Identity: Formation and Retention


Who is a Banarsi?

Who is a Bihari?

Who is a Bengali?

Identities are very difficult to fix. People are even more difficult to identify. They tend to resist being fixed, stained, dissected and experimented upon. The questions with which I have begun are the questions that I have been meeting for a long time. Now is the time to ask them. Not because I expect to find answers to them, but because I find the very quest exhilarating. We had a very long discussion on the topic in the evening and there were several moments in the discussion when one of the discussants felt that they had nailed it. They were wrong every time.

We began with the proposition that language and geography on birth decide the identity in most of the cases. We were also able to point out that identity is not internal or subjective, it is more in the nature of an external imposition e.g. a person born in a family of Bengalis in Varanasi will be both Banarsi and Bengali, whether he sees himself as only one of them or none doesn’t matter at all. I know many cases in which someone hid their being a Bengali, Banarsi or Bihari in order to survive in the settings hostile to the identity hidden. Social pressure acted upon them and made them do what they had done. They presented themselves as someone they thought they were, and people accepted them too, for the remaining life time of the persons concerned. Thus they forged their new identity when there was a new and clean slate to write upon. It became possible only because they had migrated from their point of origin to some other place where no one knew them. Thus their internal and subjective identity was externalized and objectivised. And thus had we ended by proving our beginning wrong, at least in some cases. Apart from the extreme kind of the instances mentioned above, people take the identity they are given by the accident of their birth and pass on the information to others.

Formation of identity and its retention are two different things. The next post in the series will deal with them.

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