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The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Long before she was conceived, and confident that my firstborn would be a girl, I had a middle name – Saoirse – for her. We lived in Asia, and felt that an Irish first name, especially one that did not conform to English phonetic rules, would be impractical. Her first name, we agreed, would be Sanskrit and, by virtue of its transliteration, easy to pronounce. In his hometown of Chennai, my husband bought a copy of the ‘Book of Hindu Names’.

‘Ishthar,’ he pronounced after flicking through it.

‘Ishthar,’ I rolled the name around my mouth. It sounded too harsh, too masculine, it stopped too abruptly.

My eye was drawn to another name further down the page.

‘I could live with “Ishthara” I told him.

So it was decided; my daughter would be called Ishthara – which, in Sanskrit, means ‘that which is desired most’.

It was the perfect name for the perfect child that it took me nearly ten years to have. When I held her in my arms for the first time, I knew that she was all I desired. She was every dream I’d ever had come true. She was a part of me that had come back to me. She was the song of my soul. She was, truly, Most Desired. In Hindi ‘Ishthara’ means ‘Falling Star. In either language, it’s a beautiful name. For short, I call her ‘Isha’ – which means ‘Goddess’ – and that, too, is appropriate.

Not long after Ishthara’s first birthday, I left my husband; and the nature of my work meant that I found myself in occasional need of a babysitter.

I was fortunate enough to find a wonderful Bangladeshi woman – Neelu – who was kind, sweet, motherly, and who adored Ishthara.

During that summer, Neelu’s daughter visited Singapore. Tahira was pregnant with her first child and sometimes accompanied her mother when Neelu babysat. Both women shared their hope with me that Neelu’s grandchild would be a girl. Further, Tahira told me that she really wanted a little girl like my little girl; sweet, affectionate, sunny, good-natured, and beautiful.

In the middle of October, I hired a full-time, live-in nanny, and Neelu went back to Bangladesh to be with Tahira in her final trimester.

On January 25th, 2004, my phone rang. The line was very crackly and there was a slight time-delay. It was Neelu, calling to tell me that her granddaughter had been born a month earlier.

‘What’s her name?’ I asked.

Neelu hesitated. The child had not yet been named, she told me.

‘That’s why I’m ringing you. We – my daughter and I – want to call the baby Ishthara, after your daughter. But my son-in-law will not agree. For one month, we have been asking him. We told him how wonderful your Ishthara is, how much we love her, and that we really want to call the new baby by her name. Finally, today, he said that if we can find out what the name means, and he likes the meaning, the baby can be called “Ishthara”. Please, can you tell me what means the name?’

I felt a rush of mixed emotions. I realised that it is quite an honour when someone wants to call their baby after yours.

But at the same time, I couldn’t help feeling that ‘Ishthara’ was my daughter’s name. I chose it especially for her. It’s hers! I felt as protective of the name as I am of the child. I didn’t want anyone else to call their child ‘Ishthara’. I wanted this woman to go and find her own name – to put as much effort into finding a name for her child as I had put into finding a name for mine. A very unkind part of me was tempted to tell Neelu that the name means ‘Pig Goddess’. There was no way a Muslim would consent to his daughter being named that! I couldn’t though. I couldn’t lie about the meaning of my daughter’s name.

‘It’s a Hindu name,’ I cautioned her.

‘A Hindu name? Okay….but what does it mean?’

‘Most Desired’, I told her.

‘Most Desired?’ she repeated, to ensure that she heard correctly over the bad line.

‘Yes.’

Later, I learnt from Neelu that her son-in-law had been satisfied with that meaning, and her granddaughter had been named ‘Ishthara’.

Naming a child is a very serious matter, and should be taken very seriously. I put a lot of thought and effort into naming my children; and, somewhere in Dhaka, someone else put an equal amount of thought and effort into the task when she named her eldest daughter after mine.

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Poetry!

So there I was, looking for a photo of the girls and myself on the back of a camel in the Punjab and I came across some of my poetry. There is no connection between camels and my poetry (except that when I wrote poetry, I usually had the hump), but when you’re looking for things in this house, you’re never sure what you’ll actually find.

You didn’t know I wrote poetry, did you? Well, that’s because I don’t any more. I’m not sure why. I used to write several pieces a day when I was in my mid to late teens. Then I got married and stopped doing a lot of things I enjoyed! Anyway, seeing as I’m being all brave this week, I thought I’d share some of those scribblings with you.

This first one was written a few days after I left my first husband, in 1998.

The Portrait

It is you who are my Dorian Gray

My face on which your lines appear

My heart that holds your worries

Your disappointments and your fear

My countenance is etched

With the marks of all your woes

While your visage, obviously,

Ne’er a day older grows

My heart is growing heavy

With the tears you do not weep

And with all your little secrets

Ones that I’m supposed to keep

Looking, you can see the furrows

That have crept around mine eyes

I wear all the markings

Of your betrayal and your lies

You have coated your soul in debauchery

Quaffed at the fountain of youth

Bathed in the waters of villainy

And I, I wear your truth

’Twas mine own hand that held the tools

As this portrait was being sketched

Though as I daubed, I did not know

That it would e’er look so wretched

For simple fool that toiled that day

Was unaware her picture would

Be soon replaced by her master’s

And he’d painted his with blood

And now the oil begins to flake

And now the rose is wan

And now the lustre leaves the lips

And now the joy is gone

So good you look, dear Peter Pan

While I shall soon expire

Sinking deeper, deeper still

Into your dank quagmire

Daily hurtling on towards

Destruction and decay

I fight to leave your attic

My Master, Dorian Grey

This one was written when I’d been trying for about 8 years to have a baby. Finally, I realised that it had nothing to do with me. That no matter how much I wanted it, to whom I was married, what doctors I saw and what procedures I underwent, it wasn’t really up to me.

A Welcome Song

Reaching for you through the mists of time,

Holding my arms out wide

Waiting for you to make the leap

And welcome you inside.

I know I cannot force you

You will come when your time is here

When the world is finally ready for you

Then, only then, you’ll appear.

When all your whispered promises

Are ready to come true

Then you will come and join us

And I’ll be waiting here for you.

A few years later, in India, in 2002, I became a mother and my soul felt like it was blooming. When Ishthara was about 6 months old, I wrote this:

Soul Song

You are my soul singing

You are the song of my soul

You took what was unfinished

And you, you made it whole.

You took the tune that I was humming

And you put words to the air

Taught me how to sing it loud –

Louder than I would dare.

We are singing the same song

We are singing it together

The sound soaring through the air

Light, pure, free, untethered.

You are the whispered promise

My life said it was bringing

You are the song of my soul

You are my soul singing.

So once I’d read through a few bits and pieces, I found the picture of the three of us on the camel. I think I’m baring a bit too much leg in the photo; but I don’t think I’m baring too much soul in the poems.

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Star (Of The Sea) Struck

I don’t do star struck.

I don’t do speechless.

I don’t do babbling.

Last Friday night, however, I managed to do all three at the Kildare Readers Festival.

Ireland’s best writer of the decade – Joseph O’Connor – was there. An incredibly gifted writer, he is also a consummate gentleman and a very charismatic person. When he talks to you –  in that mellifluous voice you know from the radio – he addresses you as though you are the only person in the room.

I first came into contact with Joseph O’Connor (rather than his work) a year ago when The Big Book of Hope was still just an idea I’d had on a bus.  I jotted off an email to him, asking him to be part of the project – the Big Book of Hope will raise funds for the HOPE Foundation – and he responded immediately. Without hesitation, he committed to the project and delivered -without fanfare – before deadline.

When I met him, finally, on Friday night, I turned into a babbling thing of God knows what. See? Just like that – I couldn’t string a coherent sentence together. Now, I’m fairly used to famous people. I’ve dined with ambassadors, royalty and artists of note and never found myself star-struck before.

I think the difference is that Joseph O’Connor is not just famous, he is talented and he is disarmingly humble. In fact, I think that must be what did for me. I was expecting someone who seemed at least a little aware of his own talent; and who wore that knowledge like a beautiful cloak that we were all expected to admire. But no. Mr. O’Connor seemed vaguely surprised that all these people were there and had turned up to see and hear him.

He was generous with his time – chatting with everyone who had a book to sign, allowing people to use their mobile phones to take snaps of them with him, and humbly accepting the praise his fans delivered. I had my children with me, and he took the time to acknowledge them and speak to them, too.

On our way back to the car, my daughters weren’t sure what I was so thrilled about.

‘That was Joseph O’Connor,’ I explained to them. ‘The writer!’

‘Oh,’ said the Eldest, obviously still not sure why this was such a big deal for me. ‘But you’re a writer too. And so are loads of your friends. Especially your friends on Twitter.’

‘I’m not in the same league,’ I assured her. ‘He’s an amazing writer. Very clever and very funny.’

‘He wrote on your book,’ the Eldest pointed out.

‘He signed my copy of his book,’ I told her.

‘Why?’

‘That makes it more special.’

‘Right.’

She paused for a moment.

‘When I met Westlife, they were fighting over who would hold my hand,’ the Eldest said in what I suspect may have been a stab at one-up-manship. ‘And there’s four of them. There’s only one of him.’

That’s right, Darling. There is only one Joseph O’Connor.

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Embrace Your Madness!

In Istanbul in November of 2005, I had one of those rare ‘aha’ moments. One of those moments where I saw myself as others might see me, and realised why even those who like me refer to me as ‘mad’. Personally, I prefer the term ‘eccentric’ – but we all mean the same thing; that I do tend to march to the beat of my own drum.

So there I was, in Istanbul, with an 18 month old and a three-and-a-half year old. We’d just gotten off our plane from Prague, and were in a taxi. My eldest daughter exclaimed that there were no seat-belts in the back of the cab and I murmured that I’d be delighted if there were brakes.

My Turkish is non-existent and the taxi-driver had just a smattering of English, so communication was minimal. I was able to give him the name, address and phone number of our hotel – having typed it out in large, block letters before we left home. Our driver nodded ‘I know,’ he said, with sage reserve. Entrusting my safety, and that of my precious children, to him, I settled back to get my first glimpses of Constantinople.

I’d wanted to visit Istanbul for years. Ever since our history teacher, Geraldine Haughton, introduced it to us back in fifth year; particularly the details of the Ottoman Empire, Selim the Sot and the Golden Horde. My imagination was captivated by the notion of a city that could straddle two continents. I spent the first twenty years of my life in Europe, and most of my adult life in Asia, so it felt only right that I visit the one city that joined both ‘my’ continents.

Before driving off from the airport, I hadn’t ascertained what, exactly, it was that our taxi driver ‘knew’.  Apparently, it was the general direction of where our hotel was located rather than precisely where we were going. On the outskirts of the city proper, with one hand on the wheel, he pulled out his mobile phone.

A quick conversation took place in Turkish and he resumed driving with increased confidence.

‘I know, I know,’ he reassured me brightly.

About fifteen minutes later,  my ‘aha’ moment dawned on me:

It was just after midnight, and I was going the wrong way up a one-way street, in a city I’d never visited before, with my children in the back of a taxi, with whose driver I could not communicate; I had a booking in a hotel neither he nor I knew the location of, and my ‘guidebook’ was two pages torn from a month old copy of the Sunday paper. Nobody knew where I was, and my mobile phone didn’t work in Turkey.

Still, something inside me knew it all work out – and it did. Within another five minutes, we had reached our destination, a gorgeous boutique hotel on the same street as the Topkapi Palace (one of the city’s top tourist attractions).

My girls and I had a wonderful five days in Beautiful Byzantium and I learnt that it is, indeed, a divided city: The inhabitants couldn’t decide which of my children it preferred. Half of them favoured my three year old with her dark looks and vivacious, outgoing personality that knows no language barriers.

Everywhere we went, people just gave her things – sweets, apples, smiles, hugs – even perfume! The other half was smitten by my 18 month old – with her paler complexion, curls and general baby-ness. Whenever I stood still, she was patted and cooed to. On three separate occasions she was extracted from her sling in order to be cuddled by complete Turkish strangers.

The people in Istanbul were also of both continents – most of them dressed and looked like Eastern Europeans, yet every single person exuded the warmth and generosity that I had grown accustomed to in Asia.

Flying out of Istanbul at six in the morning, I realised how grateful I was for my ‘madness’. Without it, my girls and I would not have had the wonderful visit to Istanbul that we’d enjoyed.

I finally understood what Shakespeare meant when he wrote ‘To thine ownself be true’: That it is important to march to the beat of your own drum, no matter how out of synch with the rest of the world that beat might be.

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The Value of Woman

I’ve just listened to the news.

I have just heard that the government is set  to introduce legislation that will make certain products – currently sold in ‘Head Shops’ in Ireland – illegal. If you’re caught in possession of these products – like Mephedrone – you face a fine and up to seven years in prison. If you are found to be a supplier of these mind-altering drugs, you could get a life sentence.

I also heard about a woman in this country who, not quite three years ago, was six months pregnant and lying asleep in her own bed in her own home. At 4.30am, she woke up to see her ex-boyfriend (and the father of her unborn child) in her room, totally uninvited.

He was wielding a shotgun. After breaking her teeth, he told her to look down the barrel of the gun so she could see the bullet as it was coming to kill her.

Afterwards, he raped her – anally and vaginally. He held her hostage for a number of hours before the Gardaí eventually convinced him to release this woman without doing her or her baby any further harm. I don’t know this woman but I am willing to bet my house that there were days when she wished to God that he had killed her. Such is the absolute devastation that an attack  like this wreaks on the life of the violated.

This savage, vicious attack could easily have caused this woman to have lost her baby. There was no report of her having lost her child, so we can assume that she carried her baby to term and delivered him/her. If she chose to keep her baby, she has a reminder – every time she looks at the child – of that child’s father. The man who brutalized her, violated her, and scarred her – physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

Let me be clear – this woman will never recover from her ordeal. She will learn to cope, she will learn to live with the aftermath, she will learn to function. She will have bad days and good days. The best she can hope for is that, one year, the good days will outnumber the bad days.

Today, the man who brutalised her was sentenced. He received a sentence of 10 years, with 3 years suspended. So he will serve 7 years.

That’s right, folks, you can break into the home of a pregnant woman, you can break her teeth, threaten to kill her with a shotgun, hold her hostage for several hours, force your penis into her anus, force your penis into her vagina, ‘to pass the time’ (as this man told this woman) and leave her scarred for life. Or you can buy a little bag of mind-altering chemicals for your own consumption. You’ll serve the same amount of time.

Now, I understand that, sometimes, judges have their hands tied by the laws of this country. If the maximum sentence a judge can pass is 2 years, a judge can’t send someone away for life just because he feels like it. But a 10 year sentence – with three years suspended – for a series of crimes this heinous seems shabby.

Could the judge not have handed down a sentence for each crime and ordered them to run consecutively?  Could this man not have been sentenced for illegal possession of a shotgun; breaking and entering; false imprisonment; each count of rape; threatening to kill and assault and battery?

If not, why not?

Or is the simple, bald truth that we value women less than a bag of ‘Spice’ in this country?

Listening to the news frequently annoys and upsets me. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop.

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