I love this city of mine. It’s cradled me from birth to middle age, and the few years I’ve spent away from its motherly clasp, in my young adulthood, I can safely say, were like a grand adventure, the pace, intensity and scope of which were utterly too momentous for my high-strung heart to sustain. And so, I’ve always come back. I’ve relinquished the rougher edges of my personality to her smothering warmth. This was not always the case. I remember, in childhood, when the sun would beat down on our youthful hearts in school, and our uniforms would stick to our forming contours, there wasn’t going to be a force on earth that was going to curtail my grand ambitions. They transcended the grit and grind of my sultry nook of southern India. No, my goals were global. Fantastical, even. I grew up on a healthy diet of western musicians singing about reaching for the stars, and fantasy fiction books where the heroine battled demons to save the day for all of humanity, or whatever clan she came from – the ordinary folk, setting herself apart. She was to make an indelible impact. She was to be worshipped.
Well, that hasn’t happened. In fact, I seem to have pushed a healthy number of imposters to friendship far away from me. In the defense of some of them, they just didn’t have the stomach for straddling the fence of societal acceptability, which became my living space, for a while. And now, the precious few, for they are precious to me, that I’ve drawn to me, like bees to my own particular tart brand of honey, well, they accept me in all my scarred glory. And that’s more than enough of love. But the need to be liked – let’s be honest, isn’t that just another way of desiring the need to make an impact on the spaces we inhabit, that we all, as humans, crave? If that primal, visceral urge is to be tempered with, by Time, and also, a royal buggering by Life, well, for whatever reason, that hasn’t happened for me, yet.
Perhaps it has to do with all the pop lyrics my brain was impregnated with as a seventeen-year-old, about dictating our own fates, and all the books I’d read about intrepid, secretly magic-wielding mortals who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds, and some fire-breathing dragons to boot, that’s given me a distorted sense of what we’re to expect before we shuffle off this mortal coil. I still, hold on to the jeans I could fit into from fifteen years ago and hope to do so, again. Is that retrograde? (And a little sad?) I don’t think so, actually. After all, it’s not like I’m trying to hold on to every bit of me from a youthful avatar; I’m not an idiot. That would mean holding on to a decade of alcohol abuse, broken relationships, and miserably failed professional dreams. For instance, I’m not trying to be a medical doctor, anymore. That dream, as deeply ingrained into my being as the scars of alcohol, couldn’t be sustained after a point. Boy, did I hold on to it well past its sell-by date, though!
In motherland India, we’re taught to pursue excellence at all cost, from a very young age, and my genuine passion for medicine, neatly and coincidentally, fell into the trappings of that construct. We’re not taught to smell the roses along the way, but bury our heads in the sand and slog away at academics for the first twenty-five years of our lives, until we pull away from the crowd. It’s sheer lunacy as only, naturally, some withstand the onslaught of pressure and the demands on a narrow definition of intelligence. I’d like to mention here, only some get the privilege to be schooled properly, at all. But, for those for whom the system works, they come out of that rigmarole with the dual stamp of societal approval and the trappings of impending success. I thought I was going to be one of them. Turns out I wasn’t, a fact I discovered well into my thirties, and when I did, I made sure to extract my pound of succulent self-pity and spirituous sorrow. In other words, I drank my way through it. This turned out, understandably, as it always does, to be the worst misadventure of my life, but I was young and in panic at my unraveling life, and it was at a time in India when women simply didn’t openly struggle with these things. It was taboo. I don’t mean to discard responsibility, no, but I didn’t quite understand what was happening to me. Depression, heartache, loneliness – these are real things. Drinking was the symptom, not the cause, but no one saw it that way. They just wanted my problem to go away. And if not, they wanted me to go away, even if they wouldn’t acknowledge it. The young Indians of today seem better equipped to talk of mental health and ‘me too’ and sexual diversity and their damn periods, but none of this made its way to the fore of society’s mindscape, some fifteen, twenty years ago. There was no room for it from a castigating society which quickly came to the conclusion of my profligacy and prodigality. #spoilt. So, no, I haven’t really ticked off my ‘being worshipped’ bucket-list goal, yet.
Don’t worry about me, though: My intrepid Indian genes, which will violently pursue ‘success’ – whatever that means, and the steady stream(ing) of gorgeously uplifting western songs into my ears, will insulate me from capitulating on that front. Never mind that there was a time when I thought of myself as a good girl. And when you’re good, you’re automatically liked. That was my overtly simple assumption to win over the world. It’s okay – I dug myself into a melancholic hole and now, I’m slowly but surely, digging myself out of its deathly clasp. Those that left me along the way, they seem to be doing just fine. I miss some of them, but they’re ghosts of a past life. For all my efforts, I haven’t fully recovered from my abandonment. Don’t get me wrong – I never want to see them again. I’ve staunchly held on to the belief that I would’ve been there for my old friends if the situation had been reversed. But, I tell you, that kind of unusual, mass desertion, at a tender age when we need our friends and at least, the semblance of social constructs, has had peculiar and permanent effects. I know I’m not a hundred percent sentient, anymore. I see it in the way I react to situations, and, in the way I process grief. The way I can spend hours by myself, unaware of my solitude. The best analogy I can come up with is to think of a rubber band that’s been stretched too hard, and now, doesn’t react to being stretched or released in quite the same manner it did, before. It’s a little sad, but it’s also, like having a super-power. I’ve a strange immunity toward what would be considered normal needs, and equally, a higher tolerance for distress. This can be quite advantageous when, after forty years in my home city, I don’t really have strong roots of my own: a social network. (Not the kind beyond where you press the screen of a tech gadget, anyway.) Now, this is a very big deal in India. We move in packs. We’re brought up to believe the measure of a man is not just the company he keeps but the company that keeps him. I’ve taken to politely self-referencing as an outlier. A non-conformist. (What a load of bollocks. I love to be liked, remember?)
When I was seventeen, I repeated a year of high school. It was my decision. I’d graduated among the top of my class in my 11th grade and, for some distracting reason, my grades toppled for the first time into mediocrity, in my 12th. I didn’t want to ruin a near-perfect record. It seemed a very rational decision to my privileged heart. (Most Indian kids don’t have the luxury to repeat academic years of their own accord.) This decision wasn’t meant to offend or hurt anyone. After all, I was saddling myself with an extra year of hard work. My weary eyes were turned inward. But that’s not how it went down. For the first time in my very young life, I unwittingly, drew the spotlight to myself. I was secretly judged, and fell in the disapproving eyes of many. I didn’t really grasp any of this at the time: I was locked away in my room, preparing academically for the next year, but my corner of the world has a grape vine that’d make the largest vineyards in Italy envious. It came back to me. Like my depression and drinking in my new adulthood, much later, my academic misadventure in my youth – a time of great vulnerability and stakes – was greeted with disapproval. There was no cossetting. Maybe this is why I turned out the way I did. Emotionally independent upon close approach, but living off of a need to be adored. I get the best of both worlds. I worked hard at it, without even realizing, in my twenties, by being very nice. It yielded results. Most people forgot about my academic folly and attributed it to youthful folly. I wasn’t so lucky with the drinking, later.
I’ll share one little bromide that’s been resoundingly true in my half-life: We’re hardest on those who struggle and kinder to those who succeed. It’s really perplexing. I’m fine, now. Ergo, I don’t need attention, or mollycoddling, or much gentleness. But I needed it at those existentially hard moments, when I was young. Is this a reflection on me or on society? Perhaps, both. I can only address the parts that concern me and, in my forties, as my personality has been inevitably, tempered with some maturity, I’m learning to be content from within. This doesn’t mean I don’t care for people’s approbation, it just means I reach in first, before I reach out.
I’ve realised, now that my lissome figure and pretty face have aged and weathered many a storm, that people are empathic toward the beautiful. This is not me, but neuroscience talking. I don’t command those superficial affirmations anymore, and frankly, I’m okay with being stripped of that unearned crutch. It’s led to me being forced to look inward, to find the meatiness, if you will, needed to truly grow. I suspect I needed to be knocked down, to truly stand up. I am, in the end, much stronger for it. (And now, if I’m to ever fit into those old jeans again, I’ll be painfully grateful for all I’d originally taken for granted. Big yellow taxi.)
There are studies that empirically prove that being ‘popular’ in our youth affects our outcomes in life, even forty years down the line. There are also, studies which say looks, social standing, money, IQ, mental health history, all of these still, cannot completely account for why some people are more liked than others. I know in my heart, some of the most popular people I’ve ever met are jerks and some of the nicest people I know have fallen through the cracks of societal protection. I’m not sure I’m one of the latter, and I like myself enough to know I’m not one of the former, but I’m increasingly possessed by the belief we need to find the tenderness we need, within. Not because some self-help book told us to, but because it might be the only option available one day. And you don’t want to be unprepared – like I was.
I’m not a cynic, but I won’t allow myself to wantonly slip, ever again. I’m all the safety-net I need. All the hashtag ‘likes’.
Madhurika Sankar is an impact investor and freelance journalist whose work frequently appears in The Hindu, India’s leading national newspaper, in the Op Ed. She’s an engineer and holds a Master’s in Biotechnology from Columbia University, New York. She loves to write but lives for music. She plans on pursuing her Ph.D. in Cancer Biology, soon. She lives in Chennai, India. Madhurika’s short fiction was recently published in The Bangalore Review, a prestigious literary journal.