Part 2 – Breswana

Kulsuma, Class 5: *forcefully took her hijab off during class*

Me: What happened?

Kulsuma: it is very hot ma’am!

This wasn’t an uncommon feature in Haji Public School, the school hidden in the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir. Many girls wore the hijab. The only compulsion was for it to be clean. The girls took it off without any hesitation when they felt like it. Some of them wore it on some days and didn’t on others. Sometimes it would fall off their heads. Without a sense of panic, they would readjust the hijab whenever the task at hand was completed.

I remember a mixed cricket match when Muneeza, Class 7 (piece of my heart) was  batting. The hijab plus the heat and helmet bothered her so she took it off and continued to play in style. She wore it back when she was done. Star.

If you follow @Imsabbah (who runs the school) on Twitter and glanced at her mentions, you would be shocked about the perception people have about children wearing the hijab. Though, visiting the school would tell you how diversity flourishes on its grounds. The girls and boys have school uniforms; girls wore salwar and kurta, and boys wore pant and shirt. On Fridays, the children wore their colourful best.

Most of the girls dressed in salwar and kurta. Ifra, Class 5 on regular days wore a shirt and pant to school. But on Fridays she dressed in salwars, flowing dresses, colourful prints and – wait for it – sneakers. Obviously she couldn’t be bothered by our narrow minded vision of fashion and dressed in comfort. Plus, I suppose sneakers are easier to run up and down the mountain, which the kids indulged in despite our frowns. She had jumped over the perceived pressures of choosing between what is understood to be feminine and masculine and explored the diverse items of clothing available to her.

I think back to my school days when I HAD to wear the pinafore. I hated it. I was ridiculed endlessly about my hairy legs and it was cumbersome to be my unfeminine self in it. It didn’t stop me but it felt tedious. I would have loved to have the option to choose something else. 

As an adult, my access to this choice has been liberating. I dress in loose kurtas purchased from the ‘men’s section’ in stores. I also wear tight kurtas stitched by a ‘ladies tailor’. This diversity in my dressing was always looked at with bewilderment in the city. I would hear comments about how I don’t dress appropriately or didn’t have a style. I dressed this way even while teaching at the school. The kids in the school didn’t notice an anomaly. In fact, going by their goodbye letters to me, they were only worried about the smile I wore or didn’t wear. (I cried a lot on the last day.)

When I began teaching there, Sabbah encouraged me to play sports with them. I loved it. After they read my essay on playing baseball, the curious fellows wanted to learn. I spent an hour teaching them the rules, explaining how to run, hit and catch. They were enthusiastic but bored in no time.

“What do you mean I need to run when I hit?? What if I become out?” – Ajaz, Class 7

It was hilarious. Soon after boredom reached its maximum point, we began to play football together. I was chosen on one team with Humeera and Muneeza was on the other. I was awfully gentle while tackling them. But I stopped for a moment to watch Humeera try to take the ball from Haroon and I realised, this girl is absolutely free on the field. There is something that was ingrained in me that she hasn’t learnt yet.

It was a moment of happiness.

The hijab has begun to occupy our mindspaces in a very powerful way. We tell women to not wear them; to wear them and obsess about what it means when we see them wearing it or not. These might have valid arguments in there somewhere. But, reducing muslim women and girls to the hijab is not helping anyone. If not wearing the hijab/niqab means no access to education or sports, would that be a better option? Yay we have freed the women and girls. Victory at last? The world unfortunately is not black and white. It is lived in the greys. Here are these beautiful girls learning about the world, learning sports and kicking ass at them. Expose them to ideas, to worlds and words, to sports and women achievers – dressed in varied attires. Teach them they can be among them. That is where I would put my effort.

With countries banning the hijab in public spaces and burqini on beaches, countries where women are forced into them, we really must stop and check why we are obsessed with the hijab.

Till then, I take cue from Ifra, Muneeza, Humeera, Kulsuma and many other lovely young girls.

Got me on my knees, Layla

We were gathered around her. All five of us. The doctor held her front paw and injected her. I heard the words slip out of mom, who stood in dad’s arms a few feet away, “Her heart has stopped.”

Huge wails followed from all of us. For several hours later, we kept breaking down. I’m barely holding it together right now.

For many years, it was a recurring nightmare for me: I would wake up and she would be gone. But she fought everything that came her way – Paralysis. Weakening heart. Fungal infections. Tick infestations. Her will to live and eat was very strong. The last few months of her life were filled with visits to the doctor to ease her pain and give her a better life. One her giant heart was deserving of.

Her heart gave everyone love without any discrimination. Not a soul has anything else to say about her but that she enriched our lives. She changed several pre-conceived notions about dogs. She managed to envelop each of us in her never ending cycle of warmth and love.

I will miss her. Like I would miss a limb. She is a part of me and always will be. So that’s not it. Her calming demeanour that got me through several depressive spells will be missed. Sorely. I think she will haunt me for a long time to come. And I’m not sad about it. After all, she taught me how to love. She loved me unconditionally. She gave me reason to live when I felt lost and at brink of yet another abyss. She eased my worried mind with a few tail wags, licks and her reassuring presence. Her zen face, warm body and soft snores were home for me. 

How can I not miss her?

As we set her down in her grave, a part of me wanted to curl up with her there and tell her she made me a better person and I was eternally grateful. But chances are that she knew it all along. Chances are she’s still watching over me. Telling me I’m a fighter and I can beat anything life throws at me. Just like when she was with me.

Choose kindness

I have a 12-year-old dog. She is a gorgeous Labrador. Two years ago, she had a paralytic attack and lost movement in the back legs. Slowly with therapy and medication she fought her way back to walking. A little while ago, she had some trouble again; but if you see her sitting down or sleeping you will not be able to tell. She is one of the happiest, kindest, most loving souls I have ever met. Her tail is a whacking device she uses often when she meets strangers or loved ones.

We take short bathroom breaks outside the house a few times a day. Walks are not really possible because she has to be assisted even for short distances. We always sit down below the house for half-an-hour or so after our evening walk. The footpath is wide enough for both of us. The weather is usually pleasant and sitting down is a good unwinding session for me. She watches the vehicles go by, her street friends come visit us and we sit in silence. Occasionally, people stop by, pet her and talk to the dis-interested human sitting with her (mostly me or my dad).

Off late, I hate most of the people stopping by (with a vengeance). They offer their priceless nuggets of wisdom each time. I have forgotten how many times people found it necessary to tell me, “Your dog is in great pain. You must put her to sleep.” There is that extended stress on the must. Like a doctor advising the terminally ill. I don’t always have the time, patience or energy to explain to them that I would know this far sooner than they would. My dog, though very old, has a spirit to live that I cannot always explain in words. I usually snort and drag her back inside. “We do not need this negativity,” I tell her. I wonder if people offer my dog this wisdom. If they don’t maybe I should consider wearing a grumpier, more intimidating face.

Layla has never really complained about the pain she is in. But we as a family have always known and rushed to her aid. We have done doctor visits, stayed up odd hours and been there for her in the myriad of ways each of us is usually there for her. But it isn’t really about that. This whole unsolicited advice has gotten me thinking. How easily do we hand out advice to others? Their advice doesn’t make me question how I treat my dog because I know I care very, very much. (In fact I perhaps have a serious case of separation anxiety right now because I am leaving her for a few months.) But it hurts me. It hurts that we as a society don’t always think about the harm we might be causing. How little we have begun to think before making these well-meaning, concerned statements. Or that we are somehow experts in this matter and know that death is the only way. This is obviously not a one-off experience. I have friends who have been offered such advice too. We brush it off and move on. It seems to be a pattern especially with ageing, sick dogs. I don’t want to be crude and draw a comparison on when else would anyone offer such advice. But it upsets me.

So, I want to send out a message into the universe. Hoping that people would think before they callously utter these words. Without realising that the family is already well aware about the short life that dogs live. They are grappling with the sheer magnitude of such a loss. They are willing to do as much as possible to ease their dog’s pain. They are more uncomfortable seeing their dog in pain than anyone else. They are already doing the best they can. So if you ever encounter someone with an old dog: Let the dog shower love on you. Pet him/her. Whisper lovely things about treats and flowers. Leave a little happier.

Choose kindness.

Don’t. Talk. About. Euthanasia.

Thoughts after reading A Handbook For My Lover

We are used to reading about a sanitised love. A love that is packaged for consumption. Especially on social media. The messiness cleaned out and removed. Vulnerability wiped away. Gore hidden from the naked eye. It is one of greatness. But not a greatness I understood.

Something felt not right. Incomplete.

I recently read Rosalyn D’Mello’s A Handbook For My Lover. I hesitantly picked it up at the literary festival. The cover wasn’t appealing enough for me. I was just coming out of a heartbreak (I might say this for years), I couldn’t imagine I had any heart left for an erotic book on love. It sat in my unread pile and collected dust. I flipped through it and closed it in a hurry. Not ready, I muttered. I picked up my old copy of Anais’s diary to reread. I realised deep and painful was what I needed. (This was before I knew Rosalyn was a fan of Anais. Talk about coincidences.) I began the book; it felt like a walk along a long, difficult and tedious path strewn with emotions, chaos, love, lust and sex. I savoured every word. Re-reading pages. Photographing bits that sounded like my thoughts. I will admit it triggered a lot of memories and forced me to deal with a lot of my own pain.

I confronted you about my strange condition. You said, with the air of a professional, that I was exhibiting an early symptom of that disease called love. I was confused. Last I checked I’d bulletproofed and bubble-wrapped my heart so that I’d be immune from such infections. I told you flatly that this had to end.

Several times while reading the book, I heaved sighs like an old lady. I would shut the book and stare at my spinning fan instead. I was overwhelmed. I have trouble talking about what I feel. I hesitate, use vague words, beat around the bush and never say the messiest things loudly. And here was a book that addressed that mess head-on. A vulnerability in my drowning confusion.

When I sat down to write this, I noticed many excerpts of the book online. But the parts that stuck with me aren’t among these. (We all do relate to books in very different ways.) This book and I travelled a journey when I was ready to dismiss the excruciating missing, the irrational love and the vulnerability of feeling exposed as my own foolhardiness. I couldn’t manage the composure I was exhibiting anymore; silently falling apart on the sidelines of a failed relationship.

If I had to say it publicly, I wouldn’t be able to. But I miss him. His shaved head, his grizzly peppered beard, his confident gait, his quiet vulnerability, his reassuring touch. I don’t want to hide it. I don’t want to be ashamed by it. Mostly, I don’t want to feel it. I try not to be shamed by the world’s need for aesthetics in love and my complete lack of it. Cause the truth is I don’t have a liking for that. Everyone speaks of composure in both love and heartbreak. Yet, my love is messy, chaotic, contradictory and non-linear. It cannot fit into neat packages to be presented as examples to be replicated. It defies even my own demand for clarity and sanity. My love is all over the place; it splatters on the walls of my life and it parades its non-conforming arse. It’s painful and surreal. It is one where there are no straight answers and great depth. It is quirky, weird, abnormal. Add another exclusionary adjective of your choice. Yet, instead of taking pride in it, I often felt shame. My heartbreak was no different.

And here was Rosalyn, speaking of her love, pain, lust, emotions and fears, and her and his imperfections so brazenly. It was real; I could run my fingers over it and recollect rather than imagine. I don’t know if the word to use here is brave. It could be called that. For me, A Handbook For My Lover was what I needed.

I have finished the book now. I feel an emptiness that the loss of a great friend leaves. I have been intensely mourning its finish and still returning to the book. I didn’t want to forget. Both the words and how it felt.

It is a recommended read for those of us who can’t help but feel a bit too much.

Love, loss and chaos

Do you remember the date? I do. It was a dark day (or not) for me and a patient one for you. I was unhappy and masking my pain – like I always do. You were unhappy and forthcoming about it. I stayed up all night to fix the mess that I was in. You stayed up with me.

Grumbling. Teasing. Smiling. Laughing. Nudging. A rainbow of emotions.

I remember the links you sent; so typical of you. Videos, funny ones, were your famous escape route. We fought like we usually did, despite the videos. I don’t think I told you then that I had fallen for you.

But you knew. You mocked my resistance, laughed away my timidity and silently smiled in the cocky knowledge of it all. I sensed your impatience, waiting for me to come to terms with it. It would be long before I strung any words together affirming your assumptions. You threw a metaphorical party. It was more than wonderful.

I never told you this but the date stayed with me; long after you did. After all, it was the first time I acknowledged it. Even to myself.

I struggle now to reconcile the deep, love-filled memories (because they are worth remembering) with the emptiness of the current overwhelming feeling of loss. I know better than to dismiss it all. I know that hate or anger won’t help me right now. I impatiently wait to wrap my brain around the chaos. But this is all a lesson for me in patience, isn’t it? I don’t want to say it is a cruel one. I am tempted to rush into that narrative of pity and ‘oh look how bad things happen’. Not this time. It is just one that I needed to learn.

Chaos and loss take time to heal and settle. I need to take on this world one day at a time. With my best tough, brave face on.

It gets better.

2015.

(Disclaimer: Excruciatingly long)

Well, 2015 is coming to a close. On most counts, I am glad this year is done. Putting aside a brief two-week vacation to Nepal, to my enthusiasm, 2015 has been overwhelming on the low front. I had a couple of surprising heartbreaks, professional and personal, that shook my earthing. A few diagnoses were the additional bonuses on the health front! Woot.

When I used to write on Blogspot (before I wanted a clean start and began this blog), I did a year-end review. I thought it was a silly practise till my conversation with A from last evening made me realise how smart I used to be.

I get bogged down by the low a lot. Perhaps a little bit of this is in my nature. End-of-the-year existential crisis is common and tempting to wallow in. I have honestly done a lot of it. BUT, I learnt a lot this year.

Embracing my personality with all its quirks has been rewarding and relevant. I stopped making excuses when I didn’t feel up to being around people. Especially those I had drifted away from. I learnt to enjoy my company and do what is good for me which resulted in lots of art and getting my hands messy. I began to look after myself more. My health taught me that my mind and body are not separate. The pressures on my mind will be felt by my body. So care is not optional. It needs to be integrated into daily living. Smell a few more flowers, perhaps. Unfortunately, these health crises have forced me to give up sweets and coffee. Something till 2015 I thought was not possible. But I am finding new patterns and routines. Healthier ones. All while remembering that I am really tiny in the grand scheme of things. People tell me this insignificance scares them. But it has been one of the most reassuring and calming truths.

“When I go for a drive I like to pull off to the side
Of the road and run and jump into the ocean in my clothes
And I’m smaller than a poppyseed inside a great big bowl
And the ocean is a giant that can swallow me whole
So I swim for all salvation and I swim to save my soul
But my soul is just a whisper trapped inside a tornado
So I flip to my back and I float and I sing
I am grounded, I am humbled, I am one with everything”
– I like giants: Kimya Dawson

As a surprise to myself, I fell in love. Accidentally. Madly. To an unsuspecting bystander. Though it has left me recovering from a broken heart, it reminded me that I am intense and love is overwhelming. It was nice to sit drenched in the emotion and learn to just breathe. Let the pieces fall as they will. I am still learning to live with my intensity and even enjoy the depth of character that I seek. 🙂 Love dragged me along a long path of self-discovery which has been difficult, painful, stirring, and intimate in discoveries about myself.

My professional heartbreak is far more difficult to write about. Since most of the year and waking hours were spent at the office, learnings are integral to my growth. I had to quit a job that I was fond of because of grave internal turmoil, certain strife and need for more challenges. It became essential for me to embrace that I am young, emotional and vulnerable which people in workplaces often use against me as a weakness. I didn’t realise how much I had pushed these away. Over the years of hearing it being pitched as a negative, I had happily accepted this to be true. Not anymore. 🙂

One of the most unsettling truths of the year was revealed while stranded at the bottom of the Himalayas because of unseasonal rain and snow. Rainer Maria Rilke was the bearer of the news – ‘Life is right in all cases’. Rilke has rescued me on several occasions. His words were a float when I felt I would drown in the ocean of anxiety and self doubt. They were a balm to my soul that felt out of place, making me more home in my skin and less cuckoo. (Or is it be more cuckoo? :))

“Believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a young poet

I also turned around my writing this year. It was a much needed change from the self-deprecating stuff I tell myself about lack of any talent. Though I write here, I had not written about the many learnings from my work and the world around me. Starting to write for Women’s Web and Girls Globe is an attempt to fix this. I am happy to add my two-cents to the progress to women’s rights and equality around the world. It is a small drop in the ocean, yet a satisfying drop.

I think writing these words was an important part of taking stock of the changes, both good and bad, the year brought my way. In the darkness of doubt, pain and unanswered questions, I have found it is comfortable to believe I had an unproductive year. One where I have been stagnant and done little to further my beliefs. But I have made a lot of personal growth and some professional strides. This forms part of a learning process to understand myself better and walk closer to the person I want to be.

Hope 2016 is less harsh but as rewarding.

Discovering Neruda

In the bookstore with endless possibilities, I found a gorgeous, old copy of Neruda’s poems, complete with a lovely note from ’76 inside. What strikes me most about his poetry is the blend of emotions and the marvellous imagery. The introduction is also pretty spectacular in this edition.

“On the edge of the final silence, Neruda writes his own best epitaph, the epitaph of an ‘animal of light’ who has exhausted all that can be said in words:

And today in the depth of the lost forest
He hears the sound of the enemy and runs away
Not from the others but from himself
From that interminable conversation
From the chorus which always accompanied us
And from the meaning of life

Because this once, because just once, because
A syllable or an interval of silence
Or the unstifled noise of a wave
Leave me face to face with the truth
And there is nothing more to interpret,
Nothing more to say; this was everything.
Closed were the forest doors.
The sun goes round opening up the leaves
The moon appears like a white fruit
And man bows to his destiny.”

I have been struggling with a lot lately. I went to the store with a mission to find poetry. Poetry comforts and heals. It is a balm for the pain and a medicine for the wounds. Neruda moves so swiftly between the personal, political and for some reason the sea.

Pact (Sonata)

Pablo Neruda

By now sometimes it is not possible
To win except by falling
By now it is bit possible to tremble between
Two beings, to touch the flower of the river:
Fibres of man come like needles
Procedures, fragments,
Families of repulsive coral, torments
And hard steps for winter
Carpets.

Between lips and lips there are cities
Of great ash and moist summit,
Drops of when and how, vague
Comings and goings:
Between lips and lips as along a shore
Of sand and glass the wind passes.

Therefore you are endless; gather me as though you were
All solemnity, all made of night
Like a zone, until you are indistinguishable
From the lines of time.

Advance into sweetness
Come to my side until the fingery
Leaves of the violin
Have gone silent, until the mosses
Take root in the thunder, until from the pulse
Of hand and hand the roots descend.

Some of the poems even have small notes from him. My favourite one has to be:

This poem was written in 1934. How much has happened since then! Spain, where I wrote it, is a belt of ruins. Ah! if we could only placate the world’s rage with a drop of poetry or of love – but only the struggle and the daring heart are capable of that.

The world and my poetry have both changed. A drop of blood fallen on these lines will remain alive within them, as indelible as love.

In between words and intimacies

If these were the last words you say to me

would they be words

of endearment

of passion

of hatred

of anger

of betrayal

or

of disappointment

Would you spend hours thinking about our time together

days hours minutes seconds

of madness

of love

of partnership

of fights

or

of drug induced escapes

Would you phrase it with precision and craftswoman-ship

Or would you blurt out

the obvious redundancies

I am tired of listening to

I would spend hours thinking it through

place special importance on the way

your taste             your smell               your quick deep breaths

lingered in my memory.

What would you do?

To new beginnings..

From the broken halves of me,

To each and every one of you,

I don’t know where to start. It is a whole lot of nothing. Yet, in the crevices of memory and the curves of my body there lay a whole lot of everything. From being around each other and sharing intimate, wild, unhappy, vulnerable and mundane, to the sudden vacuum and silence. Everyone tells you about the wonderful, marvellous feelings of love. No one ever fully prepares you for what comes after.

The emptiness doesn’t even set in for a long time. You first have to deal with the contradictions that present themselves. The anger vs. the calm. The pain vs. the joy. The longing vs. the hatred. The urge to hold on vs. the craving to move on. All struggling to co-exist in a, now, large available space…

I didn’t realise how tough it would be. I packed away all the memories, the physical remains of a relationship. But the mind, the body, the heart wouldn’t allow me such easy respite. I found myself in a sticky situation; unaware if I wanted to even move on. The pain, the guilt, the memories all were real. Soon they would leave and all I would be left with was the void. I refused to fill this void with another person or many. I don’t recommend such a life to you, though. I have learnt that these voids can only be filled with inanimate objects; never again with people or emotions. It wasn’t logical. It was just that way.

But I digress.

It was hard to imagine that the day would ever come. Death loomed on us since we began but we never took it seriously. We shrugged it aside as a rueful inconvenience. Together.

But I was left to face it in a very real way. Alone.

We had built not a home but a world. A parallel universe. An imaginary happiness. When it came crashing down on me, as she faded into oblivion, I realised no body prepared me for this. We speak, read, write, hear, watch, see, understand and analyse love. Not enough about loss. About losing a friend, a lover, a confidante and a soul mate. We weren’t married but only because it was illegal. We were everything a couple was and more.

I would cease wanting her this way. I knew I would. I was scared of that eventuality; so I held onto everything I knew. Slowly, she transformed into the best version of herself. Present and absent. All at once.

Months together, people, friends, colleagues, family would enquire out of affection, “How do you feel?” I wanted to say all this but I held back and said instead, “Nothing, yet everything.”

But I needed to be loved again. To let go of the gnawing pain and move on. She would understand. She would have done the same in my place.

Wouldn’t you?

A version of this piece first appeared on The Body Narratives.

359 of 365

I turned to N and said, ‘We are all broken aren’t we?’

N looked at me suspiciously. ‘No we are not.’

I was adamant to continue discussing this train of thought. She was not. She walked away throwing a pillow at me.

I sat down in front of the computer and typed fast. I didn’t want these thoughts to leave me. The writing would preserve it. The writing would change how that scene had ended. With her dismissal.

I wrote for several reasons. But sometimes I felt I wrote to rewrite endings. To change how I remember them. To change how I felt the ending made me feel. It was a wandering musing. I didn’t share it with N till later that night in bed. She would psychoanalyse this as she always did with my writing. I was positive and I waited to hear her remarks.

‘I know,’ she said. She kissed me and turned off the light.

There was no other way I would have written this story’s ending.