Thursday, November 04, 2004

Readymade identities, prepackaged burdens

A.H. Cemendtaur

One day when she was old enough to ask deeper questions, she came up with that ultimate inquiry. Who am I? She asked her father. And that question perturbed the father. What should he tell her who she was? What made him qualified to answer her question, he asked himself. She was born in New York of Pakistani parents who, at that time, were on student visas in the US. Both parents had Sunni backgrounds; husband spoke Urdu, his parents migrated to Pakistan from UP, India; wife spoke Urdu with a heavy Punjabi accent because her Punjabi speaking parents, originally from Amratsar, India, only spoke Urdu with their children. The little girl, a US citizen, was now living in Jeddah. Considering her young age should she be given a short, quick answer that she was a Pakistani American living in Saudi Arabia? Or, should she be told the whole story, that monikers like American, Pakistani, Saudi, Sunni, Urdu, Punjabi, etc. not only lack sharp definitions, but are also entrapping and she would be better off avoiding them; that she needed to go and figure out for herself who she really was?

Or, should the little girl be first asked what her question really meant? What kind of classification, above that of being a human being, was she interested in? Who got her thinking in that direction--that she needed to fit neatly in a religious, ethnic, racial, linguistic, or national pigeonhole?

Or, should she be assured that it did not quite matter what particular group she was born in? It mattered more who she was then and what she wanted to become. That she needed to come to terms with herself knowing that she was truly unique, that no one like her was ever born, nor would anyone like her ever come into being. That this uniqueness may give her a feeling of loneliness but it must also giver her confidence that she truly didn’t need to carry any burden of past that she was not part of--the kind of historical baggage that comes with belonging to a group.

Would she understand if she were told that brave people don’t put on the pre-tailored, readymade labels that are handed to them? These enticing prepackaged identities come complete with notions of proper ways of thinking: what should you revere, who is your enemy, and all. These garbs are meant to hide your true self from others. The world is eager to shove these garments to insecure people. Here, put on this shirt, this is your nationality, and you need to put it on because you were born in this land. Or, here, you really need to put on this trouser called so-and-so religion because you were born in a family that practices this religion. That confident people reject such offers of pre-tailored definitions; there is no identity crisis simmering in them propelling them to seek somebody else’s answers about who they are. They know that whereas imbeciles around them would try to squeeze them in some cubbyhole, in the end it is their choice to refuse to go in that narrow slot. These stalwarts define themselves in their own ways, not necessarily always rejecting everything burdened on them by history and by their special association to a certain group, but by taking a mental note of their historical baggage and then going beyond it. They understand that all these prepackaged definitions that appear divine at this time were coined by someone sometimes back in history—that they have the power to do the same.

By the time he was ready to give a detailed answer the child had already left.

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