Over and over, women are being asked to choose careers and not ‘choose men’. To pursue careers and not ‘pursue men’. In effect, society is telling women that they must not ask for, want or need to be loved by a person of the opposite sex.
It is strange indeed, to urge a human being to deny their very human need of love and companionship and physical intimacy, and replace it with a career instead. It is stranger to think that the need for achievement is a replacement of the need for love and belonging.
In the picture below, which carries a small excerpt from my book The Reluctant Mother, I have mentioned the Pyramid of Needs given by American psychologist Abraham Maslow. The other picture shows the actual Pyramid or Heirarchy of Needs as described by him. The need for love and belonging is *separate* from the need for achievement. And the need for love and belonging comes lower down in the pyramid, making it more basic than the need for achievement. And yet, *both* these needs are UNDENIABLE parts of human existence, and one cannot be a replacement for the other.
The need for love, affection and belonging is so basic that it is among the first needs of the infant- to be loved and cared for. The need for achievement and independence starts making itself felt at a young age, when the child wants to do things by himself/herself, to feel a sense of accomplishment. Adult needs are but an extension of these childhood needs.
Love gets expanded to include sexual fulfilment after puberty, but no matter how much modern life may try to separate sex and love, in the end most people want to have a stable intimate relationship with someone they *love*. That is what we all *ideally* want- regardless of whether we are men or women. We don’t want an endless string of casual relationships all our life. In the end, most of us want a person with whom we can feel comfortable and safe and loved.
Traditional society kept forcing women to choose love over achievement, thereby denying that the need for achievement is a HUMAN need – not a male need. Men, however, did not have to sacrifice dreams to have love- they could have it all.
Modern society now, is telling women to choose achievement over love- but men are not being told to pursue careers instead of pursuing women- they are pursuing both. Men still get to have it all.
So how has modernity changed anything for women? It has merely replaced one lopsided ideology with another. It has merely replaced one form of sacrifice with another. It changes nothing. It still allows men to have it all and keeps asking women to choose ONE.
Yes, it is absolutely essential to teach girls that their *survival* does not depend upon a man. That their *self-esteem* does not depend upon a man. That their *self-worth* does not depend upon a man. But don’t tell a girl that if she wants a man to love her and cherish her, she is ‘oppressed’ and ‘backward.’ It is a very *human* need to want love.
And this also brings us to the very core of the issue- why are so many women rejecting the idea of love in the first place? Why are so many women disillusioned with love?
Because men have not been taught to be *WORTHY* of a woman’s love. Men have not been told that they need to *earn* a woman’s love.
When a man is physically or emotionally abusive, society shrugs and says ‘men will be men.’ When a man cheats on his partner, society shrugs and says ‘men will be men.’ When a man is controlling and dominating towards his partner, or when a man is irresponsible and does not carry out his share of responsibilities, it’s the same – men will be men. Whatever terrible things men do in their relationships, they are excused with the help of a sweeping generalisation – men will be men.
In effect what we are telling women is that the very *definition* of a man is someone who is abusive, unfaithful, cruel, heartless and controlling. Or irresponsible and uncaring.
Why, for heaven’s sake, would a woman want such a creature in her life? If women are then being asked to not want men, it is essentially a call to not keep an abusive, unfaithful, controlling – or irresponsible- person in their lives.
As long as we keep condoning unpardonable behaviour by men, as long as we keep saying ‘men will be men’, we are contributing to a society in which relationship structures will be devalued and dismantled.
What we *need* is to change the definition of what it means to be a Man.
When Masculinity gets identified as kindness, gentleness, compassion, love and shouldering equal responsibility, when a man being soft-hearted, polite and respectful towards a woman gets defined as the pinnacle of manliness, when a man sharing home responsibilities and parenting responsibilities equally is not considered an anomaly, when we can see a man deeply and faithfully in love and say that *this* is what it means to be a man, only then we will be able to create a culture in which *both* men and women can rise to the stage of self- actualization- in which *both* men and women can have their needs fulfilled- and nobody has to sacrifice their need for love to fulfil their need for achievement- nor will anybody have to sacrifice their need for achievement to fulfil their need for love.
In an *ideal* world, choosing a man and choosing a career would not be two contradictory options for women. That is the kind of world I want to see.
Not every fairy tale is about finding Prince Charming. Some are about finding yourself.
All Cinderella Stories have some staple features. A grand ball, a dazzling gown, a fancy coach, a fairy godmother, a Prince. And glass slippers.
This one has all of them- with some delicious twists.
On 11th Dec 2021, I witnessed the culmination of one of the most beautiful fairy tales of my life: the launch of my debut book – labour of love and piece of my heart- The Reluctant Mother: A Story No One Wants To Tell.
The launch was held at the Auditorium of the India International Centre, one of the grandest venues in New Delhi, the capital of my country. The programme witnessed a full house turnout, and the panelists Rana Safvi, Manjul Bajaj, Saikat Majumdar and Reema Ahmad, were some of the best writers and thinkers of the country. My entire extended family, my friends, my students- every person that loved me- was present. And many readers and friends who only knew me through social media arrived at the launch for a meet up and for getting their books signed.
It was all as perfect and magical as could be.
Magic, very often, is a combination of vision, planning, determination, untiring efforts, belief in oneself- and a little bit of serendipity. Organising this launch took every bit of these.
Oh, and I definitely had help from a fairy godmother.
No, make that two fairy godmothers: one who was much elder to me, in keeping with the fairy godmother tradition, but the other one, totally breaking all traditions (as is the custom of my life so far) was a much younger girl. A young, sweet, magical fairy who arrived out of nowhere.
The elder one encouraged me at every step, helped with her experience and wisdom, and made me realise how important it was to meticulously plan a grand launch. At one point, when I was trying to book the venue, I realised that the much larger hall was the only one available. What if all the people I invited didn’t turn up? The hall would look empty. What should I do? Should I try another venue? But I really wanted this one- it was the best venue one could have for a book launch.
I called my elder fairy godmother. I told her I was afraid all of my guests wouldn’t arrive, and the hall would look empty.
‘Why won’t they?’ She replied in her usual cheerful, encouraging voice. ‘Of course they will come! What really matters is the khuloos, (the earnestness, the love) with which you invite them.’
So that is how my fairy gave me my magic mantra. And girl, how it worked! Love really works wonders. When you give genuine love to people, they will ultimately turn up for you. In more ways than one.
This elder fairy was Rana Safvi apa – noted author, who was also a panelist at the launch, who is also my mother’s cousin, and who has been a rock and a guiding light both at the same time.
The other fairy, the one much younger than me, turned up magically on my cell phone. She and I knew each other only professionally. She is a public relations professional, and I am a journalist, and that is how we had spoken to each other a couple of times on the phone. Several months ago, she called me for some professional query, and I mentioned to her that I had switched to academics now. We somehow struck up a conversation, suddenly realising how much we had in common, suddenly bonding together fabulously.
Friends who had never even seen each other’s face. And that is how serendipity works.
This young fairy named Nitika is one of the purest souls I’ve met. She hand held me through the organising of the book launch, pointing out the smallest details and being there for me instantly when I needed her. It’s not every day you meet someone who immediately and selflessly helps you, handholds you for no ulterior motive, for nothing that they are going to get from you in return. Someone who loves you without trying to control you, someone who thinks about your needs without projecting their own needs upon you. Someone who understands what you want to do, without imposing upon you what they think you should do. Not all fairy godmothers come with white hair, you see? There are no rigid rules in life. (Unfortunately Nitika fell ill on the day of the launch and could not be there. But she was surely there in spirit)
So it happened, that I organised my grand ball, with the help of my two fairy godmothers. Must also remember to give credit to my publishers for helping out with advice for the launch and other practical details. Especially to Raghav, who designed the backdrop for the event, the standees and the invitation cards. Oh, the gorgeous invitation cards! Although all of them were sent digitally, I got a few printed to present personally to the senior professors and the Vice Chancellor at the University where I teach.
Holding the printed cards in my hand was a feeling next only to holding the actual book.
‘I’ve never been so happy holding a card in my hand since I held my wedding invitations!’ I exclaimed to S in utter glee.
And speaking of S, let’s not forget the Prince.
(And yes, I also had a littlePrince with me, darling Little H, looking all dapper and handsome in a grey blazer, standing smartly on stage.)
S drove me around for all the work that needed to be done- even though I know how to drive. But I have spondylitis and too much driving can sometimes trigger deep neck pain, so he made it a point to drive me around everywhere, so that I could preserve my energy and good health for the launch. He helped me make the right decisions and think with clarity, he took care of the little details that I would have missed had I been working alone. He worked as hard as I did, calling up people to invite them with khuloos.
It was all back-breaking work, I was rushing around like a little typhoon, but hard work can be so utterly satisfying, especially when it culminates in victory. The day of the launch was a whirlwind of epic proportions, especially since my son had a PTA meet in the morning. So I was basically hurtling from school to home to book launch – ‘living my book’, as author and panellist Saikat Majumdar remarked later! The most unique thing about all of this was, in true Cinderella fashion, I was late to my own ball and charging ahead in my scintillating silver Honda City carriage- except that the carriage was being driven by my Michael Schumacher of a husband.
So in a delightfully dramatic modern day Cinderella version, instead of rushing away from the ball and the Prince at the stroke of midnight, I was charging towards the ball to make it on time, at the stroke of midday, with the Prince furiously steering away. Such drama are fairy tales composed of!
But no Cinderella story is complete without a dazzling gown, is it? I had been wondering about what to wear for a long time before the launch. At first, I thought I would wear Red. Red has been my favourite colour for as long as I can remember. But close to the launch, I began having ‘visions’ of a glorious white gown. I could ‘see’ it in great detail; it etched itself in my mind. And true to all traditions of magic and serendipity, when I went shopping with my two best cheerleaders- my partner S and my sister N- I saw just the white gown hanging on the rack of my favourite label.
Standing there, swishing elegantly and beaming at me. I tried it, and it fitted me like it was crafted for me. The ultimate gown for a glorious ball. My sister decided to pair it with a delicate and sheer pink tissue dupatta, though that had not occurred to me. But the moment she added that dupatta, the gown was uplifted into something else altogether. Add a bright pink headscarf to the look – and voila! It became a Cinderella dress with a very Zehra flavour.
Oh, how the universe conspires to bring everything together- including godsent sisters with a great sense of fashion! Which reminds me of some things I had that even the original Cinderella did not. An adoring sister and a beloved mother. (Let me pause for a moment here and say Masha Allah.)
Instead of the ugly step sisters- whose ugliness did not lie in their face but their hatred- I have a sister that adores me, and who, even at the last minute, was rushing around overseeing the preparations for the launch.
Cinderella lost both her parents, but I lost only one. And though it is a loss that is never compensated, a loss that is never diminished, his presence never turns to absence. For the entirety of the 25 years since his departure, my father has never left my side. In each moment of doubt and confusion, I remember him and ask myself- what would he have done? I remember who he was, the values he stood for, the dreams he encouraged, the knowledge he imparted, and there he is- beaming at me, showing the way. The people we love may be taken from us, but can love ever be taken? The ones we love may die, but can love ever die? To quote one of my favourite lines from the movie Interstellar: Love is the only thing that transcends all dimensions, including time and space.
As the latest version of Disney’s Cinderella had a mother who told her to ‘have courage and be kind’, I had a father who told me to be brave, dream big and always speak the truth. And that is what showed me the path. He who has faith will never be lost, as Baba Aziz said in the eponymous Iranian film.
Now that we have all the elements of the Cinderella Story, can glass slippers be far behind? But what are glass slippers, really? What role do the glass slippers play in Cinderella’s story? Are they just sparkling props for a magic tale? Or are they something larger, something more metaphorical?
In truth, the glass slippers are the channel, the zaria, through which Cinderella’s destiny finds her. They are the artefacts that lead her future to her doorstep.
My glass slippers were right there at the ‘ball’. They were none other than the numerous copies of my Book.
The artefact, the channel that led my destiny to me, brought my future to my doorstep, dazzled and sparkled in a magnificent display of fireworks, and wrapped up my fairy tale for me like a gift.
Most importantly, though, when I sit in silence and reflect, I realise that if I hadn’t met some fabulous empowered women, if I hadn’t read books that embodied the Feminist thought, if I hadn’t had the knowledge of an alternative way of thinking and living, I would never have been able to make this fairy tale come true.
For this is what empowered women, enlightened feminists, taught me: the ‘Big Day’ in a woman’s life doesn’t necessarily have to be a wedding day. It can also be the day you launch your company, start your dream job, go on a world trip – or launch your dream book. And yes, there can be as many ‘Big Days’ in your life as you want- they don’t necessarily have to be romantic, they don’t have to be just one. Life can be magical in as many different ways as we can imagine.
If I hadn’t met wise, visionary, pure hearted women- both young and old- perhaps I’d never have known this: Love is important, but there can be so many other things beyond love. There can be so many differentkinds of love. There can be so many kinds of fairy tales. In some of them, you might be seeking a Prince. In some, you might be alone, seeking a path. In yet others, the Prince might be right beside you, looking for what you both want together.
Because every fairy tale is not about finding Prince Charming. Some of them are about finding yourself.
When S and I were newly married, we shared our rented apartment with an elderly lady who was the owner of that apartment. What had happened was that the lady was supposed to be leaving in a month or so to stay abroad with her children, but events unfolded such that we all ended up staying together for a much longer time.
It was a very interesting experience to live that way. She was a soft spoken, cultured and well-read lady, and having been a history teacher before her retirement, she regaled us with amazing stories from Indian History at dinnertime, when all three of us sat together at the dining table.
But as it often happens with most people of the previous generation, she too lived with the notion that food was mostly cooked for the pleasure of men. How did I find this out?
In the early days of my marriage, I was staying at home, before I re-joined my job a couple of months later. I used to do all the cooking and washing up myself, and for the first few days, auntie would say in the afternoons: oh, it’s just the two of us, we’ll have leftovers from last night.
Or she would say: Oh, cook all this elaborate stuff in the evening when S comes home.
After a few days, I wondered why the two of us were not worth cooking for, and only S was worth cooking for? So when she said to me that day, ‘oh we’ll have leftovers from last night, S won’t be here anyway’, I laughed and said to her: But auntie we are here! Why should food only be cooked for S? I want to cook for myself and for you as well!
And from then on, I cooked up good stuff for the two of us also. I think she was also trying to be kind to me, and not make me work too hard—trying to make it easy for me by saying that I didn’t need to cook for her. I understand that a lot of it came from a place of kindness wherein she didn’t want me to be exhausted cooking for her.
But I’ve seen this in plenty of Indian homes where the man is considered the primary consumer of food—the food is almost always meant first and foremost for the men.
And the meat—especially the meat! The men are expected to eat a lot of meat, and the women are supposed to not want meat so much. Perhaps it has to do with the belief that meat eating makes you aggressive and dominant- not to mention highly sexual.
Qualities that traditional society wishes to keep away from women.
Well, not this woman.
I love my chicken and my mutton, and am not ashamed of eating as much as I want. (Perhaps that might explain some of my aggression and other interesting qualities. But that’s another discussion.)
So one day, S and I were invited to dinner at an acquaintance’s house. They had cooked shaljam gosht which is practically our favourite meat dish.
Now, the thing is, sucking on mutton bones for bone marrow is considered a delicacy in our culture. So when we sat for dinner, the elderly gentleman asked his wife to ladle out the big bone to S.
“Bhaiyya ko do!” He instructed her. Give it to the young man!
I waited for her to ladle it out to S, while eyeing the other big bone in the curry for myself. But before I had the chance to actually get the bone for myself, the elderly gentleman again urged his wife:
“Doosri wali bhi do bhaiya ko!” Give the other bone, too, to the young man!
Well, really! Why should all the best portions be ladled out to ‘bhaiyya’! Why had he invited me, then? To watch while my husband ate?
Thankfully, however, his wife retorted with: “Arrey woh bhi to khayegi!” indicating me. “But she is eating too, isn’t she!” I cannot explain how happy her answer made me.
Food is not meant for men alone.
More evidence of this attitude can be found in villages, in large joint families, where it is always the women who do all the cooking from dawn to dusk, but are always the last to eat.
The food is served to all the men first, and when they have had their fill of all the freshest and best portions, the leftovers are eaten by the women. Often it happens that very little of the food is left, and the women either have to go back to the kitchen and cook some more, or end up eating only the little that is left. It is unfair and infuriating.
I was not brought up with this kind of attitude, and so became aware of it quite late in life. But then I never stayed in a villag, and neither of my grandparents lived in a village either. They were all town-dwellers who espoused respectful and fair attitudes towards women.
My father was a loving and respectful husband and he would never eat until mummy had joined us at the table. Even when we had guests over, the women ate together with the men.
My partner S and I never eat without each other – unless we are both busy with our professional work, in which case we eat whenever we find the time, without waiting for each other. But those instances are rare.
When we visit his parents in Aligarh, all of us eat together, and if there’s something to be brought in from the kitchen, it doesn’t always have to be the woman who goes and gets it. It could be S and his brothers too.
Sanchari Bhattacharya, a friend of mine, wrote a poignant post on Facebook, about how she knew the food preferences of every member of the family, but not of her mother-in-law. Neither her husband not her sister in law could tell her what their mother preferred to eat – because, like many women of the earlier generation, she proudly declared that she ‘could make do with anything.’
Women’s choices are all supposed to mould themselves to fit the men’s convenience. And so Sanchari’s mother in law never asked for anything for herself, taking pride in ‘adjusting’ to make everyone happy. But Sanchari, ever the determined, caring and empathic soul, persisted in questioning her mother in law about her favourite food.
The lady in question responded with this hard-hitting story:
“When a son came home from his big job abroad, he took the whole family out to a fancy restaurant. He asked everyone to order whatever they liked, no matter what the cost because he was now rich. Everyone but his mother placed an order. When asked, the mother said that she had no preferences, so she doesn’t really know what she should order. At this, the now NRI son jumps in and says, “Oh no worries. She’s MY mother, I know exactly what she likes. She likes tail pieces (lyaja) of fish. All my life, I’ve always seen her save the tail pieces for herself and give us the petties and gadas (bigger, more meaty, less boney pieces) beforehand. Someone get her a big tail piece, please. “
The mother smiles at the son and faintly remembers how, before she got married, she’d always get the big fish head. That probably tasted better, though she barely remembered it. She hadn’t even realized all this while, when her status had got demoted from the head of the fish to its tail in the span of these 30 years.”
Eventually, Sanchari found out her mother-in-law’s favourite- prawns – but this little story demonstrates perfectly how traditional societies erase women’s preferences and individuality, even in such ordinary, simple matters as food.
It reminded me of how I, too, needed to find out what my mother in law liked to eat- she never expressed a preference.
My own mother, however, was a different case altogether. She was an avowed vegetarian in a family of meat-eaters, so an extra dish was always prepared for her whenever meat was cooked.
I say an extra dish was ‘prepared’ for her because, with my father being a government officer, she hardly ever did the cooking – merely supervised the cooking, which was all done by male cooks, appointed by the government for officers’ households.
So I had a childhood where I saw men cooking inside my house all the time, while my mother supervised them and gave them instructions. We did not grow up with the idea that cooking is a ‘woman’s job.’
We also went out often to eat at fancy restaurants, and she loved South Indian cuisine- dosas, idlis and vadas- so my father always picked the restaurants that served these. Always mindful of her choice, of things that she liked and wanted.
Even after he passed away, my mother kept up her boundless energy and zest for life for the sake of her two little girls, and the three of us often went out to eat — where we always knew she would order dosa!
And not only do we know very well the preferences of our mother, we also know the food preferences of our mother’s mother. She, too, liked to cook for herself, and have food of her liking made by the khansama (male cook, again) in her youth. To this day, even at the age of 80, she eats her favourite foods with relish. And like me, she is an avid carnivore- loves her chicken and mutton, and loves feeding everyone chicken and mutton! In fact, my Nanna is at the opposite end of the spectrum – not only does she get food of her own choice prepared, she insists on feeding other family members the food of her choice! (Talk about dominance and aggression resulting from meat-eating, ha!)
In a nutshell then, I grew up in a family of bold, energetic ladies and caring, thoughtful gentlemen – so I never adopted the traditional docile attributes expected of women. And I remained vocal and insistent about my own food preferences.
It is ironic that even though traditional societies consider cooking as ‘a woman’s job’, the first right over the food is always supposed to belong to the men.
The good part is that attitudes have changed by and large in this generation — women are more vocal and open, and men are more considerate and loving. It is a change for the better. A sign of better things to come, a sign of more harmonious relationships and more fulfilling lives for everyone.
Because ‘the family that eats together, stays together.’
Untouched books are also unloved. See a child how he scribbles colours and rubs? That’s what love is like – rough around the edges and every so often wears you out.
An unblemished book is lonely, wan displays no signs of ever being held, no lines in the margins – exclamations, notations- no marks of love, of having had someone crawl into it long past midnight.
These wrinkles, my love, and folds of skin, these blemishes and signs of wearing out are but dog ears on the pages of life- marking the lines that reverberate; marking the most loved parts of us.
Most people disapprove of writing inside books. I’m not one of them.
All the books I’ve ever loved are painted over with notations on various pages, thoughts that they triggered in me, my responses to the beauty or tragedy in them. The more loved a book is, the more scribbled over it will be. Many people consider this sacrilegious, they consider it a defilement of the sacred. For me, though, these are marks of love. Passionate love, if I may say so.
Many years ago, when I was around 18, I had English Literature as a subsidiary subject in my undergraduate class. We studied several short stories, one of which was Bernard Malamud’s The First Seven Years. I still remember that story, because at its core lay two people who fell in love with each other through their love for books. Miriam and Sobel hardly ever met, hardly ever spoke. They mostly exchanged books.
Before I speak further about this story, I must add a disclaimer. I could go online and search for the story and be accurate about the details, but I will write from memory instead- the things that I remember and the feelings they evoked in me then.
Miriam is the daughter of a Jewish shoemaker, and Sobel is a Polish refugee, who finds work and sanctuary as an assistant in her father’s shop. Unknown to her father, they exchange books, and they converse only—mostly—through the notes and the lines that both of them scribble in the margins. They are not love notes or secret lines to each other- they are notations about the book, reflections on what was written. It is an intellectual, spiritual bond- a love borne out of a meeting of thoughts and ideas. A meeting of minds and not just hearts.
Every time I write a line in the margins of a book that I love, I remember Miriam and Sobel. I revel in the vicarious pleasure of a love that speaks through books. I wonder what it would be like, to be surrounded by a love like that.
But when I write in books, it is not for a lover to read. Who is it for, I wonder?
Perhaps a part of me hopes that my son would read my books someday, find his mother’s words and be delighted in that discovery, as I am now delighted when I find something that belonged to my parents in their youth. Or perhaps my son’s children will – assuming he decides to have children.
Being a person who for a very long time has struggled against motherhood, and asked myself whether I would really have chosen motherhood if this were a choice available to me, I find myself fearful of the fact that my son may not choose to have children. I hope it does not happen so. I hope he chooses to have them.
I know, now, that if life hadn’t gone hurtling at a dizzying pace for me, if I had had the choice of taking things slow and step by step, I would have chosen to have a child. Or children.
I see women around me who choose to have children well into their thirties, and I imagine that if I had role models around me, if I had these ideas around me, if I had the chance to wait till my thirties to become a mother, I would have perhaps been a calmer, saner, more prepared, more willing parent. I hope that my son and the woman he marries choose to be parents too- in their own time, at their own pace, with their own choice- for choices made consciously and wisely can be carried with a lot more joy.
And as I read one book after another, writing away into the margins, I wonder if these words will be read by generations after me. I wonder if they will even want to read the kind of books I like. Wonder if they will ever want to flip through these books. It is rather vain to assume that future generations will want to know you.
It is enough, I think, to write in a book, knowing that you have loved it, knowing that it has become a part of you, knowing that if no one else, at least you will come back to it. You will read the words of a past version of yourself, a person who no longer exists because she has grown and evolved into someone else, and perhaps you will read those words and smile, and say: Ah!
And then again, perhaps no one ever needs to read these words. Perhaps it is enough to have reflected and contemplated and written them down. Perhaps it is better that they remain like this, locked away in the book’s close embrace, fading away into a yellowed page, as the human existence fades into the yellowed pages of life.
I never thought I’d say this, but motherhood grows on you.
I have begun to realise, slowly, that I am so much more comfortable in the role of a young boy’s mother, than I ever was in the role of a toddler’s mother.
I think it is because my primary mode of communication, and expression of love, is verbal. Words are my preferred channel. My primary method of bonding is intellectual exchange, which is obviously done through words. Physical touch comes a close second- I am a very physically expressive mother: kisses, cuddles, smothering hugs. But that is still second, and no substitute for the joy of words.
Thus I find myself taking far more delight in the role of a mother now – now that my son can clearly express and converse with me, now that I can hear the thoughts that go through his remarkable brain and marvel at the fascinating intellect he possesses. I find myself relishing the role of the mother far more with the growing up of my child, as he develops more fully into a distinct human being with a mind of his own, contradicting me and adding to my thoughts with the freshness and depth of his own. It is a great delight to find my son thinking independently enough to contradict his mother – though it’s exhausting as hell, too! But I find myself bursting with pride when he adds a different dimension to my understanding of the world. Pride at the magnificent, compassionate and empathetic person he is turning out to be. It isn’t as though I didn’t enjoy being a mother to Little H when he was tiny. I distinctly remember what a bundle of joy he was, how he listened carefully and began speaking at the early age of 10 months, so that one could chuckle at the nearly grown-up sentences uttered by those tiny lips. How delightful and adorable he was when he tried to copy his father in every tiny thing: right down to how he lay on the bed while talking: lying on his side, propping an elbow under his head, and crossing one leg over another. We roared with laughter on watching 10 month old Little H lying on the bed in exactly this manner: complete with crossed legs and elbow propping up the head ! How marvelous it was to see his wonder and joy at the world, to see commonplace everyday objects with a child’s fascination- a child discovering the new world, a world that holds infinite delights for him. “And children’s faces looking up, holding wonder like a cup!” If you’ve ever seen a child with his mouth wide open in a joyous grin and his eyes sparkling with wonder, you’ll know exactly what this means. And yet, I think I was so exhausted and worn out all the time, because he was such a bundle of energy and mischief, that I couldn’t really appreciate or enjoy it as much as I would have liked.
Not being able to understand his needs, not being able to communicate my concerns with him was the most frustrating thing I ever experienced. Like constantly groping in the dark to find the light switch, and falling in the darkness and hurting yourself countless times in the process. And slowly, you learn where the light switch is- so you can find it even when it’s dark. Little H growing up enough to communicate properly- and understand his mother’s words properly – is the light that’s suddenly been switched on for me. We have finally reached a place where we can, to a largely comforting extent, understand each other.
What an extraordinary amount of hard work it has been! But it’s a beautiful feeling for me, the Reluctant One, to find that I can finally enjoy motherhood, that I, too, can find it fulfilling, instead of constantly and exhaustingly struggling against it.
I feel like ending this with a quote from the Quran. It is my favorite verse, and it is the verse I used to repeat most often when Little H was tumbling around in my belly. It is also the verse I chanted over and over to myself when I was experiencing the most excruciating pain of my life: as Little H was being born.
Fa Inna Ma’al Usrey Yusra. Inna Ma’al Usrey Yusra
Verily, with hardship comes ease. With hardship comes ease. It does, indeed.
I wrote this letter atop the upper berth of a carriage in the Prayagraj Express, en route to Delhi from Allahabad. 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.
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- sans argument- with my better half after a long time! Check. I’d had a tears-of-happiness conversation with my sister in the evening. Check.
But Little H.
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 was 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 H? Teenage H? Little H?
We can never really know who reads our letters once they’re out there, can we?
Nevertheless, here’s my letter to you, my son, whenever you get to read it.
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 Mumma 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 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 the man who considers women and men as equals, 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, body structure 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.
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.
Many of you—my readers on this blog and on social media — so kindly and sweetly message me to tell me that you love how fearless I am, and that it inspires you. I feel humbled by your love.
In truth, though, I am not fearless. Nobody is fearless.
When I was 6 years old, my father, who always wanted to make his daughters bold and undaunted, put an airgun in my hand and taught me how to take aim. Then he pointed at a target he made on the wall and said- “Shoot.”
I was afraid of the gun, and the sound it made. But not once did I say ‘no’ to my father. Not once did I say: I can’t do it.
I took the gun and aimed. I hit the mark.
This is my first remembered experience of moving past fear. From that moment on, I could very easily hold the gun and shoot a target on the wall. I forgot my fear.
I learnt to drive pretty late in life, because my mother couldn’t get past her fear of road accidents- which is perfectly understandable, since she lost her husband in one of those. Ironically, she’s pretty fearless herself, but when it comes to her children she cannot get past her fear. I have felt acutely the restrictive effects of this ‘love guided by fear’ and I have consciously attempted to not love my son in this restrictive manner.
I want to love him like my father loved me- the love that makes you fearless.
When I was 7 years old, my father would make me sit on his lap while he drove his jeep, and late at night on the empty road of our government officers’ colony, he would put my little hands on the steering and ask me to steer. He had such dreams for me, so many things that he wanted me to learn.
However, I actually became a proper driver only at the age of 28. Let me rewind a little and tell you that story.
When I was 20, I decided to learn driving no matter what my mother said, and secretly asked our driver to teach me. I would make him shift to the shotgun seat and try driving to the University myself. Slowly I did learn to drive, but then I needed to practice taking the car to other places and other routes as well, and of course my mother wouldn’t let me take the car anywhere else. She was apprehensive and scared enough when she found out I was driving the car with the driver sitting beside me, and no way would she let me practice alone. So I couldn’t really brush up my driving skills.
A couple of years later, I moved to Delhi for my job, followed by marriage the next year. Being a professional in a demanding field, I hardly had any time left to learn and practice driving, and after 2 years, in 2012 I became a mother. Life gave me no space to even think about driving.
Until 2014. I was in Aligarh then, experiencing the lowest phase of my life. I decided I was going to finally learn to drive properly. Contacted the Driving Training school and began to train again. I had obviously forgotten everything I had learnt earlier. But in 15 days my training was complete and I was asked to practice daily to become an expert. And yet, just like last time, mom refused to give me access to the car. I was stuck again.
So after a few months, I contacted the training school again, and did the 15 day training yet again—I figured this was the only way I could get to practice.
When I got back to Delhi after a year, I finally had access to my own car. S, My husband, would sit beside me and I would drive around the township where we lived, while he guided me. And then one day he gave me the keys and said—now go drive on your own.
I was afraid. I was very afraid of taking the car out all alone. But I took a deep breath, and stepped past my fear. That was the day I actually began to drive.
From that day on, I drove my son to school every morning, and picked him up from school every afternoon, getting plenty of driving practice. But I still didn’t take the car far out into the city.
Until one day, a friend of mine asked me why I don’t drive to Delhi myself. I confessed to her that I was afraid.
“But it’s just like driving here, inside the township. No difference! If you can drive here, you can drive there too!”
So the next day, I drove the car for 30 kilometres. That first day, I felt my heart in my throat. I felt fear pulsating in me. But I didn’t give up.
The day didn’t go by without minor mishap, I must admit. I did graze the back bumper of another car, misjudging the distance. But I learnt and grew. From then on, every day that I drove out into the city, I learnt and I grew, driving across greater and greater distances.
Then one day I took a different route to Delhi—via the highway. The first time that I had to face huge trucks and buses honking at me angrily and coming at me like whizzing arrows. I felt fear in every pore of my body. Every nerve in my head tightened and knotted up in stress. But I gritted my teeth and told myself—I won’t let this get the better of me.
And I didn’t.
Another time, while returning from an assignment at night, I lost my way. Google maps completely betrayed me and took me all around the world (as it felt at the time!) and I was nearly choking with fear. I had no idea where I was and how I was going to get home. Relief washed in waves over me, when I finally found the way back home, stopping by the roadside or at police stations and asking for directions.
That was the day I lost the fear of being lost.
It was the day I learnt how to find alternate routes, the day I discovered that even if I got lost, I possessed the skill to navigate myself back towards the right track. In more ways than one.
Earlier this year, I tasted the metallic, pungent surface of fear in the lobby of the Max Hospital, right before I had my breast biopsy. Those moments before the biopsy, when Sajjad and I sat in the lobby of the hospital, waiting.
Fear gripped my throat, sucking it dry, and churned in the pit of my stomach.
“Game face.” I kept repeating to myself. “Game face!”
Just to prove to my fear that it would never, ever get the better of me, I asked S to take pictures of me in the hospital gown, sitting on the operating table, minutes before the biopsy needle punched into my breast. And so I was photographed—all grinning and making V for Victory signs with both hands—just before I was operated upon.
Doesn’t mean I hadn’t been afraid just two minutes earlier.
We all experience fear. The reason some of us come across as fearless is because we refuse to let fear dictate our lives. We refuse to give in to fear.
We rebel, we protest, we walk resolutely ahead.
So when you all tell me that you love my fearlessness, I want to tell you that you are fearless too. We’re all fearless, though we all feel fear.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to move beyond it.
Janice Pariat, author of Boats on Land, Seahorse and The Nine Chambered Heart, in one of her instagram posts, talks about a writer’s life as being characterized by retreat. ‘Long periods of silence. Of aloneness. Of deep listening. Of noticing seasons.’
‘A writer’s life is stark, humdrum discipline,’ she says. ‘A writer’s life, no matter how individually disparate, involves retreat. And always, resurrection.’
Those are beautiful, true words.
But in many ways, also ironic.
Silence, aloneness and retreat can very often be privileges not available to every writer. For some of us, silence and uninterrupted moments of retreat are rare. In a life punctuated by domesticity, motherhood, and myriad mundanities, this is not what being a writer looks like.
For the writer who is also a caregiver, a nurturer, the writing life is defined by working deep into the quiet of the night, exchanging the comforting arms of sleep for the enticing embrace of the muse. Snatching moments of quietude from the midst of an endless barrage of innocent young questions flying at you with the speed of curiosity. Writing inside your head while listening to an elderly parent’s complaints about their life.
This, then, is also often what the writing life looks like: surreptitiously stolen islands of solitude within a volley of sounds. The ‘immanence’ of a writing life that is punctuated by domesticity, and caring for children and the elderly – as spoken of by Simone De Beauvoir in The Second Sex.
At first, I thought this immanence was limited to the lives of women, who have to squeeze spaces and moments from life for their art.
But then I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, and realised that the immanence of mundane life, of domesticity and the demands of making a living, extends beyond the concerns of gender. It envelops every person who is either a nurturer or a provider–even if it is only for himself or herself. In other words, the person who has to make a life, while also making art.
“People don’t do this kind of thing because they have all kinds of extra time and energy for it,” writes Gilbert, ” they do this kind of thing because their creativity matters to them enough that they are willing to make all kinds of extra sacrifices for it.”
“Unless you come from landed gentry,” she adds for good measure, “everyone does it.”
Very interestingly, she gives the example of the famous Herman Melville, who wrote a ‘heartbreaking’ letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, complaining of the lack of time, and how he was pulled ‘hither and thither by circumstances.’ He longed for ‘the calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose.’
But then, Gilbert points out, Melville never got that sort of environment. Yet he somehow managed to write Moby Dick.
This is how writers find themselves forever caught in a state of immanence, surrounded by the clutter of life’s responsibilities and demands. “And yet they still persist in creating,” remarks Gilbert. “They persist because they care. They persist because they are called to be makers, by any means necessary.”
That, precisely, is how even within that immanence, we create our spaces for transcendence.
This ability is perfectly encapsulated in the Sufi understanding of Divinity.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes in his life-altering book The Garden of Truth: “The Supreme Principle is both the absolutely transcendent Reality and the absolutely immanent Self, who determines the ultimate reality of human beings, and defines what it means to be human.”
It indicates that the Divine Essence is, at all times, both immanent and transcendent — merged with the Universe and the life forms in it, yet at the same time somehow beyond it, with the universe ‘mysteriously plunged’ in it.
The writer from a family responsibilities, nurturer or provider background, then, curiously becomes a reflection of the Divine. She, or he, becomes both at the same time: immanent and transcendent.
In this then, I agree with Pariat, that a writer’s life involves transcendence. But for some, that transcendence is purely internal. The ability to withdraw within yourself, the swirling mist of your own thoughts, even in a crowd. To be able to cocoon yourself from the rush, roar and clamour around, and be one with the silence within. Weaving through the hustle and bustle of family, day jobs and domesticity that defines life for some of us, this is our path of transcendence. The ability to be beyond, while being within. Immanent, yet transcendent.
In my last post, I wrote about how the dream and desire of having my book published saved me and motivated me to have faith in the future. Have faith in life.
That dream is going to be a reality. Very, very soon.
My book, The Reluctant Mother: A Story No One Wants To Tellis being published by Hay House, which as you all know is a reputed international publisher.
So today, I am here to thank you all – every single one of you from the blogging community, and readers from outside the community- for staying by my side on this journey, for sharing my joys and sorrows, for reading and commenting here and letting me know that I wasn’t alone.
First and foremost, I want to thank Kathi Ostrom Gowsell, who was the first person to suggest, way back in 2013, that this story should be given the form of a book. We may live on separate continents, and may have never met each other, but I feel connected to you in a very special way, Kathi. Thank you for being you !
Other bloggers- mothers and fathers- other writers and readers, you have all been such a huge part of my journey.
I cannot tell you all, how much it has meant to me over the years, to read your comments here, and to get private messages from so many of you, asking me to keep writing, telling me that I was brave to write the truth fearlessly, and telling me how much my voice resonated with you, for it spoke of the stories of your lives too.
There are no words to describe my gratitude for the love you have all showered me with- especially those of you who told me that I was your voice- for I was speaking of the truth reflected in your lives too, but you couldn’t speak out because of all the judgements and restrictions the world heaps upon us all. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving me the strength to speak this truth and take this dream to culmination.
The launch of the book has been delayed for a bit, owing to the pandemic, but do watch this space for the happy announcement, and I promise that you will be the first to see the cover as soon as it is launched !
Meanwhile, here is a picture of the first page of the book, of the final draft PDF version, and merely looking at the title on the page before me, fills me with gratitude and joy.
There is a word that I have taken from Paulo Coelho’s book, and quoted it in my own book. I shall just end this post with that word:
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:
“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.
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.
Extrovert and Introvert. Fire and Water.
Within, and Without.
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. )