Why I Write The Story Of Me

My father confronted me one afternoon.
“I read your new article. You have written something about me,” he said to me.
His tone was enough. My husband began to leave the room.
“No, don’t go away,” he said. “Stay here. I want to say this in front of you.”
Yes, I had written about men and women. I had written about women having to swallow their pride and dismiss their hurts in patriarchal systems. The terror that paralyses a mother when she wants to rescue her child from abuse at home, but doesn’t because she fears her intervention will aggravate matters.
This piece had not been published in India. My father had read it on Facebook.
“I wasn’t writing about you, Papa,” I said. “I was thinking about Dadiji. Your mother.”
Papa was emotional. It had not been easy for him to start this conversation. But he had a lot to say that day. He spoke about the inexplicable humiliations that were a part of his childhood. Being berated and hurt, never being made to feel that what he was doing was good enough. He spoke without bitterness.
My mother, my husband and I listened to him. We had deferred this conversation for too many years. Words were flowing now. There is a little boy in my father whose hurts are unhealed. Unless we recognize that and nurture and pamper him, we will never understand what triggers Papa’s temper. We will not know how to let go. We will not learn how to let our own children play freely without the fear of an abrupt spark of adult anger that destroys everyone’s peace.
We live our lives consumed by the anxieties and entertainment provided by the daily news, our workplaces and gadgets, our holidays, the holiday pictures of friends of friends and other forms of modern popular culture. We share more and more in public spaces, but do we allow this to make us feel better supported? Has it helped us develop a language to express our hurts to someone? Our joys to ourself? Do you know what makes you happy?
I write in these same spaces to make sense of the dissonance in our lives. I write to restart thwarted conversations. I write to banish the vacuum of silence in our personal lives.
Silence makes me angry. Teenagers kill themselves and their families carry on as if that child was never there. Perhaps that child was not there even when he was alive. People we know have chosen to abort their female foetus. There have been dowry deaths in our neighbourhoods. People with disabilities, depression and mental illness are hidden away and ignored in our own families.
Why is honour more important than love and decency in our world? Why is money more precious than relationships? I don’t want to know the answers. I am here to change these equations. In my life. In the lives around me.
Pretensions make me even more angry. Apparently we are all very sorted people. It is always “others” who are misogynists, alcoholics, racists and right-wing nuts. Never us. I write to slice through our denial. To smash the clichés we use as excuses to cling to our comfort zones.
“Children are such a bother,” we moan. “It is so expensive to have kids these days”.
We insist that they need to be taught, moulded, trained and fixed before they can do us proud. Well, here is an easy test. If you are disappointed in yourself, it’s a guarantee that you will be disappointed in your children. If you haven’t sorted out your own life choices and damaged self-esteem, you are useless as a role model to anyone.
Just as there is a power in anger, there is also a value in tenderness. There’s no way we can have a healthy relationship with our children till we build a healthy one with one’s own self first. We can only raise sons and daughters who will win their rightful place in the world when they have witnessed their parents do that with valour and grace.
I write to inspire myself. To shine the light on dark corners. Writing is a way of showing myself the mirror. Sometimes it’s one of those magnifying mirrors they have in hotel rooms that show me all the details in my facial skin. I hate them. I ignore them completely. I don’t want to look at myself so closely. I really don’t.
You may hate reading this for the same reason. Reading my story will make you think of your own. That is the purpose of writing.
It’s not easy to accept personal stories in the public space. It is rather difficult to write them too.
“What’s the matter with you,” my husband asks me sometimes, concerned that I might be coming down with something.
“Column deadline,” I say meekly.
“Oh,” he says, and ignores me for the next two days. And nights.
I almost never reread what I have written after it is published. Sometimes I should. One day I will. Or someone else will.
I write because happiness happens suddenly. It turns up like a purple wildflower with a dash of yellow in our path and we can’t stop because we are late and also we don’t immediately understand why it overwhelms us. The face of a sleeping child glowing in the morning light startles me as I walk past her. I take a photo because there aren’t always words for everything.
I write because I do not know how to ask for help. Words open doors I am otherwise too inhibited to knock on. Solutions appear, people reach out, a conflict spelt out is one step closer to resolution.
Now you tell me why you read.

I write because happiness happens suddenly.

[This was first published in Mint Lounge here: The Story Of Me

The Man Who Changed My Life Forever

Think of your childhood,” he said to me. “Think of the difficulties. How did you survive? How did you solve your problems?”
I thought to myself. I lied. Sometimes I stole. I cheated in school. My deep dark secret was that I was a bad child. I remembered the fantasies I’d narrate to friends. A family with a Russian lineage, an imaginary mother, friend, dog, even a VCR when we didn’t have one. The lies to my parents about my life outside home and vice versa.
“I started reading. I found role models in books and comics, in Reader’s Digest condensed anthologies,” I said.
He knew the rest of the story. “You are a born succeeder,” he said to me. You can innovate again.
“SUCCEEDER.” I find this word written in capital letters in my notebook.
“We don’t come here to get sympathy,” he would say. “This is a training session for self-therapy. We come here to succeed. It’s a bad parent that does not allow the child to enjoy her victories.”
I sighed as I sat down. I had taken a cab, dropped the children at my Mum’s, nursed the baby one last time and then skidded in for a group meeting.
“How are you doing today?” he said.
“Oh well,” I said. “I’m the mother of three small children.”
“Have you read about the woman who had eight babies recently?”
“Oh yes,” I laughed. “Octomom.”
Just like that. No more self-pity. A little laughter, some directed at oneself, some just a celebration. That I am here, we are here. All is well.
“Have you solved your problem?”
“No,” I said.
“Have you done your duty?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then you have solved your problem,” he would say.
How could such simple words change my life? Why should this person care for me so deeply? I remember the love in his eyes when he listened to people I would have been impatient with.
Rebuild the child who may have been shattered in your childhood. The one who may not have been allowed to be herself. Make-believe the childhood that you wanted.
His patience put my faith back in me. His creativity made it seem so easy. He would cut through the smog of our pretensions, expectations and fears. My inner whirl would calm down.
“Maybe you like to feel bad,” he said one day.
“No, I don’t.”
“Kids sometimes like to feel bad so that they can go complaining and sobbing and get their share of Mummy. Think of why you would like to feel bad. What are you hoping to get?”
I knew whose attention I was desperate for.
“If I know him well enough,” said my teacher, “he will sprint in 5 seconds if he gets that impression.”
I laughed. “Yes, he does!”
“Don’t be a needy child and your partner won’t be a rejecting parent with you. Don’t try to please him and you won’t resent him,” he said.
From these conversations, I learnt to say no without feeling guilty or deprived. Saying no to something else is a way of saying yes to more urgent, perhaps less visible, priorities.
I still had a few hours of uninterrupted work to do to meet a project deadline when the phone rang. Father Os, my greatest teacher, had died. I had kept the next morning free to meet him.
I put the phone down. I saw his face with his crinkly smile, his eyes shining at me. “You know what you have to do,” he said with a tilt of his head. I put my feelings in a box and kept them aside. I stayed with work.
When the submissions were sent and the papers packed away, I put my head down on my pillow and cried. I fell asleep. As soon as day broke, I went to meet him as I had planned. There were others, who had lived and worked with him. We hugged. I began to clean the meeting room. Chairs, diwans, bookshelves and noticeboards. The TV and DVDs. The spaces between the buttons on the remote.
I sat down on a chair and sobbed. When I opened my eyes again, there was a splash of morning light where he would have been sitting. I took a photo. Our best teachers can never leave us.
I play back a video in which I am sharing at a memorial meeting in honour of Father Oswald Summerton. “I would feel as if tight knots were becoming untied in me. It was like spreading the pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle on the floor. From memories, feelings, experiences and new perspectives, we’d create a whole self. I began to recover my ability to be loving towards the people I love.”

[This was first published in Mint Lounge here: Our Teachers Live Forever ]