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     Volume 7 Issue 29 | July 18, 2008 |

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Masks that People Wear

Kavita Charanji

So were you brought up to believe that you must keep a stiff upper lip no matter how you were feeling inside? Bottle up all those anxieties, fears, sadness, nerve racking moments of one's life or even that brilliant smile for fear of being misunderstood? It probably has something to do with the colonial hangover, but look around and you will find that each one of us are really actors on the stage of life.

"Why can't people just be themselves?" complains a friend, as she goes on to add, "It's like wearing a brilliant disguise: be charming, articulate, a good conversationalist, wear branded attire, have an armory of subjects to discuss at parties, ranging from politics, to business, sports, real estate, sports, the brand of whiskies."

If you cannot do the above, the chances are that you will remain outside the charmed circle. It's painful but true, to belong to the cream of society you have to play the game to the hilt. This means going against the grain of one's own unique personality and developing a herd mentality.

The angst of keeping up with the Jones' extracts its price on women, men and children equally. Take the average woman of our times who has to play a variety of roles: a loving wife, super mom, a great cook and homemaker, a charming hostess and the perfect professional. A deviation from the norm will attract a variety of jibes and send the woman on a guilt trip. Quite often, the pressure of having to conform to a popular image can lead to burn out.

For men it can be equally challenging. Today's male has to excel in his high-pressure job, care for aging parents and also pitch in with child rearing. In the pursuit of being the macho man, often his feelings have to be suppressed and he has to wear a stiff upper lip all the time. Society looks askance at men who reveal their true emotions in the form of tears. How many men have buckled under all this suppression can be seen in rising incidents of heart disease in men at relatively earlier ages.

As for children, the going is even rougher. At increasingly younger ages children face peer pressure to be with it -- this means the latest in clothes, electronics, cars, visits to the fanciest restaurants et al. In the process of wanting to belong, many a child loses his or her innate creativity and instead is hurtled into the oppressive rat race.

Suppression, suppression and more suppression seem to be the norm of today's chaotic world. How many people do you know who you can just be yourself with -- a little disorganised, not the greatest conversationalist, unable to churn out culinary delights, maybe hair or attire out of place, in short not a superman or superwoman? In effect no one, which means that you cover up your vulnerable and sensitive inner self and instead don the garb of being in full control all the time.

"I don't call it a face mask," says psychologist Shalini Dave, who works in Vasant Valley School, going on to add, " We just assume different roles in different situations. One should just go with the flow. If you feel forced or pressured you will feel unhappy. The question is whether you want to be included or not."

In Shalini's view, the answer is clear: "Prioritise your life. Do what you want to do and enjoy what you do. It is not a big deal to wear a mask. Be appropriate at different times. And enjoy it instead of looking at it as something society, husband or parents have forced on you."

Thankfully all is not lost. Many youngsters today are willing to strike out on their own -- taking up careers of their own rather than parental choice, be it joining a musical band, being an artiste or even being an aerobics instructor. I just came across two brave young girls in their mid-20s who were off on a trip to the interiors of Himachal Pradesh. Udita, a filmmaker and her sister Anjali, a lawyer, took the flight from Mumbai to Delhi, then arrived by bus at Shimla, the capital of Himachal -- soaked to the skin by unseasonable rain. Early morning next day, they took up their backpacks and were off to the picturesque Sangla valley. A real feat for two young women in a scenario where women are discouraged from such adventures and have to curtail their movements to conform to the picture of the well brought up girls. "We tend to overprotect our children," says Rita Sawhney, travel writer and photographer. "The first thing to do is get rid of the fear of how people look at you." And Rita should know what she is talking about. For the last 10 years she has lived in close proximity to nature and traveled around India. In Shimla, she has a home and arrives any time when the travel bug bites her.

Another good sign is that the image of the macho man and boy is slowly wearing off. Many women are bringing up their sons as sensitive and caring men who are unafraid to show their emotions and can relate to women as equals.

The alternative? Give up the desperation to belong and find acceptance. Instead find a group of like-minded people with whom you can just be yourself. Maybe like the famous fairy tale The Ugly Duckling you have to go through much torment, ridicule and jibes to find your true tribe. But find it you will.

Feroza Vijay Singh also has her own theory about the issue. In her words, "I would say you should keep some things within the four walls of the house. In this scenario you can just be yourself and discuss every thing freely. In public I would advocate a little stiff upperlip and reserve because if you say exactly what you feel you are liable to be misconstrued."

So strike a balance between the need to be yourself and the image you present to the outside world. Too much suppression, and you might explode, and too much free expression, and you might land yourself in trouble. So the answer really lies somewhere in between.

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