Grief & loss
Mona Arshi is a poet, novelist and essayist.
I interviewed Mona Arshi for Masala Podcast and it was the most nourishing and positive conversation on grief. It’s difficult to imagine that discussing grief can be uplifting, but it truly was. We circled around language, loss and love and grief of course.
Mona trained as a Human rights lawyer at Liberty before she started writing poetry. At Liberty, Mona worked on a number of high-profile legal cases including the Stephen Lawrence case, representing Janet Alder and Diane Pretty, she also represented women fleeing violence in homes as well as refugees and conducted judicial review cases in the higher courts as well as human rights litigation in the European Court of Human Rights.
She started writing poetry in 2009 and completed her Masters in poetry in 2011 at the University of East Anglia with a distinction. Her debut collection ‘Small Hands’ won the Forward Prize for best first collection in 2015. She has also been a prize-winner in the Magma, Troubadour and Manchester creative writing competitions.
Mona makes regular appearances on the radio including Front Row, Book of the week, A Good Read, Poetry Please, The Arts Hour and The Verb. Her poems and interviews have been published in many magazines but also in the Times, The Guardian, Granta and The Times of India as well as on the London Underground. Mona has collaborated with dancers (‘Dancing Words’), musicians (Vidal Montgomery) and fashion (JIGSAW and Gallery Unconfined). She has read at various festivals as well as the BFI, Southbank, British Museum, Mansion House and galleries throughout the UK. Mona works as a tutor for the Arvon Foundation and The Poetry School. Mona has judged the National Poetry Competition, The Forward Prize and the TS Eliot awards.
Mona Arshi’s debut collection Small Hands won the Forward Prize for best first collection in 2015. Her second collection Dear Big Gods was published in 2019 (both books published by Liverpool University Press’s Pavilion Poetry list).
Mona’s debut novel SOMEBODY LOVES YOU is out now & I’m sure will win hearts and awards.
I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I enjoyed recording it.
Mona Arshi on Masala Podcast: Transcript
Sangeeta Pillai 0:00
I’m Sangeeta Pillai and this is the Masala podcast, a Spotify original. This award-winning feminist podcast for and by South Asian women is all about cultural taboos, sex, sexuality, periods, mental health, menopause, nipple hair, shame, and many more taboos. Join me around my virtual kitchen table as I talk with some inspiring women from around the world, exploring what it means to be a South Asian feminist today. I loved chatting with Oorbee Roy, who lives in Toronto, Canada. She started skating at the age of 43. When most South Asian women are told that we’re just too old. Well, that didn’t stop Oorbe. Now at 47 not only is she a fabulous skateboarder, but she’s also been featured on so many media outlets. Her Aunty Skates persona on TikTok, someone who wears a sari and skates is a real joy to watch. Oorbee spreads real positivity. Sari flying through the air as she somersaults. She skates with her two kids and her husband. And it’s lovely to see. So yes, Aunty Skates shows us that it’s never too late. And that we’re never too old to do whatever it is that we want to do. Oh, and if you fall off the skateboard, just get up and do it again. Brilliant life advice. I hope you enjoy this episode.
Oorbee Roy 2:31
My name is Oorbee Roy, and I was born in Chicago. I grew up in New Jersey. I’m from a Bengali family. My parents were immigrants. I was a computer programmer. I started off as a computer programmer and I left my Wall Street job- sorry mom- in my 20s because I wasn’t happy. And I started to pursue my creative passions. Somewhere along the line one of my creative passions was a Montreal skateboarder. I fell in love, married him, and move to Canada and I’ve been here since 2005. I’ve been in Toronto, such a great quality of life here. I have two kids with my husband and we’re all skateboarders. Which is just fantastic.
Sangeeta Pillai 3:15
So let’s start I have this question to ask you. What is a 47-year-old Indian woman in a sari doing skating? Tell me.
Oorbee Roy 3:25
I love the way you said that like the way it rolled off your tongue like that. It sounds sexy.
Sangeeta Pillai 3:30
It is sexy.
Oorbee Roy 3:31
I want to do it. So my husband was a skateboarder. And honestly, I kind of said the same thing you said in the beginning that it just seems so fascinating. But you know, so far removed from anything I could do as a grown woman. I can’t get on a skateboard. I wasn’t even allowed on a bike growing up, forget it. But when my kids started skateboarding, I was like, oh no, I don’t want to be the mom standing there watching my kids and my husband living their lives. And I’m on the side-lines. That was just not for me. I don’t want to be on the side-lines of anything while other people are living their best lives. So I said, you know what, I’m going to learn how to skateboard. I don’t care if I’m going to be terrible at it. I don’t care if I’m going to fall, I don’t care if people laugh at me. I’m going to go out there and do this now. And I immediately fell. But I got back up again. And I just became addicted right away. It’s just so liberating exactly what you think it is that it is liberating.
Sangeeta Pillai 4:40
I bet you didn’t turn out to be the usual doctor, lawyer engineer, that South Asian folks aspire to be well, what did your parents think?
Oorbee Roy 4:48
Well, I did go into computer science. And I was an engineer in that respect. So I fulfilled my goals as a good Indian doctor. But I was so unhappy. I remember the day that I went downstairs and called my dad and said, Baba, I can’t do this anymore. I’m miserable. And my dad was like, okay, if you want to quit, I’ll support you, I support your decision. And I think the reason they did that was because I fulfilled their expectation of me, right? I did the thing they wanted me to do, and they realized I was unhappy. And so then ultimately, the next thing they want me to fulfil is happiness, they want me to be happy, there are going to be the parents that make their kid miserable. Thankfully, they were not, so they were supportive.
Sangeeta Pillai 5:37
That’s really nice to hear, actually, because too often you hear these stories about South Asian women, particularly having to kind of leave the family because they’re not happy, or they’re not supportive with the choices you’ve made. So this is really, really good. So you call yourself Aunty Skates. And I think that’s what drew me to your account first. But something tells me you’re definitely not that toxic aunty that we all know. I know from you that that’s important to you. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Oorbee Roy 6:06
Right, I think in the South Asian community, I mean, a lot of communities have that one person, the stereotypical person who judges you, who asks why you’re not married yet. Why did you put on weight? What job do you have? And in South Asian culture, it’s the aunty. And I think the aunty was once somebody full of dreams and hopes, and maybe those dreams and hopes got squashed by society and the patriarchy and stuff. And I saw a lot of women on Instagram being triggered by this aunty, these are South Asian young women. And I said, oh my god, I’m an aunty. I’m definitely not a toxic aunty. So why don’t I go out there and be the aunty that builds you up and doesn’t tear you down? If somebody says something to me on Instagram, I will always build them up. And I think the world needs that. You know, we can be part of the change, right?
Sangeeta Pillai 7:06
The Aunty gets a lot of flak in South Asian culture. Growing up in Mumbai, I remember this one particular aunty, who would stay up late at night, so that she could clock what time I was coming home. After my job in the advertising agency where I worked. She would then ask my mum the next day. Why is your daughter coming home at midnight? What kind of job does she do that makes her work so late? Obviously, the implication was that I was up to no good and hence stayed out so late. These comments from the aunty next door would always trigger my mother because her daughter’s morality was being questioned. And therefore, hers too. So yes, everyone growing up in South Asian culture understands only two well beyond the trope.
The sneaky aunty would call your parents to snitch on which boy you were seen with. The bitchy aunty huddled in the corner at a wedding, dishing out all the gossip about who was having an affair with whom. The judging aunty who always made a comment about how thin or half fat or whatever you looked in the new dress. But having thought about the whole aunty troop I’m beginning to think that maybe aunties became aunties as a survival mechanism. In a traditional culture, where women had no power, the only power they could wield was on other women. So when an aunty put someone else down, she was just repeating what had been done to her. It’s not about making excuses for terrible behaviour. But understanding why aunties might act the way they do. And ultimately, breaking that cycle of trauma and pain. So that maybe the aunty trope doesn’t carry on.
Let’s talk about the video on TikTok that went viral. I think for you. I know it happened at a tough time. So you want to just talk about how the circumstances and how that came to be?
Oorbee Roy 9:40
Sure. Well, I’ll start by saying that I started my TikTok account in February of 2021, which in Canada was a very dark period for us. February, there’s like no sunlight. Nobody’s getting vitamin D. Everybody’s depressed but then we also had a lockdown. So everybody was so depressed, that, when you asked them how they were doing, they wouldn’t even say good. They would just say, no, I’m not good. So I started my account to spread joy and positivity because I think the world needed that. I think that’s part of the reason why my account resonated with so many people is because it was so joyful and positive. And unfortunately, sometime in March, my father, who was my biggest fan, self-proclaimed number one fan biggest supporter, he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.
Fortunately, my whole family just picked up, got in a car, went down there, and spent the last five weeks of his life with him. And while this was happening, my TikTok account was going viral. And it brought a lot and actually brought a lot of joy to the family. You know, it’s such a crazy thing. I think my father was always impressed with me for trying new things and seeing how it went. And you know, it didn’t work out if it did, it was fun. So it was just a bright light in an otherwise very dark, the darkest time of my life, the juxtaposition of the two, I think both of those things. It helped me so much, get through it.
Sangeeta Pillai 11:14
I can absolutely understand. And I get the point of sort of something dark and something so bright coming together, I think. And the fact that it brought joy to your family at that time. Do you think the fact that you did the skating in a sari had something to do with it?
Oorbee Roy 11:35
I think I made that video on the Bengali New Year. And you know, I really miss wearing saris. I don’t wear a lot of dresses; I don’t get dressed up very often. But I love a good sari and I will wear it any chance I get. And because of COVID there was no chance to wear a sari and it was Bengali New Year. And I hadn’t seen my family in a while. And I just threw the sari on, and I took my kids. I said, let’s go to the skate park, I really didn’t think anything of it. Sure. I’m not going to sit here and say, oh, I didn’t think it would go viral, it’s a cool video.
Sangeeta Pillai 12:16
It is a cool video, I’ve seen it.
Oorbee Roy 12:18
I would like to say to all the people who noticed I matched my helmet to my sari; I was very proud of that. And you know what, it brought a lot of joy to people, myself included, my family included. And the visual representation of that for people in India, for example, to see a 40 something year old woman skateboarding in a sari. These are people who can now say that and see that anything is possible, right. And that’s really important. It was an unintended side effect. But so, so important.
Sangeeta Pillai 12:56
I absolutely get that. I think as a South Asian also lives in a different country, where you almost kind of adopt the dress code of that country. When you’re going to work, you wear western clothes, or you’re going out for drinks, you wear whatever. And then the Indian part of you is something you keep for like Durga Puja, or Diwali, or things like that. And I think what you did, which is you wore the sari to the skatepark, I think is brilliant. Because a) it makes a cool video, like you said, but b) it also makes a point that our Asian identity is very much part of our new life in the new country that we’ve made it. And it doesn’t have to be this hidden thing that comes out once a year, kind of part of ourselves. It can be in the boardroom, it can be in the skate park, why not? Right?
Oorbee Roy 13:45
Why not? 100%.
Sangeeta Pillai 13:47
And I think personally for me, like for you, saris make me feel a) connection to my culture, b) dressed up, and also like there’s this grace and elegance that I think comes to my body when I wear saris. Hundreds of generations of people before me have worn that, and I’m kind of carrying that and I wonder if it’s anything similar for you.
Oorbee Roy 14:12
I feel very powerful in a sari. There’s something about getting the right fall, putting it over your shoulder properly. You know, I’m very proud that I wear a sari without putting any pins in it. I always feel very powerful. I’m a tall person. I’m a tall woman, if I put heels on, I’m 5.10 So I walk into a room and people see me with a sari. And there’s power to that and I love it and I want my daughter to see that too. Plus I have a lot of saris. I don’t know in India if people wear saris as much, I think they wear lingas a lot too and salwar kameez, but I love a sari. It makes me feel comfortable. Obviously I feel comfortable enough in it to skate in a bowl so..
Sangeeta Pillai 15:07
Exactly. To all those women who were sort of listening to this, oh my god, it’s so uncomfortable wearing a sari. Well, somebody who’s skating in one, so it can’t be that difficult.
Oorbee Roy 15:18
Well, I will say that I spent over 10 years doing Bengali folk dancing. So that is a skill set of bitis to be able to move around in a sari. It’s a learned skill.
Sangeeta Pillai 15:32
So don’t do this at home unsupervised.
As a little girl, I’d watch my mother and my aunts wear their saris. It seemed magical to me, seeing the women in my family drape themselves in these yards of bright colourful silks. Crisp cottons and slippery Georgettes, as South Asian women, we’ve been wearing saris for millennia. And we pretty much wear saris the same way now, as we did 1000s of years ago. Whether that sari is a Banarasi silk, woven in the holy city of Varanasi, or a heavy brocaded kanjeevaram wanted weddings, or the crisp, pure white set him under mourn in Kerala. The sari remains the ultimate South Asian garment for me. bright, colourful, traditional, and sensual, all at the same time.
There is something sensual about the feel of smooth silk, tucked deep into your waist. There’s something sexy about the choli or blouse, worn with a sari that’s hugging your breasts. There’s something flirtatious about a sari that goes over your shoulder sashing across your bottom as you walk. I feel sexy in a sari in a way that no other type of clothing makes me feel. You spoke a little bit I think in our call earlier about how skating to you isn’t just skating isn’t just a sport, like it’s a big part of your life. And how it also helped you in your mental health journey. Could you talk a little bit about this?
Oorbee Roy 17:37
Yeah. So the first part of the question is how it’s changed my life. And I think before I started skateboarding, I looked at every mistake I made as some sort of failure, you know, you know, I didn’t get the promotion, or I didn’t get the raise, or I didn’t finish the project or, you know, my business didn’t make the sales it was supposed to make it was just failure, failure. And I think that’s maybe something very common in the South Asian community is that we put so much pressure on ourselves, that everything becomes so extreme, right. And every little bit of failure is such a big deal, right? Some point along the way, I started skateboarding. And remember I told you earlier I said, I immediately fell. Well, I got back up and I tried again. And the beauty of skateboarding is, and this is why I love parenting my kids at the skatepark, is because when you fall, you get back up and you try again. And you try again. And you keep trying. And every time you fall, you learn a little bit more as you go until you land the trick. And in skateboarding, that’s just part of the journey.
That’s kind of part of the excitement is like, oh my god, I’m getting closer, I’ve almost got it. So that really taught me in my life, it translated into my real life, that I can fall, it’s part of the journey. It’s not failing, it’s not the end, it’s just part of the process. My dad used to tell me all the time, like get over that it’s just move on, and I just didn’t know how to do it. And now, somewhere along the line, I learned how to just move on, you know, get back up and try again, right. And then on the other side, the mental health aspect. I think, again, we put so much pressure on ourselves, Sangeeta and we forget to play, I think adults forget to play. We just become adults, and we’re like, got to pay bills, got to go to work, you know, got to do all these things, got to accomplish this by the time I’m 45.
We forget to play, we tell our kids; get off your iPads, go outside and play and then what do we do right after that we get on our iPhones, right? And so just the concept of playing is very good for mental health. And I think in the South Asian community, mental health talking about mental health is still a bit of a stigma. So this is kind of a healthy way, you’re not talking to a therapist, God forbid, but you’re out there, you’re being active, you’re being out in the sun, you’re working. So when I’m skateboarding, I’m not thinking about anything else going on in my life. I’m thinking about landing that trick. And it’s very freeing. It’s very liberating. You know, when my father was sick, I was one of his caregivers. And it was really difficult to watch him slowly die.
If I didn’t have skateboarding, I think it would have broken me. He was such an amazing man. And I wanted to make the last weeks of his life as comfortable as possible. And I’d give him facials every day and foot massages, but I needed the strength to get in there IN that room every day and be able to do that, right. And that’s why it’s skateboarding. And I would go out, and I would skateboard, and I’d come back, and I’d be able to spend time with them. So in that respect, at a very, very deep level, skateboarding really saved me at a very dark part of my life. But on other levels, too. It’s just very liberating.
Sangeeta Pillai 21:00
What does it feel like when you’re on the board? Describe to me what it feels.
Oorbee Roy 21:04
Well, I guess it depends on what I’m doing. If I’m trying a new trick, I don’t know if you’ve seen my videos. But I’ve recently started, I used to edit out the part where I’d be cursing. Because when I’m scared, I curse, and I really curse. Like, everybody knows that we’re going to be trying a new trick if they hear the F word coming from the skatepark, they know. So there’s a lot of fear, right? And then sometimes I wonder, like, why am I facing this field? What am I doing? I’m a 47-year-old woman, why am I standing here trying to face my fear? Like, I don’t have to do this. And then I go ahead and do it. And then I’ve conquered my fear. And it’s amazing, right? But on a day-to-day basis, I would say, getting on a skateboard gives me a chance to take a break, to stop whatever I’m doing in my life and just go you know, as I’m talking to you, I’m looking out at my skate ramp by the way, because after this call that, I’m going to go skate. It’s maybe a chance to check in with yourself or check out but it’s very liberating. If you’re in the bowl, and you’re flying. I feel like I’m flying.
I’m a grown woman. And I feel like I’m flying. What an amazing feeling that is. And I’ll tell you, just getting on a skateboard itself is liberating and exhilarating. You don’t have to be doing all those big tricks, right? When I say it’s never too late to live your best life. I don’t mean go out there and be an Olympic athlete. I mean, go out there and do the thing you always wanted to do because it is so freeing, right? Anyway, I could go on about that.
Sangeeta Pillai 22:47
Oh my god, that’s made me actually think oh, my God, I want to try this.
Oorbee Roy 22:52
Ah, you said it. I was waiting for you to say it on record, I will see you soon. And I’m going to get you on a board.
Sangeeta Pillai 23:03
I said this on a podcast, I’ve got to do it now. So something else I was thinking about when you were talking was about within South Asian culture, you know, we’ve got, you know, we don’t talk about mental health. So this is a healthy way maybe to sort of let off some steam. But also as women, we were really not encouraged to be physically active ever. What sort of reactions do you get from other South Asian women who see your videos?
Oorbee Roy 23:30
Well, I think initially, when I was just starting out as a skateboarder I think everybody was very sceptical, not just South Asian people, but everybody just because of my age and gender. People were like, what are you doing? You’re going to break a leg. What are you trying to do? So everybody was immediately sceptical. But then as I started getting a little bit better, and I started sharing my journey on TikTok, I would have to say that 99% of the feedback I’ve gotten has been incredibly positive. Surprisingly, I expected a little bit of hate.
And I’m getting very little, and I think that oh, man, I’m lucky. I am super lucky. But also I think that if I can inspire somebody out there to take a chance on themselves, believe in themselves, follow their dreams. Maybe I’m that inner voice in somebody’s head that says, oh, look, you know, aunty could skate in a sorry that you can go and tell your parents you don’t want to be a doctor, right? And actually, that’s happened.
I’ve had people contact me and say, I didn’t go pursue my dreams when I was younger. And I’m going to go back to school and do it now or somebody else who said, you know what, I don’t want to go to school for engineering. And because of you, I had the strength to go tell my parents that I don’t want to do engineering, and I get these kinds of messages from people all the time, which is just fantastic. I mean, maybe there’s some parents out there who were pretty pissed at me, but not my parents. They’re super proud of all the decisions that I made. And I think that when I saw those young South Asian women complaining about the toxic aunty, and I said, I’m going to be the one that builds them up, maybe it’s working, and that makes me feel really good.
Sangeeta Pillai 25:17
I definitely think it’s working. And I think just the messages that you give out on kind of getting out there doing the thing you want, like enjoying being in your body, that’s the other message we get to South Asian women, we’re like, taught to really disconnect from our bodies, right. And by getting on that board, like you have to be in your body, there’s no other way you’re going to do this. So that in itself, I think, is a huge shift for people, I think.
Oorbee Roy 25:44
I am so incredibly grateful to be at this place in my life. Because there have been times in my life where I’ve been very lonely or lost, or body conscious, or in a bad relationship, or not sure what’s going on. And I think I’ve been there, you know, I can relate to all the people that are going through a thing because I’ve been through the things. And that’s why there’s so much joy, genuine joy and gratitude. Because I’m at a place in my life where I just don’t care what anyone thinks, you know, and I’m out there doing these things. I’m living my best life. And I’m glad that people can see that. And I think that that’s something that I share as much as possible that even if you’re not in the right place, right now, you will get there, right. And that’s important, I want to make sure I say that here. That’s important. It may not be today, it could be tomorrow,
Sangeeta Pillai 26:41
Growing older, within South Asian culture, while there’s like this whole reverence for older people, our grandparents, etc, we’re taught that once you get to a certain age, you just sort of wait around to die. You know, like, that’s pretty much it. Just talking from my own experience, you know, like just thinking of my parents, their parents, we’re taught to sort of pass on the baton to younger people and just kind of retire. And what you’re doing is the opposite of that. You’re like, okay, young people skate, I’m going to get on that skateboard. And I’m going to do these crazy things. So I think it’s wonderful for older South Asian women like me, and other you know, people who are listening who will be listening to this to say, Wow, that’s pretty cool. If she can do it, maybe I could do these things as well. And it’s not just life’s not over just because you’re told this myth, I think that when you get to your 40s you get to your 50s, that’s it. Job done. You know, sit quietly now.
Oorbee Roy 27:38
Yes, I think we’ve been told that our job is to raise our kids. And then once the kids are off, you know, well, we’ve done our job, right. And that just never made sense for me, you know, people are living a long time these days. And, yeah, sure, raising my kids is an important part of what I do, obviously. But I tell them all the time, like, I come first, my happiness comes first. And then yours for me, in my mind. Because if I’m not happy, nobody else is happy. Let me just tell you, like, if mean mama comes out, nobody’s happy. It’s the saying about putting your own oxygen mask on first before you put on your child. So I always make sure that I’m mentally or physically or whatever it is in a good place. And that way I can have fun. And the side effect of that is that going out there and living a good life and being active. I mean, just practically speaking, you’ve got endorphins flowing serotonin, like all the feel-good vibes. It’s addictive, right? Why not want more of that? Why just sit there and wait for grandkids? I’m not going to live my life through my kids. I’m not going to stand there on the side-lines watching my kids have fun. That’s going to go on for as long as possible.
I’m not putting that pressure on my kids either, right? That’s not fair to them. So I encourage everybody to go out there and do the thing you always wanted to do. It doesn’t have to be skateboarding. For me, if I started skateboarding at 43, and I skate until I’m 63. That’s 20 years of skateboarding I got. If you always wanted to knit or play piano, if you wanted to play piano, you could play piano into your 80s. Why stop that? You’ve got a long way to go.
Sangeeta Pillai 29:33
Absolutely. I love that. I love that. And it’s completely the opposite of the message we get growing up that everything stops when you reach a certain age. And actually, look at me, you know, I’m about to be 50 this year and I’m only just getting started.
Oorbee Roy 29:51
Yes, you look great, by the way. Wow.
Sangeeta Pillai 29:53
Thank you very much.
Oorbee Roy 29:57
I’m excited about what I’m going to do in my 50s. I’m like, oh, what? What am I going to start in my 50s, like that’s going to be fun? The kids will be older, I’ll be able to do something crazy. We’ll see.
Sangeeta Pillai 30:10
I love the sound of that.
Oorbee Roy 30:11
Maybe roller skating.
Sangeeta Pillai 30:14
Which brings me very neatly to my next question. What is next for Aunty Skates? What plans are you concocting?
Oorbee Roy 30:20
Yeah, well, I’ve got some really exciting things coming up. I am starting to put together an online course for everyone out there who wants to start skateboarding, and just the basics like adult to adult, you know, I think there’s a different way to learn as an adult. So I’m starting to put like about six or seven absolute beginner courses together, and they’ll be available online, and the world is opening up again so I’m going to start some trips. Like, I’ve made a lot of friends all over the world. And so a lot of the things that I hear is that people are afraid to go to the skate park, they’re afraid to start, they don’t know where to start. So I’m going to start organizing some skate trips, maybe in California, the UK or Banff. We’ll see. So you follow me on Instagram @Auntyskates or TikTok @Auntykates and you can stay updated on that.
Sangeeta Pillai 31:05
Brilliant. And I think what you just said there, a lot of people are scared to go to the skate park because it’s full of trendy young people, right? Like, I wouldn’t even look at that and think I’m going to go do that because it just looks terrifying. But I think what you’re doing, which is taking people to those places, and to say look, actually, it’s not that scary and it can be fun, and we can do it together is absolutely wonderful,
Oorbee Roy 31:32
Right? I mean, I want there to be a recipe of success. I want people to succeed at this thing that they’re trying. It’s very scary to be an adult getting on a skateboard. I’m not going to take that away from anybody. But there’s some secrets to make it a little bit easier. And I’ve got those secrets and I want to share them with people and I’m looking forward to it.
Sangeeta Pillai 31:50
I’m sure loads of people listening to this will be very excited to share that journey with you. Thank you so much Oorbee for being a masala podcast and for sharing all your wisdom and all the fun things that you’ve done and also kind of like I love how it’s almost like skating is a metaphor for life, I think. It’s almost saying get on there, fall but that’s not a big deal. You get up and do it again and again and again. And don’t get hung up.
Oorbee Roy 32:17
And aunty’s got your back.
Sangeeta Pillai 32:19
And aunty’s got your back. I love that. I absolutely love that. Thank you so much for being on the Masala podcast.
Oorbee Roy 32:28
Sangeeta Pillai 32:32
Thank you for listening to the Masala Podcast, a Spotify original. Masala Podcast is part of my platform, Soul Sutras. What’s that all about? Soul Sutras is a network for South Asian women. A safe space to tell our story, to hear inspiring South Asian women challenging patriarchy, a space to be exactly the people we want to be and still feel like we belong in our culture, and our community. And ultimately, a space where we feel less alone. I’d love to hear from you. So do get in touch via email at soulsutras.co.uk or go to my website, soulsutras.co.uk. I’m also on Twitter, and Instagram. Just look for Soul Sutras. Masala podcast was created and presented by me Sangeeta Pillai, produced by Anushka Tate, opening music by Sonny Robertson.
As a girl, she was constantly told that she wasn’t allowed to do boyish things. And, as you know, in our culture women aren’t encouraged to partake in sports activities. Though, for Aunty Skates, it is not just a sport. It has helped her through tough spots in her life and has helped her mental health massively. She skates because she loves it.
Transcript Mona Arshi 0:00
All I know is that the idea of closing down something like grief, I think is deeply problematic and really unhealthy. And I think our society lends itself to closing it down to like getting it over and done with, to fix it to a particular time. And then if you don’t do that, then you’re aberrant. You’re an aberrant, you know, or they medicalize you and it’s completely wrong. And I think we just need to find other ways and other language to think about how we stay healthy with trauma and grief included
Sangeeta Pillai 0:52
I’m Sangeeta Pillai and this is the Masala podcast, the Spotify original. This award-winning feminist podcast for and by South Asian women is all about cultural taboos, sex, sexuality, periods, mental health, menopause, nipple, hair, shame, and many more taboos. Join me around my virtual kitchen table as I talk with some inspiring women from around the world, exploring what it means to be a South Asian feminist today. I interviewed Mona Arshi for the Masala podcast. And gosh, it was the most nourishing and positive conversation on grief.
It’s difficult to imagine that talking about grief can be uplifting. But it truly was. We circled around language, loss, love, and grief of course. I’ve been a huge fan of Mona’s work for years. Before she started writing poetry, Mona worked as a human rights lawyer at Liberty. Her poems and interviews had been published in The Times, The Guardian, Granta Times of India, as well as the London Underground, Mona’s debut novel, somebody loves you, he’s out now. And I’m sure will win hearts and awards. I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I enjoyed recording it.
Mona Arshi 2:36
I’ve always read and loved poetry; it’s been a really important part of my life. And even when I was a human rights lawyer, I kind of needed it. I just felt very seen in it. And I felt less lonely when I read it. And then I had my daughters, my twins, and I literally had quite an unstable pregnancy. And I had to stay in bed for quite a long time. And someone sent me a box of poems, and books, actually, and I hadn’t kind of touched contemporary poetry for a long time. And suddenly, I was really encountering language in a different way. And I think it was something about what was happening to me as a pregnant woman, and the drama of the body.
And then the drama of like, the language. And there was an intersection between those two things. And I just couldn’t, couldn’t believe that. I think I said to someone at the time, I couldn’t believe it was illegal, or you could actually read, legally available to consume. And so yeah, so I loved it. And I started going on lots of courses, and just to really just read more poetry. And then, you know, bit by bit, I started writing it. And then I did a master’s at the University of East Anglia. And then I published a book. I never thought I’d end up in a situation where most of my days are occupied with words and language, but that’s where I am.
Sangeeta Pillai 4:04
Yeah, that’s really beautiful. I was thinking about words, and I was thinking about how sometimes even the most powerful words can contain the emotions we sometimes have. And when I was reading that piece you wrote for the Yale review, you talked about being on a train to Norwich, was it? And then you heard this really difficult news. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Mona Arshi 4:28
So just to say what this was in March 2012, and it’s a day I’ll never forget, but there were lots of things happening. I was studying for my masters at the University of East Anglia. I was going on a train journey to see my tutor with some poems in my bag. And I just got a phone call from a coroner. Initially I thought it wasn’t for me because I couldn’t quite process the words but effectively, I was told my brother my younger brother had died very suddenly and I got off that train and then I had to return back to London to relay that news to my mother, who was, weirdly enough looking after one of my twins who wasn’t very well. And so I guess the reason why that moment is quite important.
And I suppose I keep going back to it and my writing, and my thinking, and my ideas was that I think I met that moment, at the same time that I was thinking about what language was doing, because I was writing as a poet, I just started as a poet, and I had to at a very early stage of my writing career, think about what writing, what language could contain, and actually what you talked about, what’s not containable? What’s ineffable. And I realized that sometimes language fails us, I mean, dramatically, constantly, violently. And that’s what I discovered when I was in those moments of grief. And I’ve also discovered that actually, there are spaces and forms that allow you to be able to find the language. And obviously, there are poets that have written for centuries of ancient poets and prayers that have been able to hold that and illuminate something for us in that work.
Mona Arshi 6:59
Absolutely. And I think something else that struck me was about what is the language that one can use when conveying grief, you mentioned going back home to your mom, and you didn’t know whether to talk to her in your kind of adopted language of English or her language, Punjabi. And again, that really struck me because I find like some words I cannot translate into English. They just don’t have that. And I find that conversation around grief and our languages of grief really interesting.
Mona Arshi 6:59
So do I and I think that what was really curious to me was the fact that actually English is an acquired language for me. I didn’t know a word of English until I was five or six years old and I was at school before that, I was calling a bucket, Balti, you know, and that was the language I was used to and but of course, now I speak, I write and I think in English, but when I was confronted with the language of grief at that moment, it was strange because it was curious to me how I was having this little tussle with what language to use. I think that my Punjabi which is part of my body really, I think it was a primal language that was passed on to me, was first words that I ever learned with Punjabi that, that that that was having a tussle with my English, and it was really difficult to explain, but you know, lots of things are difficult to explain when you’re in the throes of grief. And I recognize that actually, I recognize the fact that there was this kind of strange limbo where I wasn’t quite sure I was very unmoored in language, you know that in the end, I had to relay that news to my mother in the, in the language, I think both languages in the end, and they were the most, most painful words I’ve ever had to speak, to tell, you know, to tell my mother to use the language and to tell her that you know, her son had died. But I’m sort of also kind of like, intellectually curious as well as obviously, you know, suffering the pain of it. I’m also intellectually curious about what was happening with language and actually, when I wrote the piece for the for the yell review, I was also interested in what language is available, because actually, what was really strange to me was that there was no language there is no word in the English language for somebody that has lost their, their child and given the fact that many people lose their child. There is no word for it there is in Sanskrit, there’s the word is a Vilma. That’s a word and the words widow and widower are also from Sanskrit, which is really interesting. And actually even though his words when you look at them, they’re so you know, the sonic properties of them, you know, they carry a mournful quality you know that oh, the vowel that oh, so, so sad. Yeah. So, you know, I found it in Sanskrit. Weirdly enough, but why is there no language? I feel like there’s such a paucity of language for being able to encapsulate something that is so common.
Sangeeta Pillai 9:44
Yes, absolutely. So many of those things you said they really touch the core of me because it feels like so many times I felt emotions that then I haven’t had the words to put to and again what you said about our language Just like I’ve grown up, like you, I grew up speaking Hindi and Malayalam at home and then went to school and started learning English. That’s a very much adopted language. But now I write, and I think in English, but when I wake up in the middle of a nightmare, it’s Hindi. You know, like I say, Hindi, like, so bizarre? So that’s clearly coded within me. Yes. And I don’t know, if you’ll feel this, I sometimes feel a sense of loss from those kinds of my original language. I feel like it’s, I’ve lost it somewhere. Yeah, like, I don’t speak the language of my mother, for example, Malayalam, you know, she’s normal, but she used to kind of recite poetry and, but I had no access to any of it. So it’s almost like by adopting this more Western more accessible language, I’ve lost the language of my ancestors. I don’t know if that makes any
Mona Arshi 10:45
sense to you. Absolutely. I feel that acutely, too. Because Punjabi is a language now that is lost to me. And I feel like this sense of bereavement for that actually, it was really weird, because last year, I was really lucky, I was a writer in residence in, in a bird sanctuary, in Norfolk, and one of my jobs was to write into this space. And I felt very odd and strange in this space because it wasn’t familiar to me. The countryside is not something I’m familiar with. Anyway, I decided I want to write the syllabi of birds. And actually, a lot of the poems came out in this language of Punjabi, which was really interesting, because I think that’s a subconscious hearing. I mean, it’s interesting, because when you hear something that doesn’t make sense, and of course, Birdsong, makes no sense syntactically, or you know, at all, of course, but when you start thinking about trying to work out, what it might say, is interesting how you might go to, you might hear something that might be in the body as opposed to move something that you’re in, you’re trying to intellectualize? So there’s some poems actually, that are just Punjabi words nonsensical, but you know, they’re trying to make sense of that. I think
Sangeeta Pillai 11:58
That’s absolutely beautiful. And also, I read somewhere that language is the more rational part of our brain. So sometimes when the feelings are so primal, we can’t access language? It’s almost like they’re two different circuits, I believe. Yeah. Which explains sometimes how we can’t find the words literally; we can’t find the words.
Mona Arshi 12:19
Yeah, yeah. I feel that acutely, all the time. And sometimes, I mean, it was interesting, while you’re talking about loss of language, I mean, I sometimes can’t identify at all what it is that I’m feeling, I just feel that there is this sense, and I can’t Yes. And I think that’s down to the fact that we as immigrant children, lose our language our kind of mother tongue, you know, for want of a better word or term quite early, you know, I think I lost my language, my Punjabi, I think probably by the time I was 10, it was all gone. I remember, I went to India when I was six. And apparently, I was chattering away in Punjabi to my aunts and uncles and cousins. And then I went again, and I was 20. And it has gone and that there is loss, how sad is that not being able to like to communicate, other than really kind of, like, basic ways. Your grandparents,
Sangeeta Pillai 13:12
you know, yeah. And I get that basic communication. I am the same with my element. Like, it’s very basic. I can’t explain anything more complex, and I would like a meal or, you know, a very perfunctory kind of language. And I’m like, I have all this stuff inside me that I can’t put into this language that I was born into. So I completely get it. Why is it that sometimes we are at a loss for words, in certain languages, there are some feelings that I just cannot express in English. Whatever it is that I’m trying to say, either the intensity of the emotion, or even the taste of a particular beloved food, it feels too big for my adopted language. There are certain jokes in Hindi or Malayalam, that just do not translate. And in the same way, some words in English can be feelings that are only specific to English. Isn’t that interesting? And then, sometimes, there are no words. None at all. In any language. There are times when my feelings feel too much. Too painful, too massive. And then the words feel so inadequate, tiny, useless. For me, language has always felt incredibly beautiful. But recently, I’ve learned to get comfortable with sitting without language, without words. Let’s talk a little bit about grief and poetry and how one has helped the other for you like your journey within that.
Mona Arshi 15:09
I mean, I guess when I was writing, so I was kind of confronted at a very early stage with having to, to write into it, you know, this is what we do poets, you know, one of the things important things about poet is we attend to things, and I felt very much in language. And I felt very much that this big thing had happened in the middle of me writing my, you know, starting to write as a poet. And I had a sort of argument with language, as we discussed. And then, and then I realized that actually, one of the obligations or responsibilities I had, as somebody who was a poet, was to attend to the grief, the big grief in language. And I think that that means, you know, telling the truth, and listening acutely to what is happening to the body to people around me.
And, you know, and to the experience, actually. And, and I wouldn’t say that it was cathartic, because often people say that, Oh, it must be very cathartic for you, I just think I didn’t see it like that, I just saw that I just have an obligation to do it and a duty to attend to, to my, to my brother in in death. That’s how I felt about it. And actually, a by-product of that, I hope has been that it’s been useful for other people, you know, and people can use the language and use the poems to step into and, and they might, you know, it’s a mirror up to ourselves, we all suffer. We’re all going to suffer big griefs, and these big traumas in our life, and, and actually, I think poetry can sort of help you feel less alone in those experiences.
Sangeeta Pillai 16:47
Absolutely. I think it can. You can almost find your own grief within the poetry I think, when I read some things, and prose as well. And sometimes I’m like, okay, yes, the thing I couldn’t say someone else has said, yeah, and there is comfort in that, I think, yeah, I wanted to talk a little bit about grief in South Asian culture.
In our culture, I feel like we are more connected to death and grief, it’s closer to us than within Western culture where it feels quite removed. Like just experiences, I’ve kind of been to friends, funerals, and the whole kind of the funerals, I’ve been to the person’s bodies, kind of in a cask you’ve never seen, it’s really far away. And it feels like the opposite in South Asian culture, like it’s just there, it’s in front of you. So you’ve got no choice but to deal with it. Now, I found that a little bit too brutal, particularly with my mother’s that he was there, and I couldn’t really process the trauma. I wonder if you had any thoughts about how South Asian culture looks at grief. And also about how we communicate with each other within our community about grief? Like, have you? Have you thought about this at all? I
Mona Arshi 17:54
have, I mean, my experiences really, I mean, I don’t know if I’m the best person to answer that only because my experiences of grieving have been really particular to like one big grief, which is relating to my brother, but I have observed it. And I have found that what’s very interesting is that there is this definitely this idea of, I think, linearity and circularity which I sort of am interested in anyway, in terms of how we kind of in Western culture tend to sort of see grieving, and I’ve read a lot of bereavement literature, and none of it apart from maybe two books, which I mentioned, one of one of them is by Joan Didion, which is a wonderful book about the death of her husband, and then another book by Denise Riley, which is about the death of her son, which, which talked differently about the progress of grief. But I think that there seems to be a much more circular way of dealing with grief, I think, in South Asian communities, I think there’s a willingness to sort of see it as a not so much a trajectory or kind of a process. Although you process a, there’s a body that’s being processed.
I think that in terms of talking about the dead, it’s very different in terms of how we don’t close it off as much, I think. But then there are other people. I mean, my experience has been, you know, in relation to my brother, for example, many, many people turned up our house, mostly women, they just basically, these wise women that had been bereaved before that had something etched on their face, actually, that I realize the bereaved half, you know, they come into their houses, they took over the kitchen, they fed my children when I when we were incapable of even putting food in our mouths.
And they, they took care of things, they took those, and I just think that that is something that I was so moved by actually just like this, this care, this attentive nurses, and also they just weren’t intrusive. They were just sort of doing things and they were just making sure that we were Getting up in the morning and being fed. And, you know, we didn’t have to think about those things, you know, those, those things that happen to you, when you’re when you’re grieving, which are just so physical, the physical aspects, you just can’t deal with them, and which is what’s also perhaps surprising about being bereaved, there is something that’s happening to your body, it’s like a cognitive violence to your body.
And yet, I don’t know, perhaps it should have been obvious to me that that was what grieving was that it was so physical, physical as it was, but I guess those things unless, you know, I mean, I feel like there’s, there’s an innocence, you kind of lose your innocence. It’s an old friend of mine actually said could she’d lost both her parents quite close together and said to me, you know, you just feel that you’re suddenly assigned to this room, the room of the losing your innocence room, you know, where you’ve lost your innocence, and you never get it back. You know, you just know. But all these women, you know, just, I just really felt like very little was said, but so much was offered, you know? And given
Sangeeta Pillai 21:02
Yeah. And it’s almost like, it’s an awful thing to say, but there is a section of the population that hasn’t experienced grief. And then there is the section that has, and you can, there is a difference in the way they are physically, emotionally. I don’t know if there’s a difference. And I can’t even find the words to see what that is. And when you have an intense kind of emotional conversation with somebody you can tell. And it’s almost like those who have not lost anybody. They don’t have that. Yeah. And then those who’ve lost somebody they have that it’s, it’s such a simplistic way to say it, but there is a difference. And it’s a stark difference I find,
Mona Arshi 21:42
I think that’s it’s this kind of armour, yes. It’s like you lose your listeners by emotional armour that you lose, all of a sudden, you never really get that back. It is a fragile kind of film that we carry. And that and that leaves us. And actually, I don’t know, it’s really odd actually, to say this, because, you know, it’s such a difficult thing. It’s such a difficult grief to have to have lost someone that young in our family, and so suddenly. But I also feel like, you know, there are things about grief that have illuminated things for me, you know, they’ve made me change the way I think about life. You know, there’s the other end of that. And I find I’ve struggled with this a little bit because of course, I’m writing into this grief, and I’m trying to be useful and write things and, and yet a lot of people have mentioned that my poetry that’s come out, it’s really beautiful. And I don’t know what to do with that, because actually you realize it or the by-product is things like beauty. Yes. And that you have to sort of resolve that, you know, there is guilt with that. Yes, attendant to that. But yes, those are things that have happened as a result of this terrible event that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, and wish had never happened to me. But equally, you know, I think it changes you irrevocably, and I don’t know, it’s a bit like an illness. You know, I’ve been reading quite a lot of essays around illness and, and how people talk about illness, actually, you know, we’re all going to be ill at some point, but actually pain and illness, how they give you like a different lens to look through. And I suppose the poet’s lens on grief is slightly skewed by their experience. And you know, this is, this is where I’ve landed anyway.
Sangeeta Pillai 23:26
It’s almost like grief, it allows us to access a deeper part of ourselves that we weren’t able to before. And like you’re saying it, it’s complicated, because it’s not, you know, because a big grief has happened, and a big loss has happened. And that’s really hard. And but then it somehow takes you to a deeper place within yourself that you didn’t even know you had. I was thinking about grief in South Asian culture and specific communities. And I don’t know if you’ve heard of Rudolf, he’s in Rochester. Yes. Yeah. And I remember there was a whole film, Bollywood I think. .
I don’t remember the film. But I remember the women and the dark eyes and the dark clothing. And I thought it was quite beautiful. Like there’s a whole community who are professional mourners like a dolly. It just translates into mourning for crying. I think we’re Dolly, I think from what I remember. And they just turn up is a whole group of women that just turn up to your house, when you lose somebody and they express and they cry, and they will, and they beat their chests. But I think the point is that sometimes we are frozen by grief, and we’re not able to express the sorrow. And they do it for us. And I thought that was somehow very beautiful and poetic and sad at the same time.
Mona Arshi 24:39
Yes. Yeah. I mean, again, it’s the performance. Yes, it’s the performance Yes, of the grief, and the mourning. These women are not connected with the deceased person, but yet they perform what we cannot perform, which is so strange, but also I think that I mean, I think lots of cultures I mean, I think you can actually hire mourners, can’t you? Yeah, I think you can hire mourners. If you’re, if you’re worried about attendance, for example, I think I’m sure that you can hire mourners for funerals and things like that. But I think it sort of, there’s something else about that, actually, that is interesting, which is ritual and grieving.
And what’s interesting is that in South Asian culture, we associate, for example, widows with white. Yes, and widows’ behaviour is really policed in our culture. And I remember that very, very starkly with a neighbour of ours whose husband had died. And I definitely think there was an expectation of her doing it? Right? Yeah. Are the particular customs followed? Or the rituals followed? And basically, she was. I don’t even think she was that old. I think she was about 50. Yeah. But also my, my, I remember another incident where my mother’s sister, my aunt in India, lost her, her husband, at very young like she was only like, in her 30s. And she had four daughters. Imagine that. A widow with four daughters in India in the 1970s. And again, it was just like, Well, that was the end of your life. Yeah. You were just consigned to wearing white? And forever the kind of the bereaved? Yeah. And there was a performance. Yeah. So that is curious to me.
But I also think there is something, something that you carry with us, particularly after the first few weeks of a death, where you feel as if you are so fragile, you’re going out in the world, you’re getting on trains, and going to work and meeting people. And no one knows, only, you know, and I think that, you know, I was thinking about this. The other day, when we were looking at the YLP thinking, there is something about, you know, when we used to wear black, and we used to wear armbands, no, no one does that anymore. But there is something about just signposting to the world where you are, that you need to be handled in a different way, you know, this idea of wearing black and I know, we’ve lost that now. But we’ve also lost this ability to know, yes, when someone is in mourning, or to just, you know, just understand or just give them space, or give them a different sort of interaction, you know? So I don’t know, I’m not, I’m not saying that we should. I’m not advocating that we should all go back to worrying. But I just think there has to be, if we’re going to have these kinds of communities where we don’t know what’s happening to our neighbours. I think that maybe we should just think about other ways of ensuring that we can look after those people that are bereaved. Yes, some way.
Sangeeta Pillai 27:36
I absolutely agree. And I think there isn’t that in society now. So when maybe we’ve left the UN, I’m glad we’ve left the widows to have to wear white and conga marry them to shave their heads and all this stuff. And that’s awful. And I think it’s a real shame that women were put through that in our culture, and some it still carries on and men when men. Exactly. So you’re, as a woman, your life is finished, your husband said, now there’s nobody else to do. So it just makes me really angry.
Mona Arshi 28:03
Or even, you know, your husband’s dead. And you’re we’re going to now put you on the fire. Yes. Oh, my God. Yes. So that’s, that’s no, but it but I think that what it tells you is that these are deeply entrenched rituals that come from I mean, you know, I’m, you know, annihilating yourself because you’re dilating. I mean, basically saying to a woman who is widowed, well, that’s the end of you, you are, you are basically going to have a living death now, because you’re now invisible In our society, you no longer speak, you’re on the periphery or on the margins. You’re just whitened out. Yeah, that tells you something about how brutal it can be.
Sangeeta Pillai 28:46
Absolutely. And also to have all of these things. I don’t know if that happens in Punjab, but certainly in a lot of the north, north India, that you wouldn’t have a widow in any functions or marriages because she would bring bad. Yeah, I mean, how awful is that not only has this woman lost her husband, and it’s been completely kind of obliterated by society, and then you’re told that you’re bad luck. So you’re not allowed into any of these functions. You know, it’s just awful. I was thinking the other day that there were so many different kinds of grief. You know, there’s the, you know, I can’t even imagine the grief of losing a child. Some of us had lost parents and siblings and, and there’s, I’ve experienced a lot of grief for a childhood I never had. So I think I had to go back and really say, I’m really sad that that childhood never happened. So I was just thinking out loud, how do we navigate these various kinds of strands of grief in our lives, and we’ve all had some of it at one point or the other.
Mona Arshi 29:46
Well, we could start by thinking of language for what it is that we are grieving for and accepting it. And once we’ve identified it, there’s a really interesting quote by Jung, where he says We may not want to engage with it, but nevertheless, it will engage with us. So you can run from it. But you can’t hide from the you know. So I think that I think it’s important to understand that what we carry when we are younger we carry in the body, you can ignore it, we cannot confront it. Or we can try and gently have a conversation with it and understand how it might influence our decisions. You know, I mean, I mean, most therapists will tell you this anyway, but I think that, but I think it’s important that we don’t try and pretend that our memories are in little boxes, little hermetically sealed boxes, and they’re over there. Because I think that that is a hiding to nothing. Because really, and this is a second, this is the thing with grief, actually. And with any kind of trauma and trauma memory, we are tripping over our trauma memories in particular all the time.
They’re like trip wires through the day off of there, they kind of blindside us. Yes, so let’s just accept that, rather than pretending that they are sealed little, because they leak out, you know, and they’re so leaky. And we are sort of messy, you know, we’re not kind of computers. Yes, even our griefs are messy. They end up killing us. And there’s no particular trajectory. There’s no one way of grieving, all I know is that the idea of closing down something like grief, I think, is deeply problematic and really unhealthy. And I think our society lends itself to closing it down to like getting it over and done with to fix it to a particular time. And then if you don’t do that, then you’re aberrant. You’re an aberrant, you know, or you’re the medical eyes you and you know, it’s completely wrong. And I think we just need to find other ways, and other languages to think about how we stay healthy with trauma and grief included.
Sangeeta Pillai 31:56
Absolutely. And I think what you just said there, which is, society expects us to have this very neat kind of trajectory of grief, where you get X number of days, weeks, months, whatever, to have various stages of grief, and then you’re supposed to be done with it. And it’s never that simple. Nobody I know who’s experienced grief. For them, it’s that simple. It comes up, it leaks out, like I think you say so beautifully. I think we’ve got to change that expectation. I don’t quite know how though, within society, what we can do.
Mona Arshi 32:30
I think we just have to have conversations, and we need to provoke and not accept what’s handed down to us, the South Asian women in particular, who are often reduced or troped, or invisible eyes anyway, you know, I think we have to find ways of not accepting what’s given what were the structures. And sometimes we just have to think about making our own language for things and challenging, being curious, provoking. The whole and being completely active. I mean, language is part of that, you know, not accepting the language thinking of other ways of thinking of different forms, actually, you know, not accepting forms. There’s lots of ways of telling stories. Yeah. There’s not just one way.
Sangeeta Pillai 33:14
And I’ve, I’ve only said this, because I found it myself that sometimes when you introduce grief into a conversation, it gets very uncomfortable for people. How do we navigate that? Yeah.
Mona Arshi 33:28
Yeah, I mean, I think that first of all, there has to be safety in those conversations. I think that it’s an uncomfortable thing. For most people. This is the thing about grieving, you know, we are made to feel like it’s unusual, but actually, it’s commonplace. Yes. You know, it’s Yeah. You know, we have been dying for like, a long, long time. So, but it’s just how our society is unwilling to, to, to discuss it as I get it, you know, there are certain forums where it’s probably not jolly, okay. But I think it’s, we don’t talk about it nearly as much as we should. And actually, most people that you speak to, will be recovering from something, a grief related or know somebody, you know, it’s, it’s just,
Sangeeta Pillai 34:26
Mona Arshi 34:30
And so let’s try it. Let’s not try and pretend I mean, it’s not really our fault. I think our culture is such that we try to wrap things up in clingfilm and sweeten things up. You know, grief doesn’t really fit the agenda. It’s not really Instagrammable
Sangeeta Pillai 34:46
egregious Instagrammable. I love that.
Mona Arshi 34:49
I mean, so I think that but it’s, it’s an essential part of who we are. It’s a texture of our humanity. You know, we cannot deal with it. To not be equipped, or we can just start thinking about using the language that will help us to equip us and equip the people we know and love. When it happens.
Sangeeta Pillai 35:11
Yeah. I was thinking about what other people could do. So there’s one is us finding the words and using the language and talking about it. And that’s been a huge struggle for me, because I think I, my first response, and it was a trauma response. Now thinking back, I just shut it down. I’m like, Okay, if I don’t access any of this, none of it is real. And obviously, it’ll come out in a million ways. And it does, and it did. So that journey was to kind of get okay with being close to grief, yes, then finding the language for it within myself. And I’m slowly starting to find the language to express it to other people, I think. But how can other people help us help anybody that’s in a grief journey? What do you think they can do? And sometimes I think they can be quite hurtful without meaning to because they don’t really know, if you’ve not experienced it, you don’t understand? What are the ways that they can help?
Mona Arshi 36:08
I mean, I think it’s really simple. I just think that we should just use our imaginations, our God given imaginations can take us really far. So just to just a little comment, which is that I don’t think people were being hurtful when my brother died, and people were coming to support my family when in visit my, my mum. When my brother died, his name was Deepak by the way. But I think people would say things like, I just cannot imagine what you’re going through. It’s unimaginable what is happening to you. And I just remember thinking, and this is what I wrote about a little bit: do you not want to imagine it? Because actually, how is that helping my mother to like saying, you know, I’ve come to have come to sit with you and your grief. But actually, I can’t actually imagine what you’re going through, because what you’ve experienced is so out there. So out in another room, that I can’t even imagine what it would be like, Wow. And I think that, again, it’s not a criticism, because you know, these people are kind people.
And actually, I probably said those words as well. But I think that it tells you something about how unwilling we are to go to all four corners of our imagination. And actually how important imagination is. Because actually, when we talk about empathy, what is empathy? Actually, empathy is the use of the empathy, imaginative leap. That’s what empathy actually essentially is. And so just trying to put yourself it’s like a really simple thing, trying to put yourself in that person’s shoes and say, and say, I can imagine it, and it would be awful if I imagined it, but to say, I cannot imagine it, because what you’re experiencing is so out of the human realm. Yes. Yes. So I think it’s really not helpful. So just thinking about language. And actually, I think that using your imagination anyway, it’s helpful. So
Sangeeta Pillai 38:11
yeah, absolutely. And also, I think maybe what I find, in my experience, is allowing that person to sit with a grief, but not asking, really, you want to know all the gory details? You know, I’ve had that a few times. And, you know, there was a newspaper article I was writing about my mother’s death. And the editors like Uber, tell me all the gory details. And I’m like, You have no idea what you’re asking. Yeah, that’s awful. So I think, sitting with somebody giving them space to express but not digging so much that it is extremely painful. Like, yeah, put yourself in their shoes. Like would you really want to relive that
Mona Arshi 38:51
I think that’s such an important point. And one that I have been grappling a lot with, because so many people obviously I lost my, my, my brother 10 years ago now, and I wrote about it, like recently, so it’s 10. It’s taken me 10 years to write about 10 years to talk about it with, you know, with you, and I’m, I’m grateful I’m doing it. But it’s taken me a long, long time, because I felt like all the questions I was being asked were actually not about what my brother was like, but actually, the last moments of his death in that last, you know, the events of his few days or moments. And I just think that I don’t, I think that’s really deeply actually quite offensive. Because you can’t reduce the person to a few moments. And actually, that’s a desire and the person to know something gratuitous and I feel like I’m not going to. I don’t want to do that to my brother’s memory. And I think that it’s also none of your fucking business. Yeah, exactly. So I don’t do it. And I just think I’d rather talk about you know, the things that made him you know, his hair Know, his love of cats and red wine. And you know, he’s beautiful, sensitive, vulnerable nature, those things. And I think that turning up actually to the house of the bereaved and just holding someone’s hand and just saying, just, just tell me about just, yeah, let’s look at some photographs. And yeah, tell me about them, you know, I think is enough turning up and doing that is enough,
Sangeeta Pillai 40:25
I think and that itself is, is a huge amount, I think, where, again, a lot of people feel very uncomfortable, and they’re not sure, I think what to say or what to do. But I think what I always say is just turn up and what you’re saying, like, just let’s sit and talk about the beautiful moments in this person’s life. And too few people do that, I think. Yeah. Which is a real shame,
Mona Arshi 40:47
I think. Yeah, I mean, I think also, you’re in a very, you’re in such a vulnerable position. Yeah. Bereaved, and you’re sitting with, I think, those questions. I mean, I remember my mother being asked questions, and I was constantly having to guard her. And you’re sure that she wasn’t, she was protected from them a bit really.
Sangeeta Pillai 41:10
I used to think of grief as something just related to death. But having thought about this incredibly difficult emotion so much, I realized that grief is so much more than that. There are so many shades, so many layers to grief, of course, the grief of losing someone we hold dear. Then there is the grief of losing a part of ourselves. I sometimes miss the more carefree giggly version of myself, that I used to be a few years ago, than there is the grief around the concept of home. Moving from India to the UK 17 years ago means that I no longer recognize the India that I go back to. But I have also started seeing grief differently. I used to think of grief as this awful thing that you had to go through. But now, I think of it as something that gently marks the passing of time, of people, of places that are no longer part of me. And that grief is okay.
I was also thinking about death, and grief and what that teaches us about life. I feel like my mother’s death, while it was incredibly, incredibly difficult, made me really think about what I wanted my life to be. And I feel like death can show us the beauty of life. It’s incredibly painful. It’s not, I don’t say this lightly, but I think it shows us the way forward as well. Yeah,
Mona Arshi 43:03
I mean, everyone’s different. I think that how we carry it, how we deal with it, how it changes us, whether or not you know, many people actually feel paralyzed after a bereavement for saw was I mean, yeah, you know, and it causes so much psychological damage. And it’s very difficult, you can’t move on, I still feel I agree with you, I think that in a way, it’s an opportunity, that’s a, it’s a vantage point, to take perspective, and to, to attend to the living actually, and not to forget about the living and trying to learn also, you know, there are things that you can learn huge things that you can learn from, from being in that deep grief. You know, for that, especially in that really weird time when you’re in that strange limbo, and you just have lost your footing.
And it feels very strange, that strange Limbo that people often talk about, again, there’s no name for that limbo. Just like there isn’t a name for that time where, you know, you have that you’ve been notified of a death and then there’s no, and then you’re waiting for the funeral. I mean, sometimes it can be just moments that you said, but sometimes there can be no time. That could be like a week or longer sometimes, you know, what that very, very strange time does to you, in a strange way makes you look at the world in a very different way. And also time, things happen to time. Denise Riley talks about this, the poet journeys rally, in her book, time live without flow, where she talks about how time completely changes like this idea of time is thrown out of the window, this idea of like, you know, the clock and time, you know, either it goes very, very quickly or it just seems to just slow down to nothing. I think that that vantage point is a really useful way I think of thinking about your relationships and the time we have left.
Sangeeta Pillai 45:03
Let’s talk about your book. Let’s talk about your new book, which has been shortlisted for the Desmond Elliot prize. Yeah, I believe. Congratulations. Thank you. Tell me about the book and whatever else you’re up to.
Mona Arshi 45:16
So I’ve got two books of poetry. Actually, they are sort of almost like sibling books. And then I wrote a novel really completely by accident. I take that as my time. So I wrote, I finished it in lockdown. And it feels like a real lockdown. Or it’s about a girl, a South Asian girl growing up, she’s a teenager. And the main thing you need to know about her as a protagonist is that she doesn’t talk. She can talk though she’s a selective mute. And actually, a lot of the themes we’ve just been discussing are in that book around silence. What happens to language under the pressure of trauma? Really, it’s like a curiosity trail for me, you know, what is what happens to this girl who’s in this very disparate, has a very dysfunctional mother. She’s in the trauma of her mother, who’s sometimes functioning sometimes not in a kind of pressurized suburban atmosphere, what happens to language? And I guess it’s that journey, really trying to discover what happens to what happens to her and what happens to language.
Sangeeta Pillai 46:28
What’s the name of the book?
Mona Arshi 46:30
Somebody loves you.
Sangeeta Pillai 46:31
So somebody loves you, which I’ve got a copy of, I still haven’t read it. And I’m really, really looking forward to it. What else are you up to workwise?
Mona Arshi 46:38
Well, I’ve written a lot in the last few years. And so I’m off to Cambridge Trinity for two years. And I’m really lucky. I’ve got a writer in residence position there. So isolation sounds really, really exciting. You have to come and visit. Yeah, so I’m going to write. I’m going to do very little else. I think I just need to because I’ve written a lot and I’ve, I’ve been out a lot. I feel like now I need to go back into my cave, my writing cave, and be porous and read and just make things again, and so hopefully, I’ll be back in two years time.
Sangeeta Pillai 47:15
I’m sure a lot more amazing writing. Thank you so much mana I feel like we’ve had the most incredible conversation. My mind feels really kind of calm. And I don’t know, that’s been a really, really lovely conversation. Thank you so much.
Mona Arshi 47:29
It’s a pleasure.
Sangeeta Pillai 47:33
Thank you for listening to the Masala Podcast, a Spotify original. Masala Podcast is part of my platform, Soul Sutras. What’s that all about? Soul Sutras is a network for South Asian women. A safe space to tell our story, to hear inspiring South Asian women challenging patriarchy, a space to be exactly the people we want to be and still feel like we belong in our culture, and our community. And ultimately, a space where we feel less alone. I’d love to hear from you. So do get in touch via email at soulsutras.co.uk or go to my website, soulsutras.co.uk. I’m also on Twitter, and Instagram. Just look for Soul Sutras. Masala podcast was created and presented by me Sangeeta Pillai, produced by Anushka Tate, opening music by Sonny Robertson.