By Sharmila Rao
Writing Prompt on The Isolation Journals: How ARE you?
What happened yesterday evening motivated me to attempt this prompt. I dropped in to meet one of my friends whom I was seeing after a year because of the Covid protocols. She is a cancer survivor and I had gotten closer to her during this challenging journey of hers. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and she replied I am fine, Sharmila.
I could see her eyes were saying something else though.
As we got talking about the past year and how it has affected each one us, I told her of the many changes I have begun to incorporate in my life, one of them being giving due priority to myself—something I felt I had seriously lacked all my life.
The moment I mentioned this to her I was taken aback by her soft almost immediate plea to guide her as to how she could go about this herself.
Then, swearing me to secrecy she slowly revealed without a pause, the story of her married life and the issues she was facing.
It seemed to me the fall out of having an insensitive husband and the typical vacuum she and many women face mostly around middle-age. They grapple, often unsuccessful, like she was, as the opposite party denies or lacks the need for empathetic communication.
Clearly, she was anything but ‘fine.’
As I walked home, I couldn’t help but ruminate over this. I stopped to ask myself how often had I been able to respond honestly to: Hello, how are you?
As far as I can remember, only till I was living in childhood.
I remembered how I was called, “The Happy child” in my family as I was always attuned to the many little wonders of the world around me. I am still sure fairies sit on toadstools!
It did make me feel special but undeniably a trifle embarrassed, even at that time, for it felt like being singled out under a spotlight for being different.
Life however took care of that. Sometimes it can work efficiently overtime at the wrong time and so it ensured I was quick to learn that nothing comes for free. And, happiness? Never.
Lots of water has flowed under the bridge. I swam along mostly fighting against the current, sometimes out of breath and at times even thinking I would drown. I continued to wear the “I am fine” badge. After all that is what is expected of you: be courteous, be brave, be stoic, be mature. Be everything, but yourself.
And me, the good student, carried on living in the classroom of life till I realized the truth: there were no prizes for the best performance.
Behind the ‘I am fine’ mask it gets suffocating; the self begins to decay in layers of untruth. Whenever I tried to lift it, only a few people accepted what they saw.
It reminds me of my father who was an eternal optimist. I remember all so clearly, when anyone greeted him with a regular ‘How are you, he would cheerfully reply, “Can’t grumble.”
I never thought much about it then but as the years pass by and I find it increasingly difficult to answer, I find his two little words so relevant and imperative to adopt.
More so in these strange new times when I see people around me who are suffering untold pain and for whom even the next meal is a battle. For us, India does offer a conscience check every so often, even on my daily evening walk.
The next time around, the answer to “how are you” will be for myself. A reassuring, Well I AM fine. After all, aren’t I?
And, maybe just, on an especially grey day I need not hide behind ‘I am fine.’ I can be my true self to the ones who really care to see what lies beneath.
These are the ones I keep.
As a child my father led me into the enriching world of books and my relationship with them continues. I am Sharmila Rao and I live in Western India in Mumbai, a hot, noisy and crowded city, vibrant enough to make you want to live nowhere else.
A background of Journalism and a degree in teaching the Physically Handicapped broadened my mind and sensitized me to the imperfection of life.
I chose to be a stay-at-home Mum and enjoy the growing years of my son. My empty nest is now lined with books (I love the smell of old hardbound ones) and I sit in its warmth embracing the beauty of words.