I grew up in a small town that I absolutely adore. I left the town 16 years back, but ask me today, I still call Jamshedpur home. My parents still live there, and so do my in-laws and so there is always a willing excuse to go back home. I grew up in a Bengali household where there was great emphasis on good education, literature, art, music and culture. My parents tried to raise me like an all rounded Bengali girl, so I grew up with a lot of dance and literature around me. I was always on the stage, performing in debates, theater and public speaking. I was even a local beauty queen! Well…yes, I was 18 then! In the final question round I was asked, “In your next birth, what would you choose to be born as and why?” “I want to be born as a woman,” I replied emphatically. At 18, when I had just got comfortable with the word lady, I was trying to latch on to another identity of being a ‘woman’. Curiously, it is this identity that pushed me out of my comfort zone and challenged me at every step of my life and career.
Being a small-town girl, the big city of Delhi scared me to smithereens; from its roads, to the people, its busy marketplaces and its public transport. But what scared me the most was being in a college where there was an ocean of talent. Everyone was better than me…in dramatics, in dance and in everything else. Here I was an uber-confident girl being scared of girls of my age. I have spent many years wondering if it was my ego behind this. Was I so proud of my little fame in my little world that the larger world didn’t matter to me? Is that why I stopped working? Is that why I stopped challenging myself?I feel it was the fear of performance. I was afraid to be judged by people. I was afraid of being told that I am not good enough.
I settled into anonymity, except for a couple of college productions that I participated in and totally loved. Life happened. I went on to a post-graduation, and find a job in television. Everyone wanted to be an anchor but I wanted to be a producer in a news organization. As interns one had to do scary piece-to-cams and once again the fear of being judged (read: to look convincing enough) ate me up. I was delighted to be on the other side of the camera though, calling the shots, telling my anchors that the take was all wrong! I loved the anonymity of television. Here I was being judged by my work and not the person I was. Gradually my fears dissolved and I realized that person can be known for their work as well, thus taking away the onus from the self. Television was a whirlwind ride for me. I quickly learnt to adapt, ideate and improvise. Most importantly, I learnt to survive in the highly competitive of television journalism, learning quickly to adapt to my boss’s expectations of an all-round producer. I produced everything under the sun, political and historical documentaries, debate, to lifestyle and travel shows, chat shows, investigative shows, biographies, sports shows and large format campaigns. If there was a show that had to be produced pronto, I was put on an airplane taken to Mumbai and asked to work quickly. My boss gave me wings and trusted me with many big ticket shows and programs for the channel. The more opportunities I got, the more I loved my job. He would often praise me in team meetings, even when I wasn’t there. I was the proverbial ‘fits all’ kind of producer, never refused a show, never said ‘I got too much on my plate.’ My team swelled, from 3 to 10. The number of shows also gathered on my timelines. Life was busy and it was very good!
And then motherhood happened! I was so settled into the fact that my work defined me that I didn’t bother to think of how my organization viewed my pregnancy. But it did. Once again the spotlight was back on me and this time I didn’t realise that it was so close that it really scalded me! This time I wasn’t judged on my work but rather how I did my work. And so one fine day, I was made to step down from my position. A new producer was hired, overnight my team was made to report to her and I was left redundant. All this before I joined back from my maternity break.
Life was full circle. I was being judged again. The only difference is that this time around I wasn’t allowed to prove that I could handle the two sides of my persona. I had read stories of hostility at the place, of women being left in the margins, of careers crashing down the cliff after motherhood…but these were always stories. I didn’t realize that within a few months of turning mother, this would be my story too!
I quit the job that I loved from the core of my heart. I gave up the medium of television, not because I wouldn’t find a job, but because this incident broke me. For weeks and several months after that I tried to understand why I had become a professional untouchable? I couldn’t fathom that motherhood had become the front runner in my profile as a professional. Long ago, when I had become an independent producer and team leader I had politely refused a young mother a job in my organization. “Is it because I am a mother and I have a young child at home?” she had asked. “No,” I replied, “It’s because I would want you to watch your daughter grow up. In this job, I cannot promise you would get much of that. And there is nothing that I can do about it!” Was she not good enough? Of course, she was…but I let her down. In my capacity as a supervisor, a team leader and a woman I failed to do anything about women like her; women who wanted to balance a career and their family. And now I was facing the brunt of it!
This incident shattered my self-confidence and for a very long time I kept questioning the image I saw in the mirror. The yo-yo of emotions of a new mother is well documented. What is missing is the tumultuoussymphony of emotions of an out-of-career workaholic.
And then storytelling happened. I first tasted the joy of storytelling as a parent, and as I told, read and dramatized the stories for my little bub, I discovered its true power. I discovered the power of storytelling not for the listener and the audience, but for the storyteller. Storytelling had a calming effect, helping me strip the layers of expectations and dusty appearances that I had gathered over the years. Here I was exposing my rawest emotions and expressing them the way I felt them. And then on a whim, one fine day I decided to undergo a workshop to see if this was momentary or something deeper.
I am not an atheist but I discovered an invisible and strong spiritual connect with storytelling. As I took the decision to turn professional, I realized I was going to expose myself and be judged forever now. Now there was no going back. To be a good storyteller is to perfect the art of nakedness. You have to be honest to the craft and its power to impact lives. What helps me be a storyteller is my background in journalism. Not that I think news is authentic storytelling, but I do believe it taught me how to sniff out a good story and extract it. I enjoy talking to people, drawing their stories out and forming bonds beyond a regular journalist and her source / case study / subject. The stories I seek now take me closer to people. I was always a story believer and a story teller, so the transition to the other side of storytelling came naturally. I rekindled my love for performance and fell in love with the person I had become.From thereon began a systemic process of streamlining my skills, experience, passion and vision into a brand.
A friend told me, “It seems you have reinvented yourself!”. “I haven’t,” I replied, “I have discovered myself.”
Though I had begun storytelling nearly three years back, I formed Your Story Bagin 2015. I believe that everyone is a storyteller with a bag. Your story bag is filled with your memories (some prominent, others fading), experiences (lived and shared), your emotions and expressions. If you look at your life closely you will notice stories of valor and cowardice, happiness and sadness, achievements and regrets, your dreams and vision. We are a sum of our stories, those that we consciously tell and those we forget. And it is up to us to harness the power of stories. In the performance space, storytelling makes you a winner. It takes away all your fears and throws you in the spot where you have to make a spectacle of yourself. Being a storyteller (irrespective of the audience) is to be judged every time to take the stage. It makes you challenge your fears and push your own limits. Storytelling is a journey of a lifetime where you are constantly searching for the next story that can change lives. It is a journey where you have to constantly learn and unlearn new things. It is a craft that gives you a lot even while it demands more of you.
I am still battling perceptions though. The walk down the storytelling path has not been easy. At several meetings, conversations have meandered towards the inevitable question, “What does your husband do?” Of course, to have a maverick raconteur as a wife, the other half needs to bring bread on the table, right? “Is storytelling even a profession?” or the polite, “What do you do otherwise?” The only difference is that now this reaction doesn’t break me. It makes me stronger and pushes me to work harder. With my storytelling I am trying to make a dent into the Indian mindset…that stories are for everyone and that they can discover expressions, emotions and life stories. I am here to help children, adults and corporate India harness the power of stories. There is still a long way to go until people accept storytelling as a profession and invest in it.
Until then I am telling one story at a time.