The ever-elusive search for self-identity

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By Tinky Ningombam

The question of self-identity is something that has haunted me for years and mostly due to external affectations. And just as finding God or the “Super-self” in psychological terms seems the most herculean task of all times, I am left as confused like the majority of people on earth who mutate and shift with our surroundings as we constantly pack our bags and move from one place to the other.

First of all, I hate generalizations; I hate being kept in a bracket. But the fact remains that if tackling the identity issue of being a North-eastern is not hard enough, one is cogged down by the complicated examination of qualities of being a Manipuri.  And what it means to be a Manipuri, I ask. Is the place of birth important in self-determination, is it the state-run ideology or is it the innate patriotic love of the land and its customs and past culture? Who is the real Manipuri?

I believe there are two important aspects that we connect ourselves and our home-state. First is an examination of whether or not we are born there which by law makes us a “factual” native, and second is whether or not we have similar “culture” (religion, traditions, family rituals, hereditary traits) to the rest of our extended community and tribes. I have never been able to understand what it takes to really be native to my state. But for me, being a native is much more than being just be physically borne or even speak its language and maybe in time, following a bit of its “ever-mutating culture”, which sadly is also an arbitrary topic that needs to be addressed.

If I take myself for example: I was born into a Hindu family with Sanskrit-ised rituals, who then grew up going to Church every week in my Christian school. If religion defines one’s native identity, then clearly I do not have a concrete one till yet. In almost the same light, English is more or less my language of expression; I articulate and write in it. Hence, a tell-tale diminished affection for my linguistic “culture”, if I may hypothesize. Again, I grew up eating different varieties of food and wore different western outfits, so truly traditional “so-called-purity” is something that is out of the question. Maybe one thing then that relates me to the ideal “Manipuri community” is my mongoloid features. I cannot escape that! So when people do ask me. So what are you? And I say “a Manipuri” or “a meetei”… for me it is a really arbitrary answer. Because I believe that we have not been able to grasp the projection of that  identity and what it entails.  And I am not trying to be a fundamentalist. But what truly is the image of “A manipuri” that I communicate to people? What do people understand by it? And I clearly think this disconnect is what confuses us and others who try to comprehend us.

For a fact we know that humans, no matter what kind have certain reserved physical traits or attributes for their own community, country-men, race. And then there are generalizations of people , for instance , by stating things such as Chinese are industrious, Indians are brainy or Middle-Easterns are fearless. And it doesn’t stop there. It breaks down further to people from different states to people from different communities, to people from different families. What has not been more evident than family honor and family ideals? And like some robotic programming, we gradually grow into that role.

No-one wants a bad trait to be attached to their community (group of people with common ancestry). People by nature want the best things for themselves.  And that is what has mostly nurtured our customs and our ideals for physical traits, mental prowess or concept of life as we know it.  We did not definitely need it written in stone, only followed generations after generations and that formed our identity. But how do you define the identities of more than a dozen tribes and ethnic communities and project that as a singular entity? And should we even try, is the question. Indian nationalism has not worked perfectly as we see, if I may. Should we follow suit?

First of all, I hate to be defined by the place where I reside; borders are after-all made by men to mark territory. The fundamental argument is what we think we belong to. Is it to our race, to our country, to our community, to our family? And if my roots are defined and grounded to my community, why stop there? In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need patriotism. In an ideal world, we will not fight for communal superiority.

But definitely for me and my confused generation, we need to know “what do we stand for?” No matter how bad or how good that answer be. And if I am truly “related” in a more metaphysical realm to my native people in more ways than genetics can quantify or the ownership of landed property or man-made customs, then I need to know.

(I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives.  I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.  ~Abraham Lincoln)

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