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Babur praying for his son Humayun | Photo Courtesy:

When his son Humayun fell ill, it is believed that the Mughal emperor Babur sat by his bed in deep prayer, communicating with the Divine for a recovery. Bamber Gascoigne writes in The Great Moghuls: India’s Most Flamboyant Rulers how the aging man sat in despair, consulting wise men for advice, along the river Jumna. Babur was advised to part away with “his most precious possession”, which he interpreted as giving up his own life. In the eastern tradition, it is believed that by transferring one’s positive karma the ailing can be restored to health and life. While facts may cast away an incident of this nature, Babur seemed to have transferred his son’s illness to himself. While Humayun recovered, and later became the second Emperor of the Mughal Empire, Babur passed away. His last words to his son, it is believed were, “do naught against your brothers, even though they may deserve it”, an advice that the sensitive Humayun followed throughout his living and ruling years.

Although instances in history are open to criticism and reformation, some, such as the one mentioned above, I hope are established as true, time and again. I have vested interests; I have often been called a romantic, if not of the kind that dabbles in love affairs, but of the kind whose perception is coloured and whose expectations are not pragmatic. It also means my inability to demonstrate interest in the affairs of the ordinary world, and most commonly, it is a euphemization for being naïve, immature, and refusing to grow up and take responsibilities as deemed appropriate for an adult. To preserve myself from this continuous assault, which comes from immediate people in my life and strangers, I have to seek asylum. Quite often, these places of refuge include reading; at other times, an escape into nothingness where I cease to exist thereby dissolving all that can be traced back to me.

I believe in the transformative power of these innocuous narratives that, when one comes across, have the potential to reinstate faith. Without these entities, inbuilt as they are, with a flair for grandness, a desire to expunge control, and the quick addressing of a larger inexplicable power, life, at least for me, would lose its preciousness. Some of us, still seek in the material reality and in the abstract concept of the mind, explanations that cannot be provided by facts and figures, certainly not by looking at the world as if one stands at its centre. So, when I gather books, I gather them with a inner guiding compass that lifts those compositions that do not conclude; that do not dictate for the reader what to think of or infer but leaves her alone, at her own disposal to make meaning that is justified solely because she chooses it to be so.

Another narrative that has inspired me, and I have quite often written about it, is the communication that the American poet Ruth Stone has established with poems. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, The Signature of All Things and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear talks about it in her Ted talk Your Elusive Creative Genius,

“I had this encounter recently where I met the extraordinary American poet Ruth Stone, who’s now in her 90s, but she’s been a poet her entire life and she told me that when she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barrelling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.” And then there were these times — this is the piece I never forgot — she said that there were moments where she would almost miss it, right? So, she’s running to the house and she’s looking for the paper and the poem passes through her, and she grabs a pencil just as it’s going through her, and then she said, it was like she would reach out with her other hand and she would catch it. She would catch the poem by its tail, and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. And in these instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact but backwards, from the last word to the first.”

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Ruth Stone | Photo Courtesy:

Like Ruth Stone, I run toward the idea of feeling safe in the playfulness of ordinary things, which bear extraordinary value. Like the other day, a three-year-old soon turning four, lifted her little body and placed herself at my feet to tickle them; to which after the initial refrain, I had to feign being tickled, contracting my body into tumultuous contortions, playing pretend to avoid her incoming ‘monstrous’ fingers, as if her little hands had succeeded in making me submit my adulthood. Or the time, when she asked me, “Why can’t you pack your workplace and work from here [Chennai]?” a question for which I knew no practical answer and failed to think of one, and so I hugged her instead. There is, after all, no one protocol that can be consulted with, for individuals to base their predispositions and personalities.

Quite often, when I extend my gratitude to the far vicissitudes of the universe, I am grateful for the possession of a ‘weak’ heart; for despite the discomforts of living, it has persisted on listening to the open dialogues that have survived reduction, analysis, and wanting finality. I am grateful for turning at the right time, to the insignificant, to the treasure right beneath my nose, so that when opportunities present themselves, I can be there to ‘catch the poem by its tail’ and transcribe. I am grateful that there are guiding lights right ahead of me that show the way to becoming and being ‘romantic’, who have lived that way despite criticism, condemnation, or disbelieved.

In the 2017 Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, Diana stands tall in front of a raging Ares and says, “It’s not about ‘deserve’. It’s about what you believe” (emphasis mine). This part stands out for me, particularly reaffirming my faith in the necessity to preserve oneself against the ever-penetrative bandwagons of social control, political subversion and moral dictatorship.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow implores to take refuge in a home, “Stay, stay at home, my heart, and rest; Home-keeping hearts are happiest”; Babur took his final refuge at the Bagh-e-Babur, where he rests today among maple and fruit trees, pools of water, and lavish intricate ornamental-work. With a book in hand, I exit the manmade factions and fictions and enter a place where peace is the underlying state and above it are built lives, old and young. When it is needed that I return to the ‘real’ world, I still have a leg carefully placed in the other world, just in case.



At the end of a long day, especially the kind of day, when I have had to interact with people, I come home, not so much with physical, but mental exhaustion. Perhaps, it is part of a highly sensitive personality or a borderline personality, but mental exhaustion is real. It is as real as a muscle that has exhausted itself of biochemical energy and cannot perform any longer. It is as real as a failing belief system that has been challenged and hasn’t been able to defend itself. Mental exhaustion, from talking too much or working in highly stimulating environments, as is often common in workplaces, is often dispiriting and, in most cases, difficult to cope with.

I remember some of my old work environments, where the act of brainstorming, sitting down in groups and discussing, and impromptu meetings were the norm. In those early years, I couldn’t establish proper breathing; it felt as if my chest cavity was always filled with air, most of it never making an exit. Breathing was hard; it was only accomplished only because it was involuntary and on most occasions, I felt my lungs would collapse. It was difficult to own a body that felt so quickly stimulated by triggers in the environment; more importantly, it was difficult to own such a body within the existing system that demanded efficiency and performance.

There are many of us—the highly sensitive persons—who do not know how to manage physiological responses that impede creativity, productivity, and output. At the end of a long day, in which I have had to participate in discussions, I feel like a water-soaked sponge. Laden with the heaviness of multiple conversations, both useful and banal, triggering and calming, and over-stimulating and under-stimulating, I visualize I am the tip of a iceberg. Although the iceberg manages to float, underwater it has a different reality, and the smallest of modifications can change my behaviours and responses.

Today was one such day. Having taken in energies and having absorbed the dimensions of human personalities, including my own, the iceberg had its final movement, one not in its favour. In the physical world, sensitivity or vulnerability is seen as unprofessional, as a systemic flaw in the person displaying it. No one wants a “cry baby”; a “sensitive” person; a “defective human”. Yet, there are many of us—many who display vulnerability (while detesting oneself for it), many who feel removed, infantilized, and taken less seriously. The difficult reality is no one wants vulnerability; no one wants to deal with sensitivity; and yet, it exists.

However, one-half of humanity appears to dictate for the remaining what is right or wrong behaviour, in the right or wrong context. Sometimes, it goes so far as to include the physical dimension of an individual; at other times, it goes too far as to include the emotional dimension of an individual. And, it is discouraging because living does not have to be complex and each individual has the right to exist as her/his own. It is perfectly acceptable for someone sensitive to be balanced by the practical and vice versa. And, we must exist together because it is essential for survival, at least, of the human race.

As someone who deals with anxiety, limiting it to private spaces, a slip or two in a public space, feels like a huge step back from progress. But, today I am not ashamed. I am not ashamed to acknowledge that I would rather cry it out than keep it in. I am not ashamed to feel at peace with my vulnerabilities at the cost of appearing “sensitive”, “weak” or “immature”. Today, when I was managing my vulnerability, I was not alone. I was in the middle of many—all younger than me—who even as they were trembling, fighting partial memory loss, stammering, perspiring, shivering, cold and vulnerable, stood perfectly tall in front of a judging audience. They spoke, even as their throats went dry, even as their hands trembled and couldn’t find support, even as their legs went malleable, and even as their minds tricked them, “I should not have done this”. They stood their ground, they stood staring into the light ahead, and they performed.

Perhaps, courage and fear are not separate, not opposites. Perhaps, strength and vulnerability are the same because they feel the same; they appear the same. And, because I was among the brave and the vulnerable, I was brave and vulnerable myself. I could let my lungs collapse and release the insensitivity that had built around me, one tear at a time, in a public space. The result is, as I write this piece, I feel my heartbeat resting and my lungs intact. I feel “accomplished” and complete.

Tonight, I had the opportunity to be alone, undisturbed, and without the necessity to talk. In the solitude, away from all diktats, protected from expectations and explanations, I feel safe to rejuvenate. I feel okay. I feel, not divided into two or more, but one.


I had wanted to read Saadat Hasan Manto. But, I put it off for years. I remember a book by Manto on a shelf in a friend’s room. I stood staring at it, believing that Manto was calling for me, but after a while, I left the room, never to look back in its direction. I like to think that the influence of Western literature had pushed my interest in Manto to a corner if it had not sabotaged it completely. But Manto was a controversial figure, his work and his characters even more so, and he was a powerful figure. So it had come to this that I had to read Manto sixty-three years after he breathed his last.

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Saadat Hasan Manto | Photo Courtesy:

I found Manto at a book fair, the anthology titled Bitter Fruit: The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto, among other famed writers of the Urdu language. At first, I worried as any naive reader would worry, whether I had the right introductory book. Little did I know then that Bitter Fruit would cause a stirring and I would understand what it means to read a writer in her/his language, the language the writer chooses to write in. Because even though Manto survives the translation, the reader is at a great loss. And, for the first time, I found myself wanting to learn Urdu, to excavate Manto from his original manuscripts, and speak imitating the way his lips moved by moving my lips.

Khalid Hasan translates a sketch written by Manto by the name Resting Time,

“’He is not dead. There is still some life left in him.’
‘O leave it, my friend, I am exhausted.’”

That was Manto. His was a writing that would come out in gasps, leaving one fighting for one’s breath. So, as I read one short-story after another, I learned a little about Manto and I created the rest that I couldn’t find about him. I learned that Manto, much like his content, was sensitive, deeply affected by the events he witnessed, heard, and read about. Perhaps, it was his sensitivity that kept him company as he wrote as a young man witnessing the division of a nation he loved so much, when he lived in poverty, when he fell ill, and when he was on his bed, dying of a mutilated liver. Perhaps, once you are called obscene, as some of his stories were called, you enter a prolonged state of grief, which regenerates itself even as time passes. Manto writes about his state of being,

“I felt utterly lost. I wasn’t sure what I should do. Should I stop writing altogether or should I write recklessly, unconcerned with consequences? I felt utterly listless.”

Manto’s stories Colder Than Ice, Bitter Harvest, A Tale of 1947, The Return, The Assignment and many others reveal with brutality the life immediately after independence. There was, not then and not now, a cause for celebration but a need to enter a period of deep mourning, knowing well that we do not deserve salvation. For such was the exaggerated myth of “the stroke of the midnight hour” that the scarred cries and wails of women, men and children have gone unheard in its din for a long time. The Partition should be rightfully called “the holocaust of 1947” as Khalid Hasan calls it in his long introduction to Manto’s anthology. Because the difference between reading Manto’s stories as a work of fiction and as based on real events is that you end up seeing Independence as a continuing thread in history.

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Tents at Kingsway Camp, Delhi | Photo Courtesy:

I remember standing during a class lecture on India’s foreign policy and telling the students that our identity as Indians began in the refugee camps that were erected overnight in the new nation’s capital. That is our cross to bear. It was Manto, who explained that the national identity that is shoved down our throats today is a result of the shoving our ancestors received and caused, in their case quite literally, to bear a national identity.

Then there are Manto’s women—the prostitutes, the runaways, the wives and the lovers—women who were shameless and obscene. These were women, who allowed their bodies to be embraced without feeling shy, or vulnerable, women who earned their money using their bodies, women who knew how they derived pleasure and women who avenged themselves. You take a glance at these women and keep looking at them; you cannot understand why you are attracted to them, you cannot find the right word; and quite possibly, you feel strange and uncomfortable that these women are much like you. It is fear emancipated and pleasure that is overwhelming, when you learn you are one of Manto’s women.

There are a few sketches and some of Manto’s letters that remain to be read. There is more material to create him even though he rests in his grave, on which the epitaph would have read,

“In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short-story writing…Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short-story writer: God or he.”

I wonder what is in store but I have faith in Manto.