‘H is for Hijab’ or ‘Antevasin: The Border Dweller’


It is funny that, ever since I became a mother, life’s aspects appear to me in motherhood metaphors. 

The hijab for instance. 

My relationship with the hijab is quite a bit like my equation with motherhood: there are times when motherhood frustrates me, times when I feel irritated by it, times when I wish I could just run away from it all. But in the end, when I look at my son and watch his mischievous grin, and hear the thoughts from his inquisitive, philosophical little mind, he thaws my heart all the way through.

That perhaps, perfectly encapsulates my equation with the hijab. There was a time when there was no hijab in my life, but now, it is woven inextricably with it.

People ask me, have I never wanted to take off the hijab? Let’s be honest- yes I have. There are times when it has felt irritating or restricting. But every time, every single time without fail, I have received cosmic communication- signs if you will- nudging me to keep it on.  I have received signals from the Universe that this is my way, my path to self-actualization.  

Yes, occasionally, it may seem like a restricting space, but the space only seems smaller sometimes because it is my soul that keeps expanding.

Expanding and demanding even more space. On those times, I have to readjust and recalibrate my understanding of religion, to make space for my expanding soul. And it works. It works every time. 

And it has changed who I am as a person.

The hijab gives me an outreach and a purpose that is so much bigger than my own little self. Combined with my syncretic upbringing, my literary and cultural sensibilities, the zest for life I inherited from my parents, and my fierce feminism, it becomes a symbol of power for me, a symbol of the infinite possibilities that the universe offers through the channel of life.

On the one hand, it allows me to take my ideas to places where, I feel, they are most needed – to women who would otherwise never have had access to unconventional ideas. On the other, it allows the world to see that a hijabi woman can be as unconventional as any other, a hijabi can be as much of a revolutionary as any other.

Furthermore, it makes me the proud owner of that word which Elizabeth Gilbert speaks of in Eat, Pray Love; the word that she discovered in an ancient Sanskrit text during her stay at an Indian Ashram:

Antevasin

Border dweller. 

“The Antevasin,” writes Gilbert, “was an in-betweener. He was a border-dweller. He lived in sight of both worlds, but he looked toward the unknown. And he was a scholar.”

The one forever at the cusp of two worlds, two traditions, two streams of life and thought. That is who I am.

Antevasin.

There is a verse in the Quran that speaks very eloquently and beautifully of the merging of two seas. “Marajal bahraine yaltaqeyan.”

The verse refers to two seas that flow freely so that they meet together (at one place). The next verse speaks of a “barrier between the two seas by which they do not mix.” It is generally taken to refer to bodies of salt water and fresh water, which merge at a place, a border, but do not mix into each other. Each remains separate and distinct.

But the verse has been interpreted in many other ways, uncovering metaphorical and deeper layers. Certain scholars have interpreted ‘the two seas that meet’ as two of the holiest figures in Islam – Ali and Zahra, who are among the 14 infallibles.

However, the greatest beauty of a spiritual tradition is chiefly that one can draw one’s own mystical, transcendent, metaphorical meanings from it- beyond all scholarly and academic interpretations.

The Quran, as is believed by Muslims, is the channel through which the Creator speaks to the Creation. The conversation between the two, thus, can be a very private and intimate affair, in which the Qalb of the Abd (the worshipper) leads her to the meanings that the Mabud (or the worshipped) wishes to convey. The Qalb being the innermost center of our existence – not the heart or the mind but the point at which all our senses and our abilities and our capacity to love and feel and understand is centered. That point of convergence of the human existence is defined as the Qalb

And when I read the Quran through my Qalb, these verses speak to me of my very existence as the convergence of two streams, the cusp of two distinct realities. Between and yet beyond. 

Belonging nowhere, and therefore, belonging everywhere.  

Always on the border, pushing forth, standing at the confluence of past, present and future- reaching out towards that which can be — towards infinite, limitless possibilities. 

That, ultimately is what my Hijab is to me. It is the ultimate symbol of the Antevasin.

The seeker, the dervish who does not renounce the world, but lives forever at the border, partaking of both: Sounds and Silence. Fullness and Void. Company and Solitude. Movement and Rest. Rainbows and White Light.

Always both.

Extrovert and Introvert. Fire and Water.

Within, and Without. 

Antevasin.

Belonging nowhere, and therefore, belonging everywhere. 


(3 days ago, on 29th March 2020, I turned 33 years old. I thought it was the best time to write about one of the most significant aspects of my life- at the end of one of the most life-altering year of my life. It exploded and blew me to smithereens, and in that destruction, brought me into the full reality of who I am and who I want to be. )

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“In the vastness of space and the immensity of time…”


The first thing that struck me about Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, when I first read it in 2017, was the heart-stopping dedication from Carl to his wife Ann Druyan.

“For Ann Druyan,” said the dedication. “In the vastness of space and the immensity of time, it is my joy to share a planet and an epoch with Annie.”

The words seemed to fill the page, enveloping the book and the reader in their embrace – in the intensity of love conveyed in a single line.

Last week ­- nearly three years later – I came across a post on Facebook, no doubt a popular post but one that I’d never seen before, containing the words of Ann Druyan.

Ann’s thoughts about Carl.

“When my husband died,” she said, “because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me-it still sometimes happens-and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous-not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance. . . . That pure chance could be so generous and so kind. . . . That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. . . . That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful. . . . The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”

Picture: NASA

Let me take a moment here to catch my breath and repeat.

‘We found each other in the cosmos and that was wonderful.’

I’m not an atheist. Never have been. Spent all my years believing in the afterlife, believing in something being present beyond the here and now. But I’m also a curious, inquisitive person, and I like to look at things from various angles. And therefore, over the years several times I have tried to consciously imagine what my life would be like if I were an atheist. If I stopped believing in the things that moulded and formed my life right now, would I live any differently?

And the answer has always been that other than the prayers and community rituals, nothing would really change in my life. I’d be the same person I am now, because human values are universal.  

But then, following this chain of thought I’d slowly come to the aspect of afterlife: of life after life, life beyond life. And every time I tried to imagine a world that ends here, ends definitively on this earth, my imagination would bound back with a jolt, the kind of jolt one gets from a high voltage electric fence, throwing you back with unprecedented force. Every time I tried to imagine this being the end, my mind rebelled. For one reason: my father.

I had gone through life, one day at a time, imagining him around me, beside me, asking him questions and listening to his answers. I had gone through life waiting for that moment when I would see him again, in the fathomless beyond. Every time I tried to imagine there being nothing beyond, my mind reared high like an aggressive insolent stallion, refusing to comply. And that would be the end of my atheist imaginings.
   

Until now.

Until Ann’s words moved me to tears and I wept for a long moment. “I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”

This was the first time that something different gave me solace, something other than the thought of the afterlife, of seeing my father again.

I saw him. We saw each other.

He was my father and I knew him for 9 years. In the vastness of space and the immensity of time, how beautiful it was that I had him as my father – a man like him, so ahead of his times, so full of energy and vitality, brimming with joy and cheer, and yet steeped in profound philosophy, in poetry, in spirituality – in sync with the rhythm of the universe. It was my joy to share a planet and an epoch with him, to know him and to learn from him, if only for a little while. We found each other in the cosmos and that was wonderful.

This was the first explanation that soothed me, without promising life beyond life. I tried to turn the thought over and over in my mind, absorbing it from various angles.

And then I thought of little Hasan.

My sensitive, philosophical 7 year old, who already reflects so much on life and death, on life after death. And even more than that, cries for his grandfather whom he never met.  My astonishing little boy who sheds actual tears for a man he never knew, never saw, never spoke to. He cries for my father because “Why did I never meet my Nana?”

And this is where Ann Druyan’s words fall short. For me, perhaps, her words may work. I saw him. We saw each other.

But what of Hasan? His grandfather never saw him. He never saw his grandfather. They did not have a chance to spend years together. They did not find the opportunity to share a planet and an epoch together, at the same time. What of that?

I think then, that we – Hasan and I — we’ll have to hold on to the idea of afterlife a little longer. To feel and to know that my father – his grandfather – is still there, and even though Hasan did not see him, he sees Hasan. He watches over him, guides him, and answers his questions, like he has answered mine for twenty years now.

We will wait then, I think.

Wait for the time when we can find each other in the cosmos again – for the cosmos is not merely the parts that you can see, is it?

Every person you ever truly loved will find you again. In the vastness of space and the immensity of time; vastness that stretches far beyond human imagination.  


    

Picture: NASA

The way you make love


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

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

Does this sound somewhat familiar?

————————

Gratitude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the infinite magic of love.

In life and in death


The first post of the New Year. I’ve been wanting to write this for quite some time now, and I wanted this post to be about love.

As it happens, though, this post is about death.

Today morning, the first message I saw on my phone opened all by itself. I picked up the phone to check the time, but what appeared on the screen was this message instead. It was from a religious site called Ali-Walay. I get messages every day from them, but I think I almost never check these.

My relationship with religion can best be defined, in Facebook terms, as: ‘It’s complicated.’

Religion has been my refuge and my anchor, but it’s also been my anguish and my conflict. I have been both consoled by it and tormented by it. It is my sanctum sanctorum, my ‘safe space’ in this world—the place I go to when I feel ambushed and weary and defeated and lost. The place I seek solace in, like a mother’s lap. Or more appropriately in my case, like a father’s arms, for my mother says I never called out to her whenever I fell down— I always called out to my father.

I find my solace in prayer, in abiding by the guidelines of the illuminated path. But also constantly keep pushing against it, trying all the while to evaluate and test the boundaries, seeking the truth of what has actually been revealed, attempting to sift from what has merely been passed down as a filtered narrow version. It reminds me a little of the 6 year old headstrong son of mine, how he keeps questioning every word I say, probing and probing and pushing against the boundaries until he is absolutely convinced. It doesn’t, in any way, lessen his love for me, or the comfort he finds in my embrace.

So too it is with me and faith. A constant symphony of solace and angst, a choreography of embracing and withdrawing.

Tending more towards a gentler spirituality than a strict religiosity, I have strived hard, often maddeningly and torturously, to find a balance wherein I can be religious without being restrictive, and try, at least try, to be moral (somewhat, I suppose, though that’s not for me to say) without being judgemental, attempting to stay rooted while remaining open to the world.  How far I have succeeded, I cannot say, because it is an endless, infinite journey, never a destination. The ultimate destination and the moment of evaluation can only ever be death.

Which brings me back to the message that manifested before me today. I say manifested, because it appeared suddenly without any attempt on my part to read it, or even to open my WhatsApp. I just unlocked my phone, and there it was, staring at me.

“What is the first thing to be snatched from me when I die?” said the message, which was in Urdu. “It is my name.”

“For when I die, people will not ask where I am, but they will ask, where is the laash (corpse)? They will not call me by my name!
When they read my namaz e janazah (funeral prayer for the departed) they will not ask where I am, they will ask where is the janazah (dead body)? They will not take my name!
And when it’s time to bury me, they will say, bring the mayyat closer! No one will take my name!”

The lines struck my heart. Not because it was something I’d never thought of, but because it was something I’d always thought of. The first time being in 2010. My second rendezvous with death, the first of course being my father’s.

This second death was the death of a college-time friend. She wasn’t my best friend or anything, and in a sense we weren’t very close. We’d been in the same school though and even shared our last names. But it was actually in college that we attended an inter-varsity workshop in Naintial together, and stayed in the same room for a few days—even ending up having a fight—which ultimately brought us closer to each other. Or at least, I felt closer to her. Later we would sit together sometimes and share some very personal things.

Ima, for that was her name, departed from the world in November 2010, a month after my wedding. The news of her death reached me, ironically, as I was watching my wedding video with the entire family. It was a great shock.

Vivacious, energetic, a brilliant mind and a kind heart. Devil-may-care attitude and a desire to live life to the fullest. Her passing seemed a travesty of life itself. It felt like a personal brush with death to me, as in the case of my father. Ironically, just like my Papa, Ima too passed away in a car accident—wrenched forcefully from life.

The day that she was flown in from Bangalore to Aligarh for the funeral, I was at my in-laws house, about to get ready for a community celebration. I was picking out my clothes when I overheard my mother in law on the phone with someone, saying, “The body will be here around 4 p.m.”

Body!

A sharp stab of pain pierced my heart to hear of my friend being referred to as a body!

Is the physical manifestation of a person so unimportant, that as soon as he or she ceases to be ‘alive’, they become merely a body? Where does this thought arise from? Is it because only the spirit is important, only the spirit that is the truth of the person? Or is it because we are afraid of death, of the cold pallor it spreads upon the ones it claims, of the perennial stiffness and silence it brings in its wake? We are made so uncomfortable by death that we distance ourselves from the ones claimed by it—we relegate them to the status of a body, an impersonal, indifferent description, proclaiming tacitly that we have nothing to do with this physical manifestation that has been claimed by death. Distancing ourselves from the person, thereby distancing ourselves from death. The spirit, pure and indestructible, belonged to our realm—the realm of the living—and this body, weak and easily overpowered, bears no affinity to us.

Our rejection of the earthly, physical self of those we love hides in itself an inherent fear of death. We do not want to associate ourselves with it.

And yet, for as long as I can remember, I have never once referred to a loved one as a body. Even when they’re in their final abode, hidden beneath the earth.

For many, many years after his passing, I never even spoke of my father in the past tense, preferring always to say, “My father is this,” or “My father does this.” Never was. Never did. Because he is forever living, a constant presence in my life. I refused to allow ‘Late’ to be written before his name even in my wedding card, as is usually done. To my family, I explained it thus: “Those who know he has departed, don’t need to be told. And those who don’t know, don’t need to be told either. He is here, and will always be.”

Even now, when I speak to my husband about going to Allahabad, I always say. “It’s been so long. I have to go to Papa.” Or “We need to go to Papa soon.”

He was, is and will always be my Papa. In life and in death. Forever mine.

When my dearly beloved grandfather passed away, I winced every time people referred to his ‘body’ being given the ritual funeral bath. I winced when people called out: put the ‘body’ here on the bed. Why, oh why! He is a person! He has a name. Not half an hour ago you were all calling him by his name. How dare you call him a body! Watching my kind, gentle, pure-hearted, poetry-loving grandfather who was always so full of life, being carried away to his abode beneath the earth was perhaps the saddest, most deeply grievous moment of my life. Watching his face get covered by the white cloth of the kafan, hearing the marsiyekhaans of Jalali recite the heart-rending elegies of Imam Husain as we stood around Baba and wept with loud wails, watching the khaake shifa on his closed eyes…they are all the saddest moments of my life. And yet! There was such tenderness in his death, an inexplicable gentleness that was perhaps a remnant of the kindness pervading his soul.

He was my grandfather, my beloved Baba even in the shroud. Even on the shoulders of the men of the family. Even in the van that carried him away. He is my Baba, even in his final resting place. Never was he a body to me and never shall he ever be.

For I am not repulsed by death. It does not frighten me. My love is not restricted to the land of the living, for death is merely a passage. And beyond death lies the truth, the land of the forever living.

A person is always a person, whether walking upon the earth or hidden beneath it.

The ones we’ve loved deeply and truly cannot be reduced to mere bodies, just because we cannot watch them walk or hear them talk, just because we cannot hear their heart beat anymore, just because we cannot see them breathing in and out. They were and will be people, real people, in life and in death, forever ours.

I suppose I did end up writing about love, though, for love encompasses death and moves with it, beyond it, all around it.

Even the Taj Mahal, a monument to eternal love is, after all, a mausoleum.