A blog about poetry, fiction, London life, and new mum experiences
Author: Salmah Ahmed
I am an accountant by profession, I completed my ACCA (as a challenge as I was horrible in Maths)) and by default have always landed finance jobs. My real love though has always been something else. Being a Pakistani girl, my desi parents wouldn't have me study for a degree in English Literature or something art oriented. I was required to be practical and choose some professional field of study. However, I have always loved to write, doesn't matter about what, it's my favourite 'escape' place-my secret garden. I have always typed these short pieces secretly, on my laptop, knowing they would never be seen by a living person and feeling safe in that knowledge. Recently, however my dearest friend encouraged me to start a blog because I would write and bore her with these long novel like emails. I have also recently become a mother to a beautiful baby girl and it has been a wonderful, crazy and blessed experience.
When did extremes become acceptable and moderation disappear off the menu? Do we need to either walk on egg shells or fight to death?
There are two type of social media debates/disagreements (this could translate to real life as well). One is knives out, abusive language and you deserve to die kind. The other one is when a superior, sanctimonious approach is taken to the debate. You are clearly the inferior being, you have no idea what you’re talking about, so I will tell you what is what and thereafter shun you. The third kind should exist but doesn’t, which means you don’t debate or rather disagree at all. You agree to everything, are diplomatic, do not voice your real opinion, don’t respond and leave the space as fast as possible. You normally adopt the third stance, because you are a nice guy or gal, you don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings, and why bother anyway, what’s the big deal, is this debate worth getting your fingers sticky or your hands dirty?
But is healthy, educated debate necessary? Should contrary opinions be voiced at all?
Yes, because that’s how change and innovations come about, fresh ideas flourish and the creative process unfolds. We might see the world one way, another person may question our understanding of it, and by the assertion of their belief, we may gain some worthwhile insight.
What spurs such a debate though?
Is it an echo chamber where the same thoughts bounce off different walls to come back untouched and untampered with?
Is it a place where you cannot voice your opinion if it’s in disharmony and conflicts with someone else’s or the popular opinion?
Or is it where conflicting thoughts are exchanged regularly leading to reflection that perhaps there are different viewpoints in the world and two sides to a coin?
Should we police people’s thoughts and views? Yes, you could, but what fun would that be? Wouldn’t that make for a very boring world where we decide exactly what is to be said?
Of course, I like people who love me for and regardless of what I do or write, but I should also like people who disagree with me because they teach me something from their view point. I might not understand it at the time, but I could come back with a calmer head and learn for the future. I could take it as a chance to improve and look at my understanding of an issue in a different way. On the other hand, if I have serious doubts about the merit of their opinion and would rather ignore it, I still don’t have a right to hush them.
I stress the mode of disagreement MUST be polite. No personal attacks. If you can maintain that, then disagreeing isn’t a wholly shocking idea. I can disagree with you and you can do the same. However, we should remember one thing as civilised, educated beings; we are disagreeing on an idea, theory, piece of work and opinion. I am not objecting to your right to live or your right to continue doing whatever it is I have an opinion about. By all means, carry on, not that my opinion will stop you, but please don’t take offence to my voice. I am just using it, maybe because I have one?
Furthermore, if I disagree with your ideas and actions or am unimpressed by your work and dare to voice it, you haven’t become my mortal enemy, I haven’t taken to hating you, I haven’t declared open war on you or dishonoured you – so please step back with that pistol. No need to fire it just yet or demand satisfaction at dawn. Contrary to what you may assume, I do still respect and love you as a delightful human being.
There is an idea that friends ‘support’ each other, which is great – I’m all for it. But our friends should not be expected to be mere yes-men or sycophants. In fact, if our friends disagree with us, it’s not an insult to our person no matter what inflated opinion we have of ourselves. It may actually benefit us to be surrounded with opinions that clash with our own.
This may be an unpopular opinion, but being a nice and good person doesn’t mean nodding your head vigorously at everything around you, smiling and hearting everything, conforming to a set, established pattern or agreeing with whatever the experts or pundits have applauded. Sometimes, going against the grain or tide, questioning, objecting, may lead to a new discovery, some small change, some revolution, who knows?
And hey, you can disagree with this opinion piece, because I’m not an expert, am I? But even if I was -if I was a certified, award winning, opinion giver on the subject, stamped by some supreme body of knowledge in the field, guess what, you’re still allowed to disagree with me. Shocking, isn’t it?
It’s a short story of only 6000 words but I had to stop many times in my reading of it. I had to come back to it when I felt less angry at the injustice the narrator is facing. At the point in the story where her husband, John remarks:
“Bless her little heart!” said he with a big hug, “she shall be as sick as she pleases!” I had to stop and take a deep calm breath. Each line is meant to disturb and attack. Each line has a meaning beyond its obvious meaning.
The nameless narrator is surrounded by people she trusts, her husband John and her sister in law, Jeanie are kind and caring. They want her to rest, recline, not see her baby, not write and not give in to her fancies. So controlling is their care, that it becomes more suffocating than the disconcerting yellow wallpaper in her room.
With nothing to occupy her mind, she tries to unravel the mystery of its pattern. She sees a woman like herself confined within the paper, trying to escape but the restrictive, confusing pattern is too much for her. In the end, the wallpaper is a way out for the narrator. She frees herself and many like her by tearing it apart and shattering the bars of containment.
Here the bars hold back the freedom of choice, free will and thought. She tries to conform to patriarchy’s expectations of her, to act normal, hide her true feelings but she knows that she must creep out, and free others like her to creep out as well. But they must still ‘creep’ about or they might be caught and thrown right back into the pattern designed to keep them confined.
A powerful, feministic piece of literature, this story is not a happy read but a very relevant one. It is open to a lot of interpretations and relatability across different forms of subjugation and suppression across race, gender and class.
Because of its Booker prize short listed status, I really wanted to love this novel as great literature and gush over it. Before I read it, I planned a 5 star rating but I am here in all honesty at a 1 star. It may just not be my style of book/writing or it may be that the Booker prize short listing set a high bar and I was left hanging. I’m also wondering if maybe the Booker prize novels are not my type of books at all which is disturbing as I would like to appreciate what they are appreciating.
There are three words on the cover of my copy of ‘Burnt Sugar’ that I picked up at my local Waterstones by Fatima Bhutto, ‘Taut, unsettling, ferocious.’ I humbly disagree on all three.
It didn’t have that tension or tightly wound friction. It felt like a slow burn. Like watching a long wick of a candle catch fire and finally get to the part where it melts the wax only to fizzle out. It had a string of events with shifting time-lines, incidents and facts thrown together to make a stew of it all but nothing really gelled together. Maybe burnt sugar may have done the trick? Her take on topics such as PPD, living with overbearing in-laws, Hindu Muslim riots, abandonment, examination of Alzheimer’s disease, care-giver fatigue, re-inventing memories, are all interesting and intelligent reflections but I doubt they worked in her novel format.
It was meant to be unsettling because it depicted a troubled relationship between a mother and daughter but I felt short-changed on that aspect. It felt more like the diary of a daughter writing down all her grievances against her mother. What would have been interesting, as the blurb promised and failed to deliver was this first line: Tara remembers the past one way, Antara quite the other. However, we don’t get Tara’s viewpoint. We never explore that angle. It is just Antara and her narration of what she sees, feels and deals with in her daily grind.
Throughout the novel, I was keeping my eyes peeled for what grave ills the MC-Antara suffers as a result of her mother’s big neglect and selfishness and find out it’s nothing that hooks a great deal of sympathy out of me. This is the reason why I never warm up to her or feel invested in her story. Something that’s portrayed as a big deal in the novel is that adult Antara slept with the same man as her mother, and also at one point fancies sleeping with her biological father. Now other than it being something unsavoury about Antara’s character, it didn’t evoke a big gasp from me.
It lays out graphic details of body odours, bloody snots that are wiped on clothes, eating snots, excretions, piss and even talking about sex in a way that put me off it completely, and I’m just wondering here what purpose does all this serve?
The narrator, Antara, is clinical, cold, brutal, doesn’t love or like anyone around her, and doesn’t even feel human at times. The problem with depicting her that way is that no one cares about her in the end. We don’t develop feelings of sympathy for her.
I struggled to find a plot. It could be a character driven novel which is great but then I was not emotionally invested in the characters either. It felt a combination of everything India is associated with like Ashrams, Babas, Kali Matas, Hindu-Muslim riots, overbearing in laws, but I am sure there is much more to the vast country. At the end this didn’t work for me in a novel format. I loved some snippets of her observations or reflections in the novel. Doshi is wise, logical and analytical with topics she has attempted in the novel but she could have written a scholarly article on them instead and I would have lapped it up.
Is death a real end or a transient stop? A mere passing through to something higher or the pit stop? Maybe a higher plane of the soul, maybe a stepping stone? Does death come to take our breath away at the end; the end of our time on earth or is it a temporary stop.
We experience death multiple times in our life. The kind that goes beyond biological mechanism; the ticking of our heart and the rhythm of our breathing, but still impacts the fibre of our physicality and spirituality . The death of passion, love, friendship, trust, familiarity and comfort zones. With each death our bodies change, the chemical receptors in our brains morph and our souls break down and rebuild.
Is it a good thing to celebrate something as morbid as an end rather than mourn it? To embrace it rather than regret it? To revel in it rather than curse it? To chase on the heels of a past or turn our eyes to the path ahead.
Myths, beliefs, facts and philosophies abound around death and re-birth. A phoenix turns to ash to be reborn. A snake sheds its skin. The mythical cat gets nine lives. The Hindu belief of samsara claims the soul passes through a cycle of successive lives based on karma. Sufiism urges us to die before our death. Seven years to change each cell in our body. Seven reincarnations to attain Moksha. There is a beauty in endings. An ending doesn’t have to be a severance or an uprooting. An ending can be a beginning. A challenge. A dare.
Although it’s tempting to turn back and live there, there is a reason we cannot go back into the past. We can only walk forward. Our past evaporates like steam dissolving into a stream of memories. Memories that are mere superfluous traps to bind us back to a life we have experienced. It’s done. Leave it there.
The soul comes clean and pure in the world and then it binds itself in attachments and adornments of our ego, our emotional needs and material desires. These embellishments attach and detach from our beings easily, exposing their frivolity and fickleness. Yet, being social creatures, we can let go of our material possessions but we crave human companionship, approval, validation and love. But most of all love. We weep when human love dies. But what is human love?
According to Nimattullah Sufi Order, human love is divided into three stages.
“I for myself, you for yourself; we love each other, but we have no expectations of each other.”
This is a comfortable equation. You do not encroach on each other, you don’t bother each other. Zero expectations.
But we want more for a mutually beneficial relationship, so we move towards profound love.
“I for you, you for me; we love each other, having mutual expectations of each other.”
This gets trickier. Mutual expectations may be misinterpreted, misunderstood and can lead to conflict. It’s still conducive to building the foundations of a mutually beneficial bond by trial and error.
But then, for real success in human love there is a category that transcends all conventions of expecting, wanting and needing of each other.
“I am for you, you are for whoever you choose; I accept whatever you want without any expectations whatsoever.”
Now this is highest step. To get here one must shed every ounce of ego and self-importance we may have. But people like you and me rarely get here. Sufi love responds with loving and kindness towards those who harm them. But which love and which relationship is so selfless? A mother’s love comes closest, but not much else.
We cannot achieve stage three, so we scamper back to stage two or even stage one.
So, we are back to the question of death and our equation and comfort with it. Can love in relationships die? Because that is what we fear the most, we cry and long for our dead love that once existed and is no more. But love can never die. Love is omnipotent. So we can rest our minds about that. We’ve captured it for a lifetime if we’ve been touched by it once. It marks our soul and changes it for the better, just like hate changes it for worse.
Love lives on. But we die. And we die because we need to, in order to grow, move and live. We die many times. Life is a constant movement forward, and if we are lucky if we’ve found that ladder to climb to a higher plane for our soul’s purity, at the very least it is a straight path onwards with no gain and no loss and if we are really unlucky we are going down that stairwell to perdition.
Since we don’t have an aerial view of our direction and we haven’t been given special gallery seats by our privilege, only our creator -Allah does, we cannot claim the ascent in our movement, just like someone else can’t claim the descent of our movement. The creator can judge and damn, not us or other mortal souls sitting on pedestals of judgment. They can point fingers, damning you. You can clap and praise yourself. In the end, the effect cancels each other out like two minuses. It doesn’t count.
And along this path, we die. We die multiple times. But a death is a chance. An opportunity. A retake. When death comes, it takes. But it takes away the right things as part of a divine plan. It takes away the excess, the rot, the decay, the stagnant, until something new is born in its place. In our darkest moment, something is being re-born within us. If we are not at some point at our nadir, we cannot take flight to our zenith. If we remain ploughed here forever, we can never get there. We can never get to the place we are meant to get to.
As Christine Caine puts it, ‘Sometimes when you’re in a dark place, you think you’ve been buried, but you’ve actually been replanted.’
So, live. But die as well, die as many times as it takes, because death is just an introduction to what you lack.