What I am Today, I Won’t Remain Tomorrow: Conversation With Survivors of Abuse, Nighat M. Gandhi: A Review


When I met Nighat M Gandhi at Svaraj Vidyapith, Allahabad, I knew nothing of her. And that was a great misfortune. Discussing mental health in women, the taboos and troubles associated with it, Nighat’s discussion along with other members of Stree Mukti Sangathan and participants of the discussion group Prabodhan, opened our minds to look at this struggle of women’s azadi (freedom), mispronounced by many, including the government as empowerment, in a context that remains unmentioned. The hysterias, depressions, anxieties, PTSDs, eating disorders that women develop are pushed under the rug rather than being acknowledged.

There is more chance of a woman in India suffering from mental illness to be beaten or tortured by a tantrik as compared to men. Mental illness in women is seen as advent of the Goddess and this Goddess needs to be subdued. She is dragged by her hairs, tied in chains and beaten. Men, on the other hand, get to see a doctor and if the people around him are extremely superstitious, he is worshipped, never beaten or tortured.

Coming back to Nighat, she is the citizen of a nation, divided by colonialism and united by its mutual struggle for liberty. Nighat was born in pre-independent Bangladesh (East Pakistan), her parents moved to Pakistan in 1971 and later she moved to India. As a woman, a mental health counsellor in a smallish town like Allahabad, a Muslim and a Pakistani Muslim* at that, married to a Hindu in India, the questions she might be facing, the suspicious looks and stares and glares she might be getting and the things she might be hearing, and more so in these trying times of nationalistic jingoism would be enough to drive her to become a reluctant fundamentalist or an angry cynic at the least. But she remains a humble and jovial figure, hospitable, considerate and willing to fight for herself and women around her.

But why am I talking about Nighat when I should be discussing her book? You are here to read the review of course not a character analysis. I understand and respect that. This conversational book, both figuratively and literally, has elements of Nighat’s ponderings on her identity, her place in society, her responsibilities as a feminist and an activist and place of spiritualism in her life. And thus it becomes quite important to look at the narrator’s life in respect to her characters. As a privileged woman, compared to those whom Nighat interviews, what are the challenges she faces? And are they same as those of the interviewed? Do they share a spectrum where they both could stand equally as women challenging patriarchy or there are certain subtle differences between them?

What does it mean to be a woman? The question is persistently present throughout the book. It is asked again and again through its eight main characters and other subsidiary characters, through its narrator and writer, who happen to be same, and through the reader who becomes a witness to the lives of nine women, eight interviewed and one interviewing. The question is many-layered and each layer is deeper and more potent than the one before it. With its flexible ideas of womanhood and motherhood, the stories of lives of eight women progress to a culminating point from where they look back upon the journey they took. The milestones that came across their path, the trees that sheltered them and the thorns that pierced their skin, all are laid bare. Do the women smile or regret their decisions? You need to read What I Am Today, I Won’t Remain Tomorrow to find that out.

A woman is not born but made, said so that great sassy feminist Simone de Beauvoir to whom all of us look with reverence when we discuss the feminist issues. Who do we look to in the Indian context? The Indian feminist movement is very different from that going around in the west. The thing to note here is that, by India we mean Indian subcontinent. The struggle of freedom of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh was same, same was their oppression and same is their continued struggle of azadi. Indian women did not have to fight for the right to vote like the women in west. It was granted to them. They did fight for independence, no doubt. But like most Indians they were told that they have achieved what they were fighting for. And they believed.

What’s interesting about What I Am Today, I Won’t Remain Tomorrow is that despite being research based it has no academic jargon. It is a collection of wonderful tales of courage, resilience, bravery and strong will wonderfully and simply told. The will to strive, to seek and not to yield these women show once they leave their abusive marriages is inspiring and though not everything these women do is to challenge patriarchy, their struggles against it do define those of women who suffer silently. It gives them hope and a little affirmation that the quest of women’s azadi is not in vain.

This feminist tale of eight women and their struggles to forge a path for themselves is a must read.

If you liked this review, please check others here.

  • After Nighat read this piece she mentioned that she considers herself more of a South Asian than a Pakistani. In her own words, “I would still assert that I am a South Asian…..but if you insist on using Pakistani……you place limits on who I want to be.

“[P]ersonally, I’ve never been subjected to hatred in all the years I’ve lived in India. [T]he subject of curiosity and questioning [I] may be, but hatred, never.”

I agree with her completely.

The Blue Scarf


I had written this story for Times of India’s Write India Campaign using Chetan Bhagat‘s prompt. Well it didn’t make it but I’m not the one to feel sad. (Well maybe a little.) So I hope at least you guys like it.

 

She sat in the Starbucks cafe, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her blue silk scarf. No, it was no use going to the police. They would not believe her.  After all she had killed her ex-husband. What difference did it make that he had come to kill her? She had already killed their marriage. When she had divorced him, he had called her a murderer. She had no problem with that. It was easy to forget the things he said, though she had not, she could not. She had smiled at him and said he had murdered a lot of things when he slept with her sister.

She looked at the cursed scarf again. It had been his first gift. How glad she was that day! She would have done anything for him, almost had. But then things changed. Their marriage became tainted with grunge of everyday life and a ghost of love, fueled with sheer will and weighed down by responsibility. Then came the fights, the accusations, the taunts. Days would pass when they would not talk to each other.
Then, he began paying attention to her again. He started bringing flowers and taking her out to dinner. They began going to the movies and spent more time together. When she saw him at her sister’s when he should have been on the office trip, she didn’t cry, she couldn’t cry, she laughed. How many times had she repeated the words and still never known its meaning. Husbands are chiefly good as lovers when they are betraying their wives. Yes, Marilyn Monroe was right. She thought it would hurt, it did not. She bit her lips to bring tears but tears didn’t want to come, only blood. She realized in the court why she could not cry. She had not loved him in a long time. She could not tell but she knew love had fallen out of their marriage long ago. Maybe the day he slapped her or the day he used her as a thing to please himself without loving her. No, she did not know when but she knew she had stopped loving him long before he betrayed her.

***

He came to her house unexpected, drunk and in a rage. Her sister had dumped him too. She felt stupid for opening the door without checking. Flower delivery. Men never learn better tricks and women never care to check. He said it would be like he had never left and had forgiven her for treating him like a dog. She felt her spine go weak and her nerves chilling.  For the first time in her life she feared this man. Before, she had felt all the emotions; love, anger, hate, but not fear. She had not known this man. Even when he had slapped her when they were fighting on the balcony she had not seen him. Or perhaps he was not the same man, someone else in his body had taken control, haunted him. Lust and anger possessed him, desire and rage; an intent to murder.

When she asked him to leave, he yelled and abused. She looked around. There was a vase on the table by her left side. She moved closer to it as he shouted how he had done everything a husband should do and still she was never satisfied with him. He said how he had done everything a lover should do and still her sister was not satisfied with him. He abused both of them, linking them to their father and brother. She picked up the vase and hid it behind her. If he came close she would know what to do. There was a time, she could not remember when, she couldn’t wait for him to come closer so she could kiss him. Now, she was clutching the vase to save herself.

He raised his head, looked at her and smiled. There was something in his eyes she had never seen. Something she had read in stories of Lovecraft and Poe and King. Utter malice. Desire; a desire to kill. The vase dropped with a shattering noise. It became a thousand vases at once never again to be the one it was before. Its fragments lay between them, reminiscent of what their life had been. She tried to speak to him, maybe she could talk him into leaving. But her words left her like tears had years ago. She cursed herself for being so weak and stupid. She was alone with her trembling self and a man she had once loved like he was the only person that mattered to her but was now about to kill her.

***

‘Do you want something else, ma’am?’ the waiter asked.
Yes, she wanted to escape the mess she had created by murdering her husband. She wanted to go back to her normal life and live like nothing had happened. Was that possible?  No she didn’t think so. So no, thank you.

‘Another cup of coffee,’ she said.

The waiter smiled and turned to go. ‘What’s that ma’am?’ he looked back and pointed at the scarf.

‘The knife I killed my husband with,’ she smiled.  She had no idea what made her say that. She was never good at lying anyway.  The waiter laughed and left.  Truth can be funny sometimes.

***

Karan reached into his back pocket and drew out the knife. The knife Manisha would hide in her scarf hours later.
‘I don’t trust any of you. I will now trust this. This is my baby,’ he kissed the cold steel. There was some blood on it.

‘Oh, don’t worry. It’s your sister’s. Both of you will now truly be one blood,’  he laughed at his brilliance pointing the blade at her.

She looked at him in horror, unable to move, unable to even crouch down and beg for mercy. No, she will not beg. No matter how this ends, she will not beg. She still could not grasp the news he had given her. Her sister? Was she dead?  The child had not even seen anything of the world.  Why had he killed her? For what? What did she do to enrage him? Perhaps she would never know no one ever would.

He came at her slow and lunged. She ducked, there was enough time. His drunkenness had made him sluggish. He could not focus. How had he killed her sister then? In the bed? In the shower? She pushed him with all her strength and his head collided against the wall. He cursed her and dropped the knife to hold his head. Blood gushed out and dripped down his face. She bent, not careful to keep an eye on him, to pick the knife. He kicked her in the guts and she fell, unable to shriek, her breath knocked out. The knife was a prize, whoever got it, won.

He picked it up and brought it down. She moved, not completely avoiding the strike, the knife tore at her jeans and cut her leg, spilling her blood like water from a fountain of youth which was now old. She held his hand tight. Though the knife’s edge cut into her wrist, she did not let go.  He raised his hand and she felt her grip loosening. She kicked him in the shin and brought the knife down, going into left side of his abdomen. She wanted to hurt him enough for her to escape but not so much that he would die. He struggled then fell down. After he stopped moving she leaned closer. He grabbed her hair and shrieked, thrashing his limbs wildly. She stabbed him again and again and again.

He lay motionless, his eyes open and accusing. Blood gushed out of his wounds and stained the mattress below, forever. Please God! She prayed again, let him be dead now. Let him be dead! He was. She broke down, the tears and words that had left her came rushing back and she cried until all the weight from her heart lifted.

***

She put the cup down and picked up her bag and the scarf. It had all the memories she had shared with him. Their first meeting, their marriage, their love, their fights and finally their death. She too had died in some way with him.  A part of her that she had believed was good. That did not exist anymore. She was a criminal, a sinner. She stepped out and walked to the police station as rain began to pour washing everything but not her guilt.

***

Manisha was running to meet Karan outside the college. She should have left early but the class wouldn’t end. She should have fixed her hair but there was no time. Ugh! Probably he wouldn’t notice that. He was not like rest of the boys. He was sweet and caring. She smiled as she crossed the canteen. Yes, he waited there looking at his watch, thinking how late she would be. He was the only man she had ever loved, she would ever love. She knew she would marry him and they would live happily, loving each other because nothing else in the world mattered. As if they were meant to be together. She came closer and calmed her breathing as she ran her hand through her hair.
‘No use saying you are late again, is there?’ he asked.

‘No,’ she smiled.

‘I have something for you,’ he gave her a wrapped box and smiled, touching her arm. She tore the wrapping and opened the box.

There was a blue silk scarf in the box. The best gift she ever had.

***

Image courtesy: dxpepper.wordpress.com

A Drunken Night


It was another drunken night. Another one of those one night stands. Shila woke up dizzy and still unsure of where she was. She looked around and barely recognized her room. Then she looked at her side and the man she had hooked up last night was still there, snoring. She couldn’t see his face but he had an admirable physique. Who was he? She could barely remember. She had a blurry image of meeting him in the bar last night and they had talked of Tom and Jerry or something like that before they were in her car making out. When was she home? Probably after midnight because the guard was asleep. The man turned and Shila rubbed her eyes to bring them back to focus. ‘Wow! He doesn’t look bad,’ she thought. ‘Bad? He is kind of yummy actually.’ Big forehead, large eyes, curved lips and a little stubble, a man she would be ready to go on a date with. The man woke up with a lot of twisting and turning as Shila smiled at him.

‘Would you like some coffee?’ she asked him. She never asked guys for anything. They were all turned out as soon as they woke up or she woke up. Except a few who had lingered to get her contact number. She denied of course.

‘Um… sure. No cream though,’ he said wearing his pants.

‘Don’t have any,’ she got up and moved towards the door, ‘would you bring the newspaper from outside?’

‘Yeah. I’ll bring some samosas as well,’ he replied.

Oh no! He too!’ Shila thought. When a guy left for bringing anything he never returned. It was an understood sign.

‘I know what you are thinking. I’ll be back,’ he smiled.

‘Whatever works for you. I’ll be in the kitchen,’ she pointed and left. After some time she heard his footsteps behind her. She turned to see he was standing at the kitchen door smiling.

‘You didn’t go,’ she turned back to the coffee machine.

‘The door is locked,’ he came closer.

‘OK, I’ll unlock it,’ she turned and saw him looming at her, ‘what do you want?’

‘How about a kiss? I’ve been meaning to ask for it since I woke up, but you are quite tense,’ he moved closer.

A kiss? I’ve been meaning to ask him that ever since I woke up!’ Her cheeks turned crimson.

‘I know,’ he said as if reading her mind and massaged her lower lip softly with his thumb. He pulled her closer and their lips brushed against each other and he sucked on them hungrily, but tenderly. Shila enjoyed every sensation running through her body and gave in, invading him, tasting his soft tangy smell of sleep and alcohol.

‘You taste like soft, fresh cream,’ he said between the kisses.

‘I thought you didn’t like cream,’ she pulled away.

‘Not in my coffee,’ he pulled her back.

‘That’s OK,’ she kissed him back.

They moved back to her bedroom as he tugged on her lips and she unbuttoned him.

‘I still don’t know your name,’ Shila said after an hour or more.

‘Then you must be quite eager for me,’ he smiled.

‘Shut up. I bet you don’t know mine as well,’ she hissed.

‘We are just two strangers here. But I answer to name Arun,’ he said.

‘So Arun do you know what to call me?’ she got up but he pulled her back.

‘Will Shila do? I saw it when we came in last night,’ he said.

‘You’ve got a memory then. But I need to eat. I’m tired and famished,’ she got up and he pulled her back again.

‘You wait here. I’ll bring something,’ Arun stood up and went to the door.

‘OK. There is a restaurant close to the building. They have great food,’ she said.

‘I’ll be back in ten minutes,’ he said and left.

They all say they will be back but they never are. You just wanted to make a good morning and so did I,’ she thought and got up. She was scarred so much by her past experiences that it was not possible to believe that anything good can happen in her life. She made coffee and sat at the sofa. Arun, if he decided to come back was already fifteen minutes late. She went to the balcony. Wind was cold and sun was hidden in clouds. The Sunday morning was not beautiful. No mornings were anyway. She had been living like this for more than three years. She had a perfect job, great salary, great friends but no family. She never cared for her parents much who had disowned her because she had left her torturing husband and came to Delhi. They blamed her for not working on their marriage. He blamed her for not working on their marriage. She was fine with living alone but she also wanted to be close with someone and this quest led her to night clubs and random one night stands.

She liked it in the starting but then it started boring her. They were all alike, good-looking and mind numbingly stupid. She was tired of them and wanted to get out of all this but week after week she found herself back in the club picking some random guy, a little of this, a little of that and they would fall like logs of wood on her. But Arun, Arun was different. He actually listened to what she was saying. And she certainly remembered him passing out before they made it to the bedroom last night. Nothing had happened then. It was in the morning when they came as close as two people could be. But even that didn’t matter, because he was gone just like the rest of them and wouldn’t come back. She moved closer to the edge of balcony. It had rained last night and floor was somewhat slippery. She moved too close to the edge and slipped, falling for a hundred foot drop. As she hit the stone pavement her last thought was, ‘no one came for me and I’m dying, alone.

People rushed to the dead body as blood spread on the pavement giving it a tinge of black redness. They stood watching, speculating, talking as Shila took her last breaths. From a distance Arun came rushing with flowers and a plastic bag in his hand. He had seen her too close to the edge and wanted to warn her, but she looked lost. He came through the crowd and fell on his knees close to her and said softly, ‘Shila I had promised to come back, see I’ve come. Don’t go now.’

Song of The Mermaid


The mermaid sings in her lonely cave

With a white lily her sailor gave.

She keeps the lily alive for him,

He comes to her in every dream.


She waits for him by sunset,

She longs to hear the approaching trumpet.

The days pass in waiting forever

As she had not known men ever.


And though she would wait for long

And weave her love in many a song

The words echoing in her weeping heart,

She hid her tears with amiable art.


Mermen followed her on all her ways,

Her maids missed her for endless days,

Yet she would not look at one.

Her heart was gone, fit for none.


And so the mermaid sings in her lonely cave

With a white lily her sailor gave.

She keeps the lily alive for him,

He comes to her in every dream.

Journey of a Woman


I was what you wanted me to be,

I fell and rose, crumbling beneath you.

Your dreams and desires and parody

And yet I was unworthy of you.

Each time I tried to rise

You broke me, brought me back.

You gave me your advises wise

But from inside they made me crack.

And I still was what you said:

‘Not man’, but inferior and submissive.

To fall on my knees and open my hand,

My punishments and prizes I shall receive.

You hold me but I don’t touch,

While you satiate I’m blank.

These swollen glands are troubling much

But my braking self wouldn’t clank.

And is that all the story of this treadle?

Insatiable me, looking for gratification,

Tired of this golden ring and black medal,

Travelling for ravishing the men of nation?

But that is how I am known

Amongst your civilized and elite class.

The woman who quests for unknown

Miracles and looks not through your glass.

My voyages have caused many upheavals.

From ‘not man’ to ‘woman’, I’m coming close.

But what will I see? Such horrible evils

Never known; my friends or my foes?

My reflection will I see or be tempted

To look away by prejudices of mine

And vanity of yours? The tears are unshed,

Will they wash the dirt off my shrine?

Will I ever smile amidst this turbulence?

The passages I have had, the pathways

I have seen in hearts of men, dark and dense.

Will I ever walk straight in your created decays?