THE QUESTIONS OF IDENTITY
SHIP OF THESEUS
How am I KNOWN ?
Abba, his 8-year-old grandson and I, made our customary visit to a popular historical monument in the city. This was an annual affair, and today we were revisiting a structure that had recently been restored. Last time when we visited - Ammi had accompanied, then I was in my teens – I distinctly remember that we did not move through these photo galleries, the information boards and even the reconstructed model, as we did now. The monument then had just appeared, but today it almost revealed itself. Is it just my lapse of memory? Or was the experience different?
I did not bother to clarify with Abba, as I stood right in front of the main structure and ogled. The grandeur, the marvel, the scale as it now stood in the foreground of newly laid landscape left me awestruck. Even the polished stones, that sparkled against the setting sun left me wondering. The only thought that crossed my mind was my school history lessons. Everything matched – the dimension, the scale, the height – and all the facts – but what did not was the image of chipped mortar, the broken wall, the barren ground, the unpainted motifs and the layers of history.
“This is not what I had read about, certainly not what I had visited earlier!”, I exclaimed in both surprise and excitement. To which Abba replied, “This is not what I had lived!” As he walked holding his grandson hand, along the pathway, he continued, “For me, this place will always remain a place of refuge. Dotting tents, amidst overgrown trees, rolling terrain and much large expanse of land. The monument just stood there as the backdrop as people scampered for shelter. We used to run in all directions and witnessed the structure from so many directions. The place that time was free! Today, I feel restrained, walking on this straight path. It is too orderly.”
As the anecdote continued, I saw my son, most comfortably walking towards the monument, while looking at the large tree to the right, that seemed like a favourite spot to frame the monument. “We spent night under the tree! Met your Ammi there for the first time!”, Abba recalled.
Now standing on the high pedestal, right below the shadow of the monument, I took a glancing look around. Just to visualize what I had read, what Abba narrated and what my son will remember. Pressing my face against the cold jail inside to get a glimpse of the tomb I said, “You have been resting for years! What is your chronicle, Humayun?”
What is my EXISTENCE?
“He bagha ani ale parat!” (Look, they are back again!), I breathed heavily at the very instant I saw the crew carrying props and decorative panels. This was all to decorate me – my clothing for the next few hours, as one exclaimed, “Oye! Cover this panel, it should not be seen.” This is what they did often nowadays. Cover my scarred edges, broken bones, shuffle a few panels and ‘set’ me up as a backdrop for their television shows.
Standing here for years I have seen the city change. But not many have seen me alter. Maybe because from the exterior, I am still the same. The beautifully ordained, robust and majestic stonewall appearance. But it is within me that changes have occurred.
There once a grandeur and extravagance about me. The large dome, the ornate railings, the hanging lights, the wooden floor and even the detailed upholstery all contributed to my beauty. I was a place of desire for every artist in the city. I came to life even more with the enchanting music, the performance of artists, the elegant outfits and the packed balcony boxed seats and the reverberations of accolades. I was both the audience and a performer. At times, when I stand in darkness today, being ‘staged’, I can still hear the echoes ringing within my walls. It is what I was built for, it is what I did best.
“Sigh”, all the lights started to fade. The performances reduced and as the ‘talkies’ infiltrated the city; I became a mere spectator. The lights would be turned off and like me, everyone was would sit in darkness and view the screen. All would just stare blindly at the screen and I too became blinded from them. Not that it did not have its glamour – well at least more than that I have now – but no one ever got a chance to witness my grandeur. I became hollow and parts of me started being modified – a new screen and a cafeteria got added. But I had started to deteriorate.
Today several years later, standing in the financial capital of the country – I no more belong. The ‘screenings’ have stopped now, and I am just a large structure who just exists. The fine craftsmanship, the decorative walls and the magnanimous dome are now meaningless. Only temporary masks are what I am constituted of.
“Ouch be gentle”- I screeched, as the crew tweaked and camouflaged my parts, with an attempt to recreate the scale and robustness of my past. Though from the exterior, touching me is prohibited, but with my prime purpose and inner core incessantly altered and lost, I introspect, “Am I still the same?”
How am I ENCOUNTERED?
Jumping off my bunk bed and falling in line to use the washroom, with a surge of ferocity, makes me feel no less than a brave trooper who once occupied the housing quarters now turned into my hostel dormitories. Embracing the pride, I wear my house badge (the blue house) with equal measure and commitment to my regiment. A feeling curated in me (and maybe in all of us) due to the premises in which the school is nestled, ensuring pastoral guidance.
We commence the day at the darbar, now the assembly from where we march to each of the classrooms. We don’t walk alone. With us, we carry a sense of discipline, a feeling of obedience and a crawling sense of doom. We appear small for what is built around us – the scale is intimidating. The sun-kissed corridors are wide. Maybe it appears to us. But for the lady of the palace who walked these accompanied by her helpers and her long flowing dress – the corridors were just adequate.
The walls are thick – lime plastered, cooling the temperature (also not allowing for eavesdropping); metal-studded doors tall that feel not reachable, the ceiling floating high above us and the classrooms with high altars, from where the teachers impart the laws of the school. (and even appear slightly stricter!) Everything makes us feel that even our whispers are being echoed – maybe that is a strategy for no one to conspire against the majesty (the principal!)
Now a few of my favourite things! The old Bakul tree next to a baradari between the two hostel blocks. Though we call it archway now, it acts like a ‘gateway’ to bloom love each year.
Who would have known that placing a tree would have such long-term implications!
The next, the library. Old chandelier atop, the stack of old books and the musky smell of moisture resonate a long-standing glory. Accompanied by long and narrow windows overlooking the school grounds offer a more palatial than an academic feel.
It is not just our daily experience that fills the air. But like every royalty, there are myths that float within the walls. Like one of four brave hearts who escaped these very grounds through a wild narrow path down to the city.
Alas, I know we cannot take this route to bunk classes, as the new canteen structure now obstructs it!
Yes, there have been a few more additions – the washroom facilities, the winding cobbled driveways along with the early measures of restoration. Also, it no longer stands aloof from the surrounding. But the regal life still perpetuates from every nook and corner of the castle. "What is this place? Hogwarts?"
What is my VALUE ?
“Nothing seemed to have changed”, Adi exclaimed as we sipped coffee at what used to be our favourite shop during our college days. Then quickly added, “Was this park always here?” To which I remarked, “Well the open space was, but not the park!”, with a slight grin.
“Don’t you remember, this used to have these large trees and boulders. Now they have designed the pathways and steps to access the famous old watchtower from here, so it appears different.”, I added.
“But did we not access the tower from slightly ahead!”. Adi’s memory supported him, as he continued, “We used to climb those stone-cut steps, the trail through that large tree beside the temple and then finally climb ourselves up to the rock where the tower stood”. As I smiled with a nod, reminiscing the old times, Adi said in excitement, “Shall we relive the adventure?”
I agreed and as Adi prepared to move, I said, “No, that older route is fenced, we have to go this way!” Adi was left surprised, but encouragingly said, “Does not matter, we just to have the reach the tower!”
So, we began. We passed through a rotating pedestrian gate and walked up the steps, finished in coloured tiles and guarded with railings. As we reached slightly on top – we encountered a series of benches, a tiled gazebo and colourful plants surrounding us. To a little distance was a fence beyond which were naturally protruding boulders, stooping large trees and few older stone benches. That all stood inaccessible to everyone.
“No, it is a protected monument. It is heritage value”, I said.
“And they altered the experience to reach the tower. What about the value of memories then?”, Adi spoke in an irritated tone.
To which I added, “Why just that. The rock upon which the tower is perched reflects age-old geological formation! Do you think people understand its value! If they had would they have drilled to put barricade for the tower?”
“So, you want them to be barricaded like the tower?”, Adi questioned.
I replied, “No, just recognize it!” and questioned, “Will we ever feel a sense of pride in the nature we inherit, just like we do for structures?”
“This looks at the park that is next to my apartment where I stay now! They all look the same!”, Adi remarked. I could not agree more. We continued till the pathway reached the top and then disappeared into the wilderness where at a distance the tower perched on the outcrop. “Now it feels more like the place we used to come to! But why have they guarded the tower! One cannot reach it anymore?”, Adi asked in a puzzling stone.
What are the ANSWERS ?
Maybe there are no answers! Only questions leading to further questions. Maybe that is the law of inheritance and the way identity is retained, constructed and more importantly evolved. For maybe, identity is not about historical facts, time periods, material tangibility and specific function but one that is relied on most people by everyday use.
For once any one part of the ship is replaced by a new one, it is never the original ship it used to be. Or is that so? If it is reconstructed as the same shape? If the same materials are used? If it still functions as a ship? And what about the waters in which it floats - that is as old as the ship? The identity perhaps rests with the questions.
Story Idea by Kaushik Ramaswamy
Content, Author and Illustration, PULP crew