Friday, 1 June 2018


My 7 year old nephew and I sit together to write a poem about his summer holidays in England - it’s all very well to assume a holiday is only about ice cream and laughter, but what about the unexpected? Maybe even the unpleasant?

by Rafael Tayabali (with some help from his Aunty Shai)

It hurt. It really hurt,
That stinging nettle I found.

It was only yesterday,
In a place far, far away

Where the pigs and cows live,
And English shire horses roam.

I thought the pain would last forever,
But before I knew it, it was gone.

‘Scruffles! We have no paper left!’
Says my Aunty Shai. So goodbye.

(A poem for dverse poets Open Link Night

Thursday, 10 May 2018


I never quite know what I’m supposed to do on a day ‘celebrating’ such a dastardly disease - or perhaps it’s just for enlightenment, for awareness... not that I ever remember. When I told Mum it was World Lupus Day, she asked me, ‘So what are you doing for today?’ And I replied, ‘I am enjoying my life today.’

Which I am. I wore enjoyment in the form of colours, bright lime green nails and shoes, and a rope of beads around my neck, a craft present from my beloved Mary Haybittle - for rainy days with the twins - can't remember which twin made this particular one - and the nurses were very complimentary. Colour has that effect in hospital.

I pretended my NHS coffee was Real Cawfee and later, when I was free of the cannula, I took myself off to the Jubilee Garden for a few sunshiny moments.

When I rang Mum to ask if she’d fetch me home, she said the iron had packed up and could we go to Sainsbury? 'Mais oui,' said I, placing the beads more prominently to better enjoy the freedom of being me on this day, May 10, 2018.

Did I wear the beads, headdress style, at Sainsbury? Bien sur!

Here is a little video wave I made in the hospital garden, just to say hello 👋🏽

Monday, 30 April 2018


Spring sprang, and took the daffodils with it.
Is sprang a word in that particular context? Lately words are becoming more of a challenge to recognise, what with the new social media cultures, shortening of words to letters and even the loss of words. Have any of you heard of, or bought Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris’ book ‘Lost for Words’? It is a beautifully annotated encyclopaedia of nature related words that are in danger of being ousted in favour of supposedly less grandiose words.
At the Cambridge Literary Festival, on the 14th of April, Jackie Morris live painted an otter, using Japanese ink and water drawn and bottled by MacFarlane from the chalk springs at Nine Wells in south Cambridge. A Cambridgeshire campaign to save these lost words by ensuring every primary school has a copy of the book has been very successful. I feel inclined to buy a copy for myself and the four children who meander in and out of my life. The walls of our front living room are covered by animal artwork anyway, although perhaps not using the sumi ink and gold leaf of Morris’ illustrations… her website is a treasure trove of her drawings.

Poetry was also a feature at the Cambridge Literary Spring Festival, with Wendy Cope talking about her latest collection. She was going to call it ‘Seventy’, the age she is now, thinking it would be an attractive selling point for the seventy year old market. But then she realised it might not appeal to every other age, so she changed the name to ‘Anecdotal Evidence’. She was as droll in person as she is in verse.

Mum has planted a very conservative tray of tulips after the muntjacs devoured hundreds in past years. But I have bought a variety of bright orange gerbera and a pot of vivid purple something or other from our local garden centre, Scotsdales, determined to have splashes of colour everywhere possible. We had one lonely Bird of Paradise come up in the conservatory, and with that we must suffice.

In wider British news, we have a new possible king! Well, hopefully Princess Charlotte stands a chance first (the first royal sister to hold her own place in the lineage) but still, welcome Prince Louis Arthur Charles! Nicely timed, out of the way of his Uncle Harry’s wedding in less than three weeks. I haven’t been sent an invitation but I might be in London on that day, all being well, for a theatrical outing I booked a year and a half ago, a thing I have never done in my life. More about that as and when, and if possible...

Meanwhile, onwards to May. Lilac wisteria is already garlanding our front door, and I have had two rounds of Rituximab monoclonal antibody therapy after a bleak nine months of waiting. So, as Olaf the Snowman would say, ‘All good things. All good things...’

Thursday, 19 April 2018


Not a warrior. Just a woman.
There is nothing 'just' about being a woman.

You wore purple slippers while incarcerated
In the place without colour.

You noticed the small failures, and sought to
Correct the large ones.

You housed two tortoises for thirty years,
And built another home for those of us

Wandering in the bewildering wilderness
Of lupus. Systemic lupus, that uncontrollable beast

That ropes us into the pen of our lives,
Trying to tame us into submission.

Not a warrior. Just a woman.
Who wore her height stylishly.

Who ate her cake ravenously.
Who lived her truths wisely.

But not without humour. Never
Without humour.

Are you here now? Like I asked you to be?
Or have you already flown far, free

To conquer new lands, unite with old friends,
Your mother, who left you too soon.

As you have left us, too soon.

Shaista Tayabali
April 16, 2018

linked with dverse poets

Shelagh Cheesman was the Chair of the Cambridgeshire Lupus UK group, the champion of many, and my dear friend. Along with our friend Colette Barrere, we formed part of an informal club called The Chloe Club, wearing our shared necklaces, lunching at the Tickell Arms, breaking down our encounters with the medics into humorous morsels. 
I can't say words like 'I'll miss her' because they sound too banal. And anyway, she doesn't seem to have left me. Yet.
I recited the poem above at her funeral service on Monday 16th. It was a poem she commissioned herself two weeks before she died at Addenbrooke's. She unknowingly gave me the title of the poem with this quote: I don't like the word 'warrior'. But I like the word 'positivity'. 

The not-so-formal photo: Shelagh (L), me, Coco (R), post Tickell Arms lunch

Thursday, 22 March 2018


They disappear the girls,
But it's the men who blur, for me.

Whose father, did what, when,
With whose aid, why - I care less

About them. And only about you.
You remain. You and your name

Haunt me, but not as ghostly mystery.
There was nothing insubstantial

About you. In fact, there was so much
That it has spilled over, across time,

Crossed the bridges of your world
And mine, so you live with me now,

Swimming in the river of my thoughts.
I hope you don't mind.

(c) Shaista Tayabali, 2018

They wanted us to forget her. They tried to erase her, in a suitcase, strangled and abandoned, buried. No, evil, you did not succeed. We honour her, still. Her name is on our lips, in our poems, crossing borders on the wind. Banaz Mahmod. In 2012, Deeyah Khan and Andrew Smith documented her story in a film they titled Banaz: A Love Story. She was born 16 December 1985, and killed 24 January, 2006. She was Iraqi Kurdish. She lived in Wimbledon, London. And she fought to save her own life.  
(poem shared via dverse poets)

Wednesday, 21 March 2018


It is the spring equinox today, and all around the world Parsis, Zoroastrians and Iranians are celebrating Nav Roz, or No Ruz, which translates to New Day. But also, following Celtic and Saxon tradition, the goddess Ostera is celebrated by Wiccans and druids at Stonehenge, the goddess Isis brings rebirth to Egypt, Passover includes a thorough spring cleaning in Jewish homes, and in Russia, Maslenitsa is observed as a time of light, and a return to warmth. 

An article I wrote at the end of last year was recently reprinted in the magazine 'Parsiana' with an illustration of myself as Zoroastrian superhero, with a heart of fire, which is one of the coolest things that has ever happened to me. I plan on having a giant poster reproduction of it to remind myself on lost days that I have a heart of fire. Thank you, Farzana Cooper, fabulous illustrator!

In case you missed my article 'Half Parsi, Half Muslim, Full Woman', I am including it in full here...


I say my name, in full.
‘Date of Birth?’
I say my date of birth, in full.
‘Half Parsi, half Muslim,’ I say. In full.

She looks up at me. I am standing in the classroom, as each of us do when the roll call reaches our letter in the alphabet. ‘How can you have two religions?’ she asks. Maybe she is smiling, maybe she isn’t. I cannot remember because this process occurs every single year, on the first day of school after the monsoon holidays are over. ‘I don’t know,’ I say, although I do. I have two parents. And two religions. 

‘What is your father?’ In India, this is quite a common way of asking which religion you belong to. ‘What are you?’ begins with this classification, if your name doesn’t already ‘give you away’. ‘My father is Muslim,’ I say. And watch her write it down. I protest. How young I was when I began protesting is unclear to me. All I know is that by the time I was ten I had already decided I'd had enough of my mother’s religion being erased from my identity. For that is how I perceived the act of a figure of authority deciding for me that my father’s religion was the defining classification of my personhood.

I am a feminist. I came to an understanding of this word first through the writings of Alice Walker and her fulsome, inclusive definitions of womanist. But that was at university. So there was no word for what I felt at the thought of the denial of my mother’s religious identity. In India this is more than which place of worship you are allowed to enter – it weaves into every aspect of your life - your birthing ceremony, your childhood years, your teenage relationships, your marriage, your divorce or inability to divorce, and then the decisions that will affect your own children’s lives. My mother had a spiritual, emotional and psychological crisis when she fell in love with my father, because she had always assumed she would marry a Parsi like herself. Parsis are now a tiny community: a thousand years after leaving Persia because of Arab persecution, and of sheltering in India under the premise of never proselytising the religion – Zoroastrianism – we number less than 60,000.

You notice I have only just mentioned the ‘other’ religion. Indians know that to be a Parsi is to be Zoroastrian in a way the world does not want to know that to be Muslim is to be Malaysian, Kurdish, French, Moroccan, Norwegian, Somali. Naming ‘Zoroastrianism’ has only become a reality since we moved to England. A non-reality, ultimately, because no one has heard of Zoroastrianism. Well, unless you happen to be a bonafide Freddie Mercury fan, or you are a Professor of Iranian or Avestan Studies. The Jehovah’s Witnesses who used to knock on our door heard ‘Rastafarian’ every time my mother opened the door, and explained she did have religion in her life.

What was my Parsi mother’s greatest fear when marrying my Muslim father? That her children would be neither one thing, nor the other. Where would we belong individually, or as a family? Nowhere, she feared. And in part, her fears proved of substance. When my grandfather died, the Zoroastrian priest would not permit my mother to enter the sacred area where her father lay, wrapped in white muslin sheets, ready for his sky burial. She had been made impure by marrying outside the community and the pure land was no longer available to her. His cruelty broke her heart.

We make our choices. One day, when the need to visit the fire temple and light aromatic sandalwood became too great, my mother drove all of us to the agiary. The sign outside clearly stated, ‘Only Parsis allowed.’ My father prepared to wait outside the entrance. My mother, my younger brother and I began to troop inside. One small figure was missing. My older brother, clutching our father’s arm, refused to leave his side.

We make our choices. Are you Muslim or Parsi? What is your father? So when I was ten I placed the secret of my heart upon my mother’s palm. I knew no one would ever order me to prove myself a Muslim. If they did, couldn’t I simply burst into ‘Alam Nash Rakh Laka Sad Rakh’? Hadn’t my mother painstakingly taught herself Arabic so she could in turn teach us the calligraphy that would forever be written upon the scripts of our souls? Secure in my Islamic and Arabic traditions, I wanted to ensure my Persian Avestan traditions. There was one formal investiture and it was time conditional. Parsi girls may only ever enter the Zoroastrian faith through the navjote ceremony before we begin to menstruate. Oh that gatekeeping, so beloved to the male priestly communities across the globe, across time. Blood, the river of life, which runs gender-binary free through all human veins, suddenly turns into such filth that God himself would forsake us. He would be Himself here. Herself would merely commiserate over the monotonous banalities, send waves of abdominal healing and draw us ever closer.

It didn’t make much difference and it made all the difference in the world. My Parsi-ness, my Zoroastrianism, remains invisible, the secret I placed upon my mother’s palm. Remains the secret of my heart. My delightful father, who I worried would feel betrayed by my deliberate choice, was only moved to tears that his daughter felt so deeply about her relationship to the liminal, the mystical unseen ever-thereness of the spiritual world. I pray, as he does, in surahs and in gathas. A thousand years ago, his people may have persecuted my mother’s people. In me, persecution will not be internalised. Love made its decision so firmly, so deeply, that surely some tiny bat squeak of an echo is even now ricocheting back in time, to press my secret into the palms of forsaken hands. Here. Remember this. Love is a choice, waiting.

(first published in Sisterhood mag, Dec 26th 2017)

Wednesday, 28 February 2018


It is almost March. Half an hour to go, and we are in the middle of a snowstorm. My toes were frozen in the car a few minutes ago but our lovely warm house is heating me up nicely. In 27 countries around the world, across 927 screens, audiences just witnessed Shakespeare transformed once again into a different mode of art. Ballet this time. Our auditorium in Saffron Walden wasn't full because of the snow, but for those of us who were able to attend the screening, a cup of hot coffee or a glass of white wine eased us into our seats. Some of us may have had a chocolate brownie as well... hey, it was gluten free! Surely that's healthy?
Ryoichi Hirano burst on to our stage (well, our screen) and we were, to a woman, transfixed. His presence, his beauty, his actorly ability to transmit jealousy (the most potent of our emotions?) was unrivalled by any of the other dancers, even though every other dancer was obviously perfection embodied.

The youthful delights of spring and first love in Act Two contrast with the winter and storms of imagined betrayal in Act One. But Ryoichi disappeared and so Act Two was a bit meh for me. I mean, amazing, of course, but I drifted... do you drift when you watch the ballet or the opera? Or while listening to classical music? I am often distracted by the presence of all the other minds in the room, bodily with me, but each of us entering our emotional worlds, separately.

I was glad to return to Ryoichi in the final act. Hair whitened by grief, he was still magnificent, and when Hermione, the wife he thought was lost to him, is revealed to him in a dance of forgiveness, I felt almost as shocked as he was. And glad. I had missed Lauren Cuthbertson too - the ballerina who co-created her own role. A statue coming to life wasn't the only moment that stunned me - a doll masquerading as a baby, with arms and legs moving (ah, modern technology) almost made me miss the bear that wolfs down a poor courtier...

In the outside world, snow flurries awaited us, but the thrill of the performance had us on a high long enough to grab a frozen selfie... I hope you are all keeping warm and finding something to smile about. Google the gorgeous Ryoichi!! Or if such superficial things as a beautiful Principal dancer don't appeal, read Shakespeare - the ballet made me want, made me need, the words that began the dance.

Thursday, 25 January 2018


First their eyes met, then they danced, and then decades of moon phases (and poems by their daughter) later...

Two rabbits sat upon a hill,
one blinked sleepily,
the night was so still.

Suddenly the moon
peeked out between the clouds,
and the moon gazers, entranced,
counted out the stars.

There bounds Pegasus
and Pleiades, the beauty,
there Cassiopeia, Aries and Venus -

And here, bound to earth,
you and I, my dearest.

What more than love and blue skies?
What more than love, my dearest.

Happy Anniversary my beloved Perveen and Chotu xxxx

(poem included in dverse poets open link night)

Sunday, 31 December 2017


I've never done a round up of a year before... maybe a little hopeful contemplation as the year floats away that I did alright, I wasn't a complete disaster, love prevailed... but I feel like recording a few things for this last day of 2017. The brights and the shadows. 

The year started off with a flurry of rejections, which does rather set the spirit at a low hum of despair. But in amidst the form rejections, I had several personalised letters, which I have since learnt is an achievement in itself. Here is the most special among them - inspite of the rejection, I genuinely loved it.

Dear Shaista, Thank you for sending me Blind Wolf, Butterfly Woman and for giving me the opportunity to consider your work. I was consumed by your poignant, affecting story. I found it beautifully and truthfully depicted and it resounded with me deeply. You demonstrate remarkable courage in expressing your story, and I hope that you have found the writing process in some way helpful. Your attitude to your condition is truly an inspiration. However in spite of this I am unfortunately unable to make you an offer of representation. I am really concentrating on building up my fiction list, and while your story is incredibly moving, I am not sure how I would break it out commercially, with a mainstream publisher. The market at the moment is so competitive and publishers are being extremely cautious, particularly when it comes to acquiring memoir. However these judgements are always subjective and you may well find someone who feels very differently. Again, I very much appreciate having had the opportunity to consider your work and wish you all the best in finding the right home for it. Best wishes, ...

Then I had a rejection from the University of Cambridge to do an M. Phil on Vietnamese American post-war literature, and then I had an acceptance from the University of Cambridge to give a TEDx talk on creativity!

I think I successfully convinced everyone in that room that creativity can and must be taught, particularly to young children, and particularly at school. Perhaps I will share my speech another day. I didn't realise it wouldn't be recorded, but it was a TEDx salon talk, and those are more intimate. It was a special day, the 25th of January, Mum and Dad's anniversary, and as you know they are very much central to my creative life.

In February I was rejected (or rather not included) in (ironically) the Anglia Ruskin University TEDx event. I don't know how the event went in the end - it was inaugural, so hopefully it was a success. I was extremely fortunate to have been excluded because I developed kidney sepsis at the end of a lovely but hectic surprise visit from the Singaporean crew. Mum's birthday on the 10th of February was a wonderful time of celebration until right at the end, when I was bundled off to A&E, burning up, throwing up. Mum even wore mismatching shoes to the hospital, it was so muddled a morning.

Back in again with more infection at the end of March and into April... and then again in July and August... I had two PICC lines for two different infections, which took such a toll on me. And yet, while in hospital, I recorded a video to accompany my book for a crowdfunding platform called Unbound Publishing. When I was rejected from that I did feel quite awful. I spent September in bed for the most part. For World Poetry Day at the end of September, I recited poetry in the hospital chapel, which was very healing, and by the end of October I felt inspired enough by my summer experience of video making to start a vlog channel and recorded four wonderful talks with my friends Colette and Daisy on living with lupus. I was on radio in November reciting poetry and talking about hospital shenanigans, but that wasn't recorded on a podcast either, so hilariously the only two people who heard me live were the two people I told - Mum and Dad, the two people who listen to me every day, anyway!!

- And our beloved friend Victoria who drove me to the radio station and sat quietly, and supportively, in the booth beside me!

And finally on Boxing Day, I had a piece published in sisterhood mag, on my complicated and beautiful religious and spiritual life. Deeyah Khan, the founder of the magazine, and an extraordinary documentarian, had tweeted me earlier to consider contributing, and I am so glad she did...

We lost dear friends this year - our beloved John Haybittle, and two days ago, our childhood friend Vinit. We celebrate how wonderful they were, and hold on to each other more tightly. Tomorrow it will all be the same, and yet a little different. Happy New Year, my dear friends, whichever it is. 

Friday, 17 November 2017


We thought it would come quietly,
the final bend in the road;
we shored ourselves up, with
pots of tea, evening crackers
and Sunday nights in Downton Abbey.

Seventy-four years ago,
you walked down the aisle with me;
a pair of jaundiced eyes wouldn't keep
you from marrying me.

Sometimes the morning light
catches the emerald in my ring;
my fingers catch the chords of notes
you liked to hear me play.

Here we are, you and I,
a litte stuck today -
I, tucked up in our bed,
and you, in your room,
many miles away.

But the lamp is on,
and when tomorrow comes,
beside you, I will stay.

I wrote this poem last year for my beloved Mary on John's 95th birthday. These are wrenching times for Mary, because she is separated from John, who is too ill to live at home anymore. Five days after their wedding John left to be with the RAF, but then he came back, and then the children came, and then, and then... life... all of life. And then one day Mary met my father, who was a medical student of John's at Addenbrooke's, the same hospital I now haunt. And then years later she met my mother. More years passed. And then my brothers and I. I was fifteen and my life has been the richer, the more beautiful, the truer for her friendship. Lucky, lucky me.