My memory tells me that as a school-boy in Bombay of the late 1970s and early 1980s, I used to be afraid of Maths, Maths teachers, of a boy in my class, and his elder brother Jacob. Maths teachers because they had a condescending way of correcting the gaps in my understanding, Maths because I grew to hate the subject probably due to the experience of being taught Maths in a condescending way, the boy in my class because he would call his brother Jacob for every little thing he wanted, and Jacob simply because he was much bigger than I was and he invariably won every fist fight because my fear of him stopped my brains in my tracks, in turn forcing me to fight him on his terms with his choice of weapons so to say.
There were several questions in my head around this time: what is learning? Why do I have to learn the way the teacher wants me to learn? Why should my learning be compared to that of others – how does that improve me or them in any way? Should I compete? Why? Why not? Why does Jacob come to beat me every time his little brother asks for something that is mine? Why can’t I defeat him?
Eventually, I went to Delhi in the mid 1980s, and there in a matter of a few weeks I learned everything I needed to about my place in the world. I was in Class 8 then, and every kid (including little kids from primary classes) was shoving me out of the way with an abuse or two or three as they brushed past to the head of the line at the canteen. After two weeks of eating biscuits and cold pieces of bread pakoda, I started shoving the world back, and learned an important lesson: I became an equal to all the kids (big and small) and they respected that I could take what I wanted and more importantly, they understood that I would take what was theirs as well if they didn’t stand down.
I took this new learning to the playground, and the classroom as well and here (in the classroom) things could have gone very badly for me since the power play in the classroom is completely stacked up against the student – teachers and administrators call the shots. But it turned out well for me because I found two great teachers – Ms Tripti Dutta (English) and Ms Sunita Nair (who never taught me directly since she taught political science to higher classes). Both teachers were secure in their knowledge, open to learning anew, and therefore welcomed debates, discussions and even heated arguments on logic, ethics, and methodology in relation to their own subjects and others as well. But they taught me something more: With power comes responsibility. They were the first and only two individuals who have accepted me as an equal even when they had more experience and knowledge.
Later, when I started working, I did not meet any who considered me an equal and I learned that in the workplace everyone expects that everyone will prove themselves again and again at every step, at every new phase … and also that most people did not apply the same standards to themselves. This made me think: what is a standard? And what do I expect from others? Do I want them to prove to me again and again their loyalty, their fealty, their competence? Are my seniors and juniors the same for me? Do I treat different people differently? Should I? Do I treat people differently from the way I treat myself?
As I lived and worked and learned more, I had more questions every day. Then I moved out of Mumbai where I had spent a lot of time, and moved to Pune, and I spent the next two decades living and working in Pune and travelling to and interacting for work with people in different countries … and I had another different set of questions. I wrote, and argued, and debated, and discussed, and eventually I grew silent, stopped writing, and just lived and worked and thought and wrote to myself. The deeper I went into myself, the more I learned about my nature, and the more I observed the world around me, and the deeper I dug into my mind, body, and soul, asking myself questions and answering them, and refining the answers, and asking again. And here’s what I now think:
There is no equality, there can’t be because we are all born unequal. Just being born does not make us equals. If that were true, then the wild dog on the road and I are equal. The bird in the sky and I are equal. The security guard and I are equal. The richest person on earth and I are equal. Man and woman are equal. Adults and children are equal.
But we are not.
But that’s too simple. I had to define what it is to be equal to arrive at a conclusion on equality (the state of being equal). I have examined various definitions of equal, and they are all based on discrimination – by quantity, size, degree, value, ability… and so it follows that all rights and privileges are also discriminatory by nature. When people as a ‘people’ ask for equality they are asking others not to discriminate against them. This usually follows from subjugation over centuries. When people ask for equality for being a variation of a defined behaviour (sexual orientation, lawfulness, religious belief, etc) they are asking others not to discriminate against them because they are different. When women ask for (equality they are asking men not to discriminate against them in the context of various matters. When the poor ask for rights or equal opportunities, they are asking the better-off not to discriminate against them. And so on.
But that’s where it falls apart, that’s where we all become silly, where we become blind to the fact that we are all perpetuating a myth that has been running for the longest possible time one can imagine. Everybody is equal, everybody always was. I don’t need any one’s permission to be me. And I don’t need to give anybody permission to be themselves.
But that’s the state of the world we live in. We did this. We seem to be asking people about their opinions on what we do. And that’s because we are a society. And what is a society? A collection of people co-existing. And when people co-exist there is give and take. And when they give and take, some give more, some take more. And when equality gets defined on the basis of transactions, influencing factors are bound to include ‘might’ (financial, physical, knowledge, etc). And when might comes in to play, one will be strong, another weak, and the weak will fear (maybe hate too but always fear) the strong, and the strong will be come to believe that they are more equal than others. And there will be subjugation and discrimination, and redefining of laws and rules by the mightier, and it is from the discrimination that the plea for equality arises. (Conforming to discriminatory laws is a sign that you subscribe to the discrimination, and so it would be fair if in a different time, under a different government or in a different land, one finds one’s self at the other end of the stick).
No, we cannot be equal. For, to be equal means we have to all give up our core beliefs and ways of life which no one wants to (which is why we like to belong to classes, groups, communities, societies – yes it was our choice as humans to belong and when you belong, you don’t belong to yourself but in a great measure to others). And by this I mean that given a chance, those who are less equal today may also do the same to others tomorrow because their beliefs are strong as well, and so they are unlikely to be tolerant of other views.
So the only definition that makes sense to me is that ‘Equality’ means when we are without fear, and our actions and words show that we are without fear.
Thus: You are not afraid of me. I am not afraid of you. Hence, we are equal. And since we are equal, we can begin the process of co-existence as only equals can – through open Negotiations. You and I are both aware of the other’s willingness to fight for what is ours, and therefore we are equal because we negotiate terms to co-exist rather than be in a state of conflict all the time.
If you have to ask people for equality, you never will be equal. If you need to take other people with you to ask for equality, you never will be equal. You are equal if you know it and are willing to carry it in your heart, every minute, every day, every breath.
And it is only when a person believes they are equal to others as such, do they respect the equality of others as well.
I live a world that is unequal. And so I have to remind myself that I am equal every breath I take, and then I have to remind others around me of that. And then, I have to remember that others are equal as well.