Do you remember your school annual days? Do you remember that one serotonin-loaded evening where we put up our best performances for our parents and guests?
I remember mine from my sixth grade. It was 1990 (sounds ancient 🤔).
6 weeks before our annual day my Tamil teacher asked me to meet her in the staff room. I got a little anxious with that request. I wasn't sure what trouble I got into.
A little background: I had a congenital auto-immune condition which did not allow me to be so active in classrooms or otherwise. I had to rest 14 hours a day just to be normal in the other 10 hours. The productivity nerd in me was born then I guess. I had to take off every Tuesday and Thursday to get my weekly painful jabs. This routine continued till my 19th birthday. Despite all my absence I caught up with lessons and somehow did well in studies. So no teacher bothered me much. They all know that I can't do much. I don't know why my Tamil ma'am wanted me to do this skit. I was puzzled at her request.
I did meet her promptly after the class. My face was pale and I was muttering under my breath.
She smiled and welcomed me to her desk.
She proposed that I take part in a skit for the upcoming annual day. She showed me a script she had in mind. She asked me if I can play the lead role. I was excited and anxious at the same time. Excitement because no one asked me such things before and anxious because I had no clue what i was getting into.
Anyways, I mumbled, YES.
The skit was about a story of Tenali Ramakrishna and his cleverness. Our team was given one week to rehearse the script. It was our first (practice) demo day and we were supposed to pull it all together as a skit team. I remembered every line and I even said it correctly. But ma'am wasn't very happy with the performance.
She scowled at me."Pull the Tenali Rama out of you and that is when the character can be displayed. For this one month you must live like him." In that age, I didn't know how to process that comment.
As a first step I went to our library and checked out a few Tenali Rama story books. I read them diligently. I even visualised how the court would look like with the king and all the ministers. How Tenali Rama would have pulled it off.
With this first level of internalisation, our second demo day went well. I displayed my understanding of the character I read from the books and from my imagination. My teacher felt this was better than the first one but still I could see in her eyes that she was still not satisfied with the entire performance.
That evening, I asked her privately how could I do it better.
She had no advice instead she enacted my entire piece and showed me. I could see the character oozing out in every sentence.
She said to me, "still Karthi is very much a big part of you. You should replace Karthi with Tenali Rama for you to perform better.". Those words gave me a different perspective.
I practiced everyday. I started being witty even in class. I started playing pranks as well (I never did such things in class). That innocent facial expressions made everyone laugh in class. The laughter was earned. I was feeling more confident by the day.
It was 3 days before the annual day. This time it was a dress rehearsal. I was decked up as Tenali Rama. It felt real. I was shit scared inside me but somehow living as Tenali Rama on stage was so natural. Despite the fear, I made it.
Annual day was a super duper hit. For a sixth grader that was a big deal. Our team own the best performance award. I ran to Sita Lakshmi ma'am and hugged her with tears in my eyes. That was one of kind of an experience for me.
Little did I know that, I would be working day in and day out with empathy. I didn't even dream that I will pick up cognitive science and do qualitative research for a living.
Connecting the dots backwards, here is my epiphany from that sixth grade skit experience. Tenali Rama was not just a character. It was an identity.
When you fake it, it is all about imitating the character. This needs immense observation and empathy.
When you make it, others recognise the identity but you know inside you that it is still not real. You display some aspects of identity but it is not fully formed yet.
When you live it, you be it.
First you become and then you be. Push it till it becomes real. "Pull that Tenali Rama out of you if you want to perform better" still lingers in my ears.
What identity crisis are you struggling with?
🥂 to identity!
P.S: I reached out to her in Facebook (yeah they exist) and thanked her for making me experience identity. She had no clue what I was talking about. All she could say was, "god bless you, my child". How sweet!