Your torso is trembling and your face reddens with the blood gushing to it. The dull weight on your shoulders and wrists grows like liquid lead is pooling within them. Your knees are taut with your feet pressed against the wall you are staring at as you try to make an inverted L shape with your body.
Suddenly you realise your upside-down form is wobbling under its own heft. You can feel the pit of your abdomen tightening in revolt and feet failing to grip the wall. The truth, and your own aching body serves as a reminder – you are not Zareen.
A few days later, 43-year-old Zareen is sitting across from me with deliberate poise.
I’m here to meet an army daughter turned surgeon’s wife, turned mother of two, turned divorcee, turned fitness trainer , turned marathoner, turned Instagrammer… you get the drift.
Clad in fitted bell-bottomed denim slacks and a long-sleeved red shirt she breezily asks ‘Would you like to join me in the gym and try a few inversions?”.
I try to conceal my terror at attempting what comes to her so easily. The memory of my embarrassing attempt to stand upside-down in half handstand to imitate one of Zareen’s Instagram posts, haunts me. A distracted half-smile and mumbling reticence is all I can manage.
It took the painful departure from an unfulfilling and anaemic 23-year-old marriage to embark on her current journey. “I see myself as a life coach rather than a trainer…people are like, you’ll make us do something crazy like be inverted for half an hour” says the certified fitness expert who declares that people come to her for a “different energy”.
After her second pregnancy resulted in a caesarean delivery, she acquired the manic zeal to return to fitness despite being told it wouldn’t be possible.
As she lifts, twists, pushes, pulls and balances in impossible postures, men walk past her in the gym pretending to be nonchalantly unobservant while the her phone records her toil.
"“I really flummox people because they see me as a mom, they see me as this mad person in the gym, they also see me as this calm yoga person who can chant” she chimes, waving a palm that is often tugging kettle bells and 15 kg powerbags in the gym."
Because her life is not nearly the norm amongst mothers, her Instagram account is simply the everyday of her life. No paid partnerships or branded posts.
When this attracts any unwarranted attention or crass commentary either in the digital or real world, she switches her superpower on. “I’ve developed the habit of forgetting negative things” she says.
"“But my son thinks I’m a superwoman because his friend’s parents tell him what I am doing on Instagram.”"
She beams after describing the 1500 pushups she had to do to be able to perform a ‘Human Flag’ after seven months of intensive training.
Zareen represents a new, alternative model of motherhood in India. Fiercely independent, economically empowered and tough as nails
It’s a curious picture in a culture that expects emotional strength and quiet fortitude from its mothers but not a physical force that equals, and often exceeds, that of the men around them.
A physical force that you feel when you’re battling to walk while holding half your body weight in dumbbells in each hand. The ‘Farmer’s Walk’ is a gruelling exercise that tests the body’s ability to stay upright and in motion. As you reach the weight stand you’re walking towards longing to let down the hunks of metal, blunt realization hits you again – you are not Juily.
Juily’s pulled her hair back and has assumed the warrior pose. Front knee bent, one leg extended back, hip and shoulders in perfect alignment, she guides four young moms clad in yoga pants in the foyer of a Mumbai apartment complex. A smart watch here, a tattoo there.
It’s now time for the day’s finale – the head stand. One by one, fingers clasped behind skulls nestled on yoga mats, the young mothers use the wall to make an inverted L shape.
Juily gradually balances their legs upright, pointed towards the ceiling one after another. For some, success comes sooner that others. For everyone, there is a veneer of perspiration creating the after glow of chasing their own private headstand goal.
As she heads to drop her kindergarten twins off to school, the steely, self-possessed resolve of a mother who has dealt with a high-risk pregnancy after a miscarriage and survived is writ large.
“I think somewhere, the corporate life just disillusioned me… for women, the need for validation is very high and narcissistic bosses feed on that” she explains just as an ‘online client’ from abroad interrupts her with a call.
She winded down her career in the financial services world,
This Engineer and MBA graduate decided to join an online ‘fitness goal orientation’ programme after a four-month hospital bedrest and caesarean delivery had left her feeling unfit and overweight.
Do something for 20 minutes everyday, for a hundred consecutive days. “It was incredibly difficult because I joined back work after a one-and-a-half year sabbatical,” she recalls.
A series of online exams and certifications for fitness and nutrition, and a yoga course later, she helped a relative miraculously recover from life-sapping weight gain and found her first client.
Along the way, the crown at a Mrs Maharashtra contest injected supreme confidence that is today transmitted to 20 online clients and helped eviscerate maternal anxiety.
“I used to go to the gym and other moms would ask me ‘who is taking care of the kids?’… that would send guilt pangs through me” says the fitness influencer who has stopped paying heed to such admonishing.
Nor have lewd comments from men on her Instagram posts perturbed her. “If a woman is doing something in fitness, they sexualise it… I do get a lot more attention now,” she says of unwanted external affirmation that sometimes scar her Instagram comments.
The real world is a different flavour of bemusement. “I think men are really surprised that I lift so much… some are really encouraging. One man saw me benchpress 40 kg and was like, in the morning you look all princess-y and now…?!” she mimics a tone that could be mistaken for a patronising outpour but is actually surprise.
In their own fashion, the Zareens and Juilys are the manifestation of a phenomenon that pulls at the edge of what was considered acceptable when it came to the notion of the ‘good Indian mother’.
By tweaking the corners of what society tends to expect from its mothers, these ‘muscle moms’ are charting a new path.
One that fiercely protects maternal ambition while also grasping at other life-goals with both hands.
Read their comments section on Instagram and it is clear that some Indian moms, inspired by them are now seeking more for the price that being the wife, the mother, the daughter exacts. They might just be turning motherhood in India on its head, one inversion at a time.
(The author Nair DA muses about all things that secretly shape the mind of biped mammals. Wary of arm-chair, expert opinions and enthused by on-ground observations because truth grows the strongest at the grassroots. Unlikely to save the world anytime soon but all proceeds from writing go to charity.)
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