HOW I LOST MY SMILE (AND WON IT BACK)
A few years ago, a friend from Calcutta gifted me a Ruskin Bond book with a note that said, “Always be the eye-smiler, you are”. I was so moved by that compliment; both for its freshness and its fervour. For the past few months, I have been making a mental note of all the things that are said about my smile. Like “It lights up the world”, “You smile like the only precious thing to do was to smile” or the metaphoric one I received as a comment on Instagram, “Your smile is contagious, I smile seeing you smile. That is some magic.” Even the visa verification officer at the JFK airport once declared as she stamped my passport, “Welcome to the United States of America. Have a trip as beautiful as that smile of yours.” Before one assumes that this act of gathering my compliments might be a symptom of early stages of megalomania, I must admit that it is only a reassuring attempt in validation and survival.
For most of my teenage years in school: pursed lips, veiled teeth and a long stretch of lips – was my recipe for a smile. It wasn’t always like this though. Only after I was told by a callous classmate, in a snide remark, “There is something weird about your smile. You don’t look good in it.” And I believed her. My self-confidence was at an all time low and even the smallest comment about any trait of my personality became a subject of deep introspective case study. So much so that I actively changed how I smiled. I stood in front of the mirror and practiced for hours at home, a smile that did not evoke awkwardness or look creepy. Slowly the one I subscribed to was the one that involved the least effort — elongate your lips to give the illusion that you are filled with glee and let the cheeks rise up to seal the impression. To my surprise, it worked. Nobody noticed the switch for a long time. From birthday parties to wedding albums to pictures clicked after winning state-level debate competitions, I simply extended my lips. The acting of the act of smiling is as inconvenient as being in voiceless pain. All you want is to get it over with. I juggled between moments of obscure joy and coiled self-worth. Being an excellent academic student and an active participant in extra curricular activities did not help my pursuits of pretence. The more marks I got, the more awards I won, the more I was in public the more I had to put up the show. I planned my smile more than I prepped for the competitions I was partaking in.
To many people it might seem, on the surface, a careless remark that provoked a dramatic reaction. But when one is young, impressionable and struggling to find things they can be proud of about themselves, every act of bullying is the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. Doesn’t matter the volume of your hair, the curves of your muscles, the length of our eye lashes, the strength of your legs, the marks on your report card or the size of your tiffin box. The attention invariably is hijacked by those attributes that never found appreciation or were hand picked as faults.
It has taken me a few years, seems like an eternity, to return to what it means to laugh wholeheartedly and smile without affectation. Amidst many things that helped ease the process was an afternoon session, a few years ago, during which I was going through our old family photographs. As I looked at myself through the years, the sheer intensity of my pent up, constructed smile hit me out of nowhere. I recognised the boy in the photos but I felt sorry for him. I was proud of his achievements but apologetic for his immeasurable loss. For one thing I know for sure, is that the boy would have liked the grown up me to do everything in his might to ensure that he lived as authentically as he could. Looking at those old photographs, I learnt that, for all one knows, our budding self cannot wait to grow up because somewhere it believes that our adulthood will be accompanied by the power to live credibly. Perhaps, our young mind – those bullied in variegated ways – are convinced within, that the natural act of growing up will not only bring maturity but also the control and prudence to not be subdued by other people’s opinion of us. That only with age we will not curl up but push back. Uniquely, to their great disappointment, so many of us submerge further into how the world perceives or expects us to be. We take off our tenderness and put on the disease to please.
I am profusely guilty of squandering precious years on things I should have not been sorry for. But I am not bitter. My new found awareness is my strength. I refuse to return to the camps of deflated self-love and inhibition. I am promising all the versions of my younger self — the one who ducks his head in a classroom when his named is called out, the one who sits by the window seat so he has to engage less with those inside it and more with the world passing by, the one who overthinks his victory with the fear of celebrating it — to that naive, innocent child I once was, I make a promise I intend to keep. I will try not saying a ‘Yes’ to something out of compulsion until it’s a ‘Hell! Yes’ laced with sincerity and will. I will try to live undisputedly with my values and philosophy. Or that I will strive to find what those are in the first place and breathe life into them through my actions. “Some people will peck you to death,” wrote Maya Angelou in one of her essays, “because they do not have the guts to kill you at once. They will make a snarky comment on your weight, on how you look, your clothes and chip away something important every time they meet you.” I add to her advice – Bring caution for the critics and ammunition for the cynics.
For far too long, far too many people have compromised their childhood for a false sense of security and a deceptive need of temporary inclusion. It takes one a lifetime, if one is fortunate, to understand that standing out anywhere is fitting in somewhere. We aren’t alone. We never were. We come tracing the trajectory of survival, crafting the legacy for those yet to be born. Every feat of our courage helps subtract the fluff that burdens someone. I have taught, interacted, met and been with too many people at my age and I am yet to see one person who doesn’t look good smiling.
Last week, a new comment appeared on my Instagram feed. An anonymous follower said, “I wonder if your smile is genuine. How can someone be this happy?” And so, I laughed. Laughed for a while. Only if he knew.