When Mama and I sometimes talk about what I was like as a child, I am often surprised that she didn’t notice the same things that I did.
For example, it was very important to me that people followed rules and customs. For some reason, when I’m now trying to think about what that included, I can see myself in my grandparents’ house, tall enough that my entire head is above the dining table when I sit down to lunch; and for some reason, some ridiculous reason, very resolute about not letting my elbows ever rest on the table.
I’m also reminded of my seventh birthday party, and how I was so upset when I asked my then best friend, Nishaat, to tell me what she had gotten me, and she did; it was widely known and accepted that you never tell someone what their birthday present is, because it ruins the surprise. And now I had gone and asked her (a few times), and she had finally said, “Okay, but don’t tell anyone I told you – it’s a jewellery-making kit, like the one I have”.
I was horrified that she actually told me. I ran up to Mama and said, “Mama, she told me! But you’re not supposed to tell, so why did she?”
The first dream I remember having, was around the same time, when I was six or seven years old. I am standing in the middle of all the first standard classrooms, and nearby, there is a pit in the floor. People are dragging me by my arms towards it, and as I get closer, the pair of pants and the shirt I am wearing turn into a salwar kameez. In the dream, I am terrified of being converted. I used to think that this was strange, because I wasn’t brought up to be religious. When I was really young, I would sometimes go to church with my grandfather, but neither of my parents ever did, and I wasn’t expected to.
And now I’m wondering why I’m writing about customs, and perceiving a sense of a religious identity, together, but at the same time it is not surprising to me. Cause and effect, action and consequence, right and wrong, always having a clear conscience – it was all so intricately woven into my childhood. It’s only now that I’m beginning to see that it was an isolated experience that wasn’t externally encouraged more than any adult wants their child or grandchild or niece to grow up to be a decent human being.
I used to pray a lot. Every night before going to sleep, I prayed fiercely for everyone I loved. A prayer to keep someone safe was the feeling that is made when you extend your arms and touch the tip of each finger of one hand, to the corresponding finger of the other hand. I also prayed that bad things would happen to the people I didn’t like, and then I would feel uneasy. But good people were good, and bad people were bad, and I don’t think I ever prayed that bad people would turn good, because I was quite sure that that wasn’t possible, and looking back, I was also completely unapologetic about it.
God was wise. He was a he, and he was a friend, and he understood me completely, but he also knew when I had done something that wasn’t right, and made me see it in our conversations. I identified as Christian, without feeling like I was like any Christian I knew, and God definitely was like God the Father, but the few times I tried calling him “Jesus”, it would feel so wrong, and fake. Even writing that now feels wrong.
I also prayed during the day. My brother and I would usually play together when we got back from school, but I remember some afternoons, sitting on the window ledge, looking out at the corner of the next building, and just talking to God.
One day, I promised God that I would stop biting my fingernails. Like most bad habits I’ve had, this one was also purposely acquired when I saw someone do it, who would change what I had always regarded as something disgusting, into something cool. So when a few friends in school started biting their nails, I decided that I wanted to as well.
And for a while I couldn’t stop biting my nails, because, you know, a habit becomes a habit, and I would tell myself, “This is the last time, so it’s okay”. But then one day our pet squirrel died, and that day when I prayed to God, I said to him, “You didn’t have to kill our squirrel because I broke my promise”. I was heartbroken, and angry, and although I blamed myself for what had happened, I didn’t let him know that I did. This one was on him, and I wanted him to feel bad about it.
I still pray, but I pray for the people I have always prayed for. It is rare that I remember that I’ve grown up, and have new people to pray for. There are still those I’m reluctant to pray for, and those who I pray for out of convention; but a prayer for safety will always feel like the touching of the tip of each of the fingers of one hand to the corresponding fingers of the other, when I extend my arms. This is why I pray when it’s dark.