Happy Father’s Day, across worlds


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gravity of it. The extent of it.

The enormity of it.

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

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

Of my father in a white shroud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I did.

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

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

About my son and how he loved hearing about Nana.

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

The innermost crevices of my heart.

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

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

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

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

I sighed. Maybe next time, then.

Kissed my fingertips and placed them upon him.

Until next time, Papa. Always in my heart.

——————————————-

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

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.

It takes a village to raise a Mother


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s to be done in this scenario?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mothers, please put yourself first.

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

Don’t pay any attention to them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom n Child

 

 

 

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.