‘For anyone else to love you, you have to first love yourself’

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Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

I was your resident plain Jane. Coming from a middle-class family, education had been ingrained as a priceless luxury that we couldn’t take for granted. Due to my devotion to school work and mostly because of my uninspiring appearance, I was largely ignored by the boys. Even as relationships had freshly burst upon the Indian scene, this ‘fad’ seemed to escape me. I thought it was because of my constant preoccupation with books. In my weakest moments, I lampooned those who were so enamoured with something so silly. I was Elinor from Sense and Sensibility and Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. I was above these things.

Secretly, I coveted the moments I seemed to miss on. I naively made myself wait for Edward Ferrars and Fitzwilliam Darcy to get me. To have the last laugh.

What festered inside, though, was a huge confidence deficit. I saw myself as unworthy of attention — a “wallflower” as my daughter terms it today. My academic achievements added little to my self-esteem. I did, however, assume and explain every non-existent look and every missed endearment with the same meticulous detail that my answer sheets had. Yet, I was completely unaware of how my covert desires would cruelly foreshadow my future.

I was accepted at Calcutta’s finest institution. And there I met X — the man who changed my life, the white-horse-riding- prince in his Debating Club armour. When I first met him, I stood with my shoulders slouched and eyes down. Unaware that I was such easy pickings. A whirlwind pursuit followed, culminating in a relationship that I saw as the perfect fantasy and he as a convenience. I was his maid of sorts, cooking for him and even doing his laundry on occasion. He made me believe that he couldn’t function without me, and drunk on this apparent dependence, I foolishly rejoiced.

Soon, I became the outlet for his anger. If he got a bad score, it was because I hadn’t helped him enough. He would ask me to “at least look presentable” if we were ever to go out. Yet, certain that my resilience would pay off, I worked hard at reviving the relationship that was never there.

That’s when I picked up the habit of looking in the mirror. If I ever felt wronged, I would look at my reflection and tell myself that he was, in fact, doing me a favour, that even the mirror was so unimpressed that it cracked from boredom. So desperate was I to be relevant that I became blind to my irrelevance in his eyes. My scores crashed. My family, in Asansol, was blissful in its ignorance. My books were my only solace.

Looking back, I realise I had become exactly what I had hated myself for being. I no longer had a personality of my own; I was defined by X. Miserable with him, but nothing without him.

It was Kate Chopin who finally did it for me. Reading The Awakening in my final year, I swore that “whatever came, I would never again belong to another than myself”.

So, I left X and moved to Bombay. Alone but with more than enough baggage. I learned to wear my insecurity like an armour. I struggled, of course; life isn’t as simple as we wish it was. But I have learnt that it’s only as complicated as we make it out to be. I completed my degree and began teaching. I met women with better and worse lives, and bonded with all. I got married, had children and learned to be happy. I learned that for anyone else to love you, you had to love yourself, unconditionally.

I feel like I have regressed to 21, and I gravitate towards my mirror. Even as I notice weight padding the features I was never able to appreciate, I smile. It’s defining then that the moment the ‘worldview’ corrupts my reflection, the mirror cracks from side to side.

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