I dont want to write…

I don’t want to write
for the market.

For years I had stopped writing.
I did not have permission to speak my truth.

My truth was lost. It had lost its words.

I stepped out into the world
with confidence and bounce.
I knew my work.
I knew right from wrong.

I didn’t speak.

I was listening.
I amused myself
by laughing.
When I didn’t find meaning
I found fun.

And love.
Tears, friends and stories.

Story of my Life

Country roads…

What are you doing, he asks. Documentation, I say.

OK, enough photos. Come back here, he says.

 He unpacked his backpack. Kebabs, lahsun ka saaga, chutney…and this. Fresh fruit from Ammi’s back garden. (Haatha)

Custard Apple, individually wrapped in newspaper, still raw. 

Permission to be the change

When I was a kid, I used to lie, cheat and steal. Now I have found out that I was imaginative, innovative and appreciative.
It is a useful perspective to hold onto as a parent. There’s not very much my daughters can do that I have not already done, I reassured myself. Their adventure-hunting father has covered the rest of the possibilities. I bit into some fruit-and-nut chocolate for added comfort, just in case.
Then came the time, when I began to find things in my daughter’s pockets. Crayons from school. Some money. A packet of biscuits in the drawer of her study desk. I stayed calm. It’s all right, all kids steal. I recounted to my husband that I once got home a whole classmate with me from school, just to check the outer limits of my power as a six-year-old. It’s no big deal. “It is normal for a very young child to take something which excites his or her interest,” Google coughed it up in .27 seconds.
Yet, there was the unmistakable soundtrack of panic galloping towards me. Despite my decisions to rewrite the family script, I must be doing something exactly like my parents, for my child to be behaving exactly like we did at her age.
A few weeks ago, I read the first excerpt from Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, where she explains how Chinese parents produce successful kids. Her bluntness and clarity was a hook, but I was also amused by the self-parody and the wry humour. I shared the article online. That is when I began to realise the enormity of what this piece was doing to its readers. It was dredging out anger, fear, self-doubt, judgements and passionate counter-arguments.
Describing how she pushed her seven-year-old Lulu to master a piano piece, Chua writes, “I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.”
Chua clarifies that her book is a memoir, the story of her own eventual transformation as a mother. She says on the cover of the book that she has been humbled by Lulu, who became cold and angry towards her.
Tiger Mom. At first glance, it may appear that the parent in the trenches with her kid is doing all the hard work, and lenient parents are just plain lazy. It may seem that her kids are soaring, while others are still playing in the mud, their potential unrealized. The truth is though, that it is easy to be a tiger. It is so easy to be a tiger. You are the boss, you set the rules, you roar. The little ones get in line. But not for long.
It is the Mother part that demands courage, as Chua is discovering as well. Parents make mistakes, they are vulnerable. They learn to back off and secede territory. They face up to their own baggage of hurts and seek healing. Parents need the courage to fail without feeling like a failure.
It is a complex web, this parenting. We source the design from deep subconscious wells, from our memory and experience. We repeat patterns from our own childhood. We are the agents of our culture. Chua decided early that her daughters would play the violin and piano and excel academically. She is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, in single-minded pursuit of praise and admiration in America. She is not sacrificing fun and games, she has no idea of their value.
Most Indians will recognise the type of tiger mom Chua is. The word love was never used in Chua’s childhood home. That sounds familiar too. It is no wonder then that she does not know her gentle side. Tiger parenting is a desperate model, perhaps it works in desperate times. When Chua asked her 15-year-old to suggest a book title, Lulu said “The Perfect Child and the Flesh-Eating Devil.” Sometimes, it is not so complex after all. Ask a simple question and you might get an answer that will reveal a lot.
Think of it as an extra-large jigsaw puzzle. The only way to begin to see the big picture is by focusing on the small details. Yet, everything one knows with absolute certainty can come apart in minutes. It hurts. So what? Happiness is not always fun. Sadness, not always unwelcome.
Self-esteem is another destination that Chua prescribes the route to. After being abusive, angry and pushy for hours, she snuggles up with Lulu after the child has delivered the results her mother demanded. The same Lulu has now given up playing music and plays tennis instead. Don’t ruin tennis for me, she asked of Chua. “Mine is a cautionary tale and I am the mad woman in it,” Chua has said in an interview.
My brothers and I were high-achieving children of strict parents too. When I was 12, I pasted an article in my diary. It was titled, “The greatest gift you can give your child: Self Esteem.” I don’t think I knew what self-esteem was, but I must have wanted it badly, because we were not allowed to cut up Reader’s Digest.
As an adult and a professional coach, I know that self-confidence is not something anyone can give you to keep forever. It is like a lake in the mountains that must be discovered again and again. Take the beaten path or make your own way, it is there for each one of us to find. There will always be fresh challenges on the way.
With three young children, we get enough opportunities to move gently, to stride fiercely, to trip and fall, to wipe tears and snot. Sometimes the chaos, the din and disappointments cross the threshold quite unexpectedly. One evening, at my parent’s place, I raised my voice and delivered some cutting dialogues to achieve a stunned silence from my kids. My father was watching. He will be proud of me, I thought. I’ll show him who is in control here.
Mum called me the next day. Your father was saying, talk to Natasha. Tell her not to be so harsh, these hurts are not easy to heal. Relax, calm down. Why repeat our mistakes?
The voice of Gabbar Singh whispered in my ear, “Socha tha sardaar khush hoga? Shabaashi dega?” So you thought the boss would be pleased, did you? He’d applaud for you. You scumbag!
I believed my father was the real thing, as far as tiger parents go. He was telling me differently. He spoke through my mum, yet something inside me healed.My father was giving me permission to be the change.

[First published here in Feb 2012: 
It doesn’t take a ROAR – Indian Express  http://bit.ly/UqZYNA

मैं घुमन्तू: तेरे मेरे बीच में

My friend Anu, wrote about her and me. I read  Anu’s blogpost aloud. My voice broke while reading it, tears flowed. I had to wipe my nose and other such embarrassments.

“मैं तुम्हारे पास क्यों आती हूं, नहीं जानती। लेकिन एक ऐसी क्रेविंग-सी होती है कि जिसमें तुम्हें जोर से गले लगा लेने के अलावा कुछ नहीं सूझता। तुम्हारे और मेरे बीच का फ़ासला ठीक-ठाक बड़ा है, उम्र के लिहाज़ से भी और मीलों की दृष्टि से भी। लेकिन तुम्हारी शक्ल में अपना चेहरा दिखता है – कुछ सालों बाद वाला। तुम्हारी ओर चलते हुए मीलों का जो फ़ासला घटता है,  वो अंदर किसी खाई को भर रहा होता है। जाने मैंने तुम्हें कभी बताया है या नहीं, बट इट इज़ थेरेपियॉटिक – तुम तक सिर्फ चल कर जाना, अपने फोन की स्क्रीन पर तुम्हारा नाम चमकते हुए देख लेना, तुम्हारी आवाज़ में ‘हां जानू’ सुन लेना… (more here: मैं घुमन्तू: तेरे मेरे बीच में )

Our children playing 4 corners.

I love you, Anu.

Notes on How to Change the World

We are a society that does not give itself permission to love daughters.
We have family and social systems that are dismissive of our feelings, that are designed to break the natural bonds of support between people. They damage and hurt us as individuals; yet we cling to hierarchies and to the status quo, like a frayed security blanket.
In the last column, I wrote about taking on a stranger who had been rude to my children and me. (Do girls make you uncomfortable?  http://bit.ly/Wso3sv )

It was a random encounter. A woman we were meeting for the first time saw a family with three daughters and assumed that the only reason we would have crossed the golden threshold of “hum do, hamare do (two children per couple)” is to have a son. Out of the blue, in front of the children, she said to me, “You had three children because you wanted to have a son.”
Our children, all of them under 10 years, were right there listening to her. They watched me react, first with hesitation and then a sureness born out of shock.
My problem with her was not that she had judged me so bluntly. After all, it is a common desperation in India to crave for a son. I could have been in her place and thought the same thing.
What was totally unacceptable to me was how rude and dismissive she had been of the children. Talking about little children in front of them as if they are deaf, daft and worthless is another great tradition of our culture. We behave as if children don’t grasp the world around them, as if their feelings don’t matter.
I stepped away with the woman and confronted her. My own anger had crossed a boundary that made my words come out calm and clear.
In the scheme of things, it was a small incident. Yet I shared it and something about it resonated with those who read it. Three weeks later, I am still receiving responses in my mailbox.
Much of the email is from parents of daughters. That is where I got the first line of this column. As a society, we deny parents the permission to be in love with their daughters. We refuse to validate how they feel. A friend of mine recently became a father of two daughters.
“I am perfectly happy,” he said to me, “yet I have this nagging feeling as if I have failed an important exam. Others are thrusting disappointment on me.”
People want to stand on rooftops and declare, “I love my children, whatever their gender or abilities may be.” I can tell this from the resounding applause I receive when I do that. And you know what? I was full of self-doubt too on my way to the roof. I started raising my voice only because it was drowning in the din. I couldn’t hear myself any more.
Mothers of sons have written in. They get to hear that their lives are incomplete without daughters. Apparently sons cannot have emotional bonds with parents the way daughters have. Yet every parent knows differently.
Why do we limit ourselves so radically? Are we scared of the power of love and intimacy? As a society, we seem to have bottled up our natural feelings in jars and left them to pickle in the sun.
Children are not just financial or emotional transactions, yet we constantly define them as such. Who will take care of us later? How will we maximize returns on the investment we are making?
Individually we are all reasonable voices of sanity and yet collectively we pull each other down with our ruthless judgements. We despair about how some things never change, yet the only power each of us has is to change ourselves. We don’t have to be helpless victims. We can be powerful. We are powerful. We must challenge the language of this discourse.
Among the many responses was one from a daughter. Anubha Yadav is one of four sisters and she shared stories of how they learnt to laugh, be angry and play games as they dealt with a million silences and unwanted reactions in their growing-up years.
“Children are bright, Natasha,” she writes. “They will learn to make fun of and take on the people who challenge them. Because they are lucky to be born to you.”
I didn’t know I was looking for it, but this is the reassurance I needed. I don’t have to protect my children from meanness and cruelty. I have to show them how to deal with it. That’s how we will change the world around us.
We are and will always remain our children’s first, most influential, role models. Let the only luck they will ever need be the luck of having YOU as their parents.

(this was first published in Mint Lounge)

Do girls make you uncomfortable?

We are a family of five. Two adults called Mamma and Papa and three little children.

A few months ago, I met a woman in an empty flat. A regular person, quite like you and me. Posh school, Delhi University, an MBA and her own small business now. She was house-hunting with her husband and they were there to see a flat our friend owns in south Delhi. Our friend lives abroad, so we had gone to unlock the door for the potential new tenants.

It’s a boring old chore, but when one is a family with little children, every simple outing has the potential to become a little adventure in no time.

“Hi, I am Natasha,” I said. She looked at my children. She looked at me.
“You wanted a boy,” she said to me.
I stared at her face. A question mark appeared on mine.
“You wanted a boy,” she repeated.
“No,” I said, tentatively.

I began to get the drift of what she was saying. By now she was looking directly at our youngest child, Naseem. Naseem was embracing the empty, dusty spaces in the house, humming her own song. Now encircling a pillar with her hands and trying to climb it like a coconut tree, now treating her father like a pillar and climbing up on him. Afzal swayed for a moment like a coconut tree in a storm, then regained his balance, Naseem still hanging on to him.

“She’s a girl,” said the woman. “They are all girls.”
“Just step outside the house with me for a moment,” I said to her. I opened the main door and led the way. She didn’t seem to understand.
“Come out here,” I said to her. She stepped out. “Sahar,” I called out to our oldest daughter, “I am just out here consoling this lady.”
“What, Mamma?” she called back from the empty cupboard she and Aliza were sitting inside.

I gestured to her. I am here, just letting you know. Play carefully. Sahar is 9 and she and I read each other’s faces quite well.

Now I turned to the woman who had come to see a flat but was distracted by little girls. To be accurate, distressed by little girls.

“What are you saying,” I asked her directly.
“I’m just saying that you must have wanted to have a son, that’s why you tried three times,” she said.
“It may not have crossed your mind yet,” I said to her, “but some people have children because they WANT to have children. Some people are in love with each other and become pregnant and get moony-eyed ideas about wanting to create a family together. It may be a foolish idea that doesn’t always work very well, but it’s something that happens to a lot of us.”
“But you have three daughters,” she said. She showed me three fingers.
“Before I start feeling sorry for you,” I said to her, “let me just cut through the crap. Do you realize how WRONG it is to talk like this IN FRONT of children? You are saying to them that their parents don’t want them? That they don’t have a right to exist? That random strangers can be rude to them just because they are girls?
What is it about them that you hate so much?”

She didn’t have answers, of course. Only preconceived, borrowed ideas and conditioned responses. She’s not alone. We all isolate each other, callously spitting smug, self-righteous judgements without a second thought. We have quick-stick labels for everyone, irrespective of the personal choices we may have made.

I’ve just figured out that one way to shut out ignorant voices is to speak louder than them. It doesn’t always come naturally to me. I feel furious but my anger creeps into dark corners and hides inside me. I stumble upon it unexpectedly.
I am learning to hold on to my anger when I meet it. It is slippery and likely to get me into trouble. But really, sometimes it is better to be in trouble with others than to be troubled alone. It is critical to shake people up than be left shaking with rage oneself.

“Mamma, Papa is calling you inside.” Sahar and Aliza came out of the flat. “What are you talking about?” Sahar asked, looking at my face for clues.
“Important things,” I said. “Things I learnt from you.”
[This was first published in Mint Lounge]