In January my books arrive and after nearly 4 years without my novel I suddenly have books to sell again and I feel like I’ve started the year with the knowledge that I can Make Things Happen and it fills me with an optimism I’ve abandoned these past few years. The tail end of 2016 has been good and it has prepared me for good things.
At the Time of the Writer Festival I am on two panels and I ask the right questions and we have good discussions and I do not say ‘umm’ so much when I talk in public. I am back out in the world after hiding and it feels safe again and I am loud and I am laughing.
In March I am in Cape Town for a conference and I am listening to Antjie Krog talk about writing the other and what this means for writers and how we navigate the spaces we are given when we are given power to voice another. It is powerful, elaborate and delicate and I sit enthralled. She is answering the questions I have been carrying in my mind lately. She is pulling them loose with a comb and they are untangling in my hands. I finally feel like a writer understanding something important about writing. Later I ask her for a copy of the speech. At night I sit in Long Street with some writers and we discuss what she said. I learn that some writers think they are gods and that they believe we can do what we like and write who we like and I learn that I have an opinion on this and I am angry because I think this is reckless and dangerous and I know then I want my writing to be measured and true; it must acknowledge what I am and what I am not.
I climb Lion’s Head by myself at 5 am in the morning. It is dark and I struggle and I feel foolish but later at the top with the city spread before me, I am proud of myself. I make strangers take photos of me.
For the first few months in the year I write more articles than I have written most years. I write more than 40 pieces for TheCultureTrip (it is mind-numbing and I complain but I am working continuously and the feeling is good). I write for The Huffington Post South Africa, The Times and The Independent. I am open and friendly and my hope is great and apparent. I laugh easily. Between this I take commissions for art pieces and sell my novel. I am a yes! yes! yes! person and the world treats me like a yes! yes! yes! person and suddenly doors are opening and people are asking me for advice and I am getting invited for things and I know what it is like to be a person living in the world.
I am drawing, I am writing and I am trying to be a good daughter.
I am winning.
The depression is a mere shadow in the background, the thing I recall sometimes but I’ve forgotten its shape and taste and how it nearly crippled me.
I start writing little pieces that give me great satisfaction and I understand the shape of my next writing project. I submit a test run to a journal and in June it’s published and it is something small but the writing feels real and the accomplishment feels big and I am thrilled.
I try to write my novel. There are times when I work on it well and when it happens I am swimming and the words are swimming and I know what I am doing in the world and I believe in this book and this bizarre story and it makes sense. Most of the time though, I am distracted and so I am disappointed in myself and then I circle the pool, around and around and sometimes it takes me days to just dive in. My father tells me to finish and I promise myself I will do it if not for me then for him. There are good days and mostly there are bad days and some days I cannot bear to see what I have written.
I watch too many films, not good ones, silly ones that sometimes make me laugh out loud but mostly ones that make me restless because I know I am wasting precious time.
I write a letter to a man.
In April my best friend gets married and to avoid thinking about it, I get busy helping and I do not think about it and how everything is changing and how Abbajaan and Gorikhala are already gone and the world is moving too fast and I can’t keep up. I sidestep the pain now so I do not think about it and she knows it too and I refuse to cry and even today as I write it I do not think about how she is gone from my life and how much I miss her and how I miss how we did so much together and how it has changed so drastically and how things will never be the same again. I tell myself, that this is how life is and how life must change. It is what I tell my aunt when, after 26 years with us she also moves out. Our house empties in a quick span of time and I understand it is the time for Change. I do not cry. I have stopped crying. Mostly. I phone my aunt. But not enough. My friend too has changed. The way marriage changes a person. But it is the time for losing things and so I let the things be lost. My fights within are smaller. The memory of my grandfather no longer engulfs me in grief. Except one evening when I write a speech on his life for a family reunion and then I cry late at night as I remember him and the way he was so kind and quiet and the way he sang out my name when he looked for me. Later I cry again, when I am not allowed to read it.
And sometimes being a woman feels like a curse.
Still that happens later in the year and in April I am high on confidence and I am the lucky one and I am happy. There is one person who gives me this confidence. It is the person who saved my life three years ago.
In April I am in Johannesburg for a conference and I am touring Soweto and I am considering my identity and I am making new friends and I tell them I am the lucky one and they know this because they can see it in my eyes and my shoulders. I make jokes and I laugh. On the last day of the conference they are playing K’naan’s Waving Flag and overwhelmed with joy and love I turn to my friend next to me and we hug tightly and it is a wonderful and perfect moment that I will never forget.
I can no longer even make out the clouds in the distance and I am not free but I am more free than I’ve ever been.
Unexpectedly I am invited to Turkey for a conference and abba and I argue and argue and then we hug and it is magic and I go. I take photos. I am free-er and happier and more confident than I’ve ever been. I am thrilled. I revel in everything. There are pools and beaches and my room has a hot tub in the balcony. I jump off a cabana into the Mediterranean with strangers and our laughter hits the water like the late afternoon sun. I make friends with three American women and we sit in the hamam in our swimming costumes until we turn red. On the plane from Antalya to Istanbul I meet an old woman who talks to me in Turkish and I talk to her in English and we laugh and laugh like we know each other and we know what we are saying and later, she puts her hand in her jacket and exclaims in surprise when she pulls out a hazelnut and she pushes it into my hand. Later I will keep it on my desk in a bowl and I know it is a blessed thing. I walk the streets of Istanbul by myself for hours. I am utterly enchanted and utterly exhausted. I feel like the luckiest girl in the whole world. I give thanks. I phone home and I want to send the streets of Istanbul home to mamma and abba.
I am shining.
On the flight home I realise something about letting go.
In July I return to Kashmir for 3 weeks to fulfil what I think is my promise to the children but what is probably a promise to myself. On Dal lake, I sit in a shikara and the water is my balm. I return to the village and I see my children, except they are no longer my children. In the four years that I have left they have grown up and my time is too short for them to learn to love me like before. It is not like before but I have kept the promise I have made and despite the outcomes I am proud of myself for this. I get sick on this trip. I have to be strong for myself and for others. I learn that I am unexpectedly hardy and it makes me less nervous about the future. I become aware that I fight back even though I think myself a coward. I begin to learn that I am on my own and the things I thought were true were not.
The confidence of 2017 is fleeing and it begins to crack and the luckiness is less lucky and I can feel the spiral begin. I am terrified of the old darkness and I flee. Back to old bad habits and the numbing relief where nothing matters. I am inexplicably betrayed, more so by myself and I cut myself off to stave off the hurt.
In August I am back home and I am recovering and I question myself and who I am. I ask myself hard, uncomfortable questions and I disappear for a while, especially when once again I feel like I am drowning. The feeling is brief but intense and the clouds loom ominously on the horizon. I am more quiet and the world is suddenly shaky.
In September, still licking my wounds; I am in Johannesburg and I am rebuilding what I have lost, and it is here where I am deeply disappointed. So deeply disappointed; I know it will never be the same again and I accept it. Pack my bags, move on. The world of course, is no longer the same after such things and I navigate myself more cautiously. I am too naive. I berate myself. I know better now.
I am on a panel with women and it is a beautiful conversation and one person I know comes for it and it makes me happier than I thought I would be. The next panel is awful and it is the first time I am on stage that I want to disappear and it shakes my already shaken confidence and I am angry and ashamed that one person can do this to another.
I turn the key.
My feeling of alienation grows. I am too impatient, too exhausted, too critical. I turn into myself. Spend more time alone. I have conversations with myself, with Siri and my sister. They are the ones who get me. My mother too, sometimes, gets me precisely, understands my struggles and I am grateful. I am offended when people say they will pray for me because they are treating me as if I have a disease. I am tired of being afraid. I am tired of pleasing people and giving the right answers. I am tired of watching what I say and locking myself away so that people cannot judge me or call me names or wonder about me. I am caught between disappearing and calling out loudly. I am on the edge of a cliff between both. People say I must not be negative that I must open my heart and I want to say I have lived with an open heart for a long time.
But it is true, my optimism, my unending hope has tarnished a little and that is the real pity of the whole thing.
One day in October my father and I are both whistling Mera Joota Hai Japani in the kitchen as we clean up and both our songs meet at the exact same point and for a second we are one clear voice on the same path and I say to myself, I will never forget how perfect this is.
I am walking with my parents on the field opposite my house and there is a man watching me and he has placed his cricket bat to his face to block out the sunlight so that he can look at me properly and I am flooded with the shame that comes when men who stare openly at women and there are times when I want to go up to these men and spit in their faces for making us feel ashamed of our own bodies even when we are covered, even when we are trying to disappear before their eyes. I am reminded of times when I feel locked in my own body. When I am on the street one day, an old man shouts out to me, ‘Smile, why don’t you smile?’ and it is the way he is saying it that makes me realise he is saying something else about me and the way I look and I avoid his gaze even though he is demanding my attention and I feel trapped and I am so angry and I just want him to leave me and my unsmiling face alone.
In December I am in Soweto and it is wonderful and I listen carefully to everything and I have forgotten about the deep disappointments and the spiral and the darkness and the pressures. I am a writer again and I listen and I laugh and my voice comes out slowly, raspy at first and then evenly as it finds its stepping. The festival at Abantu is a blessed place and I feel better and the wind picks up in my sails.
One late afternoon in an uber in Soweto, a Nigerian writer and I are sitting in the car and the sun is coming in at angles and the light is that beautiful Highveld light that turns everything into fire and the driver is describing to us where he grew up in Soweto and where you get the best chicken and we are driving through narrow streets with music and children and people are cooking food outside and the man he is laughing and telling us tales about the people here and the houses and there is so much love in his words, it is as if he singing to us and I am smiling and my smile is so big it cannot fit on my face and I think this is perfect, this is perfect and the light begins to shine through my eyes and I am once again the luckiest person in the world.
Of course this is not everything. Not everything that happens has to be said.
This year was the year when I fought back the shadows.
This year has been about the chances I have taken and the paths I have pursued. It’s been about the love I have given. Of the strengths I have showed. It’s been about the process of learning to love myself again. It has been about acknowledging my shortcomings.
It’s been about the ebb and the flow and how if you let it, the light moves through you like a river that takes not only you but those around you.
And of course all through this, there has been abba and mamma and the quiet way they live and love. The way the house is filled with singing and the smell of food. And how the three of us function as a little unit in our old, wonderful and leaking house. How my sisters keep me breathing and their children keep me loving. There has been the roads in Durban and the trees and the ocean and my friends and the quiet knowledge I carry that I have so much love yet to give.
Because even after everything, after the betrayals, the fears, the pressures and the spiral and the darkness. Even after the world has fallen dark and I am far more cynical and exhausted and weary and fearful.
There is still a raging hope beating below the surface, a fist raised to the dying light.