I was born a Human.
I grew up, went to school, went to college, started working. Met a lot of people along the way. Ate a lot of food at many different tables, slept under many different roofs, swapped stories of life and living and all that lies in between. Quarrelled, fought, made up, competed, won, lost, walked, ran, played, worked.
Then something happened. And someone made it a point to highlight that I was Hindu. Different place, different time, the highlight shifted to the fact that I was Brahmin, it wasn’t enough that I was Hindu. Before I knew it, an important fact crept in to my profile: that my primary education was in a school run by a Roman Catholic Church. Another counter-point emerged, that I was also tutored in the guru-shishya tradition and that my ancestors came from Varanasi. Somewhere along the way, it became important that my best friend is a Muslim. Different place, different time, he was qualified as Bohri Muslim.
Bewildered by all these identities, I stood still and looked into the mirror: Ah there I was. Just me. Without the labels.
Time travel, time travel, time travel to 2010s and: I am Indian. And Brown. Or Light Brown. Depending on who’s looking from which perspective. I am Straight, Spiritual, Apolitical. I have family, relatives and friends who are Indian, American, European, Asian, Muslim, Christian, B’Hai, Buddhist, Sikh, Atheist, Agnostic, Gay, Straight … does it really matter?
So I stepped back and started thinking. My education was just that – an education. It wasn’t rightist, leftist, or centrist; or scientific, or artistic or commercial; or nationalistic or humanistic or religious. My education was – and continues to be – a combination of different perspectives. Like most education are. The real question is what do we make of our education.
My basic qualification is that I have a Masters in History. I love history and the reading of it and the imagining and reimagining of it. And having a big family, I soon came to the conclusion that the history I was reading was written from one type of perspective and that all histories are written for a particular type of perspective with a predetermined slant (notion) of how history should read … and that the history that common people remember has very little to do with the way the historians write and record history or the way religious and political leaders want history to be remembered.
As I grew up and started travelling and talking to different people living in the places I traveled to, this realisation was not only reinforced but grew to such an extent that I came to look upon history books as brilliant sources of entertainment – some facts, a generous dose of interpretation, a perspective, some contradictory but supporting perspectives, some central characters, some supporting characters and a well evangelised story. And the more you read – especially from varied sides of the story – the more blurred the lines got between right and wrong, righteous and self-righteous, good and evil, and so on.
Then came the current age of global village where everybody travels everywhere, information is available in all shades of truth (or lie), and where histories of many perspectives are easily accessible on the mobile phone in your palm.
But some things never change. In fact, they have grown stronger. Not just more resilient but have become a colossus even: prejudice. You see, in my opinion, it is prejudice that divides the world and it is prejudice that makes one superior over another, and it is prejudice that prevents the writing of the real history – the history of the common human.
And so when I travel to Europe or to the USA, people see a Muslim coming at them because I have a long beard. Or they see an Indian coming because I am brown. In India, I am Hindu because I wear saffron or vermilion. Or I am a Liberal Atheist because I have long, wild hair. I guess people look at me and see whatever it is that they fear, and they then react with the hate that predetermined national history has ingrained in them. But then, is it possible for them to look at me and decide whether I am friend or foe? Is it possible for them to look inside my mind? If it isn’t, then how is it possible that people are looking at those who are not a particular colour or physical type and assuming they are friendly? Is it not true that intentions lie in the hearts of people and not in their skins or appearance? Or is it that everybody is afraid or suspicious of everybody, all the time? That is so sad.
I started traveling when I was an infant, and I have been travelling ever since. And till this day, I carry the traditional approach of travel with me – I reach out and smile and ask for directions and accept the glass of water or tea or coffee and conversation or food – whatever is offered. And people get to know me and I get to know them, and hopefully that is one barrier less.
I have travelled almost fearlessly wherever I had to. Of late, I get the feeling that the days of fearless travel might be over. The world is coming to a place where people might not have the patience to wait a few seconds for that smile, that conversation.
And yet, I continue to travel, with more caution and prudence – but travel I will. And I will continue to look for the person I know resides inside most people, beneath those layers of prejudice and classification: the Human.