– C.K. Mathew IAS (Retd)
Google maps tell me that my residence at Koramangala at Bangalore is at 12.928586 latitude and 77.634240 longitude. Two numbers; two lines that intersect right over the home I live in. It struck me that the postal department, with the right technological aids, could send me a letter simply on the basis of these two numbers. There would be no need to describe the flat number or the street name or even the name of the city or the State. Imagine my home or for that matter any location being defined by two neutral numbers.
Let’s take it a step further. My UID aadhar number is 8453 9955 4028. If the postal department takes my biometrics when handing over the letter to me, it would ensure that the letter does not get into the wrong hands. So there, my new formal address is 8453 9955 4028 @12.928586 /77.634240 . There is no other place in the whole wide world with these coordinates. There is no other person in the whole wide world with that same set of biometric markers. Numbers instead of alphabets. In fact, I remember an ad of a mobile provider affirming that no one would henceforth be known by his caste but only by the 10 digit cell number. It makes one sit back and wonder: Is this the final answer to the question of identity?
Now, if I state that I am a living being, which I guess I am, I will be no different from the billions of living creatures this world abounds in. I will be counted amongst the seven billion human beings of whom I am one. If, however, I say I am an Indian, I will be one of the billion odd people of this country. The quantitative number of the set to which I belong shall reduce with each stage of the reduction: from Indian to South Indian, from South Indian to Keralite, to Trivandrum where I used to live, to the religion I profess, and so on to the home address and finally I, and I alone. At the last stage of reduction, the identity of the person cannot be in doubt any longer.
While in service, at my office in Jaipur in Rajasthan, I used to receive countless representations or petitions from people with all kinds of problems and grievances. They used to complain about the water supply or the electricity or the machinations of the local Tehsildar or the village sarpanch. But all of them carry their names and addresses, so that when their grievance is processed and finalised they will get a response on the action taken in their matter. The address is precise and unmistakeable. The name, the father’s name, age, religion, caste, ward number, village name, panchayat name, the tehsil, district, state and so on. The identity is established in description and explanation, portraying the precise person that you are.
Many actions that we perform in the society we live in, are those whereby we establish our own identity as distinct from those around us. And the special qualities that make us who we are; parentage, blood group, food, language, dress, customs; each of these characteristics aid us in establishing who we are. It appears to me that the tremors we see in the society around us, whether it is in the stridency of the disadvantaged members of society or the fevered response from those considered superior, all of these stem from the desire to project an identity unique and unambiguous. When my sense of who I am is threatened by another, whose space I intrude upon, then there is conflict. And the demand for the unique identification of that person or groups of persons gets more emphasised and insistent. Jobs reserved for a particular caste or community must be jealously guarded. Those outside the charmed circle of affirmative action wish to get in and edge out those whom they feel have wallowed in its benefits for too long. There are benefits and concessions in the membership of a particular club, there are none in another. The identity that you possess, by virtue of your birth in a particular set of circumstances, does much to determine who you are and the future which beckons to you. Each of us wishes to possess a unique identity that differentiates us, that sets us apart, that makes me who I am.
The question that we have to ask is whether in our determined search to establish and proclaim a particular identity, be it in the personal domain or in the social and political domain, do we lose the unique commonality that really binds us all together. Time and again we have heard of astronauts from out in space, revolving around the earth in their tiny space crafts, who have been astonished in the knowledge that we are all brethren sharing this third planet from the sun, bound together by a common destiny beyond our powers to describe. The need to define and underscore a unique identity for ourselves -whether as an individual or as a group- and, by the very nature of that need, to be at odds with others who also feel the burning desire to claim identity, who tread on the little space we have carved out for ourselves, shatters the common threads that bind us.
Am I saying something sacrilegious? Am I saying that personal or social identity should be given the go by and we should all seek a universality that will bring us all together? Well, yes and no! If by seeking to establish an identity that is unique to me or to the social group I belong to, I create an exclusive space that I shall guard with all the ferocity that I possess, expelling others who wish to encroach thereon, then I am constructing walls between me and my neighbour and disrupting the tranquility that is the natural order of the universe.
But that does not also mean that I cannot have a unique personality that enables me to express myself in a positive manner through creative expression, by word and song, by dance or colour. How wonderful to express my uniqueness in the manner in which I desire. But then, I should do so respecting those who are different to me, different in the colour of the skin, different in the ideology I profess, different in the manner I bow my head to my God. And that is why I say that we should search for the things that unite us, that bring to the forefront the threads that bind us together in our common destiny on this third planet from the sun.
And what are they, what are the things that will bring us together, irrespective of our many differences, ignoring the many worlds we differently reside in. We need to reach out and find those threads, the warp and the woof that knits the fabric together, provided we are wise enough to see that truth.