Several months ago, I finally put my innate maternal instinct to good use, and began volunteering with children. Roped in by another artist with a community-minded bent, I started spending a little time every week with children between the ages of three and five in a slum in Chennai, mostly telling stories and introducing the vocabulary of emotional nuance to them. At the moment, they’re getting ready to perform a short play I wrote for them.
I’m not going to lie about my motives. Deeply disillusioned by events in my career, I needed something to renew my faith in human goodness. I did not, at the time, have the capacity to work with preemie babies, the orphaned, the ill or the disabled, but I knew I wanted to work with children, and the opportunity to teach was perfect. Their backgrounds are inconsequential to me: to treat them as disadvantaged when their spirits shine and their bodies are able is to condescend. A friend of mine told me shortly after I first began this work that it would be good for me to see other types of suffering. I thought about how gleefully I am grabbed and kissed hello and goodbye by those little ones, and I knew that what this work does for me is the opposite: it allows me to see other types of joy.
Soon, I was also conducting sessions for older students at a lower income group matriculation school, teaching them spoken English and, again, emotional awareness. Teaching was rewarding in multiple ways, my love for children aside. I felt I’d found a dimension to my life that was independent of my artistic work, which otherwise defined my identity. This has been my struggle for over a year now: finding stability that will ground the volatility of my nature. As I enter my mid-twenties, the need for a steady foundation has become my primary endeavour.
One afternoon last month, in order to observe and learn, I accompanied another trainer to her session with primary school students. During a particularly noisy few minutes, she told the kids to take a free-drawing break. At the end of the class, a little girl brought her drawing to me. “It’s my gift to you,” she said. Two boys tore their pages out and did the same. I protested, asking why they didn’t want to take their artwork home to show their parents – they were truly beautiful pieces. “But I have so many drawings at home!” said one. “This is for you”. None of them had even met me before.
I did not expect that what I needed for my jadedness, my disconnect from my own creativity, would come from this work. Yet there it was – the most profound insight, so simply evident. Art for its own sake: not for legacy, not for honours, not to make a statement or to buy a more comfortable rung on the ladder. Art for the sake of love.
At the end of what feels like a hopelessly difficult year, it is the kindness of those toward whom I had the conceit to think that my kindness could make a difference to that restores my faith. I had never imagined I could become a teacher. I am humbled, even more so, by what I have been taught.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.