B-R-E-A-S-T (and a biopsy)


Breast.

B
R
E
A
S
T

Careful, don’t say it loudly. The female anatomy must never be spoken of.

Except of course, when it is spoken of as an object of male desire. When the male describes the female body in every detail, defining the object of its gaze the object of its lust- then it is alright for the female body to be spoken of.

In pornography, in erotica, in male fantasies, in locker room jokes, in boy talk, in every thing that has to do with men, it is alright for the female body to be discussed.

But the woman must never speak of her body. She must never speak of her

Bee
Arr
Eee
Aayy
Ess
Tee.

No, she must never say BREAST.

She must never speak of her body in relation to herself. She must never speak of her body as experienced by herself. She must never speak of that body in terms of its utility to her, in its familiarity to herself.

She must never speak of its illnesses, its wounds and its pain. She must sashay and only let that body speak of beauty and of sex. She must never reveal the body’s scars and its aches.

B
R
E
A
S
T

No you must never say BREAST.

You must not mention loudly that there are three painful stones – one lump and two cysts- in your Breast. You must speak of it in hushed tones lest anyone hears you speak of your body in relation to yourself.

B
R
E
A
S
T

But I will say Breast. We will say Breast.

We will reclaim our bodies from the eyes of men, we will reclaim them and speak of them for they belong to us.

We will speak of our breasts in relation to biopsies, we will speak of our vaginas in relation to episiotomies, we’ll speak of our uteruses and our ovaries and we’ll speak of our backs and our slipped discs and our PCODs.

We shall speak of our bodies and their wounds and their pain, we shall speak of our bodies as experienced by us.

B
R
E
A
S
T

I shall say Breast.

Don’t tell me to hide illness for I shall not hide anymore.

I shall speak of the doctor injecting anesthesia and the thick biopsy needle piercing my breast, taking out tissue bit by bit, punching in punching out again and again.
‘Does it hurt’, No not yet. But it will. When the anesthesia wears off it will hurt. Your breast.

It will hurt and it will hurt.

And I shall not hush and I shall not hide. I will speak of the bandage that covers my breast.

I shall speak of my body which is a battlefield and not the object of your desire.

Yes I shall say BREAST. We shall say BREAST.

Because our breasts belong to us. Not to the men who desire us. Not to the children who feed on us.

Our bodies shall be ours and we shall reclaim them. We shall stand solemnly and hold each other’s hands and we shall feel each other’s pain and then we shall say, without a giggle or a whisper or a hint of shame, we shall say

B
R
E
A
S
T

BREAST.

{ I wrote this poem yesterday, every word and every line, inside my head while lying on the operating table in full consciousness, watching the doctor perform a biopsy on me. }

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

Movies: Men love action, women love romance. Think you know why? No, you don’t!


(I break my narrative yet again, because this is something that just had to be said.)

Wonder Woman

So I finally got a chance to watch Wonder Woman (yeah, I always watch new movies way too late) and oh girl, am I thrilled! It is absolutely mesmerising to watch Gal Gadot aka Diana, Princess of the Amazons, unleash her raw power and true grit. Watching the movie made me realise a few things though—namely why I have never been a fan of action movies and prefer mostly romances. I just thought I didn’t like all the fighting —until I saw this woman kicking, punching, lassoing and sword-fighting away to glory. And it suddenly dawned upon me that the reason I—and perhaps most women— do not enjoy action movies so much is because 99 per cent of all action movies only ever have MEN taking part in all the ‘action’.

Think about it.

What makes a good movie —or any good story— tick? How much the audience/readers identify with the characters. When you watch a story unfold, you identify with at least one person on the screen—mostly, you identify with the protagonist. For that brief span of time, you are transported to the screen, you are the person experiencing it all—and you vicariously partake of all the pleasures and pains unfolding before your eyes. That is why women prefer romances—because the protagonist there, the focus of the story, is always a woman. However, in common discourse this is projected as: women are only interested in love and romance.

Not true.

Women are interested in adventure, intrigue, thrill and action as any normal human being, but one look at the ‘regular’ action fare you get on the silver screen (and the small screen too) and you’d know that women would find it hard to relate to. It’s actually not the ‘action’ that puts us off—it’s the fact that every single time, it’s always a man commanding and carrying out the action. True, the Y-chromosome is genetically wired to love combat and destruction a lot more than the X-chromosome—and women definitely prefer love to war any day—but hey, when it’s about being the hero and saviour and fighting evil and injustice, women absolutely love packing in a mean punch.

A pity then, that our choices are so very limited.

All the way through Wonder Woman, I found myself jumping up and down in glee beside my very amused husband, and almost screaming—“Go Diana! Woohoo! ”

Yes, we love it when women throw the punches and absolutely decimate the baddies.

I remember whooping with joy many years ago when Keira Knightley clashed swords with cursed pirates and sea-demons in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. And I can never have enough of the way she and Will got married right in the middle of slashing up the baddies together!

Keira fight

But I was severely and utterly disappointed by the post-credits scene in the very same movie—where Will returns after 10 years on the Flying Dutchman, and Elizabeth has been waiting for him, bringing up their son all this while. I swear I felt my heart sink right into my shoes.

All that spunk—all that valour—all the sword fighting and dealing with pirates, demons and sea –monsters—all of that for nothing? No, don’t get me wrong. It’s not the child-rearing part that I had a problem with. Nope.

She got married, she had a kid, great —but nobody said she had to stay right there and give him a super traditional upbringing, did they? His dad was Captain of the Flying Dutchman, for cryin’ out loud! And his mom was King of the Brethren Court, lest we forget! She could just have brought up the boy on a ship, having adventures of her own and being the remarkable, doughty woman that she was! But the message we got instead was that once you’re married and have a baby, you really needn’t involve yourself with anything other than said baby.

But now I am beginning to digress. Where were we? Yes, women in ‘action’.

Women enjoy it when women protagonists ‘do the stuff’. When my husband introduced to me the popular TV series “The Arrow”, my favourite protagonists almost all the time were the fighting females —Sarah Lance aka the Canary, Laurel Lance aka the Black Canary, and most of all Nyssa Al Ghul — the daughter of Raas Al Ghul, Chief of the League of Assassins — but above all a shockingly lethal fighter if there ever was one. It was a real delight to watch these women in action. (Of course, Felicity was a great character too, but her fight was more of mental and digital warfare rather than throwing actual punches.)

Among my favourite kick-ass women characters though, right at the top stands the character of Teresa Lisbon from the hugely successful HBO series The Mentalist. Even though she’s not the central character—which is a man, Patrick Jane, The Mentalist himself—yet she’s not reduced to the status of merely a love interest. She’s a super tough cop—the Chief of the California Bureau of Investigation, a smart, fearless character who knows how to fight like a woman. Yeah, I said fight like a woman, because “fight like a man” kind of defeats this whole post—it indicates that only men can fight.

Again, the remarkable thing about this series was that they didn’t have to show the hero Patrick Jane as a super-macho guy, just because his leading lady was a tough-as-diamonds (why don’t they use that phrase, though? Diamonds are the toughest substance on earth!) cop who really knew how to use a gun. He, on the other hand, never even carried a gun. His super strength was his mind– the punching, shooting and capturing part was well taken care of by the lady.

Eventually, of course, Patrick Jane and Teresa Lisbon declare their love—and then comes the part where, for the first time, I felt really annoyed and angry at Jane, because he suddenly begins asking Lisbon to quit her job as an FBI agent—which she had by then become. No, of course, it wasn’t because of some kind of inherent chauvinism. He kept saying he didn’t want to ‘lose her’ given her high risk job and the fact that he’d already lost once a woman he dearly loved. Which felt entirely pathetic to me, because she had been a cop and a detective long before he even met her. And all these years that he’d been hunting the psychopath serial killer who murdered his family, she had been his partner and closest friend, always taking the lead in this high risk job. And now suddenly when he declares his love for her, he wants her to throw away all she has built up in life just because he’s insecure about losing her? It made me hopping mad.

Thankfully though, Lisbon was a woman after my own heart and she refused to budge. My most favourite, absolutely cherished scene from this series—and in fact my most cherished scene from any series or movie ever, period—is that of Lisbon in her wedding gown, in typical law-enforcement posture and fearlessly holding a gun at another serial killer.

lisbon gun

A smart man isn’t scared of loving a strong woman

That moment, to me, symbolises the very essence of being a woman: she doesn’t say no to love, she doesn’t say no to marriage, she doesn’t say no to femininity either—but she refuses to let go of her passions, of things that are important to her; refuses to let go of who she truly is. She dons the intensely feminine, sleek and classy wedding gown, but as soon as the baddies appear, she gets all-out in cop mode—whipping out her gun and confronting the psychopath. Even though there’s a whole law enforcement team there, she doesn’t sit it out just because it’s her wedding day. She remains true to herself and her work, her duty.

That one moment will forever be the essence of femininity to me. Femininity is not about being a damsel in distress—it’s about being a damsel that can remove distress.

And that’s who we fantasise about being when we find doughty women in action onscreen.

This reminds me of exactly what I felt when I watched Jean’s character blast out her mutant powers with full force in the climax of X-Men: Apocalypse. Every pore of my body felt like that woman who is trying hard but frustratingly failing to harness her true powers, that somewhere in me those forces are all accumulating to rip out in one great explosion of fearsome power.

X-Men_Jean_Phoenix

Whether it’s saving your home or saving the world, we vicariously fulfil all our dreams of superhuman strength and fighting power through these characters. But when those characters are only men, we can just salivate or drool over them as fantasy love interests! (Or just appreciate them as interesting characters.) We can’t actually identify with them —obviously.

So here’s my last word on the subject.

Movie makers, you’ll be opening up a whole new demographic if you just create more intrepid, fearless ‘women in action’ characters. That way, you’ll know that it’s not just the romances that draw women in. We love action too— only you’ve got to have the right person doing it.

Chapter 36: How to create happiness —Part I


Kathi Ostrom, one of my favorite bloggers, makes an incredible statement in one of her posts, and in a very offhand manner. 

“In the past, knowing I couldn’t change my home, my job, my husband or my kids, I’d typically cut my hair… Cutting my hair might not have always been the best way to…shake things up but at least it felt like I’d done a little something.”

I wonder, Kathi, if it’s just you and me?

February 18, 2014

In a little over a month now, I’ll be completing another year on this planet. No matter how indifferent you might claim to be, growing a year older—a year wiser, a year deeper into life—definitely calls for some celebration. But as you might have guessed, I’m in no celebratory mood.

I’m getting way too predictable, aren’t I—and tiring too, because I’ve hit the pause button on life and there’s only so much that can be said about being stuck.

And so, like Kathi, I have decided to change the one thing that I can surely change right now.

Snip-snip-snip.

And there goes the hair.

From all the way down my back to merely brushing my arms, I’ve decimated my treasure by half, trading length for a fresh and fancy style. But it worked. I feel better already, newer and different somehow. Seems like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders—quite literally—and I feel happy.

Suddenly, I know what I want for my birthday. And I don’t need a fairy godmother to get it.

I’m going to gift myself a birthday fiesta.

In Kovalam, Kerala.

kovalam

A trip to Coastal Kerala has been my dream vacation for a long time now. Actually, make that one of the many, many dream vacations I keep conjuring in my travel-crazed head. In a world that seems a lifetime away now, Sajjad and I had been saving up for a really fancy holiday in Kerala, at the super expensive The Leela Kovalam. That dream trickled far down the garden path, though, as the world in all its wickedness tipped up and drained the savings away. But that was almost two years ago.  I’m earning my own money again and a quick calculation reveals that I have saved more than enough to gift myself a birthday vacation. I wanted to see the Kovalam Beach, and see it I will. With or without Sajjad. I can take my mom and sister with me, just the way we used to go in the early days.

But even as I think this last thought, the smile in my head droops at the corners…

In truth what I want more than anything is for us to do this together. But alright, I’m not going to get hung up on this. If we can’t be together, then I’ll do it for myself and myself alone.

I do know, though, that Sajjad would have plans of flying over to India for my birthday. He is the kind of man, that rare species of male, who doesn’t have to be reminded about birthdays and anniversaries.

“Are you coming over in March?” I ask him during one of our phone calls.

“Hmm..I think so…” he says slowly.

“Well, you’re going to take us with you THIS time. If you can’t, don’t come over at all.”

There’s a pause.

“Okay then…” slowly, sighing wearily, “I won’t come over at all.” His voice sounds far away, tired.

I sigh. It was worth a shot anyway.

“So… I have decided to go to Kerala for my birthday. You want to come?”

“Kerala?”

“Yes— Kovalam. Like we had planned, you remember? You can come with me if you want to.” I’m giving him a choice. Asking. Not begging, not insisting. I want to show him I can be happy alone. Not that he was the one who wanted me to be alone in the first place. But he is the one who left me alone, and I have had enough. “I’ll pay for the trip, of course,” I add breezily, pointing out, again, that I was self-sufficient.

“Hmm.” That word again. “I’ll come.”

Despite my demonstrations of indifference, my spirit surges.

“We can split the bill, you know.” He suggests.

“Okay…” I chew my lip. “You take the airfare; I’ll take the hotel tariff.” I keep the larger share for myself because the choice of super-expensive hotel has been mine.

“Okay.”

His words are slow, quiet, not entirely… how shall I put it… enthusiastic? For years upon years, I have spent many a day and night trying to fathom this man’s mind, trying to work out the complexities and contradictions residing within him, and failed a million times. For all the intimacy, the friendship and the warmth we share, so much of him is still a stranger to me.

And they say women are hard to figure out.

I spend a few moments wondering about his moroseness, recalling the wonderful moments in the past that were ruined by his unexplained brooding where he withdrew into his shell and refused to let anyone in. Or even to let them know what it was about.

And then I make a decision. I will not let any brooding, any anger, any moroseness ruin this one. This is for me and me alone. I will go out there and enjoy myself, the whole world be damned. And if this makes me selfish, so be it.

And so, after a long while, I begin to feel excited again. And straightaway get to work. Planning the trip, booking the hotel, marking out activities to be done and sights to be enjoyed. And when I book our room at The Leela Kovalam, I choose the gorgeous beach-view suite, giving them special instructions to arrange for a cake on the 29th of March.

“Not a big one, of course, just for the three of us,” I request the amiable lady on the phone. “It’s my birthday.” Suddenly I’m grinning from ear to ear.

“Oh sure, Ma’m!” she says enthusiastically. “We hope you have a great one.”

“Thank you,” I smile.  And swear inwardly to make the day a great one, no matter what.

Enough with the moping. I’ll make my own happiness now.