I’m meeting some new people at a dinner, and they ask me a question I’ve come to associate with dinner table conversations.
What do you do?
This question ascribes status to us, fits us in boxes that hadn’t existed until this point. These boxes allow us to label, and these labels limit how we are seen, who we can be. This is a question that defines adulthood, because children are never asked what they do.
When I was eight years old, I knew my life’s plan. Become an astronaut and discover a new planet. Then, become a doctor. And after I’d saved up enough money, I would become a mad scientist (emphasis on the ‘mad,’ because normal scientists didn’t have nearly as much fun as mad ones did). I wanted to be many things, but everything I wanted, even then, was defined by a profession.
My options for becoming, for doing, grew narrower the older I got. I grew to believe I could only be one thing, that I had to pick. So I chose medicine, because I loved science, and people who loved science became doctors. At dinner tables, sitting across from my parent’s friends, adults would break from their adult conversations and ask me, the gangly teenager, what I wanted to be when I grew up. With great pride (because I knew it was an acceptable answer) I told them I was interested in medicine, and they nodded with approval. This girl, they might have thought, was on the path to becoming a functional member of society. My answer might have reassured them, because I didn’t want to become a garbage truck driver or a nun or a thief. I wasn’t going to be a misfit. I could only be one thing. This is how I thought till the age of 22. Then, something remarkable happened.
I went to Bhopal. The women living in the aftermath of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy didn’t see themselves as victims. They were survivors, and their slogans reflected their empowerment.
Bhopal ki hum nari hain
Phool nahi chingari hain
We are the women of Bhopal
We are flames, not flowers
This was not just a phrase used at protests. These women had challenged the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. They had walked hundreds of kilometres to New Delhi to meet the Prime Minister. They had campaigned for widow pension and for a functional hospital and for the gas tragedy to be included in textbooks. These women worked odd jobs to feed their families. They dealt with polluted drinking water and a host of reproductive problems. They produced carcinogenic breastmilk. They weren’t defined by their jobs; they were defined by their actions and values, by how they overcame the challenges in their lives. The women of Bhopal were fighters. That was how they lived. That’s who they were.
Labels continued to define me. When I worked in a school, I called myself a teacher. When I trained teachers, I called myself a coach. When I worked on my Master’s degree, I became a student. And when I began writing full time I called myself a writer. Resumes helped condense years of work into a sentence, and over time I have defined myself with these mere sentences. My life has become a paragraph.
I don’t want to be a word or a paragraph or an essay. I want to be an epic as vast and fluctuating as the ideas in my head. I don’t want to regurgitate resumes so that dinner conversations can flow without disruption. I want to be like the women of Bhopal – fearless, a taker of risks, determined. But I am many things – lazy and unhappy, or disciplined and controlling, or curious and giddy, or restless and talkative. I am a teacher and a coach and a student. I am a product of my past, an outcome of my experiences, and I want to tell you about these experiences. The question I want to be asked, then, isn’t what I do, but what I’ve become. And the next time we sit for a meal, I’ll tell you.