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Essay

My Experiments with Identity

By Tejas Yadav

“Who are you?” Rarely do people vocalize this question, but you know they’re thinking it — from the very moment you meet them. To answer that question, you have to deal with another, internal one first. Who amI?

For a long time, I believed in a rigid identity, a fixed innate truth. Identity was a monolith, immutable and inherited. Down the river of years and landscapes, I have docked at numerous destinations, calling at each port with a distinct call. Heraclitus said you cannot step into the same river twice: the river moves on and so do you. If everything is in flux, how could I be, forever and everywhere I went, only one of the many things I could be?

In an interview, author Jhumpa Lahiri contended a singular, unchanging identity no longer interested her. Instead, she was seeking out different facets of her being and pushing the limits of how she defines herself. Lahiri grew up in an immigrant Indian family in the US but now lives in Rome, having learned and published in her adoptive language. She wonders if she is a Bengali, an American, an Italian, a woman, a writer, a wife or all of the above? Reading Lahiri’s words was liberating. Here was someone who had immersed herself into the Heracletian river, instead of skimming its superficial curves and bends.

I find this detachment from an unchanging, stereotypical identity appealing as I grow older. The more I turn around the sun, the more I want to shed cloaks of nationality, race, religion, sexuality and career. I want to be who I am, only I get to decide which emotional, political and social avatar I wish to place uppermost given the context. The richness of a pluralistic life means different hues take precedence depending on space and time. Back in the Renaissance period, polymaths were celebrated for being cultural chameleons and intellectual infidels. Utilitarianism has turned us into reductionists and prejudice into bigots. We want quick, short, predictable, comfortable answers to “Who are you?”. “Save the transgressive, subversive ambiguity of your Being,” they seem to say. “We need a label to comprehend your humanity. So, hurry up, what’s yours?”

Like Gandhi who wrote My Experiments with Truth, I too am Indian but unlike him, I am also the person who has lived most of his adult life away from India. I am gay, part of the identity politics of the LGBTQ+ minority and in the same breath I am also a cisgender able-bodied male with unspoken privileges. I am a scientist, but I am also a writer, poet. Sometimes I am a ‘person of colour’ and sometimes my emotional reactions against the racial battle fatigue, make me wish I could simply blend into the seawater of majority White.

Today, I have a paid job, but I am also someone who carries inside the memory of being unemployed. At times the immigrant in me surges to the forefront, on other occasions the anti-capitalist. I can be lucid and peaceful, but I know too the chasms between depression and vitality, the ones that are never fully bridged. Although this schizoid state recalls split personalities, a multi-layered identity is far from an incoherent, fragmented sense of self. All of these planes of existence make me who I am and, nevertheless, none of them are sufficient to define me. Only a paradox remains when I think of the whole of me. Identity then is an oxymoron, in evolution.

Undeniably, in a world that likes stock labels and neat boundaries it can feel chaotic to juggle different identities. Heterogeneity strikes many as a threat. Dissonance, variance, deviance constitute a trident charged against the constant, the power-wielding majority. The allure of sameness is strong in mobs, groups, entitled circles. They proclaim cohesiveness is the same as compassion. All outliers are dangerous. This primitive insularity reeks of exclusivity, of othering.

Invariability strikes those with unquestioned identities as the paragon of assimilation. But assimilation asks a great deal out of me and nothing out of you. How is that fair? Perhaps it is fair in the same way that ignorance and intolerance prosper while justice langours in the darkness. Assimilation has one objective: constancy. I’ve lived in four countries, speak five languages, straddle Science and Art. I stand at the crossroads of the developing East and developed West. I know the taste of racism deep in my skin (like spit full of hateful fear), I’ve walked down shiny corridors of privilege (Oxford, New York, Paris). I know the eyes that ask “Who are you?” and answer before I can, denying me the dignity of equality. In their gaze, my identity is a foregone, implicit bias. To them I say, constant is a dead word to me.

I live in the rough, mean, fleeting edges, the boundaries that no one sees because intersections are tough places. They are also thriving, lush, transcendent niches for the invisible and ignored. At intersections, we become so much greater than the sum total of our experiences. The goal of self-determination is not to figure out the right identity label and hold on to it dearly and protect it vehemently when attacked. Instead, fluidity serves natural order better. Amorphous like the primordial sizzling soup we come from, full of protean charm. Complex and dazzling like precious stones under a stolid terra firma. I wish to carry myself with my multitudinous, contradictory truths.  If someone is not prepared to engage in meaningful exchange with my nebulous vibrant ‘otherness’, they will receive a unidimensional, disengaged version of me. Or better, none at all.

Rumi allegedly said “You are the universe in ecstatic motion.” As I write these words, I’m starting to see what he meant. My experiments with difference continue, ironically because the word identity comes from the Latin one, idem, which means the same. How much of me is lost if the river stops flowing? Congruity always tries to boss over irregularity. In the end, the truth of one’s identity stems from uniqueness, not uniformity. Manifold and bewildering is the flow of an ecstatic river that refuses to be forded by narrow constraints imposed by mankind.

Tejas Yadav is an Indian scientist and writer. Currently, he lives in Paris. Themes of immigration, race and mental health inspire him. You can read more of his published work here:https://ytejas.medium.com/my-published-work-7cc06b99a443

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