Castles in the air - they are so easy to take refuge in. And so easy to build, too.

आम्हां घरी धन शब्दांचीच रत्नें | शब्दांचीच शस्त्रें यत्न करुं ||
शब्द चि आमुच्या जीवांचे जीवन | शब्दें वांटूं धन जनलोकां ||
तुका म्हणे पाहा शब्द चि हा देव | शब्द चि गौरव पूजा करुं ||
- abhang of Tukaram Wolhoba Ambile of Dehu

There's No Freedom Like That of a Child's Imagination

கடலுக்கு உண்டு கற்பனைக்கு இல்லை கட்டுப்பாடு

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A journey

"Who am I?" is an interesting question. It has occupied much space in the minds of the ancient Hindu sages, as much as it does so among spiritual gurus today. It is like a Zen question - a question that has many answers, and yet no answer at at all; a question whose answer is what I choose it to be.

Physically, and because the rules of grammar deem it so, I am my living, physical body - tangible and visible to all others. It is a definition required by the laws of nature to determine my relationships with other objects in the environment, and therefore I have a finite mass, I have a finite volume. It is also a grammatical definition, so that unambiguous language may be used to describe the physical interactions I have with my physical environment.

This much is about the tangible I, the frame of reference, looking outwards from my self into the world. But there is so much more that looks inward, from the world into my self, and there are new definitions. It is on such definitions that I must dwell upon, because these are the definitions that the world will apply when determining its relationships with me, and therefore the potential threats and opportunities it sees in such a relationship.

By one perspective, I am a copywriter - a person who writes down statements that are persuasive in selling goods and services to the consumers of those lines. This is the perspective of the world on the basis of what actions I perform in return for a financial reward, that is, a fixed monthly salary. This is a definition which is adequate in the context of describing my performance against set parameters, and therefore determining employability.

It may clearly not be adequate for description when measured against certain other parameters. For example, the correct descriptor might (or might not) be 'intelligent' when I am tested on verbal and numerical abilities; 'mercurial' when measured for patience or endurance.

"Who am I?" is often a way of asking "Where do I come from?" or "What is my geographic genealogy?". The answer that I am from Thane may be an adequate answer for certain uses, for example while determining how many buses to operate from Thane to anywhere. In other cases the appropriate answer would be "such and such state of India", especially when the ethnic origin is of importance to the questioner, as in a riot, for example. It is irrelevant that my actual acquaintance of that state may be nil, and I may have any association with that place whatever; it is the correct answer to the specific question, and must be answered as that alone.

Geographic genealogy has multiple layers, and the question must therefore be answered mindful of the layer it is posed in. To some the answer 'Tamil' might be sufficient, to some that answer is not sufficient, for example, if the questioner also describes himself as 'Tamil'. To such a person I must have to cite a district or a caste, such as 'Brahmin' and if those descriptors match between asker and asked, I must delve deeper still, ad infinitum.

Paradoxically, the location where the question is asked would potentially invert the answer. If I was in Thane, I might have to answer 'Gopalasamudram' to satisfy the interrogator (or be faced with perplexity, if the said person is ignorant of the place). However if I were to visit Gopalasamudram itself, the only satisfactory answer might be 'Thane'.

"Who am I?" It is also a way of asking "What theological beliefs do you hold, or did your ancestors hold?" The answer to the question depends entirely on context. I may say 'agnostic' to those who would understand and appreciate the fact, on a government census form I may have to forcibly choose Hindu (because that is the religion of the family I was born in) or Atheist (because that is closest to indicating non-adherence to the other options given).

To others, the answer to "Who am I?" might require me to answer what my orientations are - whether political, socio-economic or sexual. I may wish not to give out such an answer, in which case I am vulnerable to the questioner imputing the answer from his own personal biases, for example I might be classified as 'rightist' by a left-leaning interrogator with whose beliefs I may not agree with (though I may not disagree either).

In yet other situations, the answer sought would be one that describes me based on my past experiences, in which I may have to say 'student of science' or 'brought up in an army environment'. It may be that the question is an attempt to determine my utility and temperament for a particular skill for which I may be assessed. It may be that the question is an attempt to modulate behaviour towards me based on existing prejudices, for example to test (or reinforce) the statements 'science-background people are methodical' or 'army children are arrogant'.Others require me to reveal aims and plans for the future, for similar motives as above, requiring that I answer 'budding poet' or 'wannabe Wahabi' to the asker.

Yet more answers require me to state my medical condition both physical and mental, social rank and outlook, marital status, moral conduct, fiscal status, appetite for risk.

No single answer seems universally adequate, yet the sum of all possible answers might lead to possible contradictions. And yet situations continuously arise, where new definitions have to be made. And each definition arrived at classifies me into a silo, from which escape is difficult, and which carries with it the stigma of incorrigible prejudice. Each definition also subjects me to measurement, subjective or objective, and an implied obligation to perform at the set benchmark for that definition.

Thus it remains a question that has at once, many answers, and because it has many answers, no answer at all. I can say I do not know who I am from the perspective of the world looking at me, because it is for the world to input that data. Yet I know very well who I am, from my perspective looking out into the world. And the answer to that is I am a journey, I am my own fairytale.

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