Identity now starts with an 'I'

Identity now starts with an 'I'

WHO AM I?

The urban Indian is increasingly identifying himself with what he does rather than with his family or community. Sameer Shisodia elaborates on the liberation of the individual sense of self

Who am I? This question is fundamental to our differences vis-a-vis other species on the planet. We have forever sought answers to this, and will probably continue to do so forever. Entire philosophies and religions have been borne of this — when asked in relation to the perfect, the ideal. For most of us though, it boils down to a relative quest — in terms of what we do, can, have, like or even remember.

So what defines the average urban citizen today?

Till even a decade ago, many a couple with different surnames was asked — with various inflections depending on which part of the country you were in — “inter-caste-a?” That has now morphed into a “love-marriage?” — which is the same yet significantly different. For many, the caste and community affiliations have truly faded into the background over the last generation.

Vijayananda Prabhu, an “entrepreneur and jeeper”, thinks that work related migrations over the last few generations have weakened familial and community ties, and both forced, as well as liberated an individual’s sense of self. “There is a weaker notion of ‘roots’ in our generation, and in many ways, the visiting card is what defines us.
Historically, business and land owning communities had a reason and need to stick together, and those identities have still persisted in pockets. Political power is another.
But for most of us, what we do has always defined who we are, and the opportunities for what we do have expanded a lot. We could not count on what our fathers created and built to sustain us, especially our growing aspirations. We had to break out, and that meant our own individual sense of who we are.”

“My ancestors’ identity is not a strong part of mine”, concurs Kailas Sastry. “What they did, believed and held true about themselves no longer applies to me. Our economic and career realities are more important in today’s context than our social identities were.” Instead, apart from his work, a strong sense of being a more progressive member of society shapes who he is.

Our professional and career paths do dominate our identity. It could be many a Bangalorean introducing himself as “a techie” and not in terms of an ethnic group or a community, or like Sunil Mysore, “An entrepreneur” which is one step up on the needs hierarchy, like Prabhu’s “jeeper”. Today, economic affordability, as well as the assertion of individualism has created interests and causes that folks pursue very seriously. Cyclists wear that tag as a badge of honour and camaraderie with others they ride out on weekends with. Photographers bond together, share a vocabulary and even a code of ethics amongst themselves. Golfers share tips, information and stories with others of their kind.

Thanks to technology, it is not just easier and more acceptable to pursue a dream, or something you love doing, but easier to find others to share the journey with as well. There’s an online fora or group for pretty much anything you can think of. There’s resonance found easily for every opinion, every belief. Even rebels and those fighting for a cause get together and sustain each other’s drive and enthusiasm. And through all of these, we have developed, and enjoy, multiple identities. Many a twitter bio is a comma separated list of who we think we are — “Cyclist, writer, dreamer, thinker, entrepreneur, photographer, techie, rebel” all find a mention there.

There are loners too — and again, the rise of the individual has created space and some level of acceptance of the loner as well. Sunil was encouraged by the response and action his letters to the Chief Minister and later the BBMP elicited — he was even called “E-Mail Sunil” by the local officers! He’s now what some call a social entrepreneur, and very focused on making an impact. And he’s very obviously proud of this identity that he has created for himself. Of course, he’s also a cyclist, a photographer, apart from being an entrepreneur.

Yet, the older identities subtly hang around in the background — though they surface very differently from their earlier avatars. Sunil is proud of the rich tradition of his roots even as he is critical of some of the traditions. It’s an identity now placed firmly under the supervision of the individual’s likes, dislikes and approvals. For Vijay, the community identity is “in a sense stronger than it ever was for my dad.” But again, it’s something that is used in a context, and not a dominant identity he associates with himself.

Our circumstances over the years shape our sense of who we are more than anything else. Sharath Nayak, an architect, associates himself with his place of origin, the city he lives in, has lived in, schools and universities he has studied in his profession and organisations he works for, his peer group, groups sharing similar world views and philosophies, groups sharing similar past times. “Identities in today’s world are multidimensional and dynamic, especially in cities. Past associations are not just memories but conversation starters, means of relating with people who you meet with similar associations.”

“The childhood we had, our parents’ economic and social situation surely have a big role to play — despite my current situation is life, my approach to finance is largely (and happily) a middle class one”, adds Vijay. Roy Skaria, originally from Kerala, grew up in Pune and identifies more with the experiences, food, values he grew up with. His introduction, of course, is a mix of techie, photographer, wildlife activist and volunteer  — the way he primarily sees himself now.

As opportunity for, and the assertion of the individual has grown, have we gained? Kailas is very sure we have. “There are some downsides to the loss of the collective identity, but by and large we are free of its clutches. It is a step forward, overall.” But then, our economic, family situation, our current stage in life determines a lot of this. Says Vijay — “As I’ve grown older, I’ve seen the cockiness in some of my friends mellow down. There is a larger acceptance of social norms and rules as one starts to need the support systems — financial or otherwise — as one faces various situations in life.” Just perhaps there was a plus to the community identity after all — and our lives in nuclear families and supposed “independence” just have not come across situations and stresses where those support structures are needed. Some of us do build a network of friends, mentors and advisors to play these roles, but there is a larger collective that the community at large  —  perhaps even the city or the country — might need us to identify with for the benefit of us all. The resonance one finds easily in even a small set of people who share one’s beliefs also makes it easier to ignore larger interests, questions and values — and that can cut both ways. Individually, many of us are concerned enough about plastic waste. But our collective identity as responsible urban citizens who own this problem isn’t strong enough to create social acceptability norms and a pressure group to do something dramatic about it — its not “our business”.

It’s a very deep question, and the answers are too interconnected and very very complex indeed.

Very apparent is the question, posed at an individual level, has a huge impact on who we are as a collective — city, or country, and even species — and where we’re going from here.

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