Letter composed atop a train berth


Image by Ramona Schumacher (Unsplash)

This post was written 4 months ago, atop the upper berth of a carriage in the Prayagraj Express, en route to Delhi from Allahabad. As one of the most tumultuous and bewildering years of my life comes to a close, I thought it appropriate to end it with this post that contains a letter to my sweet little H, the apple of my eye.

I was about to fall asleep on my train berth. I felt cold and drew my blanket over my head, and then idly wondered if I might suffocate and be found dead by morning. Passed away peacefully in my sleep. 

That sounds like a nice way to die, peacefully in one’s sleep. Inside a blanket. On a nice little train berth, pleasantly air conditioned, rocking gently to and fro like a cradle, snuggled inside a soft sky blue blanket. I’ve loved sleeping in trains ever since I was a kid. 

And as I thought this I wondered what I’d like to do if it were indeed my last night in this human form? 

I’d had a lovely conversation without jhagda (quarreling) with my better half after quite a long time! Check.

I’d had a tears-of-happiness conversation with my sister in the evening. Check. 

But little H!

His face swam before my eyes. Since he and his cousin little S were asleep together on the berth opposite mine, I hadn’t kissed him or hugged him before sleep as I always did. 

And I suddenly knew what I wanted to do if it’s the last thing I did. 

I wanted to write a letter to you, my son. 

I think I’m just projecting myself over here, because I have always yearned to have something written by my father for me to read. I knew he was a man of letters.  Of poetry. Of books and deep thoughts. I wish I could have had something with me that would help me know him better. Who he truly deeply was. His fears, his dreams, his worries, his passions. Every day of my life I keep wishing I knew him more.

But in spite of all my morbid death fantasies, I hope you never have to read this letter as my last to you.

I hope and pray that I stay alive to write you more letters. Because I know what it’s like to have only half of me alive at all times—the other half conjured up only through memory and imagination.

I don’t know who exactly I’m writing this letter to. Grown up Hasan? Teenage Hasan? Child Hasan? 

We can never really know who reads our letters once they’re out there, can we? 

Little H, I don’t worry about you, because I see you’re a fine little man already. You’re thoughtful, sensitive, independent. You have the sprouts of universal love in you. You’re truthful and understand the meaning of justice and compassion. 

You’ll grow up to be a fine man. 

I don’t want to tell you who you should be. All I want is for you to be a good human being. What you do with your gifts is up to you.

And you have many gifts:  you love animals and birds and insects and trees and flowers. The natural world excites you endlessly. You love automobiles and machinery – cars, trucks, planes, bikes and their functioning. You love listening to me recite my poetry to my mother although you don’t understand a word of it. You like flipping through my thick books and sometimes make me read from them to you, just because you want to share what Mamma was reading. You have many gifts dear heart. Life will show you the way and help you discover them as you grow and evolve.  

What I do worry about is that there are way too many patriarchal systems around you, woven in inextricable ways that undo all the tapestries of equity and gender justice that I try and weave around you. 

I do know that I would be very unhappy if a son of mine grew up to be a man who does not think of women as his equals, as people who have the same rights as him, and who deserve the same opportunities as him, whatever differences there may be in physiology. Be that man, my son, but also the man who understands the differences between sexes and the struggles emanating from them.

For it is important to stress that equality does not mean similarity.

Two people may be very different in skin colour, hair colour, eye colour, nose shape, mouth shape and so on, but they’re still entitled to being treated as equals- in opportunity, in law and in life. In humanity. People confuse equality with sameness. But being equal doesn’t mean being the same.

Equality is the right to being treated as equals despite all the diversity and differences that exists among human beings.

I would be very sad if you did not grow up to respect women. If you saw the privilege that you had as a man and felt smug and entitled about it- instead of feeling that this privilege came to you at a cost to someone else, and knowing that the onus was on you to correct this skewed reality. Knowing that the onus was on you to take enabling action, which allows someone else to flourish and thrive along with you.

Know this, my son: being born into privilege means it is a test you inherited, to see how much of that privilege you are willing to relinquish for the sake of equality and justice in society, in the world. This applies not just across genders, but across groups that are traditionally underprivileged- financially, religiously, socially. 

What will matter most is how willing are you to speak out for and support those who are marginalised, whose voices are constantly being stifled and whose presence is constantly being crushed. Nothing would make me happier than seeing you stand up and speak for the oppressed.

When in doubt, always use this mantra—look at the power structure. Where is the centre of power? Who holds the most power? Only then will you begin to understand the lay of the land, only then will you be able to understand who is being oppressed. And if you find yourself in a position of power, remember, power is only given to you to help the maximum number of people you can. That and that alone is the correct use of power.

Always remember this: human beings are all fallible. Do not make demi-gods out of them, do not turn your heroes into people you worship. Always be ready to ask questions and be prepared for uncomfortable answers. Humans are always looking for saviours, and from there stems our tendency to put people on pedestals and worship them. Worship no human, my son! Uphold only the principle of humanity above all else. Do not go looking for saviours. People must make efforts to save their own selves. But beyond that, try and save as many others as you can.

Always try to see things from different points of view, even though that perspective may clash with yours. Always try to understand and explore various opposing points of view, and only then make up your mind. And even then, be ready to listen and course-correct.

And when you have made up your mind, my son – (let me say this with the help of a verse from the Quran) – “And when you have made up your mind, then put your trust in the Lord. Undoubtedly, the trustful are dear to the Lord.”

Happy New Year, little H. May you learn many, many new things this year, and may you grow into a man who is a paragon of knowledge, courage, compassion and fairness. Above all, fairness.

All my love,

Mumma

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?

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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.

To Sanity… and Beyond!


If you’ve grown up in the nineties, you’d know that I ripped off the title of this post from Buzz Lightyear’s immensely memorable line: “To Infinity and Beyond!”

For the mother of a little boy, sanity is a lot like infinity. Undefined, blurred at the margins… always tantalisingly calling out … and always a little beyond reach.

It’s something you’re always aspiring for, never able to attain. Except that as your child grows older, it feels less unattainable.

The kid is almost 7 now, and lately I’ve been feeling a lot saner. For over five long years we’ve had daily—and I mean daily—battles over brushing teeth (both morning and evening) and washing face with baby soap or face wash or anything other than water.  Every single day for almost 6 years, 365 days a year, my mornings began with battle cries and tiny foot stomps and failed negotiations and failed reasoning and explanations and in general every day started off with a black mood. Insanity and more insanity.

And now, two episodes happened that suddenly made our mornings amazingly smooth, because kiddo meekly goes and brushes his teeth without even being told to, and washes his face carefully with baby soap. No battles whatsoever. Zero. Zilch. Whew!

What happened? Two awful things. Kid got a terrible skin infection with sores on the face and had to take antibiotics along with local application of ointments, and was told by the doctor that he hadn’t been keeping his face clean enough. I glanced at him, half agonised at his predicament and half I-told-you-so. The infection went away soon, thanks heavens, but it left something important in its wake: a lesson.

The second thing was a cavity in one of the teeth, and no, I’m a very strict mom when it comes to chocolates and junk food. Nevertheless, the dentist informed him gently that he’d probably missed brushing his teeth quite a few times, which is when the bacteria attacked. And this was true. He would miss the night brushing quite often simply because I used to be exhausted with the constant fighting and give in. Thankfully, these are just his milk teeth and will be replaced by the permanent set anyway, and a filling is all it took. But as with the other case, what was left behind was more important. The lesson.

(I was actually apprehensive writing about this bit, because I would immediately be judged for being a bad mom or a neglectful one. However, now that I look back at my childhood, I got measles around the age of 6 and I too had a cavity by the age of 7—despite not being the candy chewing kid at all—and no, my mom wasn’t a neglectful one at all. More of the constantly anxious, helicopter variety of parent. Do I think she didn’t do a good enough job of bringing me up? Do any of us ever think our moms didn’t do a swell job of raising us? My point exactly. Every mother is doing her best.)

So just like that, within a month, two of my daily battles were won.

But the battles were won at a cost to the child (and therefore to the mother as well). The child had to suffer—and I use the word suffer in a loose, relative sense because suffering for a child is completely different from ‘suffering’ as it’s meant for adults. The smallest grief to a child becomes as great as ‘suffering’, simply because his capacity to take it is far less. Compared to what he can hold, the pain is far greater. And that is why, as we grow older, our sufferings increase in size— because our capacity to take them also multiplies, bit by tiny bit of pain.

From what Khalil Gibran said, that should also mean a proportionate increase in our capacity to hold joy: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can hold.” But that strangely doesn’t occur, does it? The child seems to have a much greater capacity for joy than the adult. Perhaps… perhaps that happens because we begin to shut ourselves off to joy, for fear of the pain that comes alongside. Perhaps. Who knows?

Pain is a good teacher. It helps you understand things far easier than all the logic and science and reasoning in the world. That, at least, is what I’ve concluded, having watched my son transform almost overnight.

So yes, I’m a saner mom now. And every day when little H snuggles in my arms at night, (yes, he still sleeps in our bed and yes, I’m a total sucker) I feel fortunate and overflowing with love. It’s a simple, uncomplicated feeling. One that I’m astonished to feel, given the sort of conflicted mom I’ve always been. It makes me see how the world goes on and on about the ‘bliss of motherhood’. Just took me longer to experience it. A WHOLE lot longer.

Or maybe, it was just pain carving into my being, enabling me to hold a lot more joy.

I suppose things will get easier from here onwards. But who knows? I may yet be carved further. For the moment though, I’ll just keep moving ahead steadfastly like Buzz Lightyear, believing I can reach the unreachable.

To sanity… and beyond !

Reclaiming Fairy tales


New Age Fairytales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s when we all live happily ever after.

 

 

 

The severing of the chord


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

Little Hasan, you’re growing up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now you have come out into the world.

Now be whoever you wish to be.

Why am I crying?


 

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“I hate this house!” the 5 year old declares in a huff, right after he is tucked into bed and the lights are turned off. I sigh. This isn’t the first time. I know the reason, but I still have to ask him the customary question.

“Why? Why do you hate this house?”

“There’s nothing here. I can’t have anything. No dogs, no rabbits, no birds, no fish. No garden. I hate it!” he exclaims with visible anger.

It’s the same every time. Each time we return from his grandma’s house, which has an entire family of cats, a garden teeming with birds and chameleons and glorious colourful insects—and two rabbits which are a new addition to the family. In my defence, we did try to keep the rabbit.

We bought the little black and white rabbit for our resident animal-whisperer who is fascinated by every creature in the animal kingdom—from cute, harmless ones like dogs, cats and goats to huge ferocious ones like sharks and crocodiles, and even the extinct kinds (dinosaurs and megalodons, which he often dreams of keeping as pets). And since we’re counting, let’s not forget the insects as well—spiders, crickets, ladybirds, grasshoppers. Whichever little guest happens to occasionally visit our apartment in this high rise tower.

Obviously, there was much joy and revelry when I brought home the rabbit, after persistent teary-eyed complaints of how horrible this house was, and how cruel we were to be inflicting a pet-less life on our offspring. At first, all was good. And then slowly, the charm began to wear off. A rabbit is not an expressive pet. It does not bark and it does not mew. It does not lunge enthusiastically at its owner, and it does not cuddle comfortably in the owner’s lap either. It cannot be allowed to roam around the house for then it would nibble down every single thing that stood in its path. (We had a first-hand experience of this when we became internet-less as the bunny chewed down the wi-fi cable.) And so, slowly, the joy of having a pet gave way to whines of, “What kind of a pet is this? This is a horrible pet! I want a dog!”

Despite this, things would still have worked out had it not been for our semi-nomadic lifestyle, which involves visiting our hometown as often as we can, along with attending every wedding that we can. There’s only so many times that your friends and neighbours would be willing to rabbit-sit for you for days, before it becomes an embarrassment even to ask them. And so we decided to leave the rabbit back at our hometown, at my mother’s house. They already had a menagerie of 7 cats; one little rabbit wouldn’t be a bother. And then my sister decided that the poor thing was lonely, so she got another little rabbit, a female one, for good furry company.

So it came to pass that our boy became pet-less once again. And every so often, just like today, he declares he hates the house. On other days, I remind him of all the reasons we can’t have a pet, I remind him of how cruel it is to imprison birds in a cage and lock up fish in a glass box. I remind him that we have free birds as pets, the pigeons who’ve been using our balcony as their nesting ground since the beginning of this year. On any other day, I would have said all this.

But not today.

Not today, because I’ve spent an angry evening wondering at the constant battle that motherhood is, at the constant fighting, nagging and tug-of-war that is woven inextricably into mealtimes, homework times, teeth brushing times and generally all those times when he is required to actually do something that is good for him. I’m angry and upset.  So when Hasan reiterates, “I hate this house!” I want to snap right back—“I hate motherhood!”

“I hate this thankless job where no matter what I do, it’s never enough. Never quite right. I hate all this non-stop surveillance and negotiation and threats and yelling. I hate having to deal with you.” That’s what I want to say, but I can’t say it aloud. I just lie down silently beside him, simmering within.

“Don’t come close to me!” He sulks some more. “Door hat jaiye.”  Get away! And proceeds to roll to the far end of the bed.

“Fine!” I reply huffily, turning my back to him and sulking in my own corner. “I won’t come near you at all.”

I’m upset. Not by what he said, no. He’s a little boy. His anger means nothing. But I’m upset that no matter what I do, I can’t seem to make my son happy. No matter how hard I try, he always has something to complain about. No matter what I do, I can never get things done on time, no matter what I do, I can never get things done without a fight. I continue to sulk.

Five minutes go by and I feel a hand on my arm.

“Mummy, turn this side, please. Don’t turn your back to me,” a little voice pleads from behind my back. I sigh. Then turn over, putting my arm on his body and holding him close to me.

“I love you so much but you don’t love me,” I say quietly, a little sadly.

“No, no! I didn’t mean I hate you! I just meant I hate this house.” He tries, in his 5-year-old way, to undo the damage.  I smile a little and hug him.

“I don’t know why I say these things! I don’t like it when I say them!  Main kyun kehta hun ye sab?” he’s almost agitated at himself.

“It’s okay, honey. Koi baat nahi.” I stroke his hair. “It’s alright. I understand.” And then I tell him, “I don’t like it either, when I hit you. I feel sad when I slap you or spank you in anger. I don’t want to do it at all.” I confess to him, sadly. He hugs me tighter.

A few minutes pass by in silence.

Then a little voice asks, “Mummy, mere aansu kyun nikal rahe hain?” Why do I have tears in my eyes?

Again, I’m not surprised. I am the mother of an emotional boy, and sometimes his eyes brim over without him being able to make sense of what exactly it is that’s making him sad.

This, for instance happened a few days ago: We were sitting together, and as I watched him while he played, I suddenly felt a deep surge of love. “You know Hasan, when you grow up, I’ll remember all these games you used to play, and the things you used to say.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be saying the same things even then,” he declares without even looking at me, busy in his toys. I burst out laughing at his comical reassurance.  But later that night, as we lie together in the darkness, he says to me quietly, perhaps a little sadly:

“Mummy, when I grow up, you will miss the things I do now?”

I’m surprised. I hadn’t thought he would pay so much attention to my statement, much less be thinking about it many hours later.

“Oh no, honey, I didn’t mean that I’d be thinking about them sadly, I meant I’d be remembering them happily, in a good way,” I hurriedly reassured him. “You know, the way I sometimes tell you about the things you did when you were a tiny baby. They won’t be sad memories, sweetheart. It will make me happy to think of them.”

“Oh,” he says, but his face is still crumpled. I can’t see him properly in the dark though, and now he asks, “Mummy, mere aansu kyun nikal rahe hain?

Mummy, why am I crying?

I’m quite astonished because my simple statement of remembering his childhood wasn’t supposed to carry so much gravity.

I hug him tight. “You tell me, beta. Tell me what’s making you sad. Tell me what are you thinking?”

And I get to hear a fascinating tale.

“Well, I was watching ‘Veer- The Robo Boy’ yesterday, and Veer’s grandfather is attacked by a chemical that reaches his brain. Dadaji (grandpa) faints then, and Veer is not able to wake him up..” he narrates, his voice breaking suddenly as begins to cry.

“Yes, and then?”

“Veer keeps trying to save his Dadaji. And he remembers the things from his childhood, how his Dadaji used to play with him and take care of him when he was a baby,” sobs my boy. “Veer is afraid his Dadaji will die…” The tears fall freely now.

And I understand.

My little boy has figured out the connection between memories and sadness.

How missing someone is an inherent part of grief. How we think of the past most often when we’re sad.  So when he heard his mother talking of ‘missing’ the things he does as a kid, he immediately made the connection to sadness. I had to explain to him then, how memories can make us happy as well, how we can think of the past not just in grief but in joy as well. He needed me to help make sense of all the new things he’d discovered and experienced, among them the newfound experience of empathy—being able to cry for a grief that’s not your own. Making sense of emotions and experiences is not easy even for adults, much less for 5-year-olds.

And so now, when he again asks me the question, “Mummy mere aansu kyun nikal rahe hain?”  he expects me to make sense of his feelings.

But a woman can’t always be just a mother at all times. She’s a human with her own feelings too. She isn’t always the guiding light and comforting cushion, she’s also a person with her own vulnerabilities.

“Mere bhi aansu nikal rahe hain,” I surprise myself by blurting this out to him. “I’m crying too.”

Suddenly, he’s very still. His voice is very alert. “Why? Why are you crying?”

“Because I hate yelling at you and beating you and I wish I never did it.”

He nods, very sagely. “Yes, just like I hate saying horrid things and I don’t wanna do it but I can’t stop myself.”

I’m surprised at my little boy and how much he understands.

“I’m sorry.” I say to him.

“I’m sorry, too.” He says, and we hug each other tight, before he drifts off to sleep.

I suppose we may be doing a good job together after all.

We’ll do just fine.

Lullabies for Hasan


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“The first time I ever sang a lullaby to my little boy was when he was 6 months old. Since then, we’ve been through many different lullabies—poems from my childhood, songs from movies, even nauhas and marsiyas, songs of elegy, of remembrance, and a quintessential cultural heritage of Shia Muslims—because not only do I feel it’s a good way of transmitting culture, but also because I get terribly bored of singing the same thing over and over again. Sometimes, I also sing to him my favourite Urdu nazm: ‘Lab pe aati hai dua banke tamanna meri’ (My heart’s longing reaches my lips in prayer). This was the nazm my father sang to me every single day, sometimes as a lullaby. He made me memorise it, and I’ve loved it since I was 7.

During the early years of Hasan’s childhood, I was plunged in a terrible depression as our family was split apart. My husband had to move abroad and visited only twice a year, while I took care of our son practically like a single parent. So one day I sang to Hasan a song from a sad Hindi movie I saw when I was a child, from Akele Hum, Akele Tum. The song is sung by a dad, a single father divorced from his wife, to his son, and conveys the hollowness he feels, though tries to be brave about it.

“Akele ham, Akele tum. Jo ham tum sang hon to phir kya ghum… Tu mera dil, tu meri jaan…”

“Oh, I love you daddy!”

“Tu masoom, tu shaitaan!”

“But you love me daddy!”

Father: “You’re alone and I’m alone—but we’re both together, so why worry? You are my heart, and my life…”

Son: “Oh, I love you daddy!”

Father: “You’re so innocent, but oh, so naughty!”

Son: “But you love me daddy!”

When I sang it to my boy, I replaced ‘Daddy’ with ‘Mummy’, perhaps to make it more relatable, but also perhaps because I was living like a single parent and it echoed my grief.

Now this little boy, all of 2.5, who had never seen that movie, had no context to the song, caught on to something. Maybe it was the rhythm or just the words or how I sang it, but something had an effect on him. He began to cry. Not in a bawling, screaming way. His face crumpled up in agony and he sobbed quietly, burying his face in my arms. I stopped abruptly—I had no idea it would upset him so much.

Kids pick up on emotional cues and possess more empathy than we give them credit for. And also, as I realised later, they have a much deeper connect with us than we really understand. I sometimes feel it was my pain, which reached my little boy and affected him thus. I will never really know, but even today, he doesn’t like that song; one day when he found me humming it, he put his hand on my mouth and said: “No, mummy, don’t sing it.”

And I never did.

Even now, these lullabies, these night conversation form the most intimate, personal part of our connections, because we’re ensconced in a dark little bubble, snuggling comfortably and whispering away.

So recently, I sang a Rabindra Sangeet song to him, just on a whim.

Jodi tor dak shune keu na ashe, tobe ekla cholo re…

If no one heeds your call, walk alone.

I had read the poem a long time ago, perhaps in college, when I first fell in love with Tagore. But the first time I heard this being sung was in Amitabh Bachchan’s voice in the movie Kahaani. Vidya Balan as the pregnant woman looking for her disappeared husband. A thrilling albeit deeply sensitive movie. For some reason I remembered it. The rhythm is soothing and lilting, and I wanted to sing it. I sang the one line, only this line, over and over, because I do not know Bengali, and I cannot remember the rest of the song. I carefully watched my son’s reaction, whether he would stop me. But he didn’t.

He was absolutely still, a sign of attentive listening and fascination. I sang over and over, and felt him relax, still completely quiet though. After about 10 minutes of repeating the same line over and over, I switched back to my standard lullaby. This time, Hasan stirred.

“Amma…”

“Yes?”

Wohi wala sunaiye.” Please sing the earlier one.

I smiled.

And sang Ekla cholo again, all the way until he slept.

This, perhaps, is my closest bond with my son— a shared love for things that stir. Our love for poetry, for melody, our vulnerability for things that move the senses.

And this, my son, is the sum total of my motherhood, the pure, distilled essence of me, of what I give you of myself.  Poems from my childhood, strains of spiritual elegies that define my identity and yours, notes of prayer and symphonies of longing, and songs of strength, of purpose, of will.

In the hope that what is good, and fine, and beautiful in the universe, will stick to your soul, long past those times when the world will show you how dark and terrible it can be. When you cross those times, my son, I hope you will still remember things as gentle and ephemeral as a poem, things like tiny blinking glow worms, which though cannot fight the darkness, can make it beautiful nevertheless.”

(This piece was featured in the June issue of Child Magazine)

 

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.

Chapter 44: Levels of Life: The Meltdown (Part I)


“You put together two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash?

But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed. Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.” 

Julian Barnes, Levels of Life

The Meltdown Part I

May 8, 2014

There are separations, other than death, that might sometimes induce the same kind of grief.

Before we move deeper into this post, let me give my non-Indian readers a little perspective on the (now virtually defunct) proverb “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Though now you might gasp in horror at this, culturally, we’re inclined to not spare the rod at all. I’m quite sure most of us have been slapped, smacked and spanked as kids, and I can say this with deep certitude—hand on heart—that we weren’t even scarred on the skin, let alone scarred for life. Each one of us remembers the spankings more as a joke from the past, like the mischiefs that you fondly recall. And no one hates their parents—absolutely no one, nor do we harbour the slightest resentment against them. If anything, we remember being mollycoddled too much, with all the favourite desserts and picnics and hugs and family banter. The spanking and slapping is part of these memories, if I can ever make you understand.

I remember my father always kept a cane atop his almirah, and the cane was named ‘S.S. Verma’ short for Samjhavan Singh Verma.  Loosely translated to Mr Make-it-clear Jones. The cane never got an opportunity to be taken down—it was more of a psychological rod than a physical one—the mere mention of it was enough to get me to behave! Almost a decade later when we happened to get hold of it, there was much oohing and aahing between me and my sister, like we just discovered an old haunted relic.

But times have changed now, and everyone strictly reprimands you for beating children—even the older generation who dished it out with aplomb in their day. But even their dishing had been sparse and far between, and girls were hardly at the receiving end. The boys bore most of the ‘rod’, and never violently or frequently.

Nothing like the violence that had grabbed hold of me now.

My son was just about 19 months old and I had begun hitting him.

Shaking him. Slapping. My mother used to whisk him away immediately when these violent fits came upon me. “She will kill him!” She used to wail and lament—a tad dramatically. And what I really wanted to do was kill myself.

I wanted to be killed for slapping my 19 month old baby. I wanted to scream in agony, to scratch my own hands. I hated myself. If this had been another country, perhaps I would be behind bars. Which would be quite justified. I was turning into a potential danger to my own offspring.

At my in laws place: Late into the night, I’m trying in vain to talk to Sajjad on the phone — our calls are always so few and far between– but Hasan just won’t let me, grabbing the phone or making a fuss. I yank him up and almost dump him down in his walker, in the other room. He is shocked for a second and then starts wailing. Sajjad’s mom rushes to pick him up and soothe him.

In my mother’s house: I am trying to write—my refuge from the world— and Hasan is playing happily, toys all strewn around the floor. Grandma Bazooka barges in.

Now Grandma Bazooka is an Amazonian Woman species— the kind of person who’s the best ally to have in a war. She’s the best person to have your back, to bite down anyone who tries to chew you off. Her sense of justice, straight as an arrow, causes her to draw out her quiver every time she so much as whiffs any kind of unfairness—particularly to her loved ones.

The downside of this battle-readiness, of course, is the excess emphasis on discipline and things being just right all the time, like a military general.

Which means that she enters the room hollering.

“Oh this girl is useless! She can’t handle anything! She can’t handle her own child! All the toys are strewn round the floor! Why can’t you keep the room clean for heaven’s sake!”

This isn’t really a big deal. Yelling at your kids and grandkids is a routine occurrence in Indian homes—we all take it for granted and nobody bats an eyelid. Nobody who’s in their normal frame of mind, that is. And that’s not me right now.

I fly into a rage and shake the child, and shake him, and shake him. “Why! Why why why can’t you stop throwing toys around! Why!!” I yell and shake with anger. My mom rushes in from the other room and sweeps him away from my wrath.

I hide my face in my knees, rocking back and forth, sobbing uncontrollably.

At night in my bed: Hasan went to sleep at 8 pm. Relief, right? Exactly at 9pm, he wakes up. Fresh as a daisy. At 11 pm my eyes are heavy with sleep, and he is pushing his little fingers all the way up my nose, poking them into my eyes, doing his best to keep me awake. I am dying of exhaustion, having been at his beck and call all day. I sing him a lullaby, desperate to be free. Doesn’t work. I pat him again and again on the back, trying to induce sleep. I try and try and try for another half-hour. Nothing.

And then I imagine smashing his head into the wall.

And I slap him.

For some reason, this works like a charm. He cries at first and then nods off.

And then I lie awake in bed, watching the revolving blades of the fan. Round and round and round and round. And I see me.

Hair strewn over the face, neck in a looped rope, feet dangling limp.

I see myself hanging from the fan, eyes blank and bulging with the stare of death. Round and round and round and round and round.

I cannot sleep.

Daytime on my rooftop: Trees sway around in the cool breeze, and I’m here to breathe deep and relax. Nature is always such a refuge. And I look down casually from the third floor.

I see me there, down below.

I see my body, skull cracked open. Fallen from the top, plastered on the earth.

Blood oozing in a puddle.

Slowly I turn, and heavily climb down.

There is no refuge.

Chapter 42: In-laws and outlaws


May 3, 2014

And so life continues as usual. Usual being, in the Indian context, amid the hot and spicy curry of relatives, social gatherings and, not to be forgotten, constant social scrutiny.

Right now I’m in a small village almost at the border of Western UP—the ancestral home of the in-laws. My existence post marriage has been a strange crossover between extremes—my urban, English-speaking family and my husband’s completely desi and robust, village-dwelling extended family—plus my own journalist-blogger self who feels happiest in the Metro city of Delhi. An interesting mix, if a tad un-mixable.

But never had the distance felt so glaringly obvious as when my little one appeared on the scene.

The birth of my son has literally landed me in the midst of a crossfire, a tragi-comic tug of war that never ends. This has, in fact, led me to conclude that all relatives—regardless of whether they are yours or your husband’s— should always be referred to as in-laws. For they are the ones always laying down the laws. In-LAWS.

Now, it’s a fairly normal occurrence in life—no matter how unpleasant—that mothers get shot down all the time for their alleged incorrect parenting. You child might be hyperactive, not active enough, too polite (hence a pushover), not polite enough, too fat, too thin, too addicted to books, not interested in books, too talkative, not talkative enough—there’s a whole variety of parenting flaws that relatives will only be too happy to point out to you.

This is irritating enough in the normal course of things, but the impact of being constantly belittled is magnified manifold when you are the only one at the receiving end, with no partner to defend you or even to share the blame. To make matters worse, people from both sides of the fence are having a go at you.

To my family, my boy is a junglee—a wild child absolutely bordering on the uncontrollable. Having been exposed to a baby after almost two decades, they have completely forgotten what children are usually like.

“What an atrocious kid he’s turning into! He just keeps upsetting things and throwing stuff and running around. Can’t you even keep him in check!”

Directly opposite this, to my extended in-laws from the village, he is a pushover, a whining mouse of a boy. They have a house absolutely teeming with kids who create a racket all day long.

“What! Is this what you have turned him into? You have a ‘mard bachha’ {male child} and this is what you’ve made him? He ought to be able to hold his own, he ought to be able to fight and run and kick and punch! Make him a man, not a mouse!” So on and so forth.

The worst part is they’re both correct.

My one and a half year old boy is a regular monarch when he’s in familiar surroundings amid people he’s more familiar with. But as soon as he’s out of his den, he clutches at his mom in terror, bawls at the slightest provocation and cowers in fear when faced with a bully.

But let’s not forget that he’s only a year-and-a-half old, for heaven’s sake—19 months to be precise. It’s perfectly normal for a little boy to be scared of the outside world, to be wary of strangers and to be intimidated by bullying. Except for one little thing: my boy is a little exceedingly possessed by stranger anxiety, and a little too unused to rough-and-tumble play. Which isn’t surprising, considering that he’s growing up in the absence of his father, with no ‘manly’ activities to speak of. What’s worse is that my mom has always had the chicken-soup syndrome: too much protection and too little independence. I’m nearly always over ruled when it comes to letting him play a little rough and go out there and explore. There’s always a set of arms nearby to either haul him up or haul him out. This constant hovering has created an additional disadvantage of him being a bit more uncoordinated than kids his age—walking and running only on his toes. Naturally, he keeps tripping and falling over his feet.

Now this becomes particularly terrible when you’re visiting a joint family (with not one but multiple joints) that boasts not less than 2 dozen members— and guests besides. Every time someone tries to pick him up, he bawls. Add to that the village courtyard with uneven flooring and his uncoordinated, running-on-toes gait—and you have a kid that falls flat on his face every half an hour, with his lip cut and gums bleeding each time.

A sureshot recipe for disaster.

A recipe for day long allegations of over-parenting, which is ironic since back home I am subjected to day long allegations of under-parenting. The constant whining, of both the boy and the relatives combined, is getting far too much on my easily-frayed nerves. In case you didn’t notice, though, there is a major difference between being heckled by your husband’s relatives, and being heckled by your own: with your own people, you can snap back and tell them to back off. No such liberty with the husband’s family—not by a long mile.

Grin and bear it gets a whole new definition—only in my case it’s weep and bear it. Every time someone heckles me for my ‘insufficient parenting’, I go back into my own room and weep it out.

I hate and curse my son for being such a cry baby and a pipsqueak. I hate my mom for being such an overprotective hovercraft. And I hate and curse the father of my son for leaving me alone in this onslaught.

He ought to be here. He ought to be the one fielding these questions, he ought to be the one teaching his son to be ‘a mard.’ He ought to be sharing this responsibility with me instead of sprinting off to another country like an escaped fugitive, an outlaw. How I hate him.

More than anything, though, I hate myself for being incapable of properly bringing up my son. For being incapable of handling my own life and doing something about it. Wretched, contemptible, loathsome woman.

I feel it. I feel it again.

The rage that underlines my very being, the magma that bubbles and bubbles. Chokes me with its fiery flow, but finds no escape.

loneliness