Ria Sharma, who takes a traumatic plunge into the world of acid attacks in her new book, reveals how she first learnt courage from her single mother. An edited excerpt:
no two people respond to the same thing the same way. But the one thing I did share with everyone else was the five-minute obligation. I was born in 1992, at a time when the Hindu-Muslim riots were at their peak. Two thousand people lost their lives in the name of religion that year. I was born to a Brahmin Hindu father and an Iranian Parsi mother. When my mother was 14 years old, her parents had moved to a little fishing town on the outskirts of Maharashtra called Dhanu.
That is how I landed in Dhanu. At that time, it was a sleepy town that made most of its income from fishing and chikoo farming, while a balloon factory nearby provided employment to a majority of the locals. My mother describes my birth as a nightmare. She says that I couldn’t help but make trouble from the word go; she called me ‘trouble’ before I even drew my first breath. At about noon on October 13, two weeks before I was actually due, my mother declared national emergency because she couldn’t feel me kicking. People told her to enjoy the peace and quiet because I was quite the hyperactive foetus and had caused her many a sleepless night.
She nevertheless insisted that she be taken to the hospital. The hospital, a tiny run-down building, performed their tests with their meagre medical equipment and revealed that my heart beat was slowing down. My mother panicked. The doctors decided to perform an emergency C-section because the umbilical cord, which had wound itself around my neck, had decreased the circulation to my brain, and I was in imminent danger of accidental strangulation. My mom honestly believes that those few moments of oxygen deprivation is to be blamed for the way I eventually turned out. Slightly off-kilter. Eccentric.
This is not a proven theory however. Besides, I don’t think I’m all that eccentric. When my mother wouldn’t stop hyperventilating, she received a resounding slap from her masi. That instantly restored normalcy to her readings and the doctors could safely and quickly perform the procedure. I was born at 2 pm. My father, grandparents and aunt were informed of my premature arrival and they jumped onto the next flight to see how I had turned out.
My father walked into the room and said I looked like a rat. It was certainly not a love-at-first-sight moment for him. I don’t blame him. I did look pretty gruesome for the first couple of weeks. My parents had met at a rock concert in Delhi and had instantly fallen in love. Amnesty International was hosting a charity concert that brought together some amazing international talent. He was my mother’s first boyfriend and within the next fortnight or so, they were betrothed. ‘Now that I think back on it, the fact that they met at a “charity” concert may be the only tie that linked me to my future career.
The arrangement did come with its fair share of drama. She was a Parsi and a woman to boot. Although Parsi men are allowed to marry outside the community, Parsi women have to toe the line and marry within the community. If not, they are ostracised from their communities and never allowed into the fire temple ever again (wow, what a punishment!). The speed with which my parents were married is the same speed with which their marriage deteriorated. My mother had to move to Delhi and adjust into a very orthodox Brahmin joint family. My extremely religious grandparents hold the concept of God very close to their hearts.
I was the apple of everyone’s eyes, although they (ie my paternal and maternal relatives) never quite saw eye to eye in all other matters. I was their first grandchild. I was raised and schooled in Delhi and had a relatively normal childhood. I spent my summers in Dhanu swinging from chikoo trees, eating bhel puri by the beach, and torturing hapless mud crabs because they fascinated me.
I was extremely pampered by my family and got almost everything I had my heart set on. My father was a young pilot at the time. He had skipped college and gone straight to flying school to become a pilot. He aspired to follow in the footsteps of my grandfather, who in his time had been the director of operations for Air India as well as a highly-respected senior pilot. My parents were brave enough to get divorced when I was seven years old. At the time, divorces were unheard of and frowned upon.
Whenever I told someone my parents were divorced, they would apologise like someone had died and I never quite understood it. I looked up to my parents because they chose happiness above everything else. The divorce didn’t go down very well with my grandparents who already thought the concept of a love marriage was insane. They were heartbroken and concerned about the repercussions from society upon the family. They had every reason to think this way though—divorces at the time weren’t the norm but an exception in India. After the divorce, everything changed. My mother moved out and was doing her best to find employment and my father was always flying. For a woman who had never held a job in her life, was married straight out of college and now had to suddenly fend for herself in a city where she had no family, my mother was making it all look far too easy. Watching her conquer her struggles as a single mother is where my initial fascination with the strength of a woman began.
Excerpted with permission from Ria Sharma’s Make Love Not Scars; Westland; Rs 499