On Sensitivity: An Artist's Trust

Ever have one of those times when you meet someone for the first time, and you start talking as if you have known each other forever? Or as if you are picking up on a conversation you have been having for a long, long time?

A girl, drenched in sweat, exhausted from the strain of dancing her thoughts away, having had no sleep and minimal food for over forty hours, started telling me about a boy in her creative writing class whom she developed feelings for. Who crept into the crevices of her being. Who told her she was beautiful. And who—let’s just say, took her to a place where friends don’t go to. Afterwards, he told her that he was not looking for a relationship.

She did not explicitly address the pain of rejection. She described the strain she underwent in trying to “catch his light.” She described an emotional fog. She spoke of an inability to weep. She spoke of all this with an odd detachedness, as though listing an endless array of symptoms to a diagnostician.

I found myself asking her how his writing is. She told me that it’s brilliant, and that he displays a remarkable sensitivity to the world, to human nature.

It didn’t compute for me. “How is it that you are sensitive in your writing,” I asked, “but you are not sensitive about others’ feelings? That you don’t have kindness towards humanity?”

“He wasn’t that way with me,” she explained. “But he is that way with others. He didn’t have feelings for me, but if he does for someone else, and he is committed to them, he will be kind towards them, and he will be good. I know it.”

It still didn’t compute for me. He could very well be exploding with tenderness, generosity, and sensitivity when he was in a committed relationship. But it seems terribly strange that as she undergoes this kind of anguish, he is off the hook. In a world where there don’t seem to be any absolutes, she is forced to bear the part of his sensitivity that was a curse, while he bestows the world through a sensitivity that is wholesome. The unavoidable, looming fact is this: he is a source of immense pain to her. His writing may be brilliant and sensitive, but he displayed a blatant insensitivity to her feelings, which, to me, is squandering one’s gift.

Sensitivity, the ability to see nuance, is a gift, a sacred trust. It does not matter if this gift gets used for artistic purposes or not—that’s what it is. But artists are very susceptible to squandering this gift. Artists are sensitive to sights, sounds, and beauty, and their means of talking can be enticing for others.

I believe this intuition is entrusted to us to be used in a certain way. A devout Muslim artist, I feel, has an approach to their art that should reflect their approach to humanity. They may strike luck and make the most of this gift: perform heartwrenching spoken poetry, write bestsellers, and compose soul-stirring music. But if they are not compassionate towards humankind, not mindful of their behavior towards others, not according humans the adab they are due, I believe that the baraka in their work will gradually be diminished. Even if they are successful, I think they will, in some way, be taken into account for not being consistent, for not respecting the element of tawhid, of oneness, of consistency and beauty in all their actions.

A Muslim should be striving to do all things with equally pronounced perfection and beauty. They should not be smiling at the sales rep, then going home and speaking to their spouse in monosyllables. They should not be painting magnificent depictions of nature, yet paying no heed to the way they dress. They do not break a friend’s heart and then continue to write and love wholesomely.

If they do, then well, in my mind, it does not compute. It does not compute.

And Allah is the Judge, the Seer, the Knowledgeable, and Forgiver, of all things.


More On Singlehood

When I feel constricted, suffocated by notions that a married woman is the only kind of woman who is worth being respected, being heard, I think of Precious Ramotswe. I think of her father. I think of what happened when a man who later turned out to be an abusive husband asked for his permission to marry her. I think of the very clear straightforward process Obed Ramotswe undertook:

He sat on his stool and looked up at her and said to her that she would never have to marry anybody she did not want to marry. Those days were over, long ago. Nor should she feel that she had to marry at all; a woman could be by herself these days—there were more and more women like that.

I do fantasize about love and marriage. I grew up with romantic notions of fairy-tale weddings and eternal love and marital bliss. I still believe in these possibilities and want them for myself very, very much.

At the same time, I also fantasize about a wise, elder figure like Ramotswe telling me that it’s okay to not settle.

It may sound incredibly absurd. But when you are part of a culture where the spinster woman is so deeply shamed, where it’s hard to rejoice in your lifestyle when society refuses to accord you respect, you need to embrace an alternate reality. You need to build new mental models for ways of being.

So from this first book in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, it is Obed Ramotswe’s words that sustain me, along with Precious’ ambition, creativity, an uncluttered, independent life, with bright yellow curtains, bush tea, and chats with dear friends. These things remind me that contentment, peace, love and mercy can exist in forms beyond the sociocultural establishment I have been born into.

It is in passages like the one above, moments like these, that I am struck by just how much literature can be such a rahma, such a mercy.

On Reading Love in a Headscarf

Image source: openlibrary.org

Title: Love in a Headscarf

Author: Shelina Zahra Janmohamed

Publication Year: 2009

Genre: Autobiography

Source: I was lent a copy by Amy, who borrowed it from Carina.

So here, in my own words, is the underlying premise of Love in a Headscarf: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single, practicing, devout Muslim woman in possession of intelligence, wit, and beauty must be in want of a husband who has the same qualities. As well as romance. Lots of romance.

The novel is an account of the author’s search for “the One” through highly structured and family and community-oriented means. She also dwells a great deal on how her faith shaped her search for a partner, alongside more general discussions about Islam and being Muslim in the west.

One Amazon reviewer called the book “interesting, but not uplifting.” Their review is a good way to pave way into my experience of reading the book:

For those single Muslim men and women who are enduring the struggle to find mates or are preparing to embark on that journey, [this book] is not helpful and is even rather despairing at times, although that was clearly not intended by the author. The unwounded in the modern Muslim marriage plight may miss that negative tenor, but the potential emotional drag for those with real-life experience in this arena may be enough to recommend passing over this book.

So true. For the most part, this book was depressing. While I enjoyed seeing how the author’s experiences with meeting prospects mirrored mine (having to suffer through men who are inexcusably non-punctual, who hate books and those who read them, who show up simply because their parents forced them into it, who are fixated on matters of height even if it comes down to a few inches, etc.) they simply reinforced my frustrations about the deeply flawed assumptions that have crept into cultural practices surrounding marriage and courtship (or lack thereof) in the Muslim South Asian diaspora. Janmohamed does question some of these assumptions, but not at all in a way that I found satisfying or particularly illuminating.

I did like reading about how the author braved “the instruments of social compliance” designed to keep women in line by doing things like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and buying a racing car. I appreciate the idea of her wanting to be the change she wanted to see. Another really interesting point she brings up is how, in the final stages of the husband hunt, she learns to see men not just as potential suitors, but just as who they are. “Each person,” she writes, “was a delicious moment to be savoured with respect for their humanity.” This healthy attitude is a wonderful way to grow and learn through what can often be a dreary, heartbreaking process of finding a spouse.

However, for a story that is so centred on finding deep, enduring, romantic love, I feel that the book is strangely devoid of it. On the occasions the author feels a deep attraction to a prospective spouse, the rapport between them comes off as fleeting and superficial. The result being: even when she met someone who seemed promising, I couldn’t be less indifferent about what the outcome would be. There are worthy points made about “capital ‘L’ love,” and seeking to be closer to the divine. While they were important and noteworthy, they weren’t particularly memorable for me. (This Altmuslimah review, however, is more appreciative of this aspect of the book.)

I also think the book had tangents into discussions about Islam and womanhood that seemed a bit elementary and intended for non-Muslim audiences who are not familiar with Islam. I could see how it was intended to frame the author’s experience of being a British Asian Muslim woman who wears the hijab, but to me they were just wearisome distractions, parts to be skimmed through just so I could get back to her story of how she finally meets her husband.

I suppose my not wholly enjoying this book largely has to do with my questioning whether the kind of marriage process that Janmohamed went through can always be equated to finding love. As much as I want to believe that parents, imams, and a vicious team of aunties have the potential to find “the one” for you, the whole point of the “one” is that there is something that grows organically with them, a process that I can’t imagine naturally occurring under the watchful eyes of community elders and inordinate pressures to get married. That is why Muslim stories that are not as “by the book” as community leaders would like them to be–honest, conflict-ridden accounts such as those in Love, InshAllah or of Muslim men’s experiences with finding a partner–resonate so much more with me.

I have great respect for Janmohamed’s enacting of the changes that she wanted to see by challenging stereotypes about Muslim women. However, as far as the marriage process is concerned, the changes I think are needed require something much more radical, something that skirts along the edges of conventional, accepted territory. It requires more than a few raised eyebrows and ruffled feathers over what kind of a vehicle a woman drives to the mosque. The system needs more than a poke: it needs a good shake. It starts with an acceptance of the fact that love can take on an unlikely, unpredictable form that our social interactions and suitor screening processes need to make room for so that it may be easier for the single Muslim to fulfill half their deen, so to speak.

Janmohamed’s story is not every Muslim woman’s story, for she is fortunate enough to exercise her agency in a close-knit community she has known her whole life. It is up to each of us to seriously and honestly examine our needs, contexts and values and forge a path to our future partner that works within our systems or in opposition to it.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Considering I’ve delved into the topic of love plenty in this blog, I’d like commemorate this occasion and send out warmth, appreciation, and, yes, love, to all readers of this blog.

I do lean towards the sentiment that Valentine’s Day is largely a Hallmark holiday. I dislike the idea of spending money to celebrate it and prefer enjoying the day’s dredges by hitting the candy sales afterwards.

However, Valentine’s Day can serve as a reminder to rejoice in whatever form of human connectivity we have in our lives, to pray for those who are struggling in their relationships, those who are searching for a significant other, and those who are feeling alienated from humankind in general. We should also, perhaps, pray that those with successful relationships keep being granted with baraka, and that they be protected from jealousy, especially on a day like today!

Oh, and THIS!! Courtesy of Love, InshAllah:


Innit cute?

Have a wonderful and blessed day, everyone!

On Faith and Possessive Love

A beautiful piece titled “The Sunnah of Love” seems to be a fitting follow-up to my last post. It’s not about faith and love and strange times. Just faith and love, period. Maybe that’s the rock we need to lean on in times like these, when matters of love are so uncertain.

What especially struck me about the article was what the manner in which its subject is introduced. It opens with an account of Ali (RA) who arrived home to see his wife, the Prophet’s daughter Fatima (RA) brushing her teeth with a miswak. He is seized with jealousy for the miswak, for this inanimate object that is the point of such focus for this wife.

It’s the first time I came across such an example of possessive love since Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, in which there is a passage that aptly describes Dominique Francon’s fierce, proudly selfish desire to keep Howard Roark and what he represents pure, intact, and all unto herself:

She was not free any longer. Each step through the streets hurt her now. She was tied to him–and he was tied to every part of the city . . . She hated the thought of him on the sidewalks people had used. She hated the thought of a clerk handing to him a package of cigarettes across a counter. She hated the elbows touching his elbows in a subway train.

We revere a person we are in love with or idealize as people revere saints, thinking about the things they touched, thinking about the mark they leave on the world and how the world so carelessly impinges upon them. The rituals, the objects, of sainthood that seem so arbitrary are born out of this love for what is holy. We can’t all be saints. We might even be skeptical of sainthood. But it’s humbling to be in a state of that possessive love, to be yearning not just for someone rare and precious, but someone who embodies some higher ideal we are reaching towards. We do it in a way that resembles the way we reach for the divine. Or perhaps we reach the divine through these temporal yearnings.

May Allah not let us needlessly long for someone who is not there, like Dominique longs for Howard. May Allah bless us with beautiful moments like Ali and Fatima in which we fiercely, possessively love what is already ours by virtue of His bounty.

On Love Then and Now: 2 States and One Day

Note: this sinfully indulgent and long post fails every test of being spoiler-free. If you were planning on reading either or both of these books, it would probably be a good idea to hold off reading this until you’re done. 

I had the fortune of reading two highly engaging love stories in one go. And I’m going to do something different and slightly bizarre in this post: I’m going to do two reviews in one go and attempt a comparative review of these stories.

Some readers may look at me askance, thinking that one book is anything but in the league of the other, but my comparison isn’t based on literary worthiness or geographic proximity. It’s based on what makes them uniquely literary worthy to me and the way I read them and saw them as a testament to the state of love in strange times.

The premise of this comparative review is the following quote from Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him:

It used to be that lovers knew they wanted to be together but couldn’t. Now it’s that lovers can be together but aren’t sure they want to.

This line is something that needs to be unraveled, that needs to be meditated on through several more dimensions outside of this piece. But for now, I will explore it in terms of these books. Because you see, Bhagat’s story is a funny and delightful interlude into the good old times when people were actually sure they wanted to get married. Nicholl’s beautiful work, on the other hand, is a study of two friends who make the choice of getting together an exquisitely drawn-out work of art that spans a decade.

So let us begin.

2 States–apparently a a fictionalized memoir of how the author met his wife–is a throwback to the former good old times of lovers whose struggles lay in external obstacles rather than internal ones. But it’s a throwback with a clever, modern, twist, a climax that makes a literature major want to shoot herself in the head, and the eventual warm, fuzzy feeling of a happy end.

The protagonist, Krish, is a smart alecky but strangely endearing Punjabi fellow from Delhi. His girlfriend, Ananya (who, notably, I did not find as endearing) is a South Indian Brahmin Tamil girl from Chennai. They’re both in what appears to be a healthy, loving, mature relationship, but alas, come the Romeo-and-Julietesque wrist-to-forehead conflict: their families don’t want to marry outside their states and resent each each other. Through arduous struggle that included accepting a job placement in Chennai (which might as well have been China), Krish jumps hoop after hoop in a series of hilarious and heart-warming endeavours with his eye always on the prize: the hand of his beloved Ananya with their respective families’ love, support, and approval.

As the numerical use of the word “two” in the title demonstrates, this book seemed to have gone through next to no publishing process. (I wouldn’t be surprised if it went straight from Bhagat’s laptop to the press. Yeah. That bad.) There are gaping holes that put it at the very bottom rung of notable literary endeavours: the settings are poorly described, characterizations–including that of Ananya’s–play heavily on stereotypes, and the climax of the book was quintessentially Bollywoodesque: predictable, hackneyed, groan-worthy, and, well, unbelievable to the point of being laughable.

With that out of the way, I will now go on to what makes this book wonderful. 2 States isn’t just a love story. It’s an examination of how two extremely disparate cultures can exist within a single nation. It’s not just about overcoming odds to gain approval, it’s about why that validation is important and how it ties in to living in societies whose culture fabric consists of closely-knit family and community ties.

And, dear me, the book is funny. For someone getting into the flow of grad school and needing a break from mind-numbingly dry reading material, it was a relief to have this book’s company on the subway, to have bits of respite before moving on to the real world. It’s entertaining, charming, amusing, and clever, and I was sad when it ended.

That said, it’s time to turn the tables again: I wonder how relevant this story is to the condition of lovers in today’s age. It’s hard to grapple with the idea that a couple managed to live together and spent all their hours–asleep and awake–together, without apparently having any friends, and not having killed each other. And as someone of my generation it is difficult to not be cynical about this book, about the ability for people to put up with anything to be together. We’re living in a time where people look for excuses to bolt rather than fight external obstacles to say.

People like Emma and Dexter in One Day.

These two are self-absorbed and confused. They may mean well, but the luxury of choice, of being able to wait before settling, plays out in its full form in the way they fumble about in their lives.

If someone would ask me what One Day is about, I’d find myself paralyzed with emotion, yet finding that I have nothing to say. Nothing happens in this book, in the story per say. But life happens. Two lives, to be specific. Two people have a relationship that in some way or another touches upon every possible way a man and a woman can relate to one another. This happens while they grow up, while they suffer their respective crises, while they’re there or not there for each other. No longer was I in a world where there was some solid reassurance to base everything else on, which, in the case of 2 States, was the desire to get married. This is a story that pulled the ground out from under me, that had me think of what happens when there are no absolutes, when two people develop as they wish and how the process is not nearly as liberating as it might seen.

Nicholls does something cruel, terribly cruel, in his killing of Emma that took me a long time to recover from. When I finally emerged on the other end, blinking in what felt like a blindingly bright light after the darkness of the deep abyss I was thrown into, I found myself not hating Nicholls for pulling what one heartbroken reader calls a Nicholas Sparkesque stunt, but realizing this: this book is godless.

Apart from pondering over how God has created people to be so incredibly complex that they need to grow, that circumstances need to gain a fine balance in order to finally be able to execute something they have wanted all along, there is nothing in this book that made me think of divinity. There’s occasional brushes of what seem like hopeful possibilities, but for the most part, things go wrong. For the most part, it’s chaos. And the fact that Dexter and Emma finally get together for what seems like too short a while is not a cause for a celebration for how life leads us to the right things as much as a kind of grand coincidence that for a brief amount of time everything intersected to make this work.

I loved experiencing the tragedy, the vicissitudes and different shades of longing and resentment, and the complexity of the barely-platonic relationship Emma and Dexter have for most of the book. I didn’t need some grand, blissful ending like a white wedding with confetti and lace. I thought the way they finally got together—which was almost a kind of resignation—was incredibly romantic in its own way. For the realist side of my being, it was blissful to see the complexities that unfolded during the course of their relationship, to see them grow older and imperfect and irritable.

But Emma dying still makes no sense. Given where this book was coming from, I was happy to go through her pain of not having Dexter, of Dexter’s pain of losing his mother. I was happy to wait until they got together. I wouldn’t have minded so much if they broke things off at the end. What I resented, however, was going through was Dexter’s state of being on the first anniversary of Emma’s death. It has no meaning. It’s needlessly tragic. Hence: a godless book.

There’s an interesting inverse comparison that emerges between the two stories. 2 States was terribly written, but as the memory of the bad writing fades, the memory of the overall story becomes warmer. One Day was the opposite. The writing, especially in terms of dialogues, character descriptions, and settings, was blissful to read. But when I think back to the literal story in terms of plot, I find myself wondering what all the fuss is about. It’s of little surprise that–at least according to what I’ve heard–the film adaptation was so unsuccessful. The story is about the journey rather than the destination. It’s about the process of growing in love, while Bhagat’s story is about how love triumphs over everything.

What does all this mean? Does it mean that divine stories inherently lend themselves to happy endings, giving us the reassurance that all of this means something, that there is a God after all? Do bumblingly tragic stories that deliberately push all conventions of human existence have no hope of offering a faith-based reading? I can’t say. I’d be curious to see whether other stories of this nature give me the same experience that these ones did.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time talking about books I have incredibly strong feelings about, but I also have trouble fully loving or fully hating. For books that didn’t have any particular lessons to teach me that I didn’t know before, I probably devoted more space to them than they warranted.

For several Muslims, such stories cannot be related to firsthand, only lived through vicariously. And I feel that by reading these two books, that’s what I’ve done. I’m strangely grateful to have been able to be a part of these worlds, to step out of my context and laugh and cry over these lovers’ stupidities, obstacles, triumphs, and failings. Perhaps Allah, in His infinite Wisdom, has some reason in keeping me from having to go through it myself. But He is gracious enough to give me a glimpse of this dimension of existence in the form of these books.

On Friendship

A friend who can experience terrifying glimpses into your mind without blinking is a keeper.

A friend like that does anything but judge. A friend like that is also a sounding board. A way to release the pressure of thoughts that build up in one’s head. For when I talk to my best friend, I feel like a pressure valve has been released.

Part of it is how deeply she cares, and the extent to which she can put herself aside to help me. Even with a new baby who wreaks havoc on her sleep and sanity, even while undergoing the incomprehensibly overwhelming sensations and life-altering complications that come with being a wife and a mother, she asks me how my life is. How work is. How this blog is going, how my family is. And she doesn’t ask once. She asks and asks and asks continuously until some buried nugget that has been festering has finally been unearthed. She rolls up her sleeves, urges me and pleads with me to join her until I give in, and we get to work.

I sometimes think of how ironic it is that my loneliness comes from being a person of faith. When it comes to being a friend, Muslims have to, first and foremost, be generous. And selfless. We have to forgive, overlook, and lend support. We have to honour our friends as guests and pray for them in their absence. We have to give and give and give. And not expect gratitude. Not expect anything, really, in return, because we seek our return not from them, but from God.

I’ve upheld this model for many years now, and while I’m grateful for how much it simplifies things, let me tell you one thing: at times, all that giving can take a real toll on you.

My deepest friendship is the one that is not so centered on giving. Somehow, all of my generosity is returned to me by manifold by this one woman. The giving and taking are divinely proportioned, reminding me of how Allah draws much closer to us as we try and get closer to Him.

I cannot define what it is that makes her so, and the inability to define her is part of why I love her so much. But I do know that she is a divinely bestowed gift. She’s a mechanism Allah built into my life so that I can come close to understanding what it is that goes on inside my head, so that I can understand what divine love is. She is there so that I can keep being me.