Jun 10, 2011

I've moved

Not that I have too many readers here, but just in case someone does drop in and likes what they see, they can keep reading me on 100 Paths: A woman's search for God in the city.


See you there!

Mar 22, 2011

The children, they a-grow

The lights dimmed on stage as some 15 pairs of nubile young male and female bodies began gyrating to the tune of You can leave your hat on - yes, the striptease song from the film, The Full Monty. The scene is complete with low chairs, hip thrusts, slow posterior stretches by the girls (a la Beyonce) and T-shirt-ripping-apart chest-baring by the boys. The audience is eerily quiet, no catcalls and whoops, everyone watching in stunned silence. Including me.

Don't get me wrong, I would have enjoyed this scene anywhere else in the world. But in my daughter's school, as part of a high-school annual day production? Uhh. Whack me awake already.

I don't consider myself a prude from any angle, but even I was shocked last week when The Shri Ram School presented their version of the Shakespearean rom-com As You Like It. It started harmlessly academic enough, but by the time the word 'slut' was being used in dialogues between Touchstone and Audrey (it's in the original, but even so...), I was shifting in my seat. Since the play was designed as a musical, the scene is followed by this striptease dance. By now, my cheeks had turned bright red.

And I was one of the younger parents. I can't imagine what must have gone on in the minds of the 40- and 50-somethings next to me.

I mused about it later - maybe the school figured that their senior kids are already sexual beings so may as well bring it out into the open. Maybe the school didn't know - since it was an independent theatre agency handling the production. Maybe the school did know but were so used to having the kids talk about sex and dating and sluts in school hours that they didn't realise it would be a culture shock for the poor parents to have their teenagers turning each other on in public.

I can't help comparing schools, since my younger one is in DPS RK Puram. At their annual assembly, their teacher gave them strict instructions on NOT selecting a song with the word 'baby' – "Too American". Their theme was 'spiritual teachers of India', and after the sage play, to end on a more 'happening' note, they danced (very decently) to We will rock you. Parents clapped with pride, other sections cheered, the principal gushed about what good morals and ethics our children had.

Then again, this is the same school that broke the MMS scandal of the previous decade.

Last month, my girls and I had got into a heated debate about teenage pregnancy after we watched the film Juno together (they think it's alright and that parents should support in such circumstances. I thought a pregnant Indian teen would need to be banished to another country). A few days ago, the girls deliberately shook me up with statements over the dinner table, with their friend as witness: "Mom, I'm gay." "Mom, she's dating her classmate." "Mom, I wasn't deliberately trying to show my bra strap; it was a wardrobe malfunction."

As I grow more experienced in parenting, it becomes less like parenting and more like a treacherous boot-camp, full of holes in deceptive marshes and unexpected missiles coming flying at you. You're constantly on your toes, alert for the latest ambush from above or behind. With every hit or miss comes the risk of a lifetime of pain, potential "What ifs" that can weigh on relationships for pretty much forever.

I never know how to react to things any more. Do I become like my own parents ("No conversations with or about boys until you're married"), turn a blind eye, investigate further, scream and shout, laugh and tease, go cold and serious, try emotional blackmail... What?

So far, I've been doing my best trying to be me (ahh, understanding the self, an entirely different blog post) but I only end up being slightly shocked, bemused, confused, amused, friendly and worried all at once. It seems as if I just about manage to figure out one stage of growing up when another comes crashing on my head. And the teenage years have just begun.

Sigh, let me get out the helmet. You can leave your hat on...

Feb 22, 2011

Investment decision

What's the difference between Personality and Character?

I believe personality is what you are in public and in light. Character is what you are alone in the dark.

We spend thousands of rupees on our children and ourselves honing our personalities - from the clothes we wear, to the schools we go to, to the books we read and movies we see. It is important to speak well, to look presentable, to keep up a social conversation with intellect and wit. There are tests to rate where you stand. "What an attractive personality!" we say of those men and women who 'have what it takes'. Your personality is what gets you a job or partner, what gets you social approval and admiration. And so we invest heavily in this part of ourselves, our public personas. It's all good.

But few of us invest as much in our characters. Who are we when we are shorn of external achievements and trappings? Who are we without the labels? Who are we in the dark when no one is watching, listening, observing? Are we strong, at peace, happy, content, fearless, home? Building character does not require an investment of money. It requires adversity, forbearance, grit, self-reflection and time. It also requires patience, tolerance, compassion, love and an act of Grace. We are our own teachers and our own students. The only tests are those from life itself.

A personality is something you have. A character is something you are. Having a fabulous personality does not ensure you a sterling character. But true character does ensure a magnetic personality. Our personality is linked with our mind and body. It will not last; we often change 'colours' based on our circumstances in life. Our character, on the other hand, is linked with our soul. It outlives us when we die - we carry our karmas and life condition with us, lifetime after lifetime.

A good personality is a useful thing to have in this world. But a good character is vital both here and beyond. What will you choose to invest in today?

Jan 27, 2011

Meeting Moni

I recently had the opportunity to interview the elegant and erudite Pakistani author Moni Mohsin for my magazine. (The interview is available in the February 2011 issue of Marie Claire India.) But we also talked about other stuff that I couldn’t share in the magazine. Here it is:

Was it ‘understood’ that you’d write for your sister Jugnu Mohsin and brother-in-law Najam Sethi’s outspoken weekly Friday Times?
On the contrary, I thought one shouldn’t work with one’s family. And besides I didn’t think I could write. I had studied anthropology from Cambridge and was working at various NGOs when this paper was launched in the late 1980s. But Najam coerced me to work at the paper, and so I began as a proofreader.

How did the column ‘Diary of a Social Butterfly’ begin?
Najam suggested I write a column; “Think of it as an essay,” he said. He edited everything I wrote and helped my hand along. The column was first called ‘By the Way’ and I wrote about rediscovering Lahore, conservation, and people’s issues, especially minorities and women. I’d talk about living in a joint family, family planning, what it was to be a young, single woman in Lahore – of course, all in a humorous way. The column became a confessional, and soon, my life became public property. That bothered me, so I decided to stop it. But Najam said I’d disappoint readers, and asked me to replace it with something better. And so Butterfly, the character, was born.

How’d the column become a book?
In 2007, I attended the Jaipur Lit Fest, with the likes of Kamila Shamsie. That’s when I realised how interested people were in Pakistani literature. One editor said she’d been reading my column and wanted to publish it. But I wanted to give it some thought. I finally had offers from three publishers, and I went for Chiki Sarkar of Random House because she correctly understood this wasn’t chick-lit but rather social satire. She is also very passionate about the books she publishes, which impressed me.

I feel bad about Butterfly’s relationship with her husband in the book. They don’t seem happy…
Well, in Pakistan earlier, marriages were not about love or friendship. Even so-called “love marriages” were about the man liking the way a woman ‘looked’ and her giving in to his proposal. My case was different. I fell in love with a fellow student and married him. That too very late in life at the age of 32. Acquaintances would ask me, “Don’t you want to get married or what?” just like that – there is no sense of privacy in our culture.

Then what about attitudes towards divorce?
Let me tell you a story. A friend of mine sent us all emails and SMSs to say that she and her husband were parting ways and that she would appreciate if none of us probed or asked her about it as they wanted to keep it personal and not rake up garbage. At the next get-together, one of our mutual friends came in all mourning, “I am so miserable to hear of your divorce!” etc, but my friend cut her off saying, “Please, I request you not to talk about that.” The garrulous matron immediately changed tracks, saying, “Oh no, I have not come here to rub salt on your wounds, you are my life (jaan).” And they changed the topic. A while later, the guest said, “I have just one question to ask you, jaan; you are my best friend, aren't you? Wouldn't you just answer that one question?” My friend sighed and said, “Yes, go ahead.” And the woman immediately asked, “What happened exactly?”

There’s a sense of Pakistan becoming more and more conflicted over time. Being a political writer, how do you see the situation?
The media only reports one side of the situation; the reader only sees the conflicts and anarchy and religious intolerance. But there is another side of Pakistan you don’t see. You don’t see how a village school teacher opened up a school in her own home, and how girl students from villages far and wide came to attend it because their girls’ school was shut down by Islamists. You don’t hear stories of how people like my father run charitable schools for 2500 girl children, as a deliberate stance against the anarchists. The Mullahs and religious leaders know that they can’t come to power through popular vote and that’s why they use violence and threats. But people do what they can to move on, despite the subjugation.

You are a working mom of two. How do you manage work-life balance?
Well, I usually work from home, so that’s good for the kids (my daughter Laila is 12, son Faiz is 9). But it can also be bad for my writing because I am so distracted. For my latest book Tender Hooks, my husband suggested I take up a little space in his office, which I did. That’s how I managed to finish the book in four straight months. If I had been writing from home, this book would have never got done. And now I’m here in India for its release; it’s a 10-day trip which is the longest time I’ve been away from my kids. My sister-in-law is babysitting them in London in my absence.

Jan 20, 2011

There’s something about motherhood

You know her singing cannot be compared with a professional. You know her dance is far from perfect and she misses a few beats. You know her painting is not really going to find place in an art gallery.

And yet when your daughter dances with a group of kids at your nephew’s engagement, your smile lights up the hall. When she holds up a painting she’s just done, you feel like you’re looking at a million-dollar masterpiece and your whole soul reverberates with awe. When she sings on a stage at a school assembly, you cannot help your heart bloating up with pride, sitting amidst fellow parents. You often cry in joy too.

I am blessed with not one but two daughters, both of whom – to this foolish, love-struck mother – are amazingly talented, brilliant works of art in themselves. I cannot believe sometimes that they are born of me, of my flesh and blood and stem cells. There comes the voice of hope and wonder whenever I see them perform or create: “That’s me?”

Of course, it’s not me. It’s who they are. They are separate beings with separate karma and separate destinies. They’ve just chosen me as their mother in this life, the person who could best help them achieve their potential and purpose. Me, with my imperfections and flaws and insecurities. Me, with my difficult choices and strange life and complicated existence.

Despite myself, these awesome, creative, divine beings chose ME.

There it goes again – this foolish, love-struck mother’s heart – looking at them painting, or staring at them dance, or worshipping them as they sing.

“That’s me?”

Nov 16, 2010

Blues bashing

There are mornings when you don’t want to draw the curtains open, when you don’t want to get out of bed, when all you want to do is curl up in your blanket and cry.

It could be due to your circumstances, all that’s around you. But I learnt a funny thing a few days ago: That it is actually due to what’s in your head, all that’s inside you.

I had a phase last year, when my personal life seemed bleak, my spiritual life was at an all-time low, and there was no future to look forward to. I slipped into something called SAD, seasonal affective disorder, or winter blues. I was put on sleeping pills and anti-depressants for the first time. They helped, and within a couple of months, I felt strong enough to let them go. I also got back into my Buddhist practice with gusto, which helped further. I thought I’d beaten it for good.

Then a few days ago, I had this phase again – not wanting to wake up, not willing to speak to anyone, a darkness inside my brain, a voice that keep repeating accusations and insults at me… I was immediately reminded of the misery the previous year. The timing is exactly the same – the onset of winter in Delhi.

But the odd thing is that this time, everything around me is different. My external circumstances are at striking odds to what they were last year – there’s been frustration in some aspects of my life and growth in others. My health issues are different, my mental makeup and outlook is different. So I was stumped when I realized the problem was the same.

This time, however, I was saved. There was a tiny little voice amidst the clamour of the darkness, a tiny whisper of affirmation: “Do Your Morning Yoga. Don’t Give It Up.” I dragged myself out of bed, lay out my mat, and just launched headlong into surya namaskar, no argument.

Fifteen minutes later, I felt better. And as the day progressed, I felt a whole lot better. I resolved never to let the blues get me again, to fight with every ounce of hope left in me, and to allow that little tiny voice to win over the blanket of negativity if it struck again.

The best part is, it hasn’t, since.

I don’t assume that it’s gone for good. It may return. But with Someone Up There’s help, I seem to have to beaten it for now. And that really counts.

My life may have changed, but there are obviously many karmic cycles still to be broken. It’s been a good lesson in knowing that, yes, I can.

Oct 29, 2010

Three book reviews in a go

By Gerard Woodward
(Picador, Rs 1100 approx)

The Second World War is on. A British wife and mother receives a message from her POW husband, imprisoned by the Nazis, asking for the most improbable of things: Naughty, no let’s make that downright filthy, letters. Her prudish sensibility shaken up, she first denies him, and then relents when he remains persistent. But how does one write notes full of passion and sex when one has never been there, really? And so begins her journey into a land of lust, from hidden nooks of libraries for pornographic literature into the arms of her boss for more practical know-how. The consequences are, of course, heartbreakingly realistic. Written with humour, sensitivity, maturity and imagination, Nourishment is yet another feather in the cap for this gifted writer.

Battle for Bittora
By Anuja Chauhan
(Harper Collins, Rs 299)

If you enjoyed The Zoya Factor – Chauhan’s debut bestseller soon to be made into a Bollywood film – then you’re going to love The Battle for Bittora. Jinni, a 25-year-old graphics animator, finds herself drawn into rural politics when her ex-MP grandmother announces she’s got a ticket for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections – in Jinni’s name. Things could have been simple had not Jinni’s childhood sweetheart Zain – gorgeous, rich but Muslim – been her electoral opponent. Now she’s torn between matters of the heart, the wallet and the chair. The author’s easy wit and Jinni’s smart-aleck first-person voice makes for pacy reading. For lovers of chick-lit romances, this one’s a hilarious must.

By Emma Donoghue
(Picador, Rs 499)

Jack has just turned five years old, and has never stepped out of the one room that has been his entire world all his life. Born to a beautiful woman kidnapped at the age of 19 and imprisoned in an underground eleven-by-eleven-foot room by her captor for seven years, Jack’s only companions have been his mother, the furniture, and the occasional spider. But that’s the only world he knows. So when, at five, his mother deems him old enough to help them both escape, he feels like a fish jumping out of the water. The ‘real world’ feels unreal, mystifying and confusing. Why do people need so much space and so many things? Written in the little child’s voice, the narrative reaches out into your gut and holds you captive from start to end. And when you finally put it down, you cannot help looking at the world with new eyes.