The first time I went up on a stage was two days before my ninth birthday. Our school, the junior wing of a prominent convent, was celebrating the independence day in advance and I had decided to -- or maybe was forced into -- singing at the event.
The function was conducted in a small hall with only students from class three and four and the respective teachers in attendance. It was an important day for me for not only was I going up to stage for the first time, but I was also celebrating my birthday in school. Dressed in a sky blue frock that my mother had stitched and a pair of fancy white ballerina shoes from Bata, I felt really special.
The participating girls soon started to come up and talk and sing beautifully and confidently. When it was my turn I went up confidentially too but the sight of over a hundred heads looking up to me turned me into a bundle of nerves. I had, until then, only been a part of the crowd, and had never stood out of it. My knees shook, legs trembled and voice quivered. When I finally began singing, after much prompting by my class teacher, I felt the lyrics of the song fade from my memory, what remained were only tears of anxiety and fright. I stood there quietly for a few minutes with my head bowed with shame until the sisters sent me back to my class. Back with my pack, I felt my ears turning red with embarrassment as the entire section of girls looked at me. I did not like the look of pity in their eyes. Thankfully my birthday celebration took the attention away from the event.
The incident however haunted me for months -- the look on the teachers' face, the pity in my friends eyes, the dark cold hall -- it was far too humiliating for me to forget. Every time I walked past a bunch of girls, I thought they were talking about my miserable performance at the function. Thankfully, father was soon transferred out; from the posh town of Allahabad we went to a dusty place in the heart of western UP called Fatehgarh.
The change of place did me much good. It was also perfect for a new beginning which I was determined to make. Slowly and steadily, with the help of the teacher's who doted on me, and students who looked up to the girl from a bigger town, I started to gain confidence. I also started to venture out on stage, although in groups. By the time I moved out to Fatehgarh to Lucknow, another few years later, I was confident enough to participate regularly in inter-school competitions. The sight of hundreds of heads looking at me still gave me a fright. My legs still shook and stomach still churned, but I ignored it.
It was in class eleven or twelve that I had to go on to the stage alone once again. The house had decided to nominate me for the solo competition. I knew I would not be able to carry it off, but they insisted. Although I did not cry or run away from stage this time, I was still nervous enough to mix up my sur and taal and stand at the bottom of the ranking -- a pathetic fourth. The memories of 11th August 1988 came back to me.
There are things a person chooses for himself, and there are those that life choose for you. Life, after a few years in college, chose to throw the nervous and self concious girl in me into the waters I could never swim in. From dreading to talk to people, I was soon talking to people for a living. My nervousness however had not left me. I was still unable to talk in front of a group. I stuttered and stammered if I was made to speak up and I preferred hiding behind the crowd.
And then I became a trainer.
Having no choice is sometimes good. However much I wanted to escape, I could not do without talking in front of a group now. First it was batch mates, then seniors, and then an entire room full of people looking at me. I had to live up to the expectations. I stood in front of the mirror and talked, I practised my content day and night, I did mock teach back to the walls: this time I did not want to fail, or stutter, or stammer.
The first session was exhilarating. A group of twenty-five young men and women, mostly my age, looking up to me; looking forward to learning from me. I felt confident, in control, powerful even. The same thing that gave me goosebumps once now gave me confidence and satisfaction. Talking, addressing a crowd, making a presentation, representing the team soon became a way of life.
Four years ago, at the age of three and a half, Mishti went up on stage for the first time. She was the only child selected for a mono act from the whole school. As she stood at the mammoth stage of the Air Force auditorium, I could feel a lump in my throat. I looked away from husband to ensure he did not see the tears of pride in my eyes. She spoke confidently and clearly, finished her act and received a standing ovation. Speaking unlike me came naturally to her.
And today, coincidentally on another 11th of August, Pakhi makes her debut on stage, as the compere of the school assembly. Unlike her mother speaking comes naturally to her too.