I have been writing for as long as I remember. I wrote my first story when I was around 5, about a fish and a turtle that were friends. This was followed by a comic-book series drawn in pencil over school summer holidays, about a pair of naughty twin boys called Tissy and Tassy. Then came the Enid Blyton-inspired stories about sassy kids who went on picnics and solved mysteries in their holidays, followed by never-completed novels of teenage angst and romance, and even a reincarnation-based story in college that I lost along with all other data when my crappy Windows 95 system crashed.
But in my 20s, following my journalism degree and my grad school years, while working in my first real job as a features reporter at The Hindu, I found myself, for lack of a better word, stuck. I ought to have been the most inspired I’d ever been. I ought to have been churning out stories. Here I was, being exposed to interesting people and stories, every single day, on the job. Here I was, attending book launches, speed reading new novels by Indian authors, and getting to interview them about the process of writing. It was a dream come true for a young wannabe novelist. And yet, I found myself paralysed. When it came time to try and work on my own writing, I couldn’t seem to make progress. I had ideas, sure; I’d sit and try working on some of them, but it would come out sounding stilted. And worse, I wasn’t inspired to keep going.
I talked about it all the time though, so much so that it came to be known as ‘The Book’ in my family, the one I would someday write. The Great Indian Novel, or something like that. Then marriage happened, then the birth of my daughter in my early 30s. I was intense about motherhood, from the start. I wanted to be hands-on, so I quit my full-time job. I was the archetypal over-involved first-time mom. I Googled everything. I worried about everything. I overthought everything. But I also thoroughly enjoyed all those firsts, all those incredible moments of babyhood and toddlerhood, the ones that become picture postcards in your mind, and then get passed on as stories to your kid as she gets older and wants to hear about “when she was a baby”. And of course, I wrote about them too, in blogs and a column.
But something else was happening at the same time, almost silently. I was working on a book, in stolen moments at night, while my baby slept, or on weekends when my husband shooed me out of the house to go take a break. Not ‘The Book’, but just a book. Not some hopelessly elevated ideal, but just a story I wanted to tell, like the ones I wrote in my childhood. Just for myself, what I’d myself want to read. This time, I didn’t talk about it much. It was like a little secret I hugged to my chest. I wasn’t even ever sure I wanted to publish it. I just wanted to write it. It wasn’t until it was complete, some three and a half years later, that I knew I wanted to try and put it out there. That story, of course, became ‘The Shrine of Death’.
I often wonder what made the difference. What broke the paralysis. And I believe it was motherhood. I believe that motherhood liberated me. I know that seems contradictory. After all, motherhood, in a lot of ways, shackles you. Your time isn’t your own, your energy isn’t your own, your mind even isn’t your own, filled as it is with thoughts and worries and fears about the little person who’s wholly dependent on you. But motherhood also gives you a brand of confidence, a belief in your ability to tough it out in the trenches. “If I’ve managed to care for this little life, then what is a mere story?” It puts everything in perspective, and it frees you from any delusions of grandeur you might possess. Suddenly, the story I’d been obsessing about and building up in my head for years was just that – a story. It didn’t have to arrive perfectly formed in my head or become The Great Indian Novel. If there’s one thing motherhood teaches you, it’s that everything in this life, including yourself and your efforts, is less than perfect, but no less meaningful for it. That the most important things in life are messy and hard, and that the only thing to do is just keep going.
I’ve always been terrified of screwing up, of being less than perfect. Hence, you can probably guess, the paralysis when it came to doing anything that was really important to me. But with motherhood, not doing was not an option. I was responsible for this tiny human being, and so I had to do, terrified or not, and – amazingly! – we both survived. I made mistakes, and beat myself up about it, yes, but then I got up, dusted myself off, and moved on, because, again, there was no other option. It just had to be done, and you know what, I did okay.
Every single day as a mother, especially in the early months, holds innumerable moments of failure and triumph. It’s exhausting, but it’s also the biggest life lesson there is.
Now, I like to say I’m the mom of two – of my firstborn child, and of my firstborn book. Neither journey was easy, but I know in my heart that if it hadn’t been for the first, I may have never completed the second.
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