An 18-year-old’s decision to quit Bollywood and seek repose in a quieter, calmer way of life has been dissected and shredded to bits in every possible way.
She has been branded “radicalised” and questions have been raised about Islam being a religion that goes against the performing arts. Her declaration has been branded an indirect condemnation or shaming of other people in the industry. Let us, for a minute, back up a bit and redirect our vision to the six-pager that Zaira Wasim uploaded on her Instagram.
“For a very long time now,” she writes, “It has felt like I have struggled to become someone else.” That’s one of the key lines that everyone seems to have missed, dwelling only on the “religious” part of it. Religion, contrary to popular understanding, isn’t just a set of prescriptive, if one may call it that, rules and regulations. Religion can, perhaps, best be defined as the outer covering of spirituality, which lies at its very core. At its heart, so to speak.
Spiritualism is the anchor that a person seeks when they find themselves adrift. It is the stable ground beneath one’s feet when one feels unsure of one’s footing. A good life — in the most materialistic sense of the word — may not feel so good after all. One could get sucked into a vicious circle of living up to other people’s expectations, living up to artificial standards of success and becoming a cog in the wheel of self-doubt. Always chasing after the next glittering object, not pausing to consider what it was we truly wanted. “I kept trying to escape but somehow I always ended up hitting a dead end, in an endless loop with a missing element that kept torturing me with a longing I was neither able to make sense of nor satisfy,” writes Wasim.
People leaving corporate careers at their peak to follow the passion of their lives isn’t something new or unheard of. People distance themselves from a fat pay cheque and top designations to become stand-up comedians, authors, bakers, bikers. If it’s alright to give up financial stability and social recognition to follow the pull of one’s heart, why does it become a retrograde step if that pull happens to be spiritual? Is it not possible for someone to feel that their calling in life is of a more spiritual nature, that they would rather be someone who seeks divinity and a different purpose in life? Why do we assume that people who are religious are necessarily radicalised and pose a danger to society?
As for the question that she didn’t have to post it on social media, I wonder, in a world where everything — from what we had for breakfast to selfies in the toilet — is out there for everyone to see, why she would feel the need to share or explain such a major decision in her life seems perfectly understandable, if not justifiable.
I must emphasise though, that Zaira Wasim’s declaration struck a particular chord in my heart. I’m no celebrity by any measure, but I was 17 when I turned towards spiritualism, and in a step that shocked everyone around me, decided to adopt the hijab. Nobody in my decidedly modern family had donned the hijab in the past three generations. And yet, there I was — sick of my party life, sick of a life where my face and body were always worth more than my intellect and my soul.
The emptiness I felt inside was real, emptiness that came from not knowing the deeper purpose of life, not being able to see the world beyond its surface. As Master Sheefu from Kung Fu Panda would say, I sought “inner peace”.
The journey, however, became a nightmare.
I was shunned by people who had hitherto fawned around me, was scoffed at and told I had ruined my future career and would never achieve anything in life. This, interestingly, while my academic grades remained at the top, and I continued to be an ace debater in college — everything that I’d been, with only a change in my appearance. With that single alteration, I had apparently “ruined my future”. This is actually a very good example of how we are made to evaluate our selves by an artificial measure; how superficial are society’s attitudes towards success and achievement.
The gist of the matter is that spirituality exists as a force to reckon with across our planet, for reasons that are universal. The path to self-actualisation is through self-exploration. It is a diseased society indeed which shames and condemns a young girl for trying to find her own self.
It may be that some years down the line, she might decide to return. But should she want to return, not only will those who are condemning her now scoff at her, but all those who hail her decision now will mock her for abandoning the “path”. In truth, a person’s path can only be found by herself, or himself — not by the sea of strange faces and noises posing as society.
We need to give our youth the space to explore who they really want to be. The important thing is that in an inclusive world the doors would never be shut upon you — whether you want to come in, or go out. Or come back in again.
This article first appeared in today’s paper under the headline: “Zaira’s choice”.