Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Of clarity and certainties

Who are you? Or ‘who am I?’ are multi-faceted questions with a range of possible answers. You can be just a name, or someone’s son or daughter, someone’s mother or father, someone’s sister, brother, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife. You can be an Indian or a North Indian, South Indian, Anglo-Indian, or a Gujarati, Bengali, Assamese, Tamilian, Mumbaikar, Hyderabadi, Delhi-ite. You can be male or female or somewhere in between, you can be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, you can be a leftist, a communist, a democrat or republican, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Jew, an atheist. You can be an immigrant, an expatriate, a desi, an American-desi, an African American, a Kenyan Indian. You can be a member of a backward caste or an upper caste, a senior citizen or a child or a person with disability. You can be a student, a writer, a doctor, a blogger, a traveler, you can be black or white or brown, an Asian, a European, an Eskimo.

Or you can be a mixture. Everyone is essentially a mixture, if you think about it, though not many will appreciate this basic fact. We tend to be biased towards purity. Or clarity. Or certainty. We are either this or that and nothing in between. And those who are in between clearly have something wrong with them, poor souls. I wonder why we compartmentalize our identity – or multiple identities – this way? Why do we like to live in imaginary boxes?

When I tell people I am from Ahmedabad, I immediately get labeled as a Gujarati, though I have never thought of myself as one. What does being Gujarati entail anyway? That I speak the language, love dhokla and khakra, and do the garba dance? I do none of these and when I tell people that I am not Gujarati they go on to ask what I am otherwise, and I really have no answer. I do not identify myself with any one state of India. I identify with the country as a whole – or as Rushdie has said – the idea or notion of India – but that is only because I was born here and currently live here. When I lived in Kenya, I didn’t really identify myself as Indian then. And what’s wrong with that? Why must I be something rather than many things combined?

The professor who taught me History of Media during the first semester of my master’s programme used to say that he didn’t want us to have clarity about the subject. It is good to be confused, to not know or understand everything, because some things are not meant to be understood clearly. They are ambiguous and should be appreciated just like that, in all their ambiguity. At the time, I didn’t really relate to what he said but I see his point now. Why must we always be so clear about everything? Why can’t we just let things be complex or uncertain?

Another professor recently mentioned that certainties with regard to notions of identity are suspicious, problematic and even scary. When you are so sure of who you are and who “others” are it lays the foundation for all kinds of problems and intolerances to erupt. Our country’s history is colored – and colored rather bloodily, at that – by the whole battle of identity and who ‘we Indians’ really are. I never quite understood what the whole Hindu-Muslim clash in India is really about until today. It is all related to the obsession of defining clearly and certainly who and what we really are. And if we are one religion and one language then we certainly can’t be another. Yet we are. We have always been many things at once and we always will be. There are no clear-cut identities and no certainties. Life is best lived uncertainly, accommodating the fact that you might not be who you think you are. You might actually be a lot more. And that is surely a good thing, isn’t it? to be a lot more? I certainly think so. 

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