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.


Rahman Abbas: Author Interview

Rahman Abbas doesn’t write to make this a better place. For him writing is to understand this absurd place we all have landed ourselves into and understand the absurdities of ‘being and nothingness’.

In an interview conducted via mail, I and Rahman Abbas, a Mumbai-based author known not only for his characterization and rich descriptions in his novels but also for his outspoken and straight conversational style, discussed about writing, condition of languages of India, the hypocrisy of religious fundamentalists and his upcoming novel Rohzeen.

Rahman was outspoken regarding growing intolerance in India and he returned his Sahitya Academy Award to protest along with many other writers and creative geniuses.

When asked for the interview Rahman answered in a few hours positively and we set the time, on which we were not able to talk but Rahman, like a wonderful person he is, rescheduled it to a few hours later and we began with my initially long questions and his short replies.He opened up soon and then I asked small questions to which he replied in great detail!

Here ya go!

Dharmesh: If my research is any good you have five published works under your name. Your debut novel Nakhalistan Ki Talash (Search of an Oasis) followed by Ek Mamnua Muhabbat Ki Kahani (A Story of Forbidden Love) , Khuda Ke Saaye Mein Ankh Micholi (Hide & Seek in the Shadow of God) , Ekiswin Sadi Men Urdu Novel aur Deegar Mazameen (Urdu Novel in Twenty-first Century and Other Essays) , and Ek Simat Ki Talash (Search of a Haven). And now you are about to release your sixth book, Rohzeen (The Children of Betrayed Parents) in December. Is that correct?

Rahman: Yes.

Dharmesh: And you got in some trouble for nearly all of them with religious or moral fanatics?

Rahman: As far as novels are concerned, yes. Religious-minded people have had found it unbearable and they had directly and indirectly reacted over the subject and my style.

Dharmesh: Which brings us to your new novel, Rohzeen. Do you think this will also offend some groups?

Rahman: I write stories because I feel I can narrate them honestly. [The stories] about people and conditions in which [they] live. I never think that it can offend anybody. If people feel they are offended by [written] words and situations in which other people exist or live, then I feel sorry for such naive people. As a society they need to grow up and show some maturity towards creative expressions and Fine Arts. Moreover, they shall stop living in denial mode about realities or truth of our ways of living as human.

Dharmesh: There always have been attacks on freedom of expression. From the banning of great classics like Lolita to allowing total trash, which is in a way harmful, like Fifty Shades because of its portrayal of women, to be published freely. Who do you think sets standards for what people can read or write?

Rahman: In my view, reading and writing are personal choices people must be free to make. No one can set standards, history illustrates that standards of a country, community, or language are contradictory to each [other] and evolutionary within. Hence banning books or curbing freedom of creative expression had never worked through out the history. The tyrant, religious and/or inhuman forces had tried to subvert freedom of choice to read or write but they too had been overthrown. However, every culture and language has got its own set of standards which is in fact a result of its civilization and excellence in human understanding. Within the arena of culture and language people themselves should be free to sets standards for reading and writing. The jurisprudence or laws have never worked appropriately or served amicably to guide creative writers. In fact struggle of James Joyce and Manto have only proved laws need to be revoked.

Dharmesh: Now taking a break from laws, censor and freedom of expression, because that debate can go for hours, let’s talk about Rohzeen. If you will, what are its major themes?

Rahman: Throughout the history.

Dharmesh: That’s very little information! I guess your readers must wait for December.

Rahman: (laughs) Rohzeen is all about life and culture of Mumbai. It’s also a political and psychological novel. The major theme of novel is existence of those children who witness or come across betrayal of their parents with each other or of one of them to other. For more details you will have to wait a few more months. (chuckles)

Dharmesh: You sure know how to hook your readers! Was it always this easy? Not counting the fanatics, what were your biggest problems when you started writing?

Rahman: I had no problems at all except [that] of dealing with the language. I always wanted to write finest prose, prose unbelievably creative and vibrant. I am just trying to learn that magic, that ‘spell’ of words. At one hand my novels have not been liked by fanatics but on the other hand major literary critics and senior writers had come up and they spoke on my novels. I have meet many common readers in different parts of country who like the way I write and love my style.

Dharmesh: Speaking of style,Wikipedia writes “Later, reading Latin American, Western, and African novels, especially the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, George Orwell, Victor Hugo, Milan Kundera, and Ben Okri, played a significant role in his formation as a novelist.” Is there some less known author which you think people must read and/or had a major influence on you?

Rahman: Oh, sure, Nadeem Aslam is such a good novelist, Hindi writer Uday Prakash and Urdu writer Nayyar Masood are lesser known writers that I like. I am impressed by Ismat Chagtai, Sadat Hasan Manto & Rajandra Singh Bedi too but they have no influence on me. I think new comers must read all these writers along with Umberto Eco, Orhan Pamuk, Rushdie and V. S. Naipual. This list would be incomplete. Always.

Dharmesh: Of course, given the fact there are so many great authors!
New comers. What is the most common mistake new writers, especially Indian writers do? And what is your advice to them?
Rahman: I will not say ‘common mistake’, but I do find that many new comers don’t read good writers or a great deal of fiction across the languages. It is the responsibility of Indian writers to read regional fiction and assess how masters in regional languages are dealing with the contemporary Indian realities. Indian languages are rich and literature excellent. I advise all my friends to read from regional Indian languages as much as they can read along with European, African, Middle Eastern, Latin American or South Asian writers. One more thing, one should have passion and madness for literature. If you lack it, do what best you can do.

Dharmesh:…passion and madness for literature…” That and as it has been often said, the art of applying seat of the body to the seat of the chair. But there are times when that may seem quite hard. Writer’s block for example. Did you ever face it? What are your tested methods to overcome it?

Rahman: Yes, There are times, hard, and harder, but for me, in every vertigo, literature was therapeutic. I live and live through pages, words and illusion of being in it or inside it.

At this point we finished the interview for the day as it was midnight and then we mailed again a day later.

Dharmesh: What are the three must know facts about Rahman Abbas?

Rahman: Oh, sure.
1. I am not a literary critic, though I write critical essays.
2. I am a patriot, thought I openly criticize nationalism and political parties that claim to be nationalist and
3. I am not anti-Muslim, though I openly criticize Islamic religious & organization because I believe organizations are not Islam, it is just an interpretation of Islam.

Dharmesh: That’s great! I like the word play in the first one. Third one is profound and true.
Now, favorite book?

Rahman: Selected Short Stories of Manto.

Dharmesh: Favorite movie?

Rahman: The Perfume.

Dharmesh: The Perfume is… quite disturbing.
Coffee or tea?

Rahman: Both, coffee and tea.

Dharmesh: Both! (chuckles)… so you don’t want to disappoint your fans on either side?
And finally, how is this world a better place with your writing?

Rahman: I don’t write to make this place any better. I write only to understand this absurd place and the absurdities about ‘being and nothingness’. This place and our ‘being here’ is more mysterious than we can imagine.

Dharmesh: Ah, a classic!
Is there anything else you want to add?

Rahman: Nothing, all said. (smiles)

Dharmesh: Thank you for your time and words. Now we finish this amazing interview which was more like a chat session.
Thanks a lot!
And we are hooked for Rohzeen!

Rahman: Thank you! Stay blessed.

Dharmesh: Bye. (smiles)


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