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Kosmopolis Institute Publications Day 11: Charades anyone??

Day 11: Charades anyone??

Writing after Jimmy’s blog is not an easy task but I’ll make an effort and will take comfort in his words, “...who would resist an Indian woman?”

Today there were no classes. The members had a choice of participating in a conference on Exploring Religious Scriptural Understanding for Reconciliation and a discussion on a paper titled, “Teacher positioning on the teaching of sexual diversity in South African schools”. Everyone did their own thing during the day – some read, others went to the mall, did knitting, laundry. Very few woke up early to the sounds of the chirping birds (even the birds here are musical or may be it’s just the romantic in me or the Bollywood obsession) ....and rush to shower. My reflections are on the recent discussions we had on identity, which Vicky has shared in an earlier blog.

We were sitting around the table at the Institute (International Institute for Studies in Race, Reconciliation and Social Justice (Wow! That took time).... JC has thrown down the gauntlet and promised us financial reward if we come up with a short title) post dinner and a discussion on identity(ies) began – what is Indian identity, Indonesian identity, Ugandan identity, South African and Dutch identity. To my and other’s surprise, the Dutch participants in the discussion shared that they did not know what is Dutch identity. What is so Dutch about them? On the contrary, all other countries seem to experience a sense of identity – stemming from various processes viz. Colonial past, struggle for Independence, apartheid, a pluralist society, religion and culture et al. The discussion then veered towards a search for a Dutch identity and it has to be admitted that a valiant attempt was made by participants from other countries. On our quest, we stopped upon language, constitution, literary tradition, value system, ethnicity, a historic past - to name a few. Even though the Dutch could not really come to any sort of agreement about a shared identity, they did talk about Dutch as being ‘entrepreneurial’, ‘traders’, ‘travelers’, ‘their liberal tradition’. “...Even though we say we are a multi-cultural society, we really are not. There is not much of an interaction between various cultures back home...” The discussion went on for some time but an agreement was not in sight. So we decided to come back and discuss it and help discover the Dutch identity in the remaining days of the Winter School.

Lying on my bed reflecting on the conversation, I started to think about the complex issue of identity. Why do people have a sense of belonging? What is the basis for it? Are we better off not having identities? All countries face contestations of identities and yet there are also shared spaces and traditions. The Dutch shared that they have no identity yet there is a fear of ‘Islamisation’ in the political sphere back home. What does it mean to be identified differently? How is it possible to not identify with the ‘self’ but identify the ‘other’? “...Indonesians are polite, careful and sweet ....Indians are disorganised and are manipulative...The Dutch shower once a week...Ugandans are lazy and slow..South Africans have well rounded bottoms...” – some of the prejudices that came up on the first day. Is it simply a question of essentialising identities or disregarding plural identities we may otherwise have or both when we see the ‘other’? And what does this mean then for viewing the ‘self’. What identities are we disregarding in constructing a self? Why do the other participants (including myself) insist on giving an identity to the Dutch? Is it not okay to relate with them at an individual level?

In a while from now the Winter School will come to an end and the participants will go back with different experiences, not just of the school but of individuals and one another. This I know and hope will happen. I would like to take with me a part of every individual, their personality and hope to leave some part with the participants. Because beneath the veneer of pan identities and singular identity lies a personality conditioned by various identities – good and bad, likeable and irritating, affiliating and different.

From different identities to different cuisines. In the evening, we all went to the faculty members’ houses for dinner. So off we marched with Helen being the House Captain of sorts, leading the way, making sure everyone was around and disciplined. It did not matter that we lost our way at some point but we marched on. Giving good company was Evarist’s and Dindi’s weird imagination.. “We don’t know the way and are just walking, what if we get lost.. what if some harm comes our way..”, “We should carry some food with us on our way back just in case we get hungry again from all the walking.”

I think everyone enjoyed themselves – with the food (Indian, African and barbeque), the music, the conversation, the company, JC’s cheesy innuendos and the game of charades which, by the way, our team won. It was a good day indeed!

Vinita Verma