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A return to the self within

The longest journey of all is also the shortest distance that can be possible. It is the return to the self, a reconciliation with me

Give each other as much time as you need. Photo: Natasha Badhwar
Give each other as much time as you need. Photo: Natasha Badhwar

It really helped to run into my friend, Shivani, who has been dealing with her own anxiety and depression for almost a year now. I spoke to her about our 12-year-old daughter and her struggle with social anxiety. It was a relief to meet someone who would validate what we were experiencing as a family. I told her what I had been doing to help Aliza.

“Don’t show her solutions. Don’t tell her how to think," said Shivani. “She needs silence more than she needs words."

I felt rebuffed. I was trying so hard. I was reading so much. I was tapping into every resource I could summon. I was ready to solve this with my daughter and our family.

“Slow down," I heard Shivani say to me. “Don’t try to untangle knots that need time to unravel."

It was a relief for all of us. We stopped trying to fix things superficially. Instead, we started living together more than we had been doing. We became less busy. We ate more. We walked together. We stayed silent together. We slept close to each other.

We had conversations.

“Should I show you a story written by a 12-year-old? It’s called, ‘From boredom to chocolate’."

“Mamma, is it a success story?" Aliza asks. “Then I don’t want to read it."

“No, it is about the writer’s struggle, but she gets better in the end. In that sense, it is a success story."

“Ok, then I will read it," she says. I had the good sense to not ask her later if she had indeed read it.

“Mamma, do you ever have the urge to hit yourself?" Aliza asks me one night as we sit on the bed together.

“Oh well, Mamma has been suicidal," I thought to myself, but I don’t say that aloud.

She begins to hit herself, slapping the sides of her forehead a few times. I raise my voice and ask her to read instead.

Reading always heals her. She carries three books with her sometimes. An unread book in her bag is her armour. Sometimes she finishes a novel and comes to me, looking rosy-cheeked and flushed with happiness. Someone has triumphed over circumstances. Somewhere, something has come together and she is reassured.

With time, we build a bank of activities that restore our balance. They are good for all of us. We go for long walks. We buy chocolate and sample street food. We discover burgers, gol gappas and kathi rolls. Aliza always judges a new food joint by the font and colours on the shop signage.

“No, no, we can’t eat in a place that uses comic sans," she says.

We scout for second-hand book stores wherever we go. One Sunday morning, Aliza and I travel by the Metro and buses and finally take a rickshaw to Daryaganj to immerse ourselves in Delhi’s Sunday book market. We return home with 20 books in our backpacks. We are rich.

I save a photograph from my Twitter feed to show to the children. It is a message on the door of a vehicle that says—“Do, Not Disturb All ready Disturb".

We laugh so hard I have tears in my eyes. The broken grammar of the line adds to our mirth. Aliza’s sisters suggest we make a placard for her to use at family get-togethers. Anytime the questions and comments get too much for her, she can flash her message—“Do not disturb, I am already disturb".

“Mamma, do you think the Holocaust will repeat in our lifetime?" she asks me abruptly one day. “My friend says this time Muslims will be targeted."

I tell her about my fears when I was her age. We talk about Safdar Hashmi, the writer and theatre activist who had been attacked and killed while performing a street play titled Halla Bol. I had been distraught as a teenager, unable to process the violence and blatant injustice.

“But Safdar Hashmi didn’t die, you know," I tell Aliza. “His ideas and actions continue to inspire us. He is remembered every year. People who worked with him have kept up the fight."

“We had a poem by him in our Hindi textbook," Aliza tells me. We go online and read Hashmi’s words again. Our faith is consoled.

On another day, we talk about Aliza as a baby. I need to remind myself of the healthiest, most self-contained version of our child. I tell her about her unrestrained laughter as an infant. How she turned away from my breast and demanded the milk bottle, because she was hungrier than I could imagine. She tells me about a scene from the film The Boss Baby. The bossy baby flicks away the parent’s hand from the bottle as he settles in his crib to drink in peace. The connection between the movie character and herself as a baby makes her happy.

“Separate the emotion from yourself so you can address it," I have said to her a few times. One day she manages to do it. We are on the way to school after a long period of absence.

“Mamma, my bones are shaking," she tells me in the car. “My internal organs are rattling. If I were a character in a book, the line would be—that morning she was shaking from inside but it wasn’t because of the cold." She has managed to reach the place where she can separate herself from her body’s reaction to anxiety.

Slowly, our conversations expand. She talks about the pressure to dumb down to fit in with peers. We open up about the tyranny of hierarchies—between genders, between young and old, between those who hold positions of power and others. Sometimes we share self-doubts and our own missteps. Things that make us feel lonely and isolated.

We talk about rejecting status quo and our fear of change. We promise to give ourselves as much time as we need. We are in no hurry to reach a happy ending. The longest journey of all is also the shortest distance that can be possible. It is the return to the self, a reconciliation with me.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.

She tweets @natashabadhwar

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