"Realisations in life can hit you in the most ironic and unexpected ways you know Ritu di..." Arkamitra paused with that characteristic amused expression of hers, a light smile unfurling at the corners of her lips.
"I remember as if it was yesterday. I was in the hospital, barely able to sit up after the surgery and that is when I got my undergraduate results. I had topped my batch and had earned the gold medal that I was aiming for throughout the three years of my degree. My parents, the doctors, and nurses were gorging on sweets but I couldn't!
No one from my batch congratulated me.
It didn't feel like an achievement...
Now, in retrospect, as I think of the same episode, I realize that I had lost my health to earn the medal and that too, I was seeking it for all the wrong reasons. I had done what most kids in our generation do; I had attached my sense of self-worth to my results and position. I was seeking validation because I felt empty inside. Something felt off then. But I chose to ignore as always."
"Through my Masters, I got busy again pushing to excel as per the standards set by everyone but me. I was successful again. But this time, guess what happened? My convocation got canceled and no one even got to know that I had topped my batch and that I had earned yet another gold medal! Isn't that funny?" she chuckled.
"I mean it was as if the Universe was telling me that there was more to my sense of self than a certificate and a medal. I should have listened. I should have reflected but it took more than a canceled convocation to actually shake me up and awaken me."
I smiled as I listened to my friend who is more of a sister and has been an entire support ecosystem for me in my journey.
I asked her, "Ankhi do you want me to share this part in the story? Are you sure?"
"Oh yes! Please share all this. There may be so many young people like me who are falling for the same trap and hurting themselves needlessly. There may be someone who needs this honest acknowledgment that I am sure will be relatable. That's the whole point of inspiration right? You know you are not the only one and you know that you have a choice because someone else exercised it so you can too!" Arkamitra responded.
I listened, smiling to witness Arkamitra emerging in courage as she opened up slowly about her journey. She had a beautiful way of sharing her story, almost as if she was directing a script with highlights of her reflections perfectly woven into the narrative at just the right moments. She focussed on her growth in self-awareness to highlight her message of what she wanted her life to be about and in doing so, she effortlessly inspired. Having known her personally, she is the most helpful and supportive person that I have met so far: a great listener, and one with whom every conversation always leaves you with so much to think about. This young woman has a way of making vulnerability look elegant and embodies intelligence in a manner that is at once distinctive in terms of being creative and also resonates with erudition.
"It was around 2016 when my lack of self-worth started clawing at my insides. I didn't have friends who I could open up to and I hated being vulnerable. I started getting more emotionally dependent on my parents to the extent that I started harboring the fear of outliving them one day and hence even wished for death. I was terrified of being alone and felt that I could count on no one to accept me except my parents. It was finally in the year 2017 that I reached my tipping point.
I remember that day clearly. My mother was supposed to go out of town the next day and I wanted her to be there with me. I was suffering from an odd sense of separation anxiety in which I felt abandoned all the time. I broke down that evening. My parents were taken aback. They could barely imagine that I was going through so much. We finally had the conversation and my mother decided in a heartbeat to set aside all her commitments and plans for a year and be there for me. As much as I felt relieved, I also felt guilty for becoming an emotional liability. I guess that was the point when I decided that I needed to do something about how I was feeling. I promised myself that I will not let myself become an emotional liability again."
I remembered this phase of Arkamitra's life. We had just bonded then over a community project that I had started for the Euphrates Institute, a not for profit based in the United States. As we started spending more time together to explore creative avenues for voicing our concerns about inter-community relationships and othering, we were essentially led to also explore the othering of our inner authentic selves that we had become accustomed to over the years, due to social conditioning. We were both awakening to an urgent call of the voice of intuition and luckily found each other to stand by during those chaotic, nerve-wracking moments of exercising the choice to seek out the unfamiliar. This was the time when our conversations started deepening and the dialogue started leading us to understand vulnerability in a new light.
"Why do you think you developed this self-esteem issue Ankhi?" I asked, probing deeper.
"It started with body issues for me Ritu di. I used to love dancing and was always a person who was very body conscious in expression. I enjoyed learning Kaththak as a child. One day my teacher pointed out my baby fat and asked me, "why are you so fat?" I was ten years old and I internalized the fact that fat people are not the ideal body types who can dance. I felt my confidence crumbling.
Over the years though I would get local opportunities to perform on stage, I shrank away from performing in school. I became conscious of my "fatness" and kept telling myself that I am not good enough( in body image) to be a performer. Slowly I started hating my body and felt unworthy of love and started seeking validation outside. As academics gave me some recognition and I enjoyed intellectual pursuits, I automatically started leaning more towards validating myself through academic achievements. Now that I think of it, it was a numbing mechanism that kept me ticking somehow. But I had lost myself and I was bound to wake up to realise that one day."
"So what did you do to change your situation?" I asked
" Well, after my convocation got canceled and I hit my tipping point, I decided to get out of the mode of attaching my sense of self-worth to a mind-numbing race for more external validation. I chose to take a year off and get back to performing arts. I joined a theatre group and started challenging my fears, facing them head-on. Sohini Halder, the actress is a huge source of inspiration for me. I also started meditating and connecting with myself to rewire my subconscious blocks. I started following Marisa Peer and Louise Hay to attempt to understand how to get past my blocks and also work on my failing health. Stress had led me to suffer from intense hormonal issues. I had put on more weight, lost hair and the zeal for life. It was time to get it all back. This was also the time when I found real friends, people who would accept me for just who I am. That was through our Euphrates Institute chapter. You remember how we would have our small meetings right?"
"Yeah, I do."
"They were the spaces where I could be myself and unburden, be vulnerable, silly and confused. I didn't have to put on a show in front of you all. That really helped me to feel safe. We all need such friends to count on an extended community."
"How is life now? Germany treating you well?" I asked
"It was difficult initially to move out of home and settle in a foreign land. But this journey of self-discovery that I have pursued since 2017 really helped. I miss family, you and my friends here but I am finding peace in using my space to discover new things about myself. I look forward to participating in co-curricular activities on campus and hope to travel more across Europe soon."
We both enjoyed a few moments of silence to allow the narrative of memories to sink in.
"There is nothing more inspiring than a story of self-reclamation you know!" I reflected out aloud.
For a story that is so intricately connected to my own journey and my own sense of purpose, Arkamitra's journey almost felt like a personal narrative of triumphant emergence. As her friend and sister, one of those few people who has witnessed her powerful emergence, this dialogue remains an ongoing one where we routinely celebrate each other's choices and sense of agency.
Arkamitra is at present doing her Ph.D. in Religious studies at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. A DAAD scholar, historian, and aspiring actress, this woman stands for "Beauty in Being" as she explores the contribution of female saints through her thesis: "Female Gurus as Jagat-Janani: a Transcultural History of Universal Motherhood".