For those with limited time, here's the gist of this article: I give you a lot of biographical information, and then tell you how I deal with being an introvert while doing all right in my career as a journalist and performer. I'm also pretty good at making a show of modesty while preening, but more on how to acquire this annoying trait later. This does blame Indian cultural conditioning for introversion, and speaks of my only younger-man crush - in my defence,...oh, just read it.
“What?! You do theatre, you’ve been a television anchor, you sing on stage, you dance like you’re possessed at nightclubs, you emcee events, you interview celebrities, you raise your hand when interactions are thrown open to the audience, you laugh all the time, and you call yourself an introvert? Get OUT!”
I thought I’d conquered it. I’d forced myself to get out of my shell, and speak to people – I’d even chosen a career that involved interacting with strangers. But, nine years into that career, I found myself willing to brave the blistering summer heat of Madras – and helmet hair – to get to a meeting in a scooter, just so I wouldn’t have to ask our tenant to move the car that was blocking mine. And then it hit me – you can get over shyness, but the crippling tightness that paralyses introverts is not conquerable.
I’m not sure how to explain the “tightness”. Perhaps it’s unwillingness, not so much as inability, to communicate. It’s almost a mood, but with physical manifestations that clever folks may term ‘psychosomatic’. One shrinks from contact. It’s not that one can’t speak to someone else; one just would rather not.
As I analysed this particular incident, I could recall several others. There are times I pretend I haven’t seen someone I know, so I can avoid talking to him or her. These are not people I dislike; I’m even fond of many of the people I’ve evaded thus. I don’t know why it happens.
When I give myself a pep talk, and push myself to go say hi, I can feel my heart beat faster, my nerves on edge, my throat dry up. Yes, it’s pretty much what one may feel before asking someone out; only, in this case, it was before asking someone to move a car.
So, we all have our complexes. I got over fat-girl by losing weight, and unpretty-girl by getting my face on TV, but how does one get rid of shy-girl? Especially when it can’t even be diagnosed, because the only people who understand are the ones who suffer from it, and are hence unlikely to bump into you?
My teachers in school were baffled when I clammed up at extempore and elocution contests, and was squeamish about debates. People assume good writers are good speakers. They assume stagefright is the fear of appearing on stage and hearing the sound of one’s own voice. But here’s the thing: good writers can be good speakers, if they aren’t prone to stagefright, and stagefright isn’t so much the fear of the limelight as the consciousness of the presence of other people.
Introverts are not always the kids with thick glasses, ugly braces and narrow shoulders, who spend all their time in the library or science lab. They could be popular in school, take part in extracurricular activities, and have perfectly normal relationships (just as long as they don’t have to do the asking out!) But, there are things they feel they simply can’t do, things that seem to induce a stifling sense of lethargy in them.
I know my list of these things has grown shorter, but I hadn’t thought about how I got here, or how I learnt to deal with the onset of introvert tendencies, until the incident with the car.
My ‘therapy’ may have begun with theatre. I loved the idea of bringing characters alive, and I knew how each line should be spoken. But I was terribly inhibited during play readings, and hated “trust” exercises. I can’t say I’m particularly fond of them now, either. It wasn’t the corniness of it all, it was the constant contact, the idea of giving away personal thought and space. Why did people have to know me, when I was playing somebody else?
The problem was solved when I had one of those epiphanies that appear so duh in retrospect: this “someone else” was living her life, not acting it. I only had to be her. The corollary was that I could have a persona, one that would allow me to say out loud the wisecracks in my head, one that could hug people, one that could snuff out the sudden bouts of shyness that hampered my self-assurance. All it took was stepping out of myself for those instants.
Gradually, the two may have got integrated, because the persona was not different from me; the persona just did what I wanted to do. And breaking out of my introverted inclinations to do those “things” gave me the confidence to do more of them.
My second big ‘step’ was moving abroad, and that leads me to wonder whether introverted behaviour is cultural. Oh, we Indians make a garrulous nation, but we rarely communicate. That’s probably why so many of us can spout rhetoric, and so few of us make articulate public speakers.
Our natural instinct is to walk past strangers, and look away quickly if our eyes happen to meet. We don’t make conversation with people who have a functional role, like billing our purchases or filling our fuel tanks. They give us numbers, we hand them notes.
On my second day in London, a cheerful cashier at Sainsbury’s spoke to me about his girlfriend’s parents, my course of study at the university, why Chelsea FC is shite, and how my appearance was too indeterminate to reveal my ethnicity. Strangers smiled and nodded in greeting. I’d been somewhat prepped by NRI (Non-Resident Indian) relatives who’d pontificated on the subject of Western manners and Indian rudeness like only NRIs can.
It seemed rather bizarre at first not to avert my eyes and pretend it hadn’t happened when I reached for the same can as someone else. But I grew comfortable with it over time. My big moment was sharing a laugh with a woman on the South Bank, as her toddler screamed when one of the statue people moved. “Trauma when he’s under five. His brain’s warped now, you know,” I grinned, and she sighed, “Yeah, I know!” I moved on to a smile-and-wave mute-and-mutual flirtation with a tall fellow-jogger on Harrow Hill, which lasted several months – till I spotted him in a blazer, and realised he was a schoolboy.
When I moved back to India, the list of things-I’d-rather-not-
approach-people-about was far shorter. But this isn’t a finite list. You never know when something will need you to pull your socks up and take a deep breath, before asking someone if s/he can, say, move a car. The good news, though, is you can learn to deal with those few moments well enough to make people roll their eyes when you say you’re an introvert.