We walk through the door to be greeted by a smiling lady, dressed in all black.
“Do you have a reservation?” she asks. We can barely hear her over the loud racket coming from behind her.
“Yes. For 7.30 p.m., under Chaand. We’re a few minutes late,” my husband answers as I quickly scan the room to see if I recognise anyone. It’s unsurprisingly busy for a weeknight as it’s a popular eatery with regulars. We had to secure a booking a few weeks back.
She hesitates… “There doesn’t seem to be one under that name.”
“For eight people, maybe under Jay?”
She hesitates some more, with the first signs of frown lines beginning to appear on her forehead. “We have one under Sandra?”
“Ah yes, that’s us!” Of course, the PA had made the reservation.
We walk across the entire length of the restaurant to be shown to our table and that’s when we first notice the other three couples already seated at the table. Pausing their conversation mid-sentence as they see us approaching, they stand up to greet us.
“Hello, I’m Sita”, I introduce myself to an exceptionally tall man with a firm handshake, whilst consciously making the effort to return it with a firm grip. I wouldn’t want him to think of me as delicate.
“Hi. Sita”, as I repeat to his wife standing next to him. I note that she is fairly tall too as she bends slightly to shake my hand. I’m used to being the shortest in the crowd. It has never fazed me. I turn to the other four members around the table, smiling as I return hugs and exchange quick hellos and ask about the family, having met each other on several occasions. Some I know relatively well; others through fleeting moments whilst chatting with their spouses.
Introductions over, they shuffle positions to make space for us and inevitably create the standard seating layout around the oval table; men on one side, ladies on the other side. Supposedly because we’ll have more in common to talk about in this position. It’s a business dinner after all, with the men doing business together, and the other halves joining them for a meal. I scoot down the L-shaped seat resisting the urge to brush off crumbs left by the previous patrons to occupy the space and join the ladies-end of the table, inwardly sighing. Once I’m settled into the dark green velvet seat that matches my trousers, with my coat and scarf piled high over my handbag snug beside me, the awkward fumbling for conversation fodder begins. Small talk – the bane of most conversations. A necessity of sorts, unavoidable in such an intimate dinner setting, and a few minutes pass by as so.
When my husband first mentioned this dinner a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t contain my excitement. It would be the second time in 18 months that we would leave our son at home whilst we go out to dinner together. We would be meeting up with adults, having adult conversations that do not involve current age-appropriate baby-related talk. I imagined a night out at a swanky restaurant in London, an enviable wine list – no, I prefer martinis – and I immediately started making a mental list of possible babysitters. I would wear the pink dress I bought from my last trip to Kenya. The stripes of the dress will match the new shoes; still unworn and sitting delightfully on the shelf, waiting to be taken out. Two whole weeks went by in this eagerness. Then one evening, my husband announces that the other members of the party prefer to keep it local, instantly dissolving all the excitement that was threatening to spill over. Dejected, I resigned to the fact that at least we have a dinner together to look forward to with the hope of reviving my sleepy brain awake.
With pleasantries aside and drinks to the rescue then, “So, what do you do, Sita?” asks the tall lady.
I pause for a second, because I’ve anticipated this question. Should I start off with ‘I’m a housewife’ or ‘I’m at home, looking after our son’?
I settle for, “I’m writing a book. Well, trying to anyway. I don’t work; I’m at home looking after my son. He’s not in nursery yet.”
These simple few revelations create a short-lived rising interest in the fact that I am writing a book, followed by a disinterest in little more as I explain that I am in fact not a writer and do not have any published material to my name. I am just at the very beginning of writing a book. Disinterest because I am essentially a housewife living in a modern world.
That’s the problem I have with segregating seating by gender; I find that I don’t have enough small talk and flamboyant exaggerations to discuss professions, motherhood and silly tales in my arsenal of dialogue necessary to engage with people of just the same sex. I subtly turn away from the three ladies who are now animatedly mid-discussion, having found several mutual interests as they share professions and have much older kids to mine, and move on to listening in on the conversations of the men around the table. They oblige by the sudden show of interest and in an effort to make me feel included, every so often they make eye contact whilst they carry on. Of course there is the usual and predictable chat involving sports and cars, but they also seem to discuss more and have more of – dare I say – intelligent talk. You’d expect that from a business dinner.
I’m looking for an opening to join in. I’d done my research on the profile of the tall man, our host for the evening, sitting diagonally opposite to me. I knew a little about the company he worked for and so I direct my questions at him. This evidently generates an interest from all parties around the table and finally it feels like we are all at the same dinner table, having one conversation.
Towards the end of the dinner, the atmosphere is more lighthearted. We have spent a fair amount of time by now together, sharing naans and digging into various paneer dishes, so naturally we steer towards personal references and, understandably, an openness that comes with it. I’m surrounded by accountants, bankers and pharmacists. Everyone appears to have a strong identity about themselves, confident in what they do and sure of who they are. They all have titles attached to their professions. Whilst everyone is exchanging anecdotes about their various professions, I wonder if I should mention that I have a Masters degree in Biomedical Engineering. This thinking comes from my intention to be taken a little more seriously. A contender fit for the company around me. I quickly dispel the thought. Even though I loved it and am undoubtedly proud for it, I graduated in 2006 and have never actually made any direct use of my degree henceforth. It did not feel the right time to be bringing it up this way. So then, should I tell them about the time I used to be a Production Editor for a scientific publishing house? It was my first ever job but, somehow, I do not think that this too would add any value to the conversation around me. Should I mention that I worked with my husband in pharmaceuticals? Relevant, yes. Yet again, I choose to not reveal. It wasn’t that exciting a time for me, and pharmaceuticals do not interest me much. Should I mention that I had my own online fashion platform? The banker and his wife might be intrigued, as I’ve noticed their choice of attire includes a skull head lapel pin and a white blouse with pops of brightly coloured buttons and a separate gold-embroidered black collar worn on top to complete the look, respectively. (The collar reminds me of one of mine that I love to wear over tops to jazz up an ensemble.) It could generate interest as there is lots to say about those years – some of the best years of my life – both on a professional and personal level. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out and we closed the business down.
I move on.
So what do I have to show? An engineering background from a long time ago. A couple of random career paths, and now I am on to writing. I’ve written one non-fiction book that I am very proud of. However, all thirteen agents that I sent it to practically rejected it (if you also count the ones who did not respond). Still, I believed that I had potential. I then sought the help of a writing coach who alluded to the idea that I could turn it into a novel. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense and the more excited I felt to get stuck right in. This was in May last year, and as of only January this year, have I managed to sit down to do anything about it. I’ve been busy being a housewife and a mother. I still am (busy being a housewife and a mother), but I’ve now got a little help with childcare so that I can make a start on my writing. Now when someone asks, I can also say that I am ‘working’, albeit it’s not paid and completely feels like a hobby for the time being.
How do I explain all this succinctly so that I am reassured that I too, am considered as a worthy contender at such a business dinner table?
Each of us are holding onto our dessert spoons whilst ras malais, mango kulfis and cheesecakes are being passed around the table for all to have a taste, and I’m distracted from my thoughts as one of the other mothers mentions how she had recently switched careers to become a teacher. Holding up a spoonful of ras malai to her mouth, her tawny brown manicured nails cut short, she goes on to explain how both motherhood and livelihood were the causes for this change. A change in profession that she is happy for and seems content with, but she is quick to point out that she is obviously overqualified for the job.
This comment alerts me because, like me, she feels the need to address her intelligence.
Do we feel the need to justify and hold on to our past because we need to still feel identified? We want recognition, yes? It was part of our identity back then but, does it really matter now that I am 38 years old, that I graduated with an engineering degree when I was 22?
Evidently it still does. Recently, a friend looking to move jobs with a better offering than he currently holds sent out his updated CV to a recruitment agency. The recruitment consultant came back to ask for his A’ Level results and University degree enrolment and qualification to have on file. Needless to say, my friend was shocked. Apparently, employers still ask for such information. Approaching 40 and it’s not what you are today and what you have managed to accomplish thus far, but what you achieved 20 years ago that still matters.
Somehow, this does not add up. In an age where fame and fortune depend on how viral you become, where you must show up each time and cannot simply rely on qualifications printed on beige official documents, what you are now is who you are. Good or bad. Your past or the future you are versions of yourself. Like right now is another version of yourself. Perhaps they are all one identity. Perhaps they are all entirely separate entities.
Undoubtedly, the one thing most, if not all, individuals strive for is identity. An identity that we carve out for ourselves. Something of substance. An identity that we can identify with. An identity so that we can be identified by others. At 38 years old, I am still seeking my identity.
Who am I?
I’m Sita. A wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister. I’m me. Woman.
What do I do?
This is where I seem to stumble. I’m a housewife, a full-time mother but I’m trying to write a book whilst taking care of our son. (Pretty long-winded if you ask me. It would be nice to be able to keep it short. Like: Writer.)
At the dinner, I decided not to reveal about my past. It did not feel right to bring it up, in this setting, amongst these people amidst such chatter. Maybe in a different setting, a different turn of conversation, possibly yes. Here, bringing up old achievements would have felt like I was seeking attention. And that’s the wrong kind of attention I was seeking. I chose this career path by myself after all. The different offshoots and explorations are all my doing.
A phrase that my writing coach repeatedly mentioned to me whilst combing through my book came to mind. She said, “Show, don’t tell”. If writing is to be powerful, you must show the scene, the character, the theme, the mood. The reader must feel like they are witnessing it and are a part of it. They must be able to relate to the feeling you wish to portray. You should not simply tell it; it’s not a list.
‘Show, don’t tell’. I have this phrase written on a post-it-note stuck on my computer screen to remind me of its power whilst I begin working on my novel. And just like that, I decide that it is not necessary to dwell on my past studies and career achievements just to prove my intelligence. Intelligence cannot be proven; it shows. It shows in the type of conversation you engage in. It shows in what you speak of. It shows in the topics that interest you. It shows in the skills of being able to communicate with all ages, professions and genders. It shows in not being awed by other individuals – you are just as deserving. It shows in your outlook and thinking. It shows in your clarity and conviction of self. A’ Level results, a university degree, career path … these are all a part of the process of instilling knowledge. They do not define you. What matters is what you are today. What you are doing today.
So here is my today. I’m making a start on my writing with this blog post, with the intention to spur me on to writing my novel. These posts will be my practice runs, helping me find my style of voice and hone my writing skills. A writer-in-the-making.