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July 17, 2018

Sheetal And Kabir: Sakshi Parikh Shares An Exclusive Excerpt From Her Book

Text by Huzan Tata

In her upcoming work tentatively titled Not Without My Mother feminist and photo-artist Sakshi Parikh presents real-life tales about the untold struggles of motherhood. We preview an excerpt from the book below

As a child it is your responsibility to educate your parents. I think one of the greatest faults with our method of parenting is that there is a lack of respect for our children. It is really funny, because if you pick up any of these ideologies, by say Maria Montessori or Rudolf Steiner, they talk about the child being born as a genius. All you have to do is keep your mistakes away from the child. You need to create an environment where the child can evolve to the best of his or her capabilities, not to your understanding of how he or she is.

But unfortunately, our culture does not allow that. As parents, we must let go of our egos. Over generations, our seniors have not only damaged themselves, they have given us bouts of insecurities and a need for reassurance, which come from a very abstract talk.

Tell me about your childhood and how has it affected your present.

As a mother, I have gone through a circle of this in the form of unable to breastfeed, seeking approval from my in-laws, my friends and even my kid. I have come to a realisation that if you are raising kids merely to seek approval, then please don’t do so. Renowned former journalist, Aparna Pallavi says, “A mother’s greatest responsibility is to feel everything she is feeling in its entirety. If she doesn’t, then she will give all the unresolved frustration and suppressed feelings to her child. It’s a trickle down method.” My father was a spectacular man and a great father, but not a good husband. He came from a generation where you were looked down upon if you were too nice to your wife. It was the same patriarchal society where having a son was your certificate of approval and making him self-reliant wasn’t focused upon. It was a mother’s job then to feed a child way into his older years to prove her love in front of the family. They failed to understand that if a mother is trying to make you independent, it is also out of love, maybe even greater love. My parents have been a part of a gender-stereotyping society and that did reflect in our upbringing. For instance, my father relished listening to ghazals and love couplets by Mehdi Hassan, something that has become a part of me also. But the same man would physically abuse his wife, if his mother called and complained.  My mother, in order to get over this frustration, targeted us and abused us. In the current scenario, when my ex-husband and I argue, we never do it in front of Kabir. And even if we accidentally do, we make sure that we talk to him and help him cope with it.

What was your birthing experience like?

Being a mother is the greatest and the purest form of love. For me that is equivalent to God. Bewajah hai tabhi toh ishq hai.I remember when Kabir was finally born. I was in the OT, and the minute I heard him cry, I broke down and said, “You are finally here”. It was almost as if I saw Lord Krishna. Giving birth to Kabir has been an extremely spiritual process.

As a survivor of child sexual abuse, does that impact the way you are raising Kabir?

I realised that I had been abused as a child only when I attended one of those sex-ed classes as a teenager. I had forgotten about it till then, but I do remember shedding all my innocence as a nine-year-old girl. That day, something changed and I was enveloped with a sense of discomfort that one gets from hiding something. When I realised that this had happened, someone else was already abusing me every night.It makes me very angry. I do blame my parents for not being able to open up.As a child, I have always been told to be indebted to my parents for whatever they have done for me. But if it was supposed to be a business deal from early on, one should make it clear, right?Even the reason of my separation, is Kabir. Because if my child is growing up in an environment where his parents are living as strangers with no point of reference for any kind of love, then what is the point?

How has the separation impacted Kabir?

Kabir has witnessed a certain lack of love from our end. Not love for him, but love for us. I have been an extremely unhappy person, and he did not understand what is going on with me. Kids are extremely intuitive.He knows what I am going through, but I, unlike my mom, do not want Kabir to carry the burden of my situation. It is just not right. I grew up watching my mom seek approval from my father all her life. But I chose not to do this for Kabir.

How is your relationship with your mom now?

I feel like her mom, especially since the time my dad passed away. We have never shared a close bond as friends and honestly, there is nothing good going to come out of discussing my personal life with her. I do need her, but it has been a futile journey.I do see my mom in me when I am having a breakdown. And I don’t want this to trickle down to Kabir, because then the vicious cycle would continue. Evolutionis painful, yet cathartic. It is so easy to sit down and just mope about how shitty you are feeling. But I am trying to seek the truth and abandon the false life. I have had a very convenient life, trying to dumb it down for my son and I, but that is not the world I want to raise him in.

What is your message to the women of our age and even teenagers?

Make something of yourself. As a feminist who has been working in the field of sexual emancipation, sex workers, child abuse, I get to meet amazing survivors and like-minded people everyday. And that has made me realise that there is so much to offer in the world. Put your energies in a good cause.Please get married when you have truly figured yourselves out. Don’t rush into it just because you are turning “old”. And I am not saying this because I am getting separated. Marriages, weddings, bearing a child are not accomplishments. Learn how to meditate, as that will help you shed the unnecessary burdens and teach you how to acknowledge the damage. Being alive is not living. Once you face yourself in the purest form, that is going to make you stronger. I mean, what is the point of being dishonest with oneself?

What has been that one memorable, happiest moment of raising Kabir?

This one time during his play date, he actually stopped his friend from jumping and tickling another female classmate. He asked him, “Did you ask for her consent?” Puzzled, the friend said, “But even she does the same to me”. Then he turned to the girl and said, “Even you should be asking for his consent.” And then he went back to his colouring book.Teaching my kid the understanding of consent is by far the biggest parental achievement for me.

Q&A with Sakshi Parikh

What inspired the making of this book and how did you zero in on the subject?

I have been professionally photographing kids and their parents for quite some time. Over the years, there has been a significant shift in my visual voice and that has resulted in a more documentary form of imagery. Last year, my mother went through an elaborate hysterectomy, which I documented on my phone camera. The images, mostly black and white, had this powerful impact on me and I began recording conversations with my mom during her recovery, asking her questions about her past, her decisions, her take on having kids, and on motherhood in general. My uncle and my father encouraged me to take this series forward and interview other moms, while documenting them. As a woman, feminist and a photo-artist, I have been always inclined towards photographing women whenever I get an opportunity. So choosing the subject came naturally to me.

What was the hardest part of working on the book?

It was the fear of making a tactile project, and that resulted in constant procrastination and self-doubt. I wouldn’t call them roadblocks, but when I am interviewing and photographing a subject, I really have to work hard and make her feel comfortable enough to be honest and talk freely about motherhood. How else will your subjects develop trust in you? The constant fear has always lingered, but the timeline and the images have kept me going forward.

Getting people to talk about their personal experiences and having them get comfortable in front of the camera couldn’t have been without its challenges. Whose story particularly touched your heart?

I honestly feel that you need an insurmountable amount of empathy and compassion to be able to take up a project like this. When I started this book, I was only looking at young and new mothers, but I soon realised that even mothers who are older have seen their fair share of struggles that we need to talk about. So last December, I chose to make it an age-no-bar kind of thing. The oldest person I interviewed is my Nani. And her interview blew my mind! It was also the hardest to translate. She got married at 14 and had four kids by the time she was 24. Coming from an extremely patriarchal family, she had seen her fair share of problems while raising her kids. Though she laughs about it now, you can clearly see the innocence and the pain in her eyes. The list of anecdotes is never ending. Johanna has a beautiful family and two gorgeous daughters, but she struggles at making her kids feel culturally accepted because they are of a French-Vietnamese lineage. Her constant fear is that people here keep staring at her “different looking” kids. Bharati Divgikar and her son Sushant are setting a beautiful example for people who still fear that the society won’t accept them or their homosexual kids. Bharati has been proudly celebrating her son’s sexual orientation and spreading awareness about it. She said this in the interview: “The fact that my son is a great man matters the most to me. What he does in the bedroom is his personal life.”

A survivor of child sex abuse and rape, Sheetal is now a writer and an artist who is raising a feminist son, Kabir. “My son learning the art of consent and saying no is by far the proudest moment,” she happily exclaims. Photographing all these wonderful women has been easy because they have been quite welcoming. I shoot with a small Fujifilm x100F, and hence the distance between the subject and me is reduced quite a bit. There is a sense of comfort in that. I have realised that if you are honest and vulnerable in front of your subjects, that helps a great deal.

What is it that you want readers to take away from the book?

I want readers to empathise with mothers. While making this book, I walked down memory lane and realised how many times I have been a difficult cookie for my mom. Being a mom is big thing, and the book shows that. Further, it also shows that how you raise your child is totally up to you and there shouldn’t be a set benchmark. You cannot measure this love and upbringing. When I interact with younger moms, they talk about how even breastfeeding is a competition and a way to prove that they are better mothers if they are able to do it well or at all. My mom always worries that how I present myself to the world will reflect on how she raised me and I feel that is a lot of pressure on a woman who is 50. And we always debate on this. Dialogues like “Is this how your mom taught you how to behave?” or “Your mom didn’t raise you well” are absolutely wrong.

What was the one discovery during the making of the book that really fascinated you?

The greatest discovery was how many women volunteered to be a part of this book. So many of them have so much to say and this served as an outlet. It’s amazing how open and candid they have gotten in their interviews. One of them told me at the end of her interview, “It’s funny how we buried these thoughts as no one asked us about it. It’s great how you’re making us talk about it. It’s good to be heard once in a while.”

What makes you feel most empowered?

I felt empowered when my mother spoke about my book at a family gathering and explained to them the idea and thought behind this project. I feel empowered when I see her slowly accepting herself as a feminist living in a patriarchal family. It is always these little things, you know!

Any other works in the pipeline?

Once the book is released, I would like to continue this project on a blog. As of now, I haven’t thought much about other projects but I might do something on similar lines for a social cause.

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