MEET THE WRITER

‘I want to rock the boat and I know that the boat desperately wants to be rocked’

An interview with Natasha Badhwar, author of a striking book of essays on the self and the family.

Natasha Badhwar’s well-loved column on parenting, marriage, learning to live with one’s self, and making amends with the past has grown into a book of essays titled My Daughters’ Mum. Badhwar’s three daughters take centrestage in a story that doesn’t shy away from the rifts, the tantrums, the silences, and the time it takes to learn how to be better at relationships. Her husband, her parents, her in-laws and her housekeeper form a complex, loving portrait of a family where it sometimes takes decades to give and to be able to accept the apologies, the explanations, and the peace that has one has waited desperately for. Speaking to Scroll.in, she talks about writing as a way of learning to speak again, the lessons a spouse who is different from one can offer, the challenges posed to Muslim identities in the new India, and a lot more. Excerpts from the interview:

So much of your book is about taking the time to understand the people in your family. Is writing these essays part of that process? Or are the essays documenting what you’ve already understood?
For me, writing is thinking. Almost every essay is a process of discovery. There will be an unsolved question that is nagging me, or a connection seeking to reveal itself, and when I finally begin to type, the words bring a revelation with them. In a sense, the writing of these essays has been a way for my conscious self to access the knowledge and wisdom of my subconscious. To make my own self more whole and less disconnected from its core.
“True love involves a lot of fighting.” This made me laugh, because, yes, of course it does. In your essays, you quote your family, you narrate everyday incidents. Is the way you write (simple, straightforward, and without rambling) also the way you speak? My reaction to so many of your sentences was “Oh, I can imagine a loved one saying that to me,” or “I wish my mother had said that to me!”
I began to write to be able to learn to speak again. At some point in my life I had become so intimidated by the aggression, authority and enthusiasm of others that I found myself becoming very quiet. I seemed to have lost my voice, but I was always brimming with thoughts, ideas and opinions. I resisted the templates of debate and discussion that were available – I found them inadequate, biased and limited. Whether it was small talk, drawing room discussions, intellectual debates or discussions in the media.

Creating my own blog and my own space on social media gave me a platform where I could begin to exercise and train myself to speak without feeling interrupted, judged or pushed back. I gave myself time to write and rewrite, to be precise and straightforward, and to learn to trust an audience to listen with love. To air my humour and try out my own turn of phrase, so to speak.

In between the chapters are little hand-written notes of things your three daughters or your husband have said. They also include little knick-knacks or children’s drawings or a cup of tea in the background. Can you talk to us a little about how you chose and assembled these images?
I had a lot of fun creating the images for these fragments of conversations. Visual communication has such a raw, visceral quality to it. Creating these photographs was like an antithesis to writing and editing the words in the book. The writing process has been painstaking. It has involved repeatedly wrestling against self-doubt and fears. Sometimes revisiting past traumas.

The words were work, and the photographs were play.

Creating images for this book with details of the voices in our home, the drawings children make, the light, colour and forms that create the aesthetic of our life, was easy and light despite the physical effort that it took. I enjoyed this part very much and offered it as a gift to Dharini Bhaskar, my editor at Simon and Schuster, who had been supporting me so tenderly as I had struggled with releasing the words onto the pages. Choosing the elements in the images was quite effortless. All of these speak to me all the time as a parent and a visual artist.

You mention Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s The Wheel of Life in your book. What are some other writers and books that have had an impact on your writing?
Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, the psychiatrist who survived life as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate and wrote about the psychotherapeutic process, has been my guiding light. Dibs in Search of Self by Virginia M Axline, in which the narrator, a clinical psychologist, and a nine-year-old boy seek healing through play therapy is another book that I always keep near me.

Among fiction writers, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee and JD Salinger have moved me with the deep humanity of their storytelling. In some sense, if you show me hope amidst the darkness, I will follow your story.

I never thought I would encounter a theorist like Gayatri Spivak in your writing. Often, academic writing like hers can seem remote and inaccessible. Part of the Spivak quote you’ve included reads, “My teacher Paul de Man once said to another very great critic, Fredric Jameson, ‘Fred, you can only deconstruct what you love.’ Because you are doing it from the inside, with real intimacy.” Can you talk to us a little about drawing insights on your personal life from academic writing?
I am deeply aware and amused by how different my writing sounds from that of many of the thinkers and philosophers I admire. Often, I worry about myself because my sentences don’t sound heavy or complex enough. Yet I can’t let go of them till I have simplified them to the point of being bare. Till they speak directly and with emotion.
I have had some of the best teachers in life. Men and women who have examined complex and intertwined factors and unravelled them to speak simple and powerful truths. I get great joy from breaking down barriers between the academic and the intimate, between theory and lived experiences. I’m smiling even as I say this.

My copy of My Daughters’ Mum is now filled with notes and pencil marks for me to return to. I hadn’t encountered memoir writing on the Indian family before. It had me thinking, it made me nod many, many times. Is one of the goals for the book to start more thinking or more conversations about family and identity in India? Obviously, fiction has been one way to access those themes, but your book asks the reader to look intimately at your family, and by extension, their family.
Yes, that is the goal. To shine a light on everything that shapes us, that creates and defeats us. To decolonise the self, and tap into the power of ourselves as individuals. To provoke an intervention into everything we take for granted in family and education systems. To create a space for women and children where they can express their autonomy and individuality. Where they are appreciated and valued, not dismissed as dependants.

To be honest, though, the larger goals reveal themselves in their own time. My first aim was to hear myself. To write myself so I could see myself from a distance. Go back and hold my own hand. Heal the hurts and replace them with the love that is also there.

I’m tired of fearful doublespeak, words of empty consolation, and the helplessness of the privileged. I want to rock the boat and I know that the boat desperately wants to be rocked. If women and children have been marginalised within the family, the men haven’t done themselves a favour either within the patriarchal system.

In a way, I am healing me via the writing. It’s a miracle that this has created a community of readers who feel supported and extend themselves to offer it in return.

You started your career as India’s first female cameraperson in news. Talk to us a little about that experience. How did you make the shift from that to writing?
I had a very blasé attitude, perhaps even an entitled one when I was a university student. I took entrance exams for a lark. I went for job interviews to dare the employers to give me roles they couldn’t imagine a young woman in. I inadvertently managed to get trained as a videographer and film-maker at MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia, simply because I got through the entrance exams. I remember wanting to push myself beyond my own boundaries.

Then I met Prannoy and Radhika Roy at NDTV who dared me in return.

“Do you think you can be a cameraperson at a news channel, knowing how demanding it can be?” Radhika asked me.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. I had just handled video and film cameras for maybe 20 days in my life till then.

“Join us from tomorrow,” they said to me. And I did.

It was a fantastic time to be in news television in the mid-’90s. There was idealism, there was rigour, and we inspired each other. There were so many women at NDTV, we joined hands and were extremely supportive of each other. Those years are a book in itself.
I didn’t really switch to writing, I was always writing. I wrote an essay once, titled “My body is a photographer”. The rest of me is a writer.

One of the themes you explore is your family’s identity as a Muslim and the way it has shaped people’s responses to you. In your stories, your husband tends to remain calm in the face of prejudice and to try to engage and change mindsets. Is your writing also a way to engage and possibly change the way people view Muslims?
My writing is a way to engage with every lazy stereotype that is part of our everyday lives. Any experience, feeling or identity that has shame thrust upon it – I will challenge it.
I hadn’t imagined that the personal choice to marry my husband, who happens to be a Muslim, would one day become such a visible part of what I write in public. It isn’t anything I would have considered talking or writing about, but I feel compelled to engage with the hate and violence that is being heaped upon the Muslim identity.

More specifically, we need to stand up to the backlash against the plurality of cultural identities that we so comfortably embrace as Indians and world citizens. The well-being of everyone is at stake here, not just the minority community.

My husband has the gift of self-assurance, which is both annoying and quite fabulous. I observe him and sometimes try to parody him, but really there is much to learn from how he engages with the world too. He isn’t dismissive of anyone, he practises “chai pe charcha” as a way of life and has infinite patience for real life, one-on-one conversations.

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