Self Essentialization and Identity Formation

A resident Banarsi friend of mine, an old friend, said to me a couple of days ago: “There’s much more to Banaras than you know, or ever will. I can speak words from the Banarsi dialect  that you will neither understand nor recognize.” He was right about the city and I knew that he could speak those words that I would never know the meaning of. I am a self proclaimed Banarsi who pegged his identity on Banaras through nearly a decade long identity formation process in exile.

I don’t remember having actually referred to myself as a Banarsi while I was there. I suspect sometimes that my losing my roots and my ties with the place confirmed my identity as a Banarsi, or, it made it important for me to have a fixed vantage point to look at myself. I needed to equate my identity with what I had always resisted: an essentializaed category that subsumed the richness of my existence and its truthfulness, and may have created a false facade. An enquiry is essential for me to understand the mechanism and its effects.

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Am I being harsh? Masochistic? Or just self critical? Probably. But I am being more daringly truthful than I had ever been for a long time in writing. Of course, the feel good factor is present when I get a solid stratum to peg my identity upon. It feels safe and secure, and, sometimes, dishonest. Simplification and hasty choice making , although always convenient, have never been good for me in the long run. They complicate matters.

The only text I have read in which an attempt is made to define and delimit the identity of a super-essentialized Banarsi is Bana Rahe Banaras. I have been attempting the same and then also been trying to equate the identity defined in such a manner with that of mine. I must admit that I have succeeded in convincing myself [sic] and others to a certain extent.

Who or what is a Banarsi? How does one differentiate between a Banarsi and a non-Banarsi?

Birth in Banaras is an important determiner of the identity but that’s not all. If someone moved away from the city after birth, or was born and brought up there but does not belong to it, then that person cannot be called a Banarsi. If a person loves Banaras and lives there, but was not born there, he is still a Banarsi. Then again, if the person loving and living in Banaras, even if he moves away forever and if his heart still beats for his city, who would dare to call him a non-Banarsi? Along with the love for the city, the knowledge of the city, its people, customs and spirit: things imbibed consciously and unconsciously, are also important as indicators of one’s identity.

I did not love my city when I was there. My being away from it has been behind all the love and longing. How honest and how strong? Now that’s another thing. Roots need something to cling to and go deep into. Uprooted and floating in the metropolitan air, I needed Banaras to send my roots deep into. So, I re-created in my mind the city I had left. And then, I sent my roots deep into that self-created base: my city.

I don’t know much about my city. Professor Eck and Mr. Lannoy are more Banarsi than I am (and, I am tempted to add, will ever be, but hope prevents it), so are my uncle’s and my father. People who know the city, its people, customs, cycles, fairs, temples, ghats and galis. It’s one thing to live at a place and another to imbibe, experience and record it on the disc of mind. I am hopeless when it comes to remembering and recalling. I had not been to many places and events in my city that I now wish I should have. How would I know it then?

A replay is what I need, so that I could live my life to the fullest there and be a true Banarsi. Where’s the time machine?

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