Being imperfectly authentic

April 18th, 2012

What is perfection? And why does one have to be perfect? If only one were perfectly imperfect for one’s self, one wouldn’t chase perfection for approval by others, only to still feel less than perfect.

As a child, had I internalized the mountain of (well-intended) negative messages: don’t climb trees, don’t ride a bike, don’t ski, don’t rappel, don’t play in the mud, etc., all in the name of being safe and blemish free, I wouldn’t be the proud owner of scars and stories that transport me back to some of the most joyous times in my life. Instead, I would have aged as the safe owner of perfect blandness and perfect skin to appeal to someone else’s image of perfection.

Let’s start with my name, which according to others’ wasn’t perfect. As a child, year after year, my name would be announced (over the loudspeaker at the swimming gala) along with the boys’: Master Heera. And year after year, I marched up confidently and lined up with the boys’ much to everyone’s amusement, and mine—they were messing up, not me. My “Indian female behaviour” was imperfect—I was not embarrassed the way most girls would have been, nor did I go ahead of time to make sure my name was on the girls’ list, and I wasn’t going to part with my name.

Several years later, on joining the film industry, it was politely suggested I consider changing my name, as “Heera” was not only an uncommon name but unsuitable for a “heroine.” That would have been perfect for someone willing to construct their image; it was imperfect for me to entertain the thought of becoming anyone else. A husband and wife team of filmmakers wanted to work on a film with me, but there was a catch—I would be perfect for the role if my teeth were filed straight. Having disliked my childhood experiences at the orthodontist (in the bargain giving the doctor a hard time), the last thing I was going to embark on, as an adult, was to have my teeth filed, that too to have strangers find me perfect. With time, the requisites for the perfect image kept piling up—wear coloured contact lenses, false eyelashes, heavy silks and tons of gaudy gold (to look like a “heroine” at all times). Keep in mind, this was expected in a tropical climate, and at a time when an abundance of adipose cells was a prerequisite.

I would have also been a perfect Indian woman had I mastered the “perpetual pubescent giggle”—a demand from imperfectly aging patriarchy—men sporting poorly designed toupees that complimented their over-stretched faces. This expectation, to perceive me as a helpless sex object, was aging patriarchy’s way of deflecting their reality—of being undesirable. Owning my adulthood is perfect for me.

Then there was my position within the family unit—I was the lowest on the totem pole. Not only was I female—which automatically comes with an invisible second-class seal (I refused to be stamped with this label), I was also the youngest, which shifted my position further down with an acquired family. Take potent patriarchy, birth orders of family members, add their dysfunctions and put an Indian twist on it—this takes attempted subjugation to a whole different level. It was perfect for them to weigh me down with the invisible tag of scapegoat child, but I preferred the imperfect route of challenging their cul-de-sac thinking and abusive functioning. I can only imagine how tough it must be for them to come to terms with my voice. But I did the perfect thing—honor my life, education, and exposure to many beautiful thoughts and things.

There is perfection in marriage too. It’s about how the man wants himself to be viewed by others as perfect. It works out perfect if you courier your brain to outer space, surrender your passport to be domesticated like cattle and change your surname to honour his family tradition. It makes it even more perfect if the wife’s role is relegated to one of ribbon cutting, costume design, arm candy, or anything that reflects her second-class status. The perfect wife is also required to sign off her rights to her soul and speech in the name of false security and a man’s idea of success. And while playing the perfect spouse living the perfect life might come with cash and a coterie of cronies (their self–importance boiled down to the desperation of being somebody’s somebody), the quality and equality of the relationship is anything but perfect.

And as I continued on this journey of being imperfect, I perfectly disappointed a few by not becoming a doctor. Had I become one, I would have been perfectly disappointed in myself. I had no intention of replicating anyone’s life. I have immense respect for the small percentage of ethical doctors, but I cannot imagine a life cooped up from morning to night in a hospital with no natural light. The constant pressure of revenue generation, pushy medical representatives, and worst of all, dealing with VIP patients (Every second person in India is a VIP; their loud and obnoxious conduct walks ahead of them, desperate to be noticed.) would have driven me up the wall. Had I become a doctor, the unsolicited advice—on how to push unnecessary tests onto patients—to generate more revenue (Doctors spend years studying medicine to perfect deception, and they call it health care!) would have left me dejected. I would have also had to bear my colleagues bragging—of their children’s “foreign” financial accomplishments, which include palatial houses that are as empty as their emotional void.  How can this life in any way be perfect?

The concept of perfect—blow-dried hair, creaseless shirt, sterile settings, polished fruit, and a perfect life never appealed to me. As a child, by watching stunning parrots relish imperfect guavas, I learnt that real value lies in imperfection.

Had I succumbed and signed up to be this “perfect Indian woman,” what would I have answered had someone gone: “Knock-knock. Who’s there?”

Perhaps my response would have been: “What do you mean who’s there? I am not a who, I am an image, can’t you see? I changed my name, filed my teeth, wear coloured contact lenses and false eyelashes to be someone’s idea of perfect. I have no words of my own; I only mouth filmy dialogues and say what I am told to say for you to find me perfect. I have collected clothes, jewelry, and several cars, thanks to which I am deep in debt. I have even trained myself to stand with a clutch bag at the right angle for product display, and you wonder why I complain about being treated like a commodity? What do you mean, who’s there? Can’t you see I am a fragment of who I was born to be? I was chipped away one perfect chip at a time.”

Or I would say something along the lines of: “How dare you go knock-knock, who’s there? I am a doctor. I am a clone of someone I didn’t want to be. I work all day and night to earn money so the next generation can do the same. Medicine is the perfect profession for me, the perfect image of what others wanted me to be. I can exploit this profession all I want and get away, as people look up to me. I do not know who I am. I am an image, how can you go knock-knock, who’s there?”

I might say, “‘Knock-knock. Who’s there?’ How can you insult me by asking such a question? I am a woman. How am I supposed to know who I am? It’s expected of women not to think, reason, or have a voice. But I do have 600 pairs of power heels, arranged (the way I was instructed to) in a walk-in closet that resembles a store. I have clothes with tags that haven’t been worn, several flat irons and curling tongs. Can’t you see I was born to play a role, of doing it all but being credited with nothing? I am the backbone of a family that masks the ugly side of patriarchy, and my situation is no funny bone. Though I am educated, I blackened the words ownership and self-worth from the dictionary of my life. My role in life is to grow old safely, passively, and blemish free.”

I could very well answer: “I went to the best schools and now have a coveted title with the right E’s and O’s and get hefty bonuses to boot. I have the perfect team, replicas of me; together we play a weak game of piggyback—steal thoughts of women who are the change—for me to speak on Women’s Roles in the 21st Century.  The fact is also, I scream: ‘It’s not fair,’ when in reality I never wanted to put up a fight. I am committed to passing on the tradition of invisible abuse and am grooming my daughters much the same like I was groomed, in many non-verbal ways. My life is an ongoing theatre, promoting women’s power to deflect generations of shame. I am a facade so don’t ever go knock-knock, who’s there.”

I would perhaps say: “You are absolutely right in asking, ‘knock-knock, who’s there?’ I tried searching for myself and couldn’t figure out who I am. I was perfecting perfectness in the many roles I played—daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, cousin, etc., but I don’t know who I was born to be. I succumbed to a life of perfectly pleasing patriarchy, actively flattering and humouring them on the surface and passively cribbing and manipulating them on the inside. I pour myself into the perfect dress for the perfect party to mindlessly mingle with perfect clones of me. When a photo-op for the perfect charity presents itself, I pose with a plastered smile. But I have never supported myself, so how can I ever authentically support my daughters or anyone else? Here I am, always in automatic agreement with everyone, even when I know something is wrong. I never attempted to understand, own, and present the truth. I went into a silent partnership with perfection. So yes, ‘who’s there?’”

Thankfully, none of these responses can be mine as I am absolutely imperfect, which is perfect for me. By always embracing my imperfections I have remained wholesome, adding value to my authentic self. I made the decision not to disappear in the shadow of educated women who are silenced in the name of perfection. And instead of losing myself in a toxic tango with patriarchy, I chose to go solo and master the healthy dance of owning my mind. It would have been perfect had my family done right by me, but it turned out to be the perfect opportunity presented by life—it forced me to test the one perfect intention I had practiced from childhood—being myself. Life proved I was on the right path of emotional investment and nurturing empathy. Through the imperfect journey of failures, setbacks, and suffering, life has revealed I have been my compassionate mother, honest invested father, and responsible adult parent all along.

My life is not just peppered with imperfections, I have imperfections in dollops and buckets full. It’s the peppering that adds to the flavour of perfection for me. It has all worked out fine—my name and my voice are all part of who I am. I have many scars and many, many stories to share. I am not the perfect woman, but this beautiful life shows me every day how perfect it is to honour who nature created me to be—authentically imperfect.

Heera