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.
When S and I were newly married, we shared our rented apartment with an elderly lady who was the owner of that apartment. What had happened was that the lady was supposed to be leaving in a month or so to stay abroad with her children, but events unfolded such that we all ended up staying together for a much longer time.
It was a very interesting experience to live that way. She was a soft spoken, cultured and well-read lady, and having been a history teacher before her retirement, she regaled us with amazing stories from Indian History at dinnertime, when all three of us sat together at the dining table.
But as it often happens with most people of the previous generation, she too lived with the notion that food was mostly cooked for the pleasure of men. How did I find this out?
In the early days of my marriage, I was staying at home, before I re-joined my job a couple of months later. I used to do all the cooking and washing up myself, and for the first few days, auntie would say in the afternoons: oh, it’s just the two of us, we’ll have leftovers from last night.
Or she would say: Oh, cook all this elaborate stuff in the evening when S comes home.
After a few days, I wondered why the two of us were not worth cooking for, and only S was worth cooking for? So when she said to me that day, ‘oh we’ll have leftovers from last night, S won’t be here anyway’, I laughed and said to her: But auntie we are here! Why should food only be cooked for S? I want to cook for myself and for you as well!
And from then on, I cooked up good stuff for the two of us also. I think she was also trying to be kind to me, and not make me work too hard—trying to make it easy for me by saying that I didn’t need to cook for her. I understand that a lot of it came from a place of kindness wherein she didn’t want me to be exhausted cooking for her.
But I’ve seen this in plenty of Indian homes where the man is considered the primary consumer of food—the food is almost always meant first and foremost for the men.
And the meat—especially the meat! The men are expected to eat a lot of meat, and the women are supposed to not want meat so much. Perhaps it has to do with the belief that meat eating makes you aggressive and dominant- not to mention highly sexual.
Qualities that traditional society wishes to keep away from women.
Well, not this woman.
I love my chicken and my mutton, and am not ashamed of eating as much as I want. (Perhaps that might explain some of my aggression and other interesting qualities. But that’s another discussion.)
So one day, S and I were invited to dinner at an acquaintance’s house. They had cooked shaljam gosht which is practically our favourite meat dish.
Now, the thing is, sucking on mutton bones for bone marrow is considered a delicacy in our culture. So when we sat for dinner, the elderly gentleman asked his wife to ladle out the big bone to S.
“Bhaiyya ko do!” He instructed her. Give it to the young man!
I waited for her to ladle it out to S, while eyeing the other big bone in the curry for myself. But before I had the chance to actually get the bone for myself, the elderly gentleman again urged his wife:
“Doosri wali bhi do bhaiya ko!” Give the other bone, too, to the young man!
Well, really! Why should all the best portions be ladled out to ‘bhaiyya’! Why had he invited me, then? To watch while my husband ate?
Thankfully, however, his wife retorted with: “Arrey woh bhi to khayegi!” indicating me. “But she is eating too, isn’t she!” I cannot explain how happy her answer made me.
Food is not meant for men alone.
More evidence of this attitude can be found in villages, in large joint families, where it is always the women who do all the cooking from dawn to dusk, but are always the last to eat.
The food is served to all the men first, and when they have had their fill of all the freshest and best portions, the leftovers are eaten by the women. Often it happens that very little of the food is left, and the women either have to go back to the kitchen and cook some more, or end up eating only the little that is left. It is unfair and infuriating.
I was not brought up with this kind of attitude, and so became aware of it quite late in life. But then I never stayed in a villag, and neither of my grandparents lived in a village either. They were all town-dwellers who espoused respectful and fair attitudes towards women.
My father was a loving and respectful husband and he would never eat until mummy had joined us at the table. Even when we had guests over, the women ate together with the men.
My partner S and I never eat without each other – unless we are both busy with our professional work, in which case we eat whenever we find the time, without waiting for each other. But those instances are rare.
When we visit his parents in Aligarh, all of us eat together, and if there’s something to be brought in from the kitchen, it doesn’t always have to be the woman who goes and gets it. It could be S and his brothers too.
Sanchari Bhattacharya, a friend of mine, wrote a poignant post on Facebook, about how she knew the food preferences of every member of the family, but not of her mother-in-law. Neither her husband not her sister in law could tell her what their mother preferred to eat – because, like many women of the earlier generation, she proudly declared that she ‘could make do with anything.’
Women’s choices are all supposed to mould themselves to fit the men’s convenience. And so Sanchari’s mother in law never asked for anything for herself, taking pride in ‘adjusting’ to make everyone happy. But Sanchari, ever the determined, caring and empathic soul, persisted in questioning her mother in law about her favourite food.
The lady in question responded with this hard-hitting story:
“When a son came home from his big job abroad, he took the whole family out to a fancy restaurant. He asked everyone to order whatever they liked, no matter what the cost because he was now rich. Everyone but his mother placed an order. When asked, the mother said that she had no preferences, so she doesn’t really know what she should order. At this, the now NRI son jumps in and says, “Oh no worries. She’s MY mother, I know exactly what she likes. She likes tail pieces (lyaja) of fish. All my life, I’ve always seen her save the tail pieces for herself and give us the petties and gadas (bigger, more meaty, less boney pieces) beforehand. Someone get her a big tail piece, please. “
The mother smiles at the son and faintly remembers how, before she got married, she’d always get the big fish head. That probably tasted better, though she barely remembered it. She hadn’t even realized all this while, when her status had got demoted from the head of the fish to its tail in the span of these 30 years.”
Eventually, Sanchari found out her mother-in-law’s favourite- prawns – but this little story demonstrates perfectly how traditional societies erase women’s preferences and individuality, even in such ordinary, simple matters as food.
It reminded me of how I, too, needed to find out what my mother in law liked to eat- she never expressed a preference.
My own mother, however, was a different case altogether. She was an avowed vegetarian in a family of meat-eaters, so an extra dish was always prepared for her whenever meat was cooked.
I say an extra dish was ‘prepared’ for her because, with my father being a government officer, she hardly ever did the cooking – merely supervised the cooking, which was all done by male cooks, appointed by the government for officers’ households.
So I had a childhood where I saw men cooking inside my house all the time, while my mother supervised them and gave them instructions. We did not grow up with the idea that cooking is a ‘woman’s job.’
We also went out often to eat at fancy restaurants, and she loved South Indian cuisine- dosas, idlis and vadas- so my father always picked the restaurants that served these. Always mindful of her choice, of things that she liked and wanted.
Even after he passed away, my mother kept up her boundless energy and zest for life for the sake of her two little girls, and the three of us often went out to eat — where we always knew she would order dosa!
And not only do we know very well the preferences of our mother, we also know the food preferences of our mother’s mother. She, too, liked to cook for herself, and have food of her liking made by the khansama (male cook, again) in her youth. To this day, even at the age of 80, she eats her favourite foods with relish. And like me, she is an avid carnivore- loves her chicken and mutton, and loves feeding everyone chicken and mutton! In fact, my Nanna is at the opposite end of the spectrum – not only does she get food of her own choice prepared, she insists on feeding other family members the food of her choice! (Talk about dominance and aggression resulting from meat-eating, ha!)
In a nutshell then, I grew up in a family of bold, energetic ladies and caring, thoughtful gentlemen – so I never adopted the traditional docile attributes expected of women. And I remained vocal and insistent about my own food preferences.
It is ironic that even though traditional societies consider cooking as ‘a woman’s job’, the first right over the food is always supposed to belong to the men.
The good part is that attitudes have changed by and large in this generation — women are more vocal and open, and men are more considerate and loving. It is a change for the better. A sign of better things to come, a sign of more harmonious relationships and more fulfilling lives for everyone.
Because ‘the family that eats together, stays together.’
‘Every person on this planet can relate to wanting to chase bliss.’ Can you?
Last night I watched the movie Bliss (2021). It’s funny how, sometimes, some things that made no sense thus far, suddenly make sense to you in the most unexpected of places.
Before we proceed: spoiler alert. This post is full of spoilers about the movie, though this is not a review. It is an intensely personal experience reflected through the movie.
On the face of it, Bliss seems like a science fiction film. But it isn’t. It is actually a commentary on drug culture and the grip of drugs on the human brain—and an intense, deep reflection on human psychology anywhere in the world. In fact, the film wasn’t even trying to appear like science fiction, because science fiction makes an effort to convince the viewer of the world that it creates. This film, though, was clearly revealing to the viewer the mixed-up nature of its reality, the hazy nature of the ‘created’ world in it. It was giving signals all along, and yet was crafting a new ‘reality’ in a way that was very convincing.
Greg Witter is a man who is already neck-deep in troubled waters, when he meets a woman who claims to be his soulmate, who claims that the world they live in is all fake, including all the people in it (except for the both of them). And from then on, reality becomes difficult to decipher, as he keeps swinging between two ‘worlds’, not knowing which is real.
Close to the end of the movie, when everything is falling apart and descending into chaos, Greg’s grown-up daughter who has been consistently trying to reach out to him, looks at him, and says: ‘One of these days, you’re going to have to choose between these worlds. And maybe somehow, to you they’re both real. So just… just do what’s best for you, okay?”
Up until that moment, I’d been having flashes of déjà vu throughout the movie. But this was the statement that suddenly brought everything crashing down upon me. ‘One of these days, you’re going to have to choose between these worlds.’
And what if you make the wrong choice?
Watching Greg Witter discover the home he used to sketch over and over, the home he thought existed only in his imagination. Watching him suddenly come face to face with the woman whose face he used to sketch, the woman he thought existed only in his imagination. Watching him discover a new world, one that was incredibly, impossibly picture-perfect. A utopia.
It all landed so heavily on me, reminding me of the time when I had discovered something that I thought could not possibly exist, something that I had always considered a figment of my imagination.
When you find something like that, something that seems to materialize straight from your dreams, out of thin air, then the hold it has upon you is unshakeable. It becomes an addiction.
The movie Bliss is primarily about drug addiction. But addictions can be of various types. There are so many different ways a person can become addicted; so many different things one can be addicted to- particularly the addiction to one’s own dreams. And every addiction produces the same effect.
You. Just. Can’t. Let. It. Go.
Letting go of your illusions is the hardest thing to do, particularly when they appear so real. Particularly when they spread out before you a shimmering dream of everything that could be. The possibilities!
An article on Medium explains so beautifully how this film goes deeper to explore the human longing for utopia- that unattainable ideal of how things are supposed to be. The possibilities of ‘if only’ and ‘what if’. The motifs of heaven, paradise, jannat- all of these are echoes of the human longing for perfection, for utopia.
The film’s story plays upon the insatiable human need for ‘more’. And that ‘more’, in our lives, may not necessarily be materialistic. It may be a need for more knowledge, deeper connection, a better world, more love, more recognition, more ‘you’. The endless chasing of Bliss.
Greg’s amazement and wonder at the utopian ‘real’ world that he suddenly encounters hit home for me, hit so hard. That feeling of incredulity. Am I really going to get this? Is this really going to be mine? All these images in my head, all these crazy visions- am I really going to have them all fulfilled? Is this true? Is this real? How could it be? How could this be so perfect and still be real?
And that is the bitterest pill to swallow.
What is real can never be perfect. What is perfect can never be real.
In the end though, Greg makes the decision to stay back in the ‘imperfect’ world because in spite of everything else, it was still full of beauty, still full of moments of joy, still full of chances of redemption. And there was his daughter.
He makes the right choice.
And yet he leaves you wondering, what if he had had enough ‘blue crystals’ to cross over to the other side? What if he had chosen the other side? Since we know this is a film about drug addiction, we know what the right choice was. Yet you wonder what would have happened had he made the other choice? Could he have found his utopia?
What if you got the chance to make a different choice? Would it have been any better?
Here’s the thing, and that’s the point the film makes earlier on, through the ‘brain box’ experiment. Even in the utopian world, humans had begun to find things to complain about. They had begun to find out that everything does not always remain in a state of perfection. That life is messy, chaotic and unpredictable, and there will always be struggles, no matter how small those may be. There will always be something ‘missing’.
Matt Williams writes in his article on Medium: ‘It is a demonstration of how the human mind inherently questions reality, refuses the world as it is given, and seeks to construct something anew.’
‘Often unbeknownst to us, our brains are constantly comparing the real world to an infinite number of imagined alternatives, and therefore raising the bar of our expectations higher and higher each time we try to reach it.’
For so long I struggled to find answers to what it was that hit me with such force, knocking the wind out of me, turning me into a perpetually recovering ‘addict’. Why it became so excruciatingly difficult to accept what was real and what was not. I looked for answers everywhere, from books to religion to therapy. And all of them had their own particular ways of looking at the questions, their own unique answers.
Bliss opened up new perspectives and delivered new answers.
There will perhaps always be a void inside of us, a gap that we are forever trying to fill. That is what drives us to the point of insanity, to the point where we are unable to discern between the real and the unreal. That unfillable gap is the endless quest for the perfect world. The quest for utopia.
And yet, in that quest, we may discover things about ourselves, we may make other discoveries that ultimately lead us to uncharted spaces. To better places.
Such is the strange beauty of this imperfect, chaotic world.
Untouched books are also unloved. See a child how he scribbles colours and rubs? That’s what love is like – rough around the edges and every so often wears you out.
An unblemished book is lonely, wan displays no signs of ever being held, no lines in the margins – exclamations, notations- no marks of love, of having had someone crawl into it long past midnight.
These wrinkles, my love, and folds of skin, these blemishes and signs of wearing out are but dog ears on the pages of life- marking the lines that reverberate; marking the most loved parts of us.
Most people disapprove of writing inside books. I’m not one of them.
All the books I’ve ever loved are painted over with notations on various pages, thoughts that they triggered in me, my responses to the beauty or tragedy in them. The more loved a book is, the more scribbled over it will be. Many people consider this sacrilegious, they consider it a defilement of the sacred. For me, though, these are marks of love. Passionate love, if I may say so.
Many years ago, when I was around 18, I had English Literature as a subsidiary subject in my undergraduate class. We studied several short stories, one of which was Bernard Malamud’s The First Seven Years. I still remember that story, because at its core lay two people who fell in love with each other through their love for books. Miriam and Sobel hardly ever met, hardly ever spoke. They mostly exchanged books.
Before I speak further about this story, I must add a disclaimer. I could go online and search for the story and be accurate about the details, but I will write from memory instead- the things that I remember and the feelings they evoked in me then.
Miriam is the daughter of a Jewish shoemaker, and Sobel is a Polish refugee, who finds work and sanctuary as an assistant in her father’s shop. Unknown to her father, they exchange books, and they converse only—mostly—through the notes and the lines that both of them scribble in the margins. They are not love notes or secret lines to each other- they are notations about the book, reflections on what was written. It is an intellectual, spiritual bond- a love borne out of a meeting of thoughts and ideas. A meeting of minds and not just hearts.
Every time I write a line in the margins of a book that I love, I remember Miriam and Sobel. I revel in the vicarious pleasure of a love that speaks through books. I wonder what it would be like, to be surrounded by a love like that.
But when I write in books, it is not for a lover to read. Who is it for, I wonder?
Perhaps a part of me hopes that my son would read my books someday, find his mother’s words and be delighted in that discovery, as I am now delighted when I find something that belonged to my parents in their youth. Or perhaps my son’s children will – assuming he decides to have children.
Being a person who for a very long time has struggled against motherhood, and asked myself whether I would really have chosen motherhood if this were a choice available to me, I find myself fearful of the fact that my son may not choose to have children. I hope it does not happen so. I hope he chooses to have them.
I know, now, that if life hadn’t gone hurtling at a dizzying pace for me, if I had had the choice of taking things slow and step by step, I would have chosen to have a child. Or children.
I see women around me who choose to have children well into their thirties, and I imagine that if I had role models around me, if I had these ideas around me, if I had the chance to wait till my thirties to become a mother, I would have perhaps been a calmer, saner, more prepared, more willing parent. I hope that my son and the woman he marries choose to be parents too- in their own time, at their own pace, with their own choice- for choices made consciously and wisely can be carried with a lot more joy.
And as I read one book after another, writing away into the margins, I wonder if these words will be read by generations after me. I wonder if they will even want to read the kind of books I like. Wonder if they will ever want to flip through these books. It is rather vain to assume that future generations will want to know you.
It is enough, I think, to write in a book, knowing that you have loved it, knowing that it has become a part of you, knowing that if no one else, at least you will come back to it. You will read the words of a past version of yourself, a person who no longer exists because she has grown and evolved into someone else, and perhaps you will read those words and smile, and say: Ah!
And then again, perhaps no one ever needs to read these words. Perhaps it is enough to have reflected and contemplated and written them down. Perhaps it is better that they remain like this, locked away in the book’s close embrace, fading away into a yellowed page, as the human existence fades into the yellowed pages of life.
This is a picture of my parents, in times when our lives were still untouched by tragedy.
When the scent of death hadn’t pervaded our lives and settled into the very bones of our bodies, never to be extricated from our veins and skin. Inhaled every day, settling into the lungs like a chain smoker’s X Ray.
Every time my chronic allergic cough resurfaces, doctors are puzzled by my lung X-Rays. They look me up and down in astonishment and then ask, rather hesitantly, ‘Do you smoke?’ (Asking this of a woman in hijab seems strange enough in itself, you see.)
No, doctor, I do not smoke. What you see inside my body is the residue of death. I have been smoking death since I was 9.
You see, a young, untimely death isn’t something you ever grow out of. It isn’t something you ever put behind you. It’s a trick- wound. Appears healed on the outside, but no sooner does a sharp push or unconscious shove land on it that it starts bleeding instantaneously. The shove could be anything. A movie. A poem. A song. A separation. Another death.
With every new death, the smoke billows afresh. Like a Cherokee’s smoke signal. Grief returning home to nest.
We have felt death acutely in every waking moment of our lives.
Lately, though, I realised that my mother had stopped speaking of my father. Where earlier not a day went by without a mention of him- your father this and your father that, now, she has a new interest. Allah. She’d been religious from the beginning, but this is something else altogether. It is what consumes her day in and day out, it is the only thing she wishes to talk about now. My father no longer occupies centrestage. After two decades of hanging his shirts and his ties in her cupboard, two decades of his nameplate hanging on our door right beside her own nameplate, two decades of every lunch and dinner conversation tinged by memories of him, I found her talking less and less about him, until the mentions all but disappeared.
I was hurt, to be honest, when I first sensed it. But by and by, I realised that this is what closure looks like. Perhaps this is what it is like to move on. And it ought to have happened a long time ago, really. For how long should one carry around the weight of grief?
Some of us though, carry grief around in large, mysterious knapsacks. Grief and wound and memory and longing. All bound together.
As a child of 6 or 7, I loved watching a children’s programme on Doordarshan, whose jingle spoke about ‘Chunnu ka Baba’ with a huge ‘Potli’, a large sack, of stories. The old Baba with a snow white beard always had a story to pull out of his potli. When I was little, I used to imagine myself as Chunnu, the one who heard the stories. Now that I have a child of my own, I feel more like the ‘Baba’. With my own little potli of stories; a potli of grief and shards of broken heart.
Perhaps this is how some of us choose to live. With a jute sack of memories that oftentimes weighs us down. But we’d rather not abandon it. We’d sling it on our backs or hold it cuddled up in our arms, close to our heart. We’d rather carry the weight of memories as we puff on death and separation and incessant heartache, and let the fumes settle deep inside us, to be discovered by X Rays. Some of us make memories a way of life. Until we vanish into the ethers and turn into puffs of memory ourselves.
Postscript: I wrote this piece almost 3 months ago. Last month though, when my sister got married, something happened. We watched her walk down dressed as a bride and all of us- her mother, her sister and her cousins- nearly all of us had tears in our eyes. I had them because it was overwhelming to see the kiddo whose diapers I had changed, grow up and get married. Our mother, when I later spoke to her about it, said this:
“I wept because I missed your father. He should have been here to see his little girl.”
I never thought I’d say this, but motherhood grows on you.
I have begun to realise, slowly, that I am so much more comfortable in the role of a young boy’s mother, than I ever was in the role of a toddler’s mother.
I think it is because my primary mode of communication, and expression of love, is verbal. Words are my preferred channel. My primary method of bonding is intellectual exchange, which is obviously done through words. Physical touch comes a close second- I am a very physically expressive mother: kisses, cuddles, smothering hugs. But that is still second, and no substitute for the joy of words.
Thus I find myself taking far more delight in the role of a mother now – now that my son can clearly express and converse with me, now that I can hear the thoughts that go through his remarkable brain and marvel at the fascinating intellect he possesses. I find myself relishing the role of the mother far more with the growing up of my child, as he develops more fully into a distinct human being with a mind of his own, contradicting me and adding to my thoughts with the freshness and depth of his own. It is a great delight to find my son thinking independently enough to contradict his mother – though it’s exhausting as hell, too! But I find myself bursting with pride when he adds a different dimension to my understanding of the world. Pride at the magnificent, compassionate and empathetic person he is turning out to be. It isn’t as though I didn’t enjoy being a mother to Little H when he was tiny. I distinctly remember what a bundle of joy he was, how he listened carefully and began speaking at the early age of 10 months, so that one could chuckle at the nearly grown-up sentences uttered by those tiny lips. How delightful and adorable he was when he tried to copy his father in every tiny thing: right down to how he lay on the bed while talking: lying on his side, propping an elbow under his head, and crossing one leg over another. We roared with laughter on watching 10 month old Little H lying on the bed in exactly this manner: complete with crossed legs and elbow propping up the head ! How marvelous it was to see his wonder and joy at the world, to see commonplace everyday objects with a child’s fascination- a child discovering the new world, a world that holds infinite delights for him. “And children’s faces looking up, holding wonder like a cup!” If you’ve ever seen a child with his mouth wide open in a joyous grin and his eyes sparkling with wonder, you’ll know exactly what this means. And yet, I think I was so exhausted and worn out all the time, because he was such a bundle of energy and mischief, that I couldn’t really appreciate or enjoy it as much as I would have liked.
Not being able to understand his needs, not being able to communicate my concerns with him was the most frustrating thing I ever experienced. Like constantly groping in the dark to find the light switch, and falling in the darkness and hurting yourself countless times in the process. And slowly, you learn where the light switch is- so you can find it even when it’s dark. Little H growing up enough to communicate properly- and understand his mother’s words properly – is the light that’s suddenly been switched on for me. We have finally reached a place where we can, to a largely comforting extent, understand each other.
What an extraordinary amount of hard work it has been! But it’s a beautiful feeling for me, the Reluctant One, to find that I can finally enjoy motherhood, that I, too, can find it fulfilling, instead of constantly and exhaustingly struggling against it.
I feel like ending this with a quote from the Quran. It is my favorite verse, and it is the verse I used to repeat most often when Little H was tumbling around in my belly. It is also the verse I chanted over and over to myself when I was experiencing the most excruciating pain of my life: as Little H was being born.
Fa Inna Ma’al Usrey Yusra. Inna Ma’al Usrey Yusra
Verily, with hardship comes ease. With hardship comes ease. It does, indeed.
“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.
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
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.”
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 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.
(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?
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
“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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.