Cinderella Story 2021


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 little Prince 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.

Showing off my dress while standing with Reema, one of my oldest and closest friends, panelist at my launch, and an accomplished woman herself.

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.)

My sister in red and my mother standing next to me.

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 different kinds 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.

You made this dream come true!


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 Tell is 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:

Maktub!

It is written.

Are you having an adventure?


The Alchemist is a book I always hark back to, when I’m feeling unsure of myself and undecided. I always recall Santiago and his quest for the treasure – and the point where he realises that the treasure he saw in his dream was in the very place where he had lived all his life. It was buried at the very point from where he began his journey. This makes him wonder why he was brought all this way for nothing; why he had to face everything that he did, when he could have found the treasure right where he had been.

And the wind whispers to him, “But then you wouldn’t have seen the pyramids…”

There couldn’t ever be a better answer.

What Santiago wanted more than anything was to see the pyramids. The treasure was his destiny but what he wanted was the pyramids. In fulfilling his destiny he also needed to fulfil his heart’s deep longing.

And that is why, sometimes when I doubt myself and the path that I set out on, I always remind myself—why did I choose this path? Because it was the path to my ‘pyramids.’ You might have fulfilled your destiny in other ways, I tell myself, but then how would you have seen the pyramids!

Let me explain.

I sometimes doubted why I had joined journalism, particularly when people insisted that I would have been better off had I gone into academics or civil services and so on and so forth.

But then I asked myself—why did I join journalism? The answer was always, because I wanted to know more of the world, to see varied facets of the world, to explore and discover and meet diverse people and have varied experiences. In one word, I wanted to have an adventure.

And that’s the honest truth. I had no altruistic motives. Perhaps I did want to change the world, make it a better place, yes, but the primary motive was to have an adventure. And I have been having one for sure!

Image: Zach Betten on Unsplash

My decade in journalism has been a wonderful and fascinating adventure. Perhaps others have achieved a lot more than me. But for me it was never about the race anyway. Never about the destination. It was always about the journey. And as far as the journey is concerned, I have nothing to complain about.

However, as far as the Alchemist is concerned, I do have something to complain about. In the book, as it is in so many books and indeed in life itself, the women do nothing but wait for the men to have their adventure and return to them. I bristled at it then and I bristle at it now. Where is the adventure and the journey for women? Why must they always remain inside the four walls and wait? I felt a surge of anger at the world then, as I often do even now.

The second time a story of adventure made me cringe and feel a surge of anger was when I was pregnant with my son and panic stricken at how my life was falling apart all around me, how my dreams were slipping farther and farther away from my reach. Around the 4th or 5th month of my pregnancy, I had watched the movie ‘Up.’

I still have negative associations attached with that movie.

Here is why.

When the movie began I identified very, very much with the over-enthusiastic, adventure-seeking and headstrong Ellie. I loved how she had made complete plans for her exploration trip to Paradise Falls, and how she was sure she’d go there. But when the movie progresses, the dream goes farther and farther away from her. I felt my heart sink because I saw it as a mirror of my life. Early motherhood had snatched my dream away from me and stolen all my adventures and trapped me. (Or so I thought then.)

And in the end when Ellie’s husband makes it to Paradise Falls, I felt myself seething with rage. Shaking with rage, literally. He had no right to be there! It was not his adventure, he had not been yearning for it all his life, it was not he who had made all plans for it and he did not deserve to have this dream!

It was Ellie’s dream, she’d wanted it all her life!

But where was she? She was dead, gone, nowhere! Did she have her adventure? NO! How dare he have that adventure alone, how dare he pretend that he was doing it for her when she couldn’t even partake of it? I felt myself burning with anger.

I think Carl in the movie had the same feelings perhaps, when he sat in his chair and with a heavy heart opened Ellie’s scrapbook. And saw how she had felt that she did have an adventure in the life they shared with each other. It was beautiful.

And yet, it made me seethe with anger even more.

All those platitudes of happy family life being an adventure in itself are reserved only for women. ONLY for women. Are the men ever told that happy family life is enough? It’s only the women who are told that your adventure is inside the four walls of the house while the men can go have their adventure even on the moon. I was burning with anger.

Over the years, though, I realised that for some people, their adventure might indeed be in a happy family life—but I couldn’t be one of them. Happy family life was important for me, yes—but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t the only thing I wanted. I wanted to go out and embrace the world and have my own adventure.

And I did.

Image: Nurhadi Cahyono on Unsplash

Perhaps not with as much speed as I would have liked, perhaps not in as great a magnitude as I would have liked, but I did.

I may be a slow walker, said Abraham Lincoln, but I never walk backwards. I wrote this line in my diary when I was 14. And I never forgot it since. And that is how slowly, but surely, I found my footing back. Slow walker but never walked backwards. Thanks, Abe.

There’s still far too much to be done, and far too much left undone. But I can see that I’m moving forward, on my very own adventure.

I can see that I’m moving towards the pyramids.

Finding the treasure would be incidental.

It takes a village to raise a Mother


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s to be done in this scenario?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mothers, please put yourself first.

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

Don’t pay any attention to them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom n Child