Year-End Special: In search of my old self
Rewinding in time to discover your buried self can foster an incredible lightness of being
This was the year I reclaimed an old sense of self, one that I didn’t quite realize had gone missing.
Essentially, I attempted to retrieve certain aspects of my personality, including a sense of lightness that I started the year with. It was an impromptu birthday brunch, in early February, for which the invite said: “I’m a year older on Sunday, and the only thing I want to reclaim is a measure of spontaneity. So please juggle what you can juggle, and hope to see you for brunch." Fifty people turned up at only three days’ notice.
I put wanderlust back on the menu in 2017: My husband and I took time off to attend a couple of destination weddings. My girlfriends and I made it to Jaipur for the literature festival for the first time, I stole a trip to Kochi for the closing weekend of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, photographed Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur at both dawn and moonlight during the annual folk music festival, and former classmates and I reconvened on the dance floor for our five-yearly business school reunion in Boston.
I found new meaning in my writing, with more opportunities to write longer, more exploratory pieces on design. Intellectual curiosity introduced me to the joys of teaching millennials, as I accepted a position as a visiting faculty member at the Anant National University in Ahmedabad. My sense of purpose sharpened as I came across several social enterprises I could help with design thinking and capacity-building.
The many tributaries of my spiritual quest seemed to merge into one this year, as I signed up for a new series of weekly Vedanta classes, attended regular satsanghs with my family and began a closer study of the Bhagavad Gita.
Remember the 1980s’ Tom Hanks film Big, in which a teenager finds himself transformed overnight into an adult? My search took me in the opposite direction, only I believe there was more to it than youthful irreverence.
There is nothing quite like reconnecting with old hobbies to recover buried selves, especially when they involve family. Piano, horse riding, badminton and a minor Lego obsession dominated evenings and weekends after a break of nearly three decades.
Finally, reclaiming an old self entailed some personal renovation, quite literally. A new blingy best friend persuaded me to adopt red lipstick and Jimmy Choos, which I found just as exciting as experimenting with “grunge" as a teen in the 1990s.
I believe each of us has these transformational years every so often in our lives, sometimes even once in a decade, where professional ascendancy and personal growth coincide in an organic way. For me, the architecture of my “portfolio" life—write, teach, speak, give back to society and self improvement—finally became clearer, helping me to define myself, beyond the usual binary tropes of professional identity or family life.
The obvious question is: Why did I feel the need to rediscover myself? What pushed me? It is not that I’ve been unhappy or that my growth has been stunted—far from it. But like many individuals in their late 30s and early 40s, the fundamental contours of my daily life changed dramatically over the last decade. Marriage, a subsequent relocation to a different country, a transition to a new career and industry, motherhood and an ongoing health condition imbued a sense of responsibility, which often overshadowed my capacity for humour. As Radhika Sheth, a family friend and practising psychotherapist based in Mumbai, put it, I needed to strike a balance between fulfilling my responsibilities as a parent and adult, and locating the spontaneity within me.
This is, of course, an occupational hazard at this life stage for nearly everyone. Whether we are stay-at-home moms or fast-track professionals, female or male, personal and professional commitments pull us in different directions. However clichéd it might sound, our old selves can begin to fade and dissolve.
Friends, luckily, are the best rear-view mirrors. A couple of years ago, one pointed out to me that I needed to explore and push intellectual and creative boundaries, to get back to being “me". Another friend reiterated that she liked the new sense of maternal warmth, but missed the “edge". I didn’t know what they meant until this year.
The other trigger was spiritual. Over the years, I had noticed that nearly all the spiritual teachers I had encountered had a sense of levity in their approach. Midway through 2017, I came across two lines in one of the videos on Bhagavad Gita by the late Swami Chinmayananda, which captured this approach to life beautifully. Referring to chapter 3, verse 30 of the Gita, he said: “Life is a tragedy to those who feel, life is a comedy to those who think." My weekly Vedanta lectures reinforced this point, over and over again. Step back from your emotions, and wield intellect, reason and rationality instead. In other words, take life seriously, but not yourself, I reminded myself.
Over the course of the year, the difference became perceptible: “You’re back to what you were like at school," my high-school friends told me. “This is what you were like at college," my sister said. And I remembered a line from a Graham Greene novel, “to the self, we always remain the same age." For me, that age is always somewhere around 20, the wondrous moment of being a young adult, straddling independence and responsibility, saturated with curiosity and adventure, living in the moment, but not trapped by it.
The timing was both intentional and accidental. More professional opportunities came my way this year; I had grown as a design thinker and writer. It is natural that I have more time for myself, now that my boys are well past kindergarten.
Equally, timing can only be left to the universe. I went to see Sonam Kalra and the Sufi Gospel Project perform at the Kala Ghoda arts festival in Mumbai in February on a whim, never having heard of her. Now I listen to her music almost every day. She helps me meditate through music.
Interestingly, this search for an old self was not about claiming happiness in itself, even though that was the inevitable outcome. I sought professional validation, I wanted to channel creativity and passion, I was looking to feel “lighter". But the business of finding happiness is now a popular psychology genre, with blockbuster authors researching it. Many individuals, such as my close friend Jagriti Bhattacharyya, actively pursue it. Bhattacharyya is a committed lawyer, single parent and what I call “attitudinal superstar".
“Happiness is a choice. When you make the choice, you’re not always prepared for what lies ahead. That’s the journey," she says.
Like me, Bhattacharyya looked to the past, as well as the future, for personal self-renewal. She revived favourite rituals that were dropped off along the way, such as cooking new cuisines, and going back to her love of wearing saris.
Predictably, investing in activities that gave her joy has made her happier, she says. “I lost my peace of mind for many years. I had a dying parent, a baby, a stressful job. It manifested itself in many ways, including impatience. I will always be a feisty Bengali to the outside world, but I’m much calmer in my head and heart now."
Some might interpret this back-to-the-future quest as nothing but a midlife crisis, but Sheth highlights the difference. “A midlife crisis is about ageing and facing the eventuality of one’s existence, but this is a search about having the courage to face yourself, your thoughts and emotions. It is rewarding, but difficult," she says.
She is right about the challenges. When I looked more deeply at the architecture of my life, some windows and doors remain unhinged, and need repair. I must confront my sugar addiction (as bad as class A drugs, according to some studies) and its drivers. My home internet connection is no less severe a problem.
She is also right about the rewards. The biggest beneficiaries of having emerged as a more playful mother, are my children. My boys and I play games and make silly videos in the evenings at dinner time. “We like hearing you giggle on the video, Mamma," they tell me. I have to say, I do too. I have a long way to go, especially in my spiritual journey, but giggling is really one of the best ways to get there.