The masks we wear

The 22nd of March. My birthday.

I was driving down to the snake park at Parassinikadavu. My mother accompanied me. I was aware that a couple of friends must have called to wish me, but I refused to check my phone for missed calls. I smiled to myself…

For I couldn’t help thinking of the masks we wear.

Birthdays have generally been quiet affairs for me, right from childhood. The atmosphere at my home generally had a serious note to it; there was never too much of emotional display at home. My parents believed in the truth in emotions, and not in their display. So there was never a birthday party at home, nor would there be surprises. Though this had nothing to do with my parents’ love and affection for me, I would always long for my birthday to be special in some way. The truth was that I liked feeling special, and my birthdays would be so ordinary that they would leave me with the feeling that there was perhaps nothing special about my being…nothing that would make people want to celebrate my presence in their lives. I suppose I was always in denial of this equation.

My birthdays were in sharp contrast to my friends’ birthdays. My friends’ parents would hold parties and the siblings and friends would throw surprises at them, and it would be such a fanfare that they would be excited weeks before their birthday.

I, on the contrary, would dread my birthdays that were predictable and ordinary.

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It was in the final year of college that I had a birthday that was everything I had dreamt of. In fact, that year was special altogether. It was an year when I had the maximum love and affection of the people around me- an year when every day was a special day. Full of love, full of surprises, excitement and exhilaration. That year, I was the life of the big group I was a part of.

I don’t remember much about the subsequent birthdays. I suppose I was so caught up with the progressive complications of life and the struggle to survive that I was oblivious to my birthdays. However, once my life attained a certain equilibrium, the sadness surrounding my birthdays returned. They would abruptly remind me of how uncelebrated I was. I would miss the presence of a father figure in my life. I would feel sad that my brother would never bother with my birthdays. I would feel sad that all the friends and other souls whose lives I touched in significant ways, would overlook my existence. A few would wish me, but that sounded so stereotyped that it only ended up wounding me a little more. I would tell myself that people are too busy with their lives in the modern world and do not have the space, time, sensitivity or thoughtfulness that is required for such gestures. I would tell myself that people are so full of their own problems in these times that they are in perpetual need of empathy and understanding, and lack the ability to empathise with others and understand their emotional needs.

And yet, despite all that I would tell myself, that tiny sorrow would always be there… of being uncelebrated.

To the point that i refused to put up my birthday on facebook for fear that people may choose to overlook it. In truth, it only reflected my deep vulnerability and fragile self-esteem, which I probably owe to my genes as well as to my formation. And it was of utmost importance to me that none of my friends or family see through this mask I wear, and spot this deep vulnerability within. I was more comfortable with their ignorance of this fact.

This sorrow and the need to overcome it, drove me to acceptance of this equation. By acceptance, I do not mean I outgrew the sadness. I mean I learnt to be comfortable with that sorrow. And so, I started anticipating the fact that my birthdays would be uncelebrated. This made me look at my birthdays from a different perspective:

Left to myself, what is it that I feel about my birthday, and how would I like to celebrate it?

The answer that came to my mind was that I love myself. I love my perspective to life. I love my sensitivity and empathy to fellow human beings and to all creatures, and I love my attitude to their pain and suffering. I love the way I cleverly conceal my vulnerability and surpass my pain and suffering by connecting to other people’s pain and suffering. I love the manner in which I have transformed all my stories of pain and suffering to stories of strength and inspiration. I love my resilience, for it contrasts sharply with the fragility of my mind.Β  Of course, I owe all of this to Malayalam cinema. I love the fact that I live the life I have always dreamt of. I love this gift of perception, for that in itself, is my greatest inspiration.

With this answer, I felt content. And then I realized that what I wanted to do the most on my birthday was to be at the heart of nature. Nature that has always gifted me the most beautiful perceptions. Nature that has always celebrated my life, making me feel very special and unique.

Where else could I feel so special?

It was thus that I decided to spend this birthday amidst snakes. And truly, while I stood there with the snakes in my vicinity, I could only feel what I have always felt in my silent communication with nature- that familiar feeling of being at peace.

That feeling that everything is just as it should be.

While the others in the crowd sneered at these reptiles, I felt at home with them. They felt no different from the birds and animals that visit my garden. I sincerely wished I could bring them home. And so, I was utterly delighted when the demonstrator gave me a chance to hold the snake. Logically, I should have been scared, for it was a viper I held, and I had never held one before. But like the demonstrator said, one’s instincts are one’s only guide to interactions with nature and animals. And I relied on my instinct to hold it, and that was my happiest moment in life. People screamed and exclaimed, but this came naturally to me. It was no different from holding one’s baby.

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The cobras pay attention to Riyaz's demonstration!

I was in deep admiration of the demonstrator, Riyaz. He works for the forest department and is a wildlife enthusiast. Riyaz and his team were infectious in their passion and zeal. They sensed my love for animals and gave us special permission to see the king cobra that has been segregated as this is the breeding season. I went in with another wildlife enthusiast, who was a newspaper reporter.
I hope you don’t mind if I put in your picture holding the snake, in the Sunday supplement?“, he asked me.
I do not know if he said this in jest, but I was on top of the world.

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Riyaz educates the public on venomous snakes
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This python thinks Riyaz is pretty cool!

The king cobras were a treat to watch. There were three in all, two males and a female. The males put up a strong fight, which can sometimes last for days, in order to claim the female. One of the males eventually surrenders and is killed, and thus, the survivor male claims the female. King cobras feed on other snakes, and during the mating season, they may ignore food for days. The weather has been so hot that these snakes have been literally residing in water most of the time. They are excellent swimmers. We were fortunate to get to see a few displays of aggression as one of the males blocked the other as it attempted to approach the female.

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The king of snakes, the king cobra
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The king cobra regards Riyaz with suspicion...
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The tug of war between the male king cobras...

Subsequent to that visual feast, we walked across the park, observing the behaviour of the numerous animals the park housed. Riyaz has promised to arrange a tour across Aralam farm and the neighbouring forest area, where one gets to see numerous species of birds in this season. Forests have always been my first home. And these forests that drape the Western Ghats in these parts are mystique and enchanting.

We returned in the afternoon, feeling content and excited. I put up that picture of me holding the snake on Facebook. It made me a celebrity. That act of holding a snake was celebrated. One of my students put it up on their college group on whats app. The reactions and responses kept flowing in. One of my old students messaged me. He was someone I was particularly fond of at one point in time- someone who had gifted me very special memories to cherish, but someone who had withdrawn from my life abruptly. We were talking to each other after an year. That conversation made me feel special all over again. I realized that if we have touched people at their core, they will always retain the memories we have gifted them in a special place in their minds. And then, it only takes a moment to connect, irrespective of the time that has passed.

One of my students messaged me, “Ma’m, why didn’t you give us a hint that it is your birthday?
I smiled to myself.
Because every day is like a birthday to me. I celebrate every single day of my life. The value of our lives cannot be reduced to the confines of a birthday.
I will preserve that answer in my mind“, she replied.

I could only smile for only I knew what lay beneath all the masks I wore!

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2 thoughts on “The masks we wear

  1. Vidya, in addition to everything you mentioned, there’s another thing that makes you special — your ability to keep the child in you alive..to get fascinated and thrilled about the little things that so often go unnoticed in the rush of everyday life..
    Personally, I feel birthdays are slightly overrated..especially when we simply celebrate, eat pizzas and have fun every year while remaining the same person inside. Technically speaking, we even get our birth date wrong which is roughly nine months prior to the one we celebrate on πŸ˜€

    PS: I know they are beauties, but you are ONE BRAVE GIRL to hold one of those in your hands!!

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