A year ago, while on an over-night train to Rajasthan for a field visit, I ended up at a lower side berth. I usually prefer the upper berths for night trains because no one feels entitled to wake me up early in the morning then. I made peace with my seat, and as I started my 30-minute long ritual of putting the luggage in place, spreading the sheets, fluffing up the flat brick-like pillows in vain, fighting off every single crease, shooing away a cockroach or two, a gentleman from a few seats away came to me and said Hello. He would be a little over 65 years of age, had a disarming smile, and he requested me to exchange seats with his son who was in the other compartment. My alter ego panicked and sighed with despair and annoyance at the thought of being uprooted. I said something to the tune of “Of course, that’s not a problem at all. You must have your son around”, gathered my things and followed him into the next compartment. During the brief walk he extracted information from me about my education and work. He looked at me with eyes filled with appreciation, gratitude, and concern, and asked me the inevitable – “Do you even get paid for the wonderful work that you do?” I smiled at his ignorance and removed his genuine concern. When we finally reached his son who was peacefully lounging on a side upper berth, I was ecstatic. The son wasn’t very cute, and he was about to leave a really cool seat for me. I got introduced as the “kind young lady who works at an NGO”. It sounded almost as if I worked at an NGO only because I was kind, working at an NGO had made me kind, and that I had agreed to swap my seat only because I was a kind young lady who works at an NGO. How was he so sure that my decision to give up my seat wasn’t driven by my curiosity to meet his son “who was visiting from the US and wasn’t familiar with trains here”?
The other day I was looking at my photos from Bosnia where I spent a week to understand its post-conflict society, and got reminded of our city tour guide. On our first evening there, we set out for a city tour with the nephew of our hostel’s landlady. He was a young enthusiastic guy, about 23 years old then, and he showed us all the significant parts of his city, including the exact coordinates where the WW1 started, bullet pock marks on buildings, a few debilitating buildings where one mustn’t go because there might still be some landmines, he told us about the 3 years when Sarajevo was under siege, and he also much about Sarajevo’s nightlife. As we progressed into our walking tour and everyone freed up a little, he gave us an insight into the ‘freestyle fight’ club, his usual hang out in the evenings. His eyes lit up as he told us about the injuries he has had, the bloody fights and showed us some of his scars too. The elaborate descriptions of violence and the enthusiasm he associated with it got us a little uncomfortable and some of us were even repulsed; we were after all, students of Conflict Studies and Management. We had strong opinions about wars, violence, military presence, and the culture of violence. Some of us very cautiously and subtly slowed down and walked a little behind our guide.
A while later, a restless kind of curiosity sank into me and I caught up with him again, this time asking him about what he did during the day. He was shy and there was a hint of shame when he said he didn’t do much apart from helping his aunt run the hostel. I asked him about his education and that’s when I found out about him being a member of Bosnia’s NATO troops that had fought in Afghanistan. He had returned a few months ago for a break, and was expecting to be called again, maybe in another 3-4 months. As he realised I took interest, he revealed that he was a sniper, and added with much pride that his ‘count’ was around 70. I felt a strong feeling of discomfort creep upon me once again. This time I made an effort to put my opinions a little aside. It was the first time I was interacting with a sniper, after all. He then asked me what brought me to Sarajevo. As I began telling him about our research study about post-conflict Bosnia, and the impact of conflicts on children, he turned red. He apologised profusely and told me how embarrassed he felt now about boasting of his ‘count’ and talking about violence with a set of students who were working for peace.
While his embarrassment seemed to be apt, I found his need to apologize a little misplaced. After a stream of apologies from him and reassurances from me, began the unraveling of the vulnerable human behind the sniper. Being a sniper was his job, he said. We spoke at length about post-conflict trauma, the lack of a rehabilitation mechanism for soldiers, the nightmares that had followed him from the war zone, his disturbed sleep patterns, and the fight club being the only means for him to unleash the sudden bouts of violence he used to feel ever since his return.
There are of course many other instances when we are quick to judge a person by their profession. It is the easiest and the laziest way to evaluate someone. After all, if they’re spending a large number of their waking hours in certain jobs, those must be an essential indicator of who they are, isn’t it?
While our choice of career does say much about us, it fails to say it all. My friends and I have often wondered about what makes up our identities. What are the things about a person that are the most representative of their identity – ethnicity, jobs, religion, gender, place of birth, appearance, political views, our dreams, hidden talents, our dark secrets?
When we meet someone for the first time, what do we aim to find out? Do we ask them about their non-negotiable values, their fears, the things that make them happy, or do we ask them about their jobs? Similarly, when someone asks us about ourselves, our answers almost by default include our name and a short description of our jobs. Why is the source of our paycheck that is most certainly only at the periphery of our personality, more important than the core? Why do we find out about the talents of our new-found friends/ colleagues only much later, and why do these inherent qualities of theirs come as a huge surprise to us?
Our identity is not a single sentence or even a paragraph. It is made of fluid layers. Often while introducing myself I face a conundrum, and that’s when I realise each time about the many layers that make up our identities. We decide to pull out, often subconsciously, layers based on the context we find ourselves in. While introducing myself to a potential employer, I whip out my academic qualifications and achievements at work. The same evening, when I meet a love interest, i’ll very cautiously unravel only those values and finer qualities that I secretly take pride in. A potential landlady will only be interested in figuring out my ‘character’, while a potential flatmate will try to figure out if I’m ‘cool enough’.
We often try to dig deeper and project ourselves in a certain way only when there’s an agenda. And when there’s none, we get lazy and don’t feel the need. We make do with just the job description and feel well armed to make an evaluation. Individuals are not their jobs, their jobs don’t indicate their worth and certainly not the core of their identity. I learnt a few years ago that it is not fair to assume that a sniper is heartless. It makes sense to ask a few more questions, to dig a little deeper, to spend a few more minutes with that person you just met, and to think with a mind that is a little more open. And if you don’t have all the time, make your judgement (because well, we know how inevitable that is), but keep a large space empty and know that there’s much to be filled in it when you meet next.