In my days at IITG, I have often been asked where I hail from. Somehow, I never am sure how to answer it. Consider: I was born in Kerala, I stay in a town called Kalyan, in Maharashtra, and am studying here in Guwahati, Assam. Should I say, I am from Kalyan, where I stay, and which no one will recognise, or should I say I am from Bombay (or Mumbai), which people will recognise? Or should I say that I am from Kerala, where I was, in fact, born? Each answer means different things, and I would often be in a quandary as to which meaning I should choose.
The problem gets worse and worse. I am a Malayali, and my name is borrowed from Tamil (my grandma’s remark when my mum came up with the name). My name confuses people when they hear that I’m from Bombay. Here at IITG, they instantly assume that I am an Andhra, lo! even more confusion. And I have to set about explaining things.
And let’s not forget religious tendencies. I was born a Hindu (strangely enough, I have also been mistaken for a Christian), became an atheist by choice and am an agnostic by practice. That last phrase would be confusing: An atheist and an agnostic are mutually exclusive terms. Let me make it clear: I have a problem accepting god(s) as gods usually are represented: omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. Now, I cannot accept any concept of a god with attributes that I myself may not have, I cannot accept a superior being. But god(s) as sort-of kick-starter(s) to the universe (as in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama Revealed) is(are) certainly ok, so long as said god(s) refrain from interfering with the universe.
I know four languages: English (which I consider my first language, since I think in it), Malayalam (my mother tongue), Hindi and Marathi. Now, I rarely get to speak English, and it’s more than a trifle rusty. My Malayalam vocabulary is limited, and dying from disuse. My Hindi grammar is barbarous (to say the least), and my Marathi is one-way. So which language should I speak in? English and Malayalam have rarely found use, and my Marathi only allows me to listen, but not to speak. And my Hindi would be offensive to the highest degree to any purist.
Caught between identities is one thing, but caught between interests is another. I am studying Mechanical Engineering at IITG, but my heart is anywhere but in Mechanics. I love Mathematics, Physics, English, and Computer Science; I have a strong leaning towards History, Philosophy, and even Psychology, but I have no interest in the number crunching that Mechanics involve. And so, here I am, faring well in Math and Physics (till last semester) and programming, but verging towards the brink of failure in Solid and Fluid Mechanics as well as Thermodynamics.
And then comes the primary passion in my life: reading books. People immediately deduce, incorrectly, I’m afraid, that I am studious. I’m merely a bookworm, and study only for the sake of the pleasure the knowledge brings me. Ergo, my dismal grades in every major exam that I have taken.
Bombay, that is VT (Victoria Terminus, now named Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) the main railway station, the heart of Bombay, is 50 km from my house. Though, of course, to anyone who lives within the reach of the local trains, the world is divided into two main regions: the one with Bombay’s local trains, and the one without (got the pun?). Within the local train system, differences occur; but without, whichever town or suburb you live in, you’re from Bombay.
I recently finished reading Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. He remarks that Bombay is a city of exiles, of restless people, of people in transit. That’s how I see myself, as someone in transit, caught in a world to which I do not belong, neither here nor there. But with a difference: Mehta’s people are in transit from one place to another, from one life to another, from one level of power to another. I’m in transit, but in time, and my destinations are æons apart. I long to be in those times of discovery and exploration, when frontiers of the world, the sciences and mathematics were expanded rapidly, with much to learn, and much more to discover, as it still is today in the abstract fields. But now, to even reach those levels they discovered and explored, one must spend a lifetime, either acquiring money for travel, or studying for discovery and invention. In this era of increasing specialization, what chance does someone like me have, who longs to be of the old breed, when scientists were polymaths?
But what does my language, my name, my place of residence and my interests matter? All my life, I have watched and envied people who were part of a group, of a ‘crowd’, a circle of friends. I have never been part of one, and I doubt I will ever be. I wander from one group to another, using my friends in each group as an entry point, but never lingering long enough to become a part. I have always felt an envelope of loneliness about me: separating me from all others, never letting me truly open my heart out and pour my thoughts and desires to anyone, not even to my closest friends, not even the one time I had a girlfriend, except the most superficial ones. To compensate, I populate my mind with versions of people I meet, people I become interested in. I try to get to know them as well as I can, and then carry on conversations, discussions and debates with the mental version. Not one hour goes by in which I have not had a talk with one of my mental creations. It gets so that I am absolutely lethargic when it comes to calling my family or my friends.
You might think, how rightly I cannot say, that I am nuts. Please, understand me, it is not so. I try discussing things with people, but each only understands, or cares to understand only small fragments of my thoughts. To many should I confide? To how many should I explain my philosophy? No, it is better that my mind talk to itself, it is not a closed lake, but an ocean into which streams and rivers are constantly pouring in new experiences, new thoughts and new concepts. An analytic and imaginative brain like my own cannot afford idleness, and I must have my companions, real or imaginary.
That is all I can say for today. It took me a lot of will power and determination to get this all out, all of which I have, at one time or the other, as one point or another, tried to discuss with my friends. If they remember those occasions, I hope they’ll understand better.
May be I am as Rhett Butler said to Scarlet O’Hara in Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlet: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind.
“You belong with me, Scarlett, haven’t you figured that out? And the world is where we belong, all of it. We’re not home-and-hearth people. We’re the adventurers, the buccaneers, the blockade runners. Without challenge, we’re only half alive. We can go anywhere, and as long as we’re together, it will belong to us. But, my pet, we’ll never belong to it. That’s for other people, not for us.”
So I keep asking myself, and I may never know the answer, to whom do I belong?
Well, so long, for now.