?

That might, perhaps, bring back the answers we already know, but often forget. The answers that sometimes hide within the smallest of things–the things that make up the essence of old school love.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

For the little hurricane in my life!


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FOR HASAN

You and I
Were not meant
To fight over morsels of food,
Or quibble over
Times of sleeping and waking
And cry over
Broken glasses and doorknobs.
In the midst of silence
We were sent to each other
For a conversation
As ancient as stars and as young
As the light in your eyes right now.
We were sent to envelop
And enfold each other
In questions that dot the sky.
You and I
Like black holes in the universe
Absorbing, magnetic, mysterious,
You and I were sent
As revelations to each other.

Tomorrow we shall wake
And fight again
And cry again over spilt milk
And in that commotion
We shall slip through the cracks
And find our spaces for joy.