Every morning, I have an uninspiring ritual of slapping my hand under and around my pillow aimlessly to feel the familiar shape of my phone. Once I’ve found my phone, my first instinct is to check the time while still rubbing the sleep out of my eyes to assure myself that no important task was missed while I was sleeping, the instinct following the first is to eyeball the notifications and assure myself that no disaster struck or celebrity died while I kept on sleeping, and the last of the instincts is for my fingers to wander and tap the Instagram and Microsoft Outlook apps on my mobile screen to assure myself of nothing in particular.
If the first most subliminal 10 minutes of my day are any indication of what I identify as – one would read anxious, workaholic, informed, voyeur. Maybe one wouldn’t – I would. If what I have written so far were the first paragraph in a work of literary fiction, I would have assumed those things. Consequently, I identify as judgmental too. As I write this, my mental map constitutes the desire to write well, checklists for work, gratitude reminders for being home with a healthy family, daydreaming about the house and life my boyfriend and I would build together once the pandemic ends and counting the calories consumed and burnt. I would, as my proclivity to judge and judge myself the most warrants, proclaim this mental map to belong to a well-adjusted person, with desires and banalities aplenty, labelled common yet constructive.
I spent decades, and I don't exaggerate here, I spent decades in my near 3-decade long existence searching for what would be and remain mine - skill, subject, person, culture, language or feeling. I used to think ownership begets identity and the lack of ownership would imply a loss of identity. Growing up, I was a good student, but never the best. I read books but never as many as some of my other classmates did. My parents are Odiya but we spoke Hindi at home while I thought and wrote in English. I was trained in Hindustani classical but abandoned it within the first few years under pressures of daily riyaaz. I had many friends; I was invited to birthday parties and I was considered promising, but I didn’t have boyfriends. I was overweight but didn’t seem to have my self-concept influenced by that until I was much older. I didn’t want to be a fat girl cliché trying to find my inner beauty amidst romantic rejections. I wanted to be better than that, but was I? In the presence of so many dichotomies and the lack of ownership on any – my identify felt nebulous. I longed for the longing of characters in a Jhumpa Lahiri book, I envied how they could attribute their sense of displaced identity to culture and language, I could find no explanation for my sense of displacement because if I didn’t own any of the above, could I identify with or as them?
College was supposed to be, in the romanticized version of my mind, the place I was deemed to come into my own, find my identity. I was privileged to have secured myself a seat in one of the most prestigious institutions in the country, I was doing my majors in a lucrative discipline and I’d made the cut to the Dramatics Society. Things however didn’t go as planned and I wasn’t the desirable woman taking lovers or the meritorious geek at the top of her class. I barely scraped through passing grades, I wasn’t the most talented writer/director/actor in the college Dramatics Society, my politics was more visceral than informed, my relationship with alcohol was attention seeking and the concept of my identity more confused than ever. I lacked the experiences of a woman my age; the women I was friends with and loved and who loved me were experiencing their firsts while I was sitting in a corner drowning myself in Old Monk. This feeling followed me to Mumbai, as I moved out of my parents’ home and built one of my own. I catered to my financial needs, starved myself and lost weight, dated men of many varieties (yay/damn the influx of dating apps), I turned more desirable and less happy. What was identity now? The fat girl was no longer fat, but if she wasn’t fat then who was she? The identity quest soldiered on, the growing up still years away and the body image issues fed and nurtured. If the fat girl wasn’t the fat girl, she was the Delhi girl who’d moved to Mumbai. I identified with Delhi when I started living in Mumbai far more than I ever did in the many years I’d lived in Delhi. For Delhi, the city that had been my home; I fought, I defended, I debated, and I concurred. For Mumbai, the city that helped me grow; I learnt, I forgave, I accepted, and I healed. Sometimes identity had to be deprived for it to extend its right to belong, I learnt that when I was no longer fat. I learnt that when I was no longer that Delhi girl.
When I was 14, I’d watched a pigeon die in my high school courtyard and the incident had led to me becoming a vegetarian. I didn’t think it to be noble then, I don’t think it to be noble now. In fact, I never even bothered myself with having enough information in my arsenal to defend this life choice, I wasn’t the kind who watched all the documentaries on animal cruelty or stood for it in any big way or small (not even on Instagram) but I did what felt personally right to me in that moment and it stuck. I’ve often, as I realize now after years of therapy, been driven by gut instead of carefully crafted pros and cons. Take feminism for instance, after years of learning and unlearning through my own experiences, this year I thought I knew everything there was to know about what it is to be woke and I was suddenly hit by perspectives so poignant, novel, relevant and urgent in Jia Tolentino’s book Trick Mirror that it shocked me for having had been so immune and ignorant to the patriarchy entrenched in my beliefs and actions even now. Did I identify as a feminist or an animal activist? I aspired to but I hadn’t yet mastered the prerequisites.
These weren’t epiphanies granted kindly to me in a letter made with feathers as I embarked on my adventure of soul digging, these were hard earned through a series of short-lived relationships with men both kind and unpleasant. If one isn’t in therapy, chances are that a lot of the crashing and formations of our beliefs about ourselves are lent to us by significant others. In my current relationship too, I am reminded every day that identity isn’t found and framed on a wall, it is drafted with studied concentration. It is edited and corrected, it is shared and celebrated, it is reprimanded and unlearnt.
I feel it would be remiss of me to not reveal the other theoretically relevant data points that make the rest of a tangible notion of me. I am a 28-year-old woman, I work as a product manager in a financial services company and live with a flat mate in Mumbai. I like the sight of cocktails in dainty drinkware and string lights on trees, I like the smell of popcorn and swimming pools and I like the touch of furry dogs and side hugs. I like books that offer cultural context and psychological insight, I like shows that make me cry and have a snappy soundtrack and I like people who feel passionately about etymology and restaurant reviews. If preferences define identity, I could feel more connected with a 36-year-old man in New Orleans, a person with whom I’m unconnected on grounds of gender, age, culture and perhaps even sexual identity. This idea of identity speaks most loudly to me as I sit pondering over the last few sentences of this exercise in catharsis.
In a country where we are discarding people whose religion is different from ours and in a world where we are mangling people whose skin color is different from ours; identity sits holier if it is derived instead from a shared love for Jane Austen and Keanu Reeves.