Confounding the Census Folks
By Yoginder Sikand
Just the other day, I noticed a little orange sticker up on the doors of some of my neighbours. 'Socio-economic and Caste Survey' or some such serious-sounding sarkari operation it announced. For some unknown reason--and thankfully, if you ask me--our house seemed to have been ignored. We didn't get a sticker up on our door but if the survey folks arrive one day, armed with their questionnaires with boxes that need to be filled in and into which they want to imprison me, I've already made up my mind about what I'm going to tell them.
That will be the first item on the list, I suppose. I'll tell the surveyors what I'm officially known as, of course, the name that my parents gave me at birth without seeking my approval, one that I have to confess I really don't like at all. I would certainly never have chosen it to call myself had I been allowed to. 'Yoginder Singh Sikand': all too very masculine for me, you would readily agree if you know me personally. It really doesn't convey me at all. I'd have selected something less-in-the face, one not so blatantly linked to a particular caste or religious community. But, then, I didn't have my way, of course, even in such a basic matter as identifying myself to the world.
That said, I would simply have to add that I am definitely not my name, as people (and even, sometimes, I myself) think I am. I've probably had a billion other names in the billion or more lives that I might have lived before this one. 'What's in a name?', I'll have to then quote Shakespeare.
The surveyors wouldn't feel the need to ask me this, I suppose, but they really should, because if they permitted me I'd have to complicate matters a bit and tell them that I really don't feel all very 'male', as the term is generally understood. Honestly, I think I'm quite gender-less, and am certainly very comfortable with what you would call my pronounced femininity. If you've ever met me, you'd heartily concur. If there's something that I'm definitely not, it's a 'real man', despite the enormous and rather ugly moustache that I sport. I think I moved beyond gender ages ago, and even beyond sexuality itself, and now, at 45, I find myself almost completely asexual, as indeed one should be, if you ask me, at this stage in life.
I'll tell the surveyors all this and then I'll have to be a little philosophical and add all that stuff about the soul (presuming there's some such thing) being wholly beyond gender and uncontaminated by it, and about gender having all to do with the body, which is definitely not 'real'.
'None', I shall say, adding that I've been a tramp all my life, and though, for the last year, I've been staying with my mother, I know I can't stay at her address all my life and will soon have to move on, and, finally, to another world more 'permanent' than this one.
I guess they would want me to record it as 'Punjabi', simply because I was born into an ethnic group that largely speaks that language, but I won't answer as they expect me to because my mother hardly knows that tongue and I know it even less. I can't even construct a single sentence properly in that language, I'll have to confess.
'Unemployed & Unemployable'.
'I certainly don't feel or behave my 45, and, in any case, the soul (if it exists) is, so I am told, immortal and ageless.'
I can't, for the life of me, I'd tell the surveyors, see why I should be forced to identify with a system of social categorisation that's utterly oppressive and rigidly hierarchical. I don't care if it's been sanctified in the 'scriptures'--I don't believe in such 'scriptures' myself. But if they continue to insist I'll tell them what they want to hear: My father belonged to the Ahluwalia caste, and my mother is an Arora. Now, what, I'll query them, does that make me? Casteless? Or a half-caste, I suppose? And then I'll wisely add that probably according to the Manusmiriti, the progeny of an inter-caste union are to be counted among the Chandals.
I don't expect the surveyors to be amused with that reply, and so, before they can retort, I'd have to tell them that I don't ever recall having once been treated or looked at in any special way by a 'fellow' Ahluwalia or Arora, and so I don't see why I should imagine that I have any special bond with such folks. Certainly, I'll inform them, no Ahluwalia or Arora millionaire is going to bequeath me his estate.
Now, this one is a little trickier than many of the rest, and I'll have to tell the surveyers that it needs elaborate explanation. If by 'religion' they mean the set of beliefs about the supernatural and rituals and identies associated with it that I've inherited from my parents--which is how most folks indentify themselves--I'll have to be frank and admit that I inherited almost nothing at all. My father, I'll have to tell them, was 'officially' a Sikh, and my mother 'officially' a Hindu, but I don' t think these labels counted for much in their own lives in any meaningful way. My father knew less about the teachings of the Granth Sahib, which I am sure he never read, than the rules of golf, and I'm sure he wouldn't have been able to tell you the names of even half of the ten Sikh Gurus if you had asked him. As for my mother, despite being the daughter of a well-known Arya Samajist and Sanskritist, she won't, I am certain, know even the names of the four Vedas, leave alone the Ramayana and the Gita.
It isn't surprising at all, then, that religion played almost no role for us as children. Almost the only time it appeared in our lives was when we celebrated Diwali and Holi (in almost entirely secularised forms, shorn of religious association and significance) and an annual visit to the gurudwara on Guru Nanak's birthday, which lasted just about five minutes--quick enough for a hasty bow.
So, in terms of my inherited 'religion', I don't have any, and I really can't be counted as either Sikh or Hindu or even both. But then, I'll have to also tell the surveyors that in a long search for meaning, purpose, solace and solidarity and even in order to rebel against my family, I've been experimenting with I can't remember how many other religions over much of my life. As things stand now, I'll add, I think I'm definitely over with organised, conventional religions, and have arrived at the point where I no longer crave or need to identify myself with, or force myself to pretend to believe in, any of them at all.
That doesn't make me a confirmed atheist, though, I'll have to hasten to add, because that's what I think they'll probably think I am. Intuitively, I know, or perhaps want to think I know, that there's more to the cosmos than we can ever discover, and that supernatural forces might well exist and God, too, though definitely not in the manner that many religionists imagine It/Her/Him to be: as an authoritarian male figure who'll dump you into eternal hell if you don't bow and scrape Him and who'll reward you with all the sensual comforts you can dream of in eternal heaven if you do.
So, when it comes to the religion box in the questionnaire, I'll insist that it remain empty--not even crossed out, because, frankly, I'm all empty as far as this is concerned and yet ready and willing to be filled in if in the course of my search I finally stumble upon the truth that has so long evaded me, or, more likely, that I've been running away from all this while.
Summarising my long harangue, I'll simply have to tell the surveyors that I have not the slightest clue about almost everything they want to know about me: I'm definitely not my name; identifying my sex/gender and age is definitely not as simple as one would ordinarily think; my marital status doesn't fit any of their categories; I don't have a caste and certainly don't want one; and I refuse to be stuck with any of their religious labels. All this means, then, I'll have to confess and conclude, that, as of now, I know almost nothing about myself.
You don't think the surveyors would have the patience and good sense to hear me out, do you? They won't think I'm being irritatingly frivolous, will they?