“Okay. So, last question. Who are you?”
“I’m Rekha Panni from Bangalore and-”
“No,” said the interviewer. “What I meant was, who are you as a person?”
“Oh. I’m a housewife with 2 beautiful children and-”
The interviewer smiled and my voice dwindled to a halt. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I guess my question was a little vague. What I really wanted to know was how you view yourself.”
“How I… view myself?” I asked meekly. My brows furrowed and I felt… lost. Think Rekha, think! I urged myself. The interview was going so well. The interviewer, Mr. Partha, seemed pleased with my demeanour although it was obvious enough that I was desperate for the job. But now, this one question had somehow left me beaten up and clueless. No, I thought to myself. I need to answer. What do I do at home?
Immediately my mind raced past blurred images of me cooking, washing clothes, feeding my children, making sure my husband’s clothes are all laid out. At the thought of my husband, my heart contracted painfully and my stomach did that weird thing it does when you remember your lost loved ones. I could see Mr. Partha looking at me intently and I tried to keep my emotions in check. I realised that all that I do all day is work- housework, working for the kids, working to make sure the family is happy. This means…
“I am hard-working” I said triumphantly.
Mr. Partha said nothing but smiled broadly. Then he said, “I think you would be perfect for this job but I will hire you only under one condition.”
He reached under his desk and pulled out a plain white sheet of paper. Picking up his pen he wrote ‘WHO ARE YOU?’ at the top and handed it to me.
“Fill this up and give it to me. You can take as much time as you need. You don’t have to think about impressing me. If I see words on this paper, I am hiring you. But what words you put on this paper – that’s up to you. So think carefully and remember – you are not defined by your family”
Clutching the sheet of paper I walked back home. I should be ecstatic. For the first time in my life I was hired for a job. But somehow, I was shaken. It was as though someone had yanked me out of my thoughtless state and had pulled back the curtains to reveal how meaningless and empty my life was.
What am I doing? I wondered. For the past couple of days, no, for the past couple of months, I realised, I had felt nothing. No pleasure, no happiness, no pain, nothing. Even when my husband died I had hardly mourned- I still had children to look after and I had to be strong for them.
I had loved my husband but my life was so devoid of emotion and change that I had hardly realised how much I loved him until I lost him. How many times had I told him I loved him when he was alive? How many times had I told my children I love them? Everyday it had been the same old thing- Wake up, cook breakfast, send kids to school, send husband to work, cook lunch, wait for kids to come back home,wait for husband to come back home, eat dinner, fight over petty matters, take it out on the children, send them to be bed, and at last go to bed angry, only to wake up the next morning to cook breakfast and to start the whole cycle all over again.
I realised that never once had I spent an hour for myself. I never had a hobby. I was never interested in clothes or books or sports or anything that other people found interesting. I was never interested in cooking, sewing or painting. With a jolt, I realised- I was never interested in myself.
Even when I was young and people asked me what my ambition was, I would just shrug and wave off the question. But now, now I realised how vain I was. If only I had taken an interest in something, I could have answered Mr. Partha’s question without having a midlife crisis. I could have then written with cool confidence- ‘I am a singer’ or, ‘I am a passionate cook’. But I knew I was neither one of those things. And something held me back from making up a fake identity. I reached home and collapsed on the sofa, exhausted from the day’s depressing turn of events.
My kids came running to me- two boys. Twins. They smiled from ear to ear as they hugged me, their four-year-old faces lighting up as though I were an angel granting their wishes.
“Mom, we have something to show you”, they said, exchanging glances of barely hidden excitement. They ran into their room and came back with a haphazardly wrapped gift and thrust it at me as though it were the best thing in the world. I opened it. Inside the wrapping was a white board full of roughly cut pictures, overlapping each other. Pictures of me with them, with their father- laughing, hugging, smiling. I looked up at them through tear-clogged eyes.
“Happy birthday, Mom!”, they shrieked, once more flinging their arms around me.
“We did this with Dad long ago, before he went away. He told us it was for your birthday. But we thought he would be here when we gave it.”
“Yeah,” said the other one. “That’s why we didn’t give it to you this morning. Did he wish you, Mom? Will he come home today?”
Their huge round eyes looked into mine with childish innocence. I couldn’t tell them. I couldn’t tell them he’s never coming back. “Of course he wished me! But he can’t come home, sorry. But he told me he misses you and loves you both very, very much”. Lying to them when they trusted me, and worse, when they believed me felt absolutely horrible. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell them yet. They were still unaware of the cruelties of the world and someone had to protect them. I had to protect them. My eyes widened in realisation at this thought. I gave them both a swift kiss and a tight hug( they complained I was suffocating them).
I grabbed the now crumbled piece of paper and having hunted down a pen, I started writing, the pen flying across the page, tracing words that came straight from the heart.
“Wow, you write so fast” one of the boys said in wonder. When I was done, I read through it one last time.
Even when I was a young girl, I was never interested in anything. I didn’t have a hobby or a talent. I wasn’t a smart student nor was I good on the field. My childhood days were plagued with the obvious nature of my worthlessness- although nobody said it out loud, I knew it. I knew I was s nobody. My life was meagre existence.
Atleast it was until I met the love of my life. When I was with him I felt special, I felt the world was a much better, happier place. He made me feel like I was worth all the wonderful things in life and he indeed gave them to me- two beautiful sons. But, as they say, the good things in life don’t last long. He died almost a year ago and left me stranded on an island of isolation and self doubt, and two kids to look after. For a year we managed to survive on savings. But I knew I had to start working- my children depended on me. And so, for their sake, I stood up on the sandy shore of the island. I decided to get out of there. I knew if I sailed out the waves would crash against my make-shift boat, the sky would split and lightning bolts would streak down on me but I couldn’t live in fear for there was someone else depending on me the way I depended on my husband. It is now, after taking a stand, that I realised who I really am. You told me,”Your family doesn’t define you”. I suppose I am the exception.
It is my family- my husband and my children- who made me the person I am today and in their own way they are still moulding me. And who am I? I am a fighter. A guardian. A caregiver. A survivor.
When I finished, tears rolled down my cheeks. Each word resonated within me but something else echoed too. Something I had forgotten to write. At the end of my essay I scribbled four words, full of pride- ‘I am a mother‘.
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