"The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink."

"Always be a poet, even in prose."

"We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect."

In which I test the waters

In January I sent out my first newsletter, reproduced below. I’m hoping for it to be a monthly affair. If you would like to receive them in your inbox, do subscribe via this link.


Some of you know that last year was pretty exciting for me. For those who don’t, this is my way of sharing it. Sceptre Books are publishing my first memoir! The book is titled My Past is a Foreign Country and is set to be published in 2019 in sha Allah. You can read more about it here. This book deal was a dream come true and I’m grateful to have this opportunity so early in life. I understand the power of our voices and I hope to use mine responsibly.

I’ve kept journals for a decade now and over Christmas I revisited some of my early notebooks. This was my first time reading them. I was struck by how passively I experienced life in my teen years (as was encouraged in young girls in my community then) and how my sense of self changed after moving away from home. This was strange to consider. Home, where I was loved and cared for. Home, where all my needs were met and I was financially secure. Home, where I was the firstborn, lording over my siblings. Home was good, then why did I continue to struggle? As with almost all existential questions in my life, the answer to this one is also “The Patriarchy”.

I didn’t know this then, but it looks like I was writing as an act of self-preservation. And writing about my early experiences for a larger audience is giving me a lot of space for healing, for letting go and for becoming a better version of myself. The other thing that struck me was the gaslighting. It’s so easy to accept the blame when it’s being placed on you.

The writing is also making me think about the books that have changed the way I think. For my first letter, I thought I would share some of my favourite reads in recent years, especially the books that centred me and shaped my feminism and faith.

1. Your Silence Will Not Protect You by Audre Lorde
2. The Book of Emma Reyes: A Memoir in Correspondence
3. Seeing Like a Feminist by Nivedita Menon
4. Women in the Qur’an by Asma Lamrabet
5. “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an by Asma Barlas
6. Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection by Saron Salzberg
7. The Hour Past Midnight by Salma

I’m limiting this list to 7 because I could go on forever. If you would like a longer list of feminist books I love, please check my list on Lounge Books. And a bonus Twitter list of top books read in 2017. For those interested in new books, here’s my current to-read list for January to March 2018:

1. Eat Up by Ruby Tandoh
2. Misogynation by Laura Bates
3. Feel Free by Zadie Smith
4. The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy
5. Education by Tara Westove
6. Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton
7. We: A Manifesto For Women Everywhere by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel

I’m hoping to use this space to share more of my reading and to include people, websites, social media accounts etc. that I engage with on a regular basis. Last year I reached out to women to ask them about the impact of growing up in patriarchal families. I’ve found that talking about these suppressed emotions helps give them a language. And language is a powerful weapon against oppression. When we name our aches, when we recognise them, it becomes difficult to ignore them. And if we pay attention to them, we just might find ways to heal ourselves.

You might read this and think that it isn’t for you, that you aren’t suppressed. If this is the case, I’m so happy for you and I urge you to use your voice and your privilege to elevate those who are not able to speak up for themselves. Our privileges don’t exempt us, in fact, it’s much the opposite. I’m not suggesting waging war against the social constructs that limit us all (though, why not?), just asking that you question your intentions and actions a bit more and not settle for ‘this is how we always did things’ as a good enough answer. We can do better, together.


Long time no see (reflecting on the last two years)

I knew I was going to take a break from blogging, I just didn’t realise that the break would last more than two years. I’ve learned to condense my thoughts into neat Instagram captions and Twitter threads but I did miss the luxury of this space. There is pleasure and comfort in long form, a break from the searing data and concentrated truth. It’s relaxing and arresting and to steal from an author I’m currently reading:

It’s true that it’s relaxing, a retirement home for those of fragile constitution such as girls like me; it’s arresting here and arrest is a break from the world.*

Earlier this year an essay of mine was published in the Nasty Women anthology. It was an absolute honour and the best learning experience. I had the chance to read it to an audience in London. I’ve also worked out a nonfiction proposal and am pitching to publishers. The first rejection email pierced my soul, I won’t lie. It was also the most beautifully worded note full of encouragement and great advice. Though it hurt the first time I read it, I’ve starred the email and return to it when I need affirmation. Funny how things turn out.

Recently a Twitter follower sent me a private message lamenting her fears about never getting published. I remember feeling something similar when I decided I wanted to be a published writer. There is a lot of angst surrounding this process, but unfortunately, there is nothing others can do to make it better for you. I appreciate the lovely editors who send thoughtful rejections, but sometimes their words don’t matter because all we see is the very personal rejection of who we are. Things have become better for me after I understood that my book will be published when it is ready to be published. Being published is a commitment to permanence and maybe our work isn’t ready for that kind of commitment even though we are. I wish I had words of comfort for this person but all I could say was ‘don’t give up’ and when has that really helped anyone feel better? The most useful advice I received was from a nonfiction author who said that the writing process shouldn’t be contaminated by publishing hopes and fears, that these are two separate entities and shouldn’t impact each other. This has definitely helped me to start putting words on paper/screen without obsessing too much about how it will be received.

The time spent away from this space was mostly used on practising self-awareness and self-compassion. Earlier this year I attended a self-care workshop for women of colour. It was 15 of us, sat in a circle, processing our thoughts, feelings, socio-political standings. We discussed our proud moments, our means of coping and the words that trigger us. We shared tips on cultivating the ability to speak from a space of deep self-love while constantly combating other people’s insecurities which are imposed upon us. The impact of othering, fragmented backgrounds and the pressure to ‘work twice as hard’ was a lot to unpack in a single morning. I was moved by the trust, openness, vulnerability and positivity these amazing women brought to the discussion. The workshop reiterated for me the need to understand what self-care means to us and that it goes far beyond lighting candles and taking baths (both of which I highly recommend by the way). It’s about unconditional love for ourselves. It’s tender. It’s acceptance. It’s the ability to ground ourselves in soothing rituals. It’s acknowledging our presence when others won’t. It’s unlearning all that we’ve been conditioned to believe about ourselves. It’s about getting off the conveyor belt. It’s forgiveness and self-sufficiency. It’s all about self-compassion.

The book I’m pitching also revolves around this theme of taking care of myself, especially as a woman and a person of colour. Writing about my life has given me the space to explore my relationship with Saudi Arabia (where I grew up), the impact it had on my self-esteem and what it means to be a Muslim woman in the west.** It’s also helped me come to terms with my history without conveniently blaming everything on the people around me. I’m more in touch with my sense of identity now than I was two years ago. I don’t shy away from speaking up for myself and no longer feel the need to distance myself from my identity. This feeling, of course, stemmed from deep personal insecurities and I’ve spent most of my time these two years working on it. Ridding myself of my insecurities has helped me spot them in others. This means my moods are no longer dependent on other people’s intentions. I’ve also come to terms with the fact that I will forever be a work in progress and that is okay.

Nadim and I celebrated our second wedding anniversary in April. We moved into our first home and made it our own. Lots of milestones reached together, I couldn’t have asked for a better life partner alhumdullilah. Also, it’s nice to have an in-house first reader. I started my stint as a Production Editor in August 2015 and it’s been an interesting and rewarding journey with the most amazing people and management. I started hosting my own events! (There’s one coming up soon in Birmingham on 11th August.)

I’ve unburdened myself of toxic friendships and I’ve learned to make space for those who matter. I was surprised by the time it takes been realisation and actual ‘cutting off’ when it comes to people we once loved. In some instances, it was about disengaging myself from spaces in which I wasn’t accepted completely. In some cases it was about learning to co-exist with people who kept prodding my sense of balance. I used to spend a lot of time trying to understand their intentions but I know now that this isn’t important. What is important is to make sure I protect myself from such people even when societal norms stop me from completely alienating myself from them.

That’s all for now. You can find regular updates on my writing and reading via my Instagram and Twitter. The more I write for my book, the more I feel the need for this space to share my meandering thoughts and research. I recently came out of a long bout of depression. I’ve not sought professional help yet, I don’t know what’s stopping me. Writing is therapy, but I don’t think it should replace actual therapy and medical help. I hope I can get myself to ask for what I need when I need it. Do What You Want is a great magazine that has helped me center myself and my mental well-being. It’s up for pre-order and profits go to various charities that are worth supporting.

*Quoted (out of context) from Noémi Lefebvre’s Blue Self-Portrait.
**Something I’ll be exploring further in my piece for gal-dem’s print issue 2.

May we intend for others what we intend for ourselves.

Silence. And then some sobs. She didn’t mean to. He didn’t mean it. They never meant for it to be this way. He is angry. She cries. They hold hands, they try. Every apology begins well. And then they excuse themselves with good intentions. The consequence is laid bare at their feet, but it’s okay, they didn’t MEAN to hurt you. They didn’t mean to ruin everything. It happened. It was out of their control. But remember, they mean well. They care. They will hold you tight and they will impress their good intentions on you. They will murmur words of consolation until you sigh. Because how can we possibly know what their intentions were?

Intentions. Always be aware of your intentions. Parting words from my father when we were in Cambridge. He does this, accompanying his kids on their first trip to a new city, helping them set up their new lives away from him. Maybe it’s his way of reassuring himself that we are still his, whatever the distance. We were having hotel breakfast. Buttered croissants, orange juice, weak tea. This was a ritual we were both getting used to, what with it being the third time around. It was raining heavily. And Cambridge in January made my bones hurt. The first time, he gave me a lot of practical advice on staying safe. And made sure I saved all his local friends’ numbers on my phone. The second time, he assured me I’ll never be alone. I’ll have him and mama. I’ll have Raiyan and Rasha. I’ll always have Allah. The third time he said, think about your intentions before you act. Think about why you want to do something before you do it. Be honest with yourself.

I have found this last bit of advice to be the most self-actualising, a tipping point, a moment which changed the way I live. We know that every action has a reaction. But every action also has an intention. Every word I speak has a reason behind its utterance. And it’s up to me to take the time to understand these reasons, my intentions. Because they exist without knowledge and sometimes we live our whole lives not knowing why we do the things we do. And isn’t it scary? To not know yourself. To be locked away in a room, hurting, aching, lachrymose. And not knowing how to heal yourself. To forever stay broken.

I recently read a line by Jean-Paul Sartre about how if you are lonely when you are alone, you are in bad company. It made me think about how we invest our time in getting to know others but not so much ourselves. Don’t you think though, that if we did, it could save us a lot time and heartache? It could save us from attaching ourselves to the wrong people, actions and passion. It could save us the horrible feeling of aloneness amidst a crowd. Like they say, you need to know how your heart sounds if you want to understand what it’s saying.

The first time I left home, my father taught me to be aware of others around me. The second time, he explained that I’ll never be alone. The third time, he taught me how to survive on my own. I’m very interested in the concept of envy and why we live in a world where we are all pulling each other down. Being aware of my intentions meant I was thinking of other people’s intentions as well. This helped me understand that those who care for me will criticise me where necessary (thanks ma!). And it’s in my best interest to take their advice. But those who envy me will criticise me the moment they think they have found a weak spot. And the best I can do in this situation is take a step back from them and try to understand their motives.

I knew a girl once. She contacted me through my blog, told me how amazing my writing is, how much she admires my thoughts. She spoke in detail about how I’ve changed her life and how much she loves my work. She put me on a pedestal and showered me with adulations. I took it all in and I smiled. I’m very self-aware of my talents. I read a lot of great authors and I know where I stand in terms of good writing. I have a long way to go but that’s not to say I’m not enjoying the ride. I thanked her for her kindness and I told her as much. She insisted. I gave in. We met. We spoke. We got to know each other. And soon her compliments started getting back-handed. She pointed out faults in my writing and how I wasn’t doing justice to my ‘talent’. She wanted to dictate what I wrote about and suddenly my work just wasn’t good enough.

We allow others to come into our lives and tamper with our measurement of self-worth. We make it very easy for people to flatter us. We start to believe them and soon we need their constant approval to feel better about ourselves. And some people like to be the ones who hold that power over others. When we spend time getting to know ourselves, we know where we stand. And we know that we won’t fall just because one person changed their view about us. Because I have taken the time to get to know myself, I know where I stand and I also know when to walk away. And sometimes that’s the best we can do. When my father told me to be aware of my intentions, he made me aware of my existence. He forced me to think of myself as a person before anything else. I was Zeba even before I was his daughter. And that has really helped me stay grounded. Wherever I go, whatever I do, I’ll always be me and that’s my only truth. And when you know that, no one can come in your life and tell you otherwise.

Unlike Thoreau, we don’t have to live in the woods to live deliberately. I understand why he felt the need to flee, but I did rather stay put, I am staying put for the people who matter. We spend so much of our time thinking about the people who hurt us, that we forget about those who have stayed with us. Because for every person who pulls us down, there are those who encourage us. Who see the potential. Who smile when we achieve and who gracefully step back when we are ready. And it’s only polite to give back what we have received. But how can we know what to give back if we don’t know what we have had? And the thing about intentions (unlike actions) is that only we know what we are accountable for.

The moments that break us, make us.

I’m starting to think of life as a series of moments. Moments that chase us and those that find us. Some are revisited with fondness and amusement, reflecting on all that has been lived and endured, loved and let gone, experienced and appreciated. Moments that have a rhythm to them, in their re-occurrences, tuned perfectly to our weaknesses. Moments that change the course of our lives, and moments that soothe us in times of crises. And when there is a burning in your heart, breathe in, breathe out, let the moment pass. I whisper the mantra, my eyes shut, my palms open, my face tipped towards God.

In this moment I’m wrapped in a chequered shawl, hidden behind a large Victorian window. I can see the world, but the world, it won’t see me. I know I’ll soon forget this one. I’ve lived too many similar to these, causing them to slam into each other, remembered collectively as ‘that time I was writing in a cafe’.

But some moments are distinct, some moments refuse to diminish with age. They strengthen with time, forever vivid and bursting with colours. One such moment was close to shore. We had stayed too long by the beach and it was dark before we knew it. We had barely managed to find the beach in daylight, our chances of finding our way back in the dark were slim. And the sporadic but loud barking of stray dogs didn’t help our nerves. We ended up facing a wall, literally, and knew that the only way out was to climb over it.

I remember us both standing side by side, enveloped by the night. It must have been a silently unanimous decision, for me to go first. We were communicating in whispers, afraid to get caught, unsure if we were trespassing. The wall wasn’t high, and I had enough strength to lift my body weight. It was swift. I grabbed the edges, was hoisted up, pulled my legs over to the other side and jumped off. And here’s the moment that has stayed with me – the few seconds between my jumping off, and my friend joining me. I stood facing the wall, my eyes getting used to the moonlight, the breeze causing the leaves to rustle and carrying with it the distinct sound and scent of sea. What was taking so long?

In that moment, I felt fear. Fear of losing, fear of scorn, fear of moving on. I felt the fear of being left behind, the fear of being alone. The fear of not knowing what’s next. I felt the fear of darkness, of wolf like dogs that tore through skin and muscle, of men with animal instincts. I felt loneliness. And I realised that regardless of the number of friends I have or how involved my parents are in my life, I’ll always be alone. Because this is the secret of life, only you can protect yourself, others can only try.

Some moments are lighter. Like when I cracked a joke so funny, my dad had to stop the car because he was laughing too hard. I now pretend that the joke was intentional. And then there are moments of pride. Like the time I watched my sister deliver a motivational speech to her peers. Or when I introduce my brother to my friends. And moments of happiness, when I spend a whole day at a bookshop, when I meet a friend after weeks of trying to pencil each other in or when Nadim calls. There are moments of solitude and some moments are bitter, petty, best left unrecorded.

Some moments are very telling. A moment of clarity, you would call it. Like when I fell down the stairs and broke my elbow. I was seven, on my summer break. It was siesta time at our ancestral home and I was out in the garden. It was hot but I had found a secret spot, shaded by trees. The stairs were missing the banister. The only other person awake was the maid’s younger sister. She asked to play with me, she begged and pleaded. But I shrugged her away, asked her not to come near me. She went away. I was engrossed in a make-believe game, sorting two of every kind of leaf I had plucked from the bushes around me. The fall was sudden, and painful.

When I came back home with a fractured elbow in a plaster, there was soup and ice cream waiting for me. My grandmother was admonishing the maid’s sister and asking her never to come near me again. We were in the dining room and she was standing behind the kitchen door, aghast at the sight of my arm. She was asked to apologise and she did, her eyes screaming with fear. I refused to accept it, dismissing her by turning away. Instead, I nudged my grandmother for another spoonful of soup, leaning forward to be fed, my eyes glued to the TV. This is a moment that haunts me. Why did I frown? Why did I allow her to be scolded? And why did she not protest her innocence? She was no where near me when I fell, she only came running when she heard my cries. This is a moment of shame, a moment of embarrassment for the child I was. But it’s also a moment of realisation. Of how lucky I’m to be born to my family. That I could very easily have been the one standing by the door, falsely accused. She probably had the same dreams as me, the same desires, the same work ethic and talent. I don’t know why I have what I have, but this moment has taught me to be grateful for the opportunities and for all the love. Did she want to be a writer too? I can only wonder.

Charles Bukowski has written of moments such:

Some moments are nice,
some are nicer,
some are even worth

Which brings me to moments of inspiration. Reading an erratically arranged sentence. Staring at a Monet painting till the world around me blurs to become part of the canvas. Overhearing a child narrate a story to her mother and learning a thing or two about past-continuous tenses. Coming across the perfect melody to hum to, as I pick that pencil and start defining the cheekbones. Or when I discover an artist who has given new meaning to photography.

Though moments usually happened to me, there have been some which I’ve waited for, hoped and prayed for. Some turned out better than I was expecting them to, like when I was walking down Madison Avenue last year, repeating to myself ‘I’m here. I’m here. I’m finally here.’ But some don’t meet our expectations, we have yearned for them too long, glorifying their capabilities, setting ourselves up for disappointments. But one thing is for sure – the underlying truth to moments lie in their inevitability. There is no avoiding them. They will happen when they are meant to.

But we could be prepared for them. We could be open to them and we could learn from them. We could create circumstances to repeat the happy ones and to jump over those shaped with miserableness. And if we tried hard enough we could change the very nature of these moments.

We could learn to acknowledge the moments that we usually take for granted, making space for gratefulness in our lives. We could allow moments of despondency to motivate us. We could tell ourselves that nothing would mean anything, if our lives were not of some use to others. We could refuse to be disappointed. We could stop expecting and start accepting. We could carpe diem. We could forgive, we could let go of the grudges. We could sit back and marvel at all that is left to uncover. We could finally realise that only we have control over our lives and that all else is noise.

“That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.”

A cock crowed in the distance and its voice separated into two. Like a sole peeling off an old shoe.

The lines belong to The God of Small Things, a book that happened to me when I was fourteen. I had come back to an empty home after writing my last exam, hungry for words, for poetry and prose. There weren’t any books left to read on my shelf, so I sneaked into my parents’ room. It was sitting salient, wedged between copies of John Grisham and Robert Ludlum. The book was always there, since I could remember, but that day I didn’t skip over it to pick a Sidney Sheldon. I walked back to the living area with it and stretched on the couch, switching on the Air Conditioners on either side of the wide room before I opened the book. I don’t think I’ve been the same person since.

My friend once mentioned how strange she thought it was, that I could remember the exact time in my life when I read every book. That’s untrue. I only remember the times I read books which changed my life. People use the phrase often, and generously. Changed my life. They slip it in when describing a pair of boots, a previously unknown (to them) type of cheese, a clever way to store power plugs, a quicker way to peel potatoes. But when I say it changed my life, I don’t mean that it enhanced it, or made it convenient. I mean it literally changed my life. Because in that moment, I gave up all my dreams and aspirations to become an architect so I could pursue a life of words. I no longer saw the beauty in creating sustainable structures and suspension bridges. Instead, I wanted to create a different kind of art. I wanted to create beauty like the one in front of me, word after word, sentence after sentence, consistently, forever.

The book is beautiful, there is no doubt. But for a young student from a protective Middle Eastern background and with no existential conflict except a clash of personalities with her mother, it was an eye-opener. It widened my imagination to allow empathic experience for another being. I understood the realities of caste system in modern India, the illusion of democracy, the violence which underpins passion, the powers that control love and the mistakes that jeopardise the happiness of several generations. But most importantly, I got a glimpse into the intriguing concept of perception. Of different perspectives.

Intriguing. The way we see the same thing, but differently. How I feel as though my brother is surely talking about another time as we recount the same summer holiday. And how easy it is to be clouded by our own experiences as we perceive new ones. How the definition of truth is maligned by the very idea of us trying to define it singularly. That we can never truly be sure of what we think we know. What we felt, what we thought we heard, and especially what we remember. It sends a chill down my spine, my very being, whenever I recollect the story of the woman who was convinced she was molested by her father when she was a young girl. And how it all came back to her during a psychoanalysis session years later, that she had made up the entire episode. Years after her mother divorced her father, years after he served a long prison sentence and years after he started a new life under the label of a sex offender. Then she remembered.

All my doubts about the human mind have come flooding back to me in the wake of the Adnan Syed story. Like 5 million other people around the globe, I’m hooked. I wait every Thursday for the Podcast to appear on the website and listen intently, trying to decipher this mystery. He was 17 when he was jailed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend. He is 34 now. I can’t say if he is guilty or innocent. But I can’t stop thinking about his answer to the question: Are you capable of violence? He said: The only time I could get violent will be to protect my life or protect the lives of my children. My children, he said. The children he might never have. The children I hope to have in the next few years. The children I want to see grow up. The children who might fill up my house when I’m 34. And then I wonder, what if he didn’t do it? What if the jury took away his freedom, his choice to have a life, a family, a future. What if they took away the time to fix his ways, become a better person, find a girl who makes him happy, create a home for her. What if we took that away from him? But then again, what if he did brutally strangle her to death?

The questions are endless. They unravel my entire belief system and then start restoring it piece by piece, over the space of a lifetime. Or so I hope. This is what it means to be constantly evolving, I suppose. To keep learning and understanding. To keep questioning. Perspective used to scare me. It felt like a responsibility. But the more I think, the more I realise its importance, its necessity. And I believe it exists to give us a chance to be human. To use our collected personal experiences to help others understand theirs. To take a step back and question our instincts. To let us question our memories. To create art out of our misrememberings. To have faith in our work and to know that no one else can see what we see and no one else can say it the way we do. To not be daunted by the beauty that came before us and to continue to strive to create our own classics. To give voice to the Mozart, Austen and Monet in us. And most importantly, to believe in ourselves because most others will have too clouded a vision to believe in us.

Existential angst: an autobiography.

My desk is scattered with the remnants of a long day. An empty packet of cheese biscuits. A bowl with three blueberries, each bruised in a way that makes them unappetizing. A box of pressed British apple and pear juice with the words ‘never from concentrate’ in bold and italics. A copy of The Opposite of Fate sits open on my lap. And every time I look down, I come across a thought that sends me reeling through reality. Amy Tan’s mother once asked her how she hopes to be remembered? A single question that unravelled a career in fiction writing. How will you be remembered? So here I sit, from morning to noon on a Sunday, hunched over my desk, trying to remember. Like Tan, mine is not a photographic memory but an emotional one. The possibilities are endless and as I write each possibility down, it becomes a part of my memory, my existence. So when you tell me that the past is in the past, forgive me for chortling.

Malinger. A verb used without object. Think of a woman who stiffened at her husband’s touch, wiping her fingers across her forehead as justification. She is sitting upright in bed, her face lit-up from the dull yellow of a table lamp. Her white robe off-shoulder, her eyes hopping across the room, seeking inspiration, her mind pondering delicately over the smooth streak of coldness her wedding ring left across her forehead. A reminder of a promise that was once made but never kept. The pen in her left hand is threatening to ooze a thick drop of blue ink on her Moleskine, hurrying her up to scribble in tiny words, each letter separated from the other, alternating between two different languages but maintaining the same script. He cheats on me, he lies. The words shine and she waits for them to dry. Just like her heart, her soul, her life. If only that counted for something when being accused of shirking wifely duties.

Have you had those dreams lately, the ones where you are plummeting, your body weightless, steered by the wind. And your wings have failed to sprout. But the ground looms large, the concrete filling up your line of vision. Why did you ever think it was a good idea to jump? You ask rhetorically, but you hear a response anyway. It’s the sound of wings flapping. You thank god, you choke back your relief, and you swear never to jump off a cliff again.

What are you doing?
I’m planning my funeral.
Ah, you have to get some gardenias.
The white ones?
Yes, they define every classy funeral.
I’m not going for classy.
Ah, in death as in life then?

What if I never make it? What if there is no finish line? What if I get to end and don’t like it? What if the papers don’t get through? What if they are all pretending? What if I enjoy it? What if I was wrong? What if I die and never wake up? What if it’s all a lie? What if, what if, what if? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

Everything has a meaning, everything is nothing like what it seems. The sentence sounds different when repeated in one’s mind and the faces look stranger every single time. It is typed out meticulously, edited obsessively and then erased to hide the slanderous nature of a sleeping conscience. We stand up to dance, but hover awkwardly instead, trying to make sense of all the words that were never said and the eye contact that was never made. If you don’t ask, you won’t know. If you don’t look, you won’t see. If you don’t feel, you won’t sin.

Stop! She screamed, clasping the table cloth as she moved away from him, taking with her their dinner, her voice drowning in the clattering mess that was starting to trail her. Shards of china, everywhere. Food and drink, smearing the place. At the door she turned to remind him that he wasn’t the only one who lost a child.

“Being an artist is like breathing. You don’t question breathing.”

I’m in the bathtub, my body floating a few inches below the water, lifeless. You watch me from a distance unsure what to do next. I asked you to come to my house, but this is not what you were expecting. The text message was urgent, implying an emergency. There could be no other excuse for the typo I let slip. You know me to be slightly unhinged, but this has crossed all limits. You are angry and curious in equal parts. And when you notice I’ve not moved at all, you are fearful. You walk slowly, uncertainly, your footsteps muffled by the crimson carpet in the bathroom. That’s when you realise that the person in the bathtub is not me. Her eyes are shut, her face tipped towards the ceiling, her painted mouth forming a slight O. And long black hair engulfing her body like tentacles. You look around the bathroom for some sign of discordance. That’s when you notice me standing behind the door. Our eyes meet briefly before we go back to gazing at Marina Abramovic. Because the artist is always present.

We are transfixed, we are shocked, We are fascinated. We are slightly disgusted. We are no longer sure what we are, who we are. She is standing in a circle of fire now, using a razor to trace a star on her stomach. It draws blood, and the fire stings my eyes. I want to look away but I can’t. I wipe the tears and stand my ground. And like everyone who has come across Abramovic’s work, my first question is: why is this art? But the tone shifts from disdain to awe and almost back. It’s disbelief and it’s reverence. It’s everything mixed together to form the bile rising in my throat. I should have looked away. But how does one look away from such naked passion for life? So eager to live that one is unafraid to die. I shudder to think what would have happened if an audience member hadn’t interfered when she lay down in a star of fire, the petrol soaked rags sucking away the oxygen from the center and leaving her passed out. I would have assumed it was part of the act. A performance that ends in death.

I hadn’t heard of the artist till Netflix suggested I watch her documentary titled The Artist is Present. I conceded, my battle with Netflix was long lost. I watched it till the end, and I was left mesmerised, her installation at MoMA the cause for my unadulterated admiration. 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, 3 months straight, the chair opposite her occupied by thousands of people, day in and day out. 15 minutes for each guest, an opportunity to hold gaze with Marina, to allow her to burrow into your soul, to feel your pain and your happiness, to sit stoic as you burst into tears. At first I thought it was just a tad bit dramatic, for people to start crying. But that was before I realised how long it has been since the last time someone truly looked me in the eye. Intent, curious, concerned. Someone who cared enough to not look away when I asked them to. Who held my gaze long enough to see everything I was trying to hide. To not be embarrassed for me, but instead smile and place an arm around my shoulders, as I let my eyes reveal my worst fears, my deep aches and my gashing truths. And to remain, without ever threatening to leave.

I don’t understand performance art. But I understand her. I understand her need to be understood. To be loved. I understand her desire to be desired. Her hopes for this world, her faith in us, her faith in art. I understand how it must feel, to be ignored as a child, to never be hugged by your mother. I understand that her art isn’t about her, it’s about me. It’s what I take from her and make mine that interests her, and what I take is her will to never give up. To keep fighting through years of misunderstanding till she finally had a chance to save us from ourselves. I might not stand for her art, but I do listen carefully when she talks about being an artist.

When she finally steps out of the bathtub, dripping on the carpet, I know her enough to know she doesn’t need assistance. So I go back to my book, enthralled by this gone girl and her very sketchy husband. He cheats on her so I don’t like him. She forces him to remember things he possibly couldn’t so I don’t like her either. I watch their marriage fall apart and it creates fear in my heart. Surely if they couldn’t make it, how could I ever hope to? But the book is too compulsive to stop now. To stop ever.

Trigger warning for Marina’s work: Nudity, self-harm, violence, inappropriate language.

“One cannot read a novel without ascribing to the heroine the traits of the one we love.” – Marcel Proust

I ached for days after his death. A continuous throbbing in my heart, bursting into unexpected pains whenever he crossed my mind. I didn’t quite know how to deal with this fictional loss that felt very real. It’s months later, but the memory of finishing this book is still vivid. I stayed in bed, my body limp, my mind in disarray, the book clutched to my heart, its edges digging into my ribs. There were no tears like the time when Sirius Black died, or even Fred. But there was a lot more pain. Somehow. Harrowing, distressing, acute and exhausting.

So why is it that some fictional pain is greater than others? Why are we vulnerable to certain stories and characters while forgetting others? How do I explain this sensation of losing a person who never existed. And is it really fair to say he never existed, when he existed with me and around me till the end of the book and a lot longer after.

In retrospect, it hurt more because I always imagined falling in love with a man very similar to him. Tall, tanned, lean. A kind soul, artistically inclined and a smile that would make my heart skip a beat, just like that. A man who loves strangely, but completely. Who isn’t always there, but someone I could always rely on. Who wouldn’t click a single photo of me but would always aware of my exact presence outside of every frame. At first, it made me question the integrity of the characters. Did Jhumpa Lahiri go out of her way to wretch my heart or if as a reader, was I predisposed to finding a lover in every character I came across. Maybe Marcel Proust was on to something when he wrote about our reading habits.

And is that what we do, as writers? As artists? As musicians? Locate a small window in our audience’s minds, giving them a view of what is within them? Is this the eternal purpose of all art? Are we here to help open closed doors, bow deeply and guide them to a table for two? Iron out the edges, erect mirrors at the end of emotional mazes? Make them see what they couldn’t/wouldn’t otherwise.

Maybe this is why I love Monet so much. Every work of his reveals just enough to allow me to superimpose my life onto them. One of my favourite work of his [Morning on the Seine near Giverny] evokes vivid memories from my childhood even though I’ve never been to Giverny, or anywhere near it. The painting is universal enough to remind me of the boat ride to my ancestral home, the trees branching out and kissing the river along the bank. For me, his work is no longer oil on canvas but a memory of laughter, inside jokes, skinny dipping and sugar canes.

What Kaushik and Hema lost at the end of the book, was something I knew could be mine someday. But was it because of the way the characters looked? The way they loved? Or simply because of the choices (or lack thereof) they faced? I think it was a culmination of all this and more. And it hurt because their love is similar to what I believe I am capable of. Therefore their pain was real to me in a way that others weren’t. I know I’ll never lose a godfather to a veil, or a twin in a wizarding war. But I’m susceptible to losing a partner to death. Of making the wrong choice, of being wed to a person who doesn’t understand me. These fears are real, even though the characters are fictional. And the pain is real too, because the pain I felt wasn’t for them but for me. A juxtaposition of memories, emotions and times. The book ripped open a wound that doesn’t exist, allowing me to grieve for something that it yet to happen in my life.

Does this mean artists have a duty towards their audience? Or is this simply an answer to why some art sells over others? Is this something that a writer can consciously cultivate? Or is this the true sign of talent, to be able to relate to a larger crowd? Is this why it is so important to ‘write about what you know’? To stop worrying about selling your art and concentrating on being authentic in your creations. And instead of feeling any untoward pressure to create art that would resonate with others, could we simply take heart in the fact that something we might write, paint, feel or build will help someone else experience in himself that he couldn’t otherwise? So what I’m really trying to say is don’t give up. Finish that manuscript, track, sculpture. And do it as much for yourself as for others.

“If I do not write to empty my mind, I go mad.” – Lord Byron

The last few days have been an uncharacteristic flood of memories. Of thoughts that beg to be written down and ideas that could lead to something bigger, something better than here and now. I’m memory mining for a piece about my mother. I stayed hunched over one notebook and then another, scribbling furiously, intent on capturing every memory before it retreated into my subconscious mind, never to return again. The words sputtered on the page and the more I wrote, the more I remembered. The more I remembered, the more I realised how much of my life I have chosen to misremember.

I don’t have clear memories of being a despicable child, but everything I wrote in the last two weeks made me reconsider my self-image. And since none of it was mirrored in my old journals, I wondered if I wrote only to justify my actions and convince myself that I’m better than the person I knew I was. And is this what other writers do as well, delude themselves? Not only writers, but all artists. Do we see ourselves differently through a photograph we clicked, music we wrote or a face we sketched? Do we become better in our own eyes when we see a part of ourselves in front of us? Have we taken the concept of externalising all too literally?

Earlier in the week I came across a paper on the influence Lord Byron had on Oscar Wilde. It draws a thread through their similar yet separate relationships with fame, sexuality and exile. Both hold a special place in my heart, I’ve admired their work for more years than I can count on my fingers, and have quoted them in the most carefully selected inopportune of moments. But I often wondered how they could have put their loved ones through such turmoil. How could they see so much good around them, and not imbibe it? Why did they continue to do wrong, when they were aware of what’s right? But now I’m left wondering if these men too were writing to protect themselves from their own choices.

Lord Byron had two incestuous relationships to his name and several instances of infidelities. But his verses on love, life, suffering with dignity and allowing ourselves the time and space to heal have all come from a place of authenticity. Because to believe that art is a lie, would be to believe that our life is a lie, and that’s not an avenue I’m willing to explore tonight. Also, where else could such honest thoughts stem from, thoughts that generations of readers relate to? So was he glorifying in his writing what he knew he had failed to do in his life? Or was he convinced that his life truly mirrored his writing? Having just realised the misconceptions I have lived with, is there a possibility that these writers too believed in everything they wrote? I used to wonder why such writers, who understood human emotions so well, would hurt the people around them. But did they even know they were hurting others? Was Oscar Wilde, who spoke so grandly about love, family and respect, even aware that he was leading a double life?

Often people ask if it is possible to separate the art from the artist. But I want to know if the artists are able to separate themselves from their art. Have their own words deluded them? Is it right to hold their delusions against them? Are we so busy sifting the right from the wrong, that we have forgotten how to define either? Also, who are we to forgive? And by some definition, isn’t everything wrong? And surely, if everything is wrong, then how can anything be wrong?

“Just keep on going for no feeling is final.”

I want my tombstone to say:
She lived her life.
Refused to bow down to convention,
backward traditions,
to anything that questioned
the existence of her happiness.
But I also don’t want it to be a lie.
A fairy tale spun to keep me alive.
I sigh, I sigh, I sigh.

Most of my day was spent perched on the edge of my bed, my face tipped upward, my hands flat on the skylight and my eyes scanning the sky. They are calling it Hurricane Bertha. The glass feels cold against my nose, leaving a smudge at every touch. There is a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. I whisper the words to myself, pout and all.

My tree is losing leaves as I type,
braving a storm, staying strong.
A metallic crash, a clanging.
My cycle has taken a hit.
One for the team,
two for living the dream.

I would go out and put it right, but my mind is occupied: if most people are other people, then who am I? There are questions swarming my conscience, enough to string through a thread and wear on my head. A crown that has lost its jewels, a stride that has lost all pride. No books were opened today, only glanced at wistfully. Touched, but never held. I wish I could stay, say that I’m sorry, but I’m always in a hurry, always so hungry. For new thoughts, fresh ideas, a mesmerizing strain of minuscule interpretations, each different from another, yet bearing semblance. Are they all really mine? But most importantly, is this all there is to me?

There was a time when I liked to be unraveled, I’m sure of it. Why else would I’ve allowed it to happen? Like a hand-knit sweater, maybe a Christmas gift. Bourbon in colour, smelling of mothballs and seaweed, causing the mind to drift in two tangents. Staying in one place for too long, locked up. Floating quick rivers to meet high sea. Constant, yet ephemeral. My wrists are dabbed in perfume, the one which always reminds me of certain memories I know better than to recreate. The day I stopped trying was the day I knew I had grown up, moved on, learned a lesson or two. Also, what kind of a life is it, if the best has already passed one by? Not mine, that’s what I’m trying to determine.

I’m not questioning your beliefs.
No, don’t get me wrong.
This jaded look
almost makes you pretty.

I pull on the sweater as I speak my mind. Head first and then my arms. Sleeves pushed back and trousers rolled up. I would stay back for a chat. But I’ve things to put upright. My tree, my cycle, my mind, my life. I see a pattern here, if not by design.