Category Archives: girl child

Love letter to my firstborn

My dear Sahar,
You were sitting in my lap in the front seat of our car. Your father was driving. I was crying. “My baby, my baby,” I whispered, holding you tight. We had just found out that we were going to have our second child.
My world with you, my perfect world with you, was going to come apart and I was not ready for it.
There’s a photo of you from that year. You are sitting on the floor with a newspaper, and you look up at me pointing a camera at you. The morning sun reflects in your face. I have captioned that photo in my album with these words: This photo was taken when Sahar and I were still one.
We talked to each other all the time. I would tell you what we would do next. I made up stories about everything we saw together. Someone would look at us and say, “You are talking to the baby like she understands you.”
“Of course she understands me.” There was no other possibility.
We both grew up really fast from that point. Now we are a family of five. You are the nine-year-old BIG sister. I am a BIG mamma. You are not so even-tempered any more. You get crabby, you snap at your sisters. You feel ill and tired and quite frustrated.
So do I.
I had a big brother too, when we were children. I don’t remember him ever being like a child when he was a child. He was always Bhaiya, the elder brother. I didn’t always like that about him. I look at you and realize that this is how we push the first born to grow up too soon.
“Don’t be such a child. You have grown up now.”
“Help me. I cannot help you. Hurry up, stop talking, finish your work.”
“Look, don’t cry. I cannot handle this right now.”
“I cannot believe you made this mistake. You know better, how could you do this?”
“Mamma,” you say sometimes, holding back your tears. “Just like you, I get irritable too.”
I need your rebellion, my little woman. It stops me in my tracks and reassures me. You stand up to me when I push you too far. You challenge your father. You tell him what you think, what you feel, what you want.
I also love your spelling mistakes, Sahar. You are a phonetic speller. You invent spellings. “Sichul,” you wrote, when you wanted to label your drawing of a cycle. “Dilicious,” you write, because that’s how you like your food. “Preety,” is what compliments sound like to you. I love your spellings because they are an expression of baby Sahar. They show me the working of a child’s mind. The child I so often forget you are.
I get unexpectedly lucky some days. You call me on the phone when I’m away. Sometimes you pick up your father’s phone when you read my name flashing on it.
“Hello Mamma,” a little girl’s voice says.
“How are you, jaaneman?” I ask.
“I’m fine, Mamma,” you say. “I have finished the drawing I started. We ate ice cream after lunch. It was A’s turn to choose a film today, so we are watching Balto. N has fallen asleep. When will you come home, Mamma?”
Your voice on the phone presses the reset button in my brain. You are so young, just a child, I am reminded. This is the baby whose diapers we changed at roadside dhabas. The baby I bathed in awkward hotel bathrooms. The one who held my hand at airports as we read signs together. I want my baby back.
Just like that, I figured out the formula one day. Sahar is the key. If Sahar is well and okay, we are all okay. When Papa asks what is the matter and Mamma says nothing is the matter, Sahar knows that something is definitely the matter. You get the sniffles and you have aches and allergies. You offer to tell us a joke from your repertoire of a nine-year-old’s jokes.
In a school essay on our family, you wrote, “One thing I don’t like about my mother is that when she is upset, she doesn’t tell me why she is upset.”
I’ll tell you, Sahar. To be able to tell you, I will tell myself first. When I neglect to pay attention to myself, I neglect you. When I hold my pieces together, stretching to be perfect for everyone else, you can see all those pieces of me separately. Like I could see my mother’s.
After a while, it is just a tedious hobby, this desire to be picture-perfect. There is nothing more perfect than stealing time from everyone and everything and running away with you. Our time together is here again. We’ll hold hands till our conversations come back. And listen to your jokes.
Love, Mamma.

[This was first published here: Love letter to the firstborn ]

On Sexual Harassment

I have not watched the viral video from Guwahati. Not even a glance.When I first read about it online, I took my hands off the keyboard. I walked out of the room.
I’m not going to see this, I thought to myself. I’ve seen this before, and I don’t need to see it again.
The next morning, I woke up from a nightmare. In my dream, there was a dead body in my room. I knew whose body it was, I hadn’t killed her, and yet it had become a nightmare. I was trapped. What will I say to the police? Who will believe that I am innocent? I’m so badly stuck in this mess.Events began to come back to me. The reason I didn’t want to watch the video of a schoolgirl being groped and molested by a group of men on a street was clear to me now.
The line was crystal clear in my head. I don’t need to see this because this has happened to me too.

They were a group of boys in school uniform. I was an MA student. 5pm in the evening, broad daylight, a main road in New Friends Colony, Delhi. The evening shift of a boy’s school had just got over. I didn’t perceive any danger as I walked past.They surrounded me so tightly, I must have vanished from view for a while. After a while I stopped trying to get the hands off me. There were too many, too close and too violent. I looked for guards outside the closed gates of homes. There were layers of boys between them and me. I could not reach out. Why didn’t they see me?

I couldn’t go home later. In a daze, I called a friend from a PCO. He wasn’t home. I tried another friend. I had never been to her home before, but I found my way to it. We talked. She told me about growing up in Kerala.

The only person I spoke to at home was my younger brother. I don’t remember what I told him. He listened to me, somehow I slept.

Those boys. Some of them were shorter than me.
The horror didn’t fade for years. Schoolboys, I kept screaming in my head. You are children. What are you doing? What, how…STOP IT!

I wrote these words as the headline of this column before I started typing it: You are okay to be you. You have the right to exist. You are lovely, wonderful, beloved, valued. You, my child, you.
This is not just a message from a parent to a child. This is a message from me to me. A message that my children often give me.

Why does an act of sexual violence shatter one’s self-esteem so badly?
What did you do to cause this? What were you wearing? Why were you alone? It was stupid of you to take the risk. Why does it happen to you only? Where did they touch you? Why don’t you wear, walk, live, study safer. Why do you EXIST?

I knew one thing clearly. People who want to know the details are soon enough going to tell you not to make a big deal out of it. It was nothing, far worse happens, they will say.
Back off, I say to them. Back off or I will break your arms and sock your face.
Don’t tell me what to feel or what not to feel. It destroys my faith in my own responses. My pain is not my shame. Don’t tell me I am lucky nothing worse happened. Don’t tell me to hide it. And don’t put it on display for your convenience.

I was afraid of hurting my parents. I thought they would be confused and helpless. They would be angry and not know what to do with that anger. They would be afraid.
Something had died, I had not killed it and yet I knew I was going to have to defend myself. I would have to hide the body, hide my pain and deal with an unaccountable guilt. Quite like the dream I woke up from last week. I stayed silent.

There was nothing extraordinary about that young woman on the street that evening. I was ambitious, zestful, innocent and happy in my own way. I had lived the usual eventful life of a girl in the city. Like everyone else, I had been groped, pinched, rubbed, hurt, mauled, chased and abused in public spaces since the age of 12. I had changed routes and hidden in stairways on my way home from college, waiting for car-bound men to lose me and look for a different victim. I had known fear and dread. Once in a while I had used my elbows and voice well enough to be proud of myself. I had friends who had slapped their aggressors and dragged them to the Police Station.
It never occurred to us that staying at home might make our life safer. You know why? Because it doesn’t.

A visiting uncle suddenly grabs you and you know IT IS NOT A HUG. Family weddings, festivals, vacations, my mother’s tailor, the X-ray technician, the physiotherapist, your Maths tutor, the neighbour, the home delivery man…you can be fondled, touched, flashed, anytime, anywhere. And we are. If I say, raise your hand if you haven’t been physically violated in a place where you were supposed to be safe, there will be NO HANDS RAISED.
The dead silence, the repeated breach of trust in our private spaces makes them more dangerous than the brutal world outside. Nothing happened to you, we are told. Don’t tell anyone. We are left hurting where the wounds don’t show, and sometimes those wounds never heal.
We have spent so much energy forgetting and then being rudely reminded that each one of us has been victimized. Each one of us has been hurt, isolated and confused. Men and women, growing up in a world of casual, unreported sexual violence.

What is the difference between the world that I grew up in and the world our children are growing up in?
It’s a one word answer.
I am the difference.
Parents, teachers, mentors. We will not always be able to prevent the violence, but we are in charge of healing. We are the firefighters. Speak, scream, stand by me, we wanted to say to our parents. Be ready to deal with your hurt because that’s what adults do. They challenge dysfunctional systems in everyday ways. They break down walls with their anger and their strategy. They rebuild.

All these years later, I still feel afraid before speaking up. I worry about hurting my father by writing these words. The difference between then and now is that I know that I will reach out despite the fear. I am in charge of the world my parents and my children live in. And I am going to protect them.
Because you know what, it isn’t the worst thing being born a woman in this skewed world. An early taste of injustice unleashes your power to fight back. A victim who speaks up ceases to be a victim, she threatens the entire system.

Stand up and speak up, we are all in this together.

****** (This was published here and has nearly a 100 reader comments)

>Love Child


I thought I’ll write about it when I feel less angry. When the shock wanes. When I don’t feel so gobsmacked about it. When I become coherent again.

I don’t know when or if that will ever happen. I don’t dwell on it. I’ve been told I over-react. Its not personal. These people are all nice at heart. I stay quiet.

Today, I was nursing Nam to sleep, music was playing on my phone. First Bhimsen Joshi, then Amit Trivedi. Words welled up unexpectedly, wanting to come out.
By the time I reached a keyboard, the picture seems fogged up again. But I’ll go ahead anyway.

When we conceived Nam, when our pregnancy became threatened because I got jaundice, and then when Nam was born: the most unexpected people reacted as if Nam’s life was not important. As if her life was something that could be shrugged off. As if a third daughter was just bad luck. To be mocked, judged or commiserated. As if Naseem, our child, is unwanted.

I’m not talking about random, illiterate, conservative, stupid ‘other’ people here. I am talking of people like you and me. Our friends, my colleagues. My doctors.

My social, cultural, familial delusions were smashed in one sudden moment. It was the loudest crash I had ever heard. It was devastating.
I was holding a miracle of a baby, my body and soul flushed with joy. Yet I felt like we were stranded in a wasteland, surrounded by debris. It made me confused and angry.
Even joy needs validation, I found out.

A few months after Nam was born, my grandmother visited me in my dream. My Nani. She was alive, living on a green island, like the Andamans, in a locality of narrow streets like Lahore. She was listening to the music of Indian Ocean on high volume. She said to me, ‘I am alive, I am well. I didn’t die. I live here.’

In August 1947, Nani had been 8 months pregnant with her 7th child.  As one of the millions caught in the bloody turmoil and violence of the partition of India, my grandparents also left behind their home and life in Lahore and migrated to refugee camps with their family. My mother was 4, their youngest child at that time.
Nani had 7 daughters and 2 sons. Nana was a robust entrepreneur, building and rebuilding his businesses as they migrated from Lahore to Amritsar to Delhi. I never knew him.
Later, both their sons became alcoholic and died of it. Their daughter, Kanchan died in her 20s.

Despite being surrounded by family, my grandmother always seemed ill and tired to me. She died when I was 7 years old. I know her through her daughters. My mother and my aunts.

In my dream, my Nani said to me, ‘I am alive, I am well, Neeru.’ Don’t think of my struggle, recognize my triumph. See my peace.

I started recovering. I talked less to people. I wrote more. I shut some doors offline, I opened some online. I sought help.

Two years later, I am surrounded by a community of people who love Naseem like we do, who love me for loving Naseem. Who cheer with us, share our happiness.

I am recovering, I shall be restored.