Identity

From the window of my room I could see the workers in an adjacent plot. Sometimes I heard the clink of metal on metal, or the piercing roar of a drill seeking water, and late in the evening there were voices, laughter even, with a rough edge. The men – there were eight or nine of them – started the day early. I woke up to the hum of a generator, and found them at work, extending the foundation, perforating a sheet, mixing cement. They worked in pairs or in threes; I never saw a solitary figure. Who were these people? Where were they from? Where were their families?

These migrant workers figured, as abstractions, in a document I was reading. The government had started a project to give people an identity. Every resident Indian would receive a number, a unique identifier, that led to other benefits. Workers like these could, with this number, open a bank account. Or acquire a loan. It promised access where little, they said, existed today. Identity, reduced to a number, was the foundation for prosperity: get your number, the rest would follow.

The media called it an important step in the nation’s march towards greater progress. There were murmurs of dissent – on privacy, security, and cost issues – but these voices were all but lost in the noise from supporters, and the government was not ruffled: five million people had received their number; over a billion would follow.

These millions will soon carry a number each. This was the Orwellian image I found myself with on a Friday evening as I walked, shoulder to shoulder, along the busy Brigade road, on my way to meet Ashwini. Do you have a number already, I asked Ashwini, when she joined me in the lobby of her workplace. Not yet, she answered; the enrollment in the city will begin next month. She was in a casual outfit, a delicately embroidered kurta, dark red, over a blue jeans. She looked good; I said so. She smiled, and then pinched my arm: You’ve been checking me out, haven’t you? Don’t deny it!

Ashwini was like this since I first met her in college; I never could tell if she was serious or joking. Perhaps this manner – flirtatious, lively, and engaged to the point of appearing “interested” in the other – was what she displayed to everyone, but that was not how I had seen it then, fifteen years ago. It had affected me, filled me with hope, and desire. I wrote her a couple of letters. She replied once, amused, answering my questions politely and asking me, near the end of the two pages, to tear up the letter once I finished reading it. I still have it somewhere, in a box of odds and ends from college.

We drove south, toward J.P.Nagar, to watch a Kannada play in Rangashankara. That theatre attracts an elite crowd, you’ll see, Ashwini said. And they’ll all be in Fab India kurtas, like mine here, or in silk sarees. She was right about the people, but it was the physical space I saw first. On the ground floor there was a circular hall, dimly lit and split in two levels, with a small bookshop in a corner and a cafe, with low granite-top tables under a thatched roof, on the opposite side; posters on pillars and walls highlighted past events and advertised upcoming shows; a wrought-iron staircase, circular and wide, led to the theater on the first floor, which was built like an amphitheater: a stage at its pit surrounded by three sections of seats rising above it. Some rows were occupied by young boys and girls, chatting or walking about. The atmosphere was laid-back, college-like.

The play traced the life of Amar, who (the introductory pamphlet said) “grew up in India, emigrated to the U.S. after graduation, and returned after fifteen years. Amar’s idea of India is frozen in the past, in a period he studied at college, and he finds it hard to relate the India he now sees to the India of his youth, with DD channels, Ambassadors-Fiats-Marutis, few traffic jams and lots of open spaces. He is alarmed by things his son learns at school, he is annoyed by the attitude he finds in others, and he is shocked by the affairs in his office. Is he a different person now, or has the country changed, or is it both? Can Amar learn to live again in the country of his birth? Or will his frustrations lead him back to his adopted home?

The performance, by a cast of young amateurs, was spirited at best; but this was a small matter. I was glad just to be present, happy to savour an authentic and local cultural serving. Sitting there, next to Ashwini, I felt myself thrown back fifteen years, to the times I had played minor roles in mythological plays, to the makeshift dressing room divided into Men and Women by a translucent cloth on a wire, to the dizzying thrill of spotting a girl’s bra through a torn corner of this enticing veil.

That was your story Mr.Confused NRI, Ashwini said, as we walked out into the night. I had expected this response. When I told her my case was more complicated, she pressed me for an explanation. How about some khana first – I’m hungry, I said.

After a spicy dinner at an Afghani restaurant, we drove to UB City for a drink. This was a large property with commercial and residential blocks, malls hosting expensive brands, bars and restaurants. The name reflected its ambition – to be a city within a city – but the place was a poor imitation of a Las Vegas hotel: polished marble interiors, ceilings painted the colour of sky, cornices with paintings of scenes from Venice or medieval style portraits. These reproductions, strung together in no particular order, were pale and lifeless; some appeared disjointed, and a closer look revealed a camera in the middle of a painting, protruding from a Baron’s nose or hanging next to a Venetian tower.

We sat on the terrace of a bar facing the well-lit UB Tower. Around us were regular Friday-night pub hoppers, and the loud music, a forgettable mixture of pop rock, made conversation difficult. An artificial palm tree in the corner reminded me of Orlando, a city I had visited some years ago. On that trip I had stayed in Portofino Bay, a hotel built like a small fishing town on the Italian Riviera. A lot of money had flowed into copying small particulars of the original – from Italian style houses lining the piazza, to a Roman aqueduct shaped water slide – so much so that a casual observer could take the Italian town for a poor version of the American imitation. Las Vegas, like Orlando, was a city full of imitations, and here, with UB City, the Indians had created an imitation of an imitation, where the casual, half-hearted approach taken made it seem as though the labels those imitations stood for were more important than the aesthetics in the originals.

India is going through an identity crisis, I said, raising my voice above the music; it doesn’t know what it wants to be. Ashwini laughed at my remark. Don’t burden the country with all the issues you are facing, she said, finishing her cocktail. This was her third; I had forgotten how fast she could drink.

No, look at this place, I said; the guys who built this had no clue what they wanted.

She leaned forward: Do you know what you want, Ram?

I looked at her. Artificial light illuminated the left half of Ashwini’s face, the right half hidden under a shadow, as if she were behind a Venetian mask. The diamond on her nose ring sparkled. Stop looking at me like that, she said, and tell me how the hell you are different from the Amar of that play. By the way, even his name is yours spelt backwards.

I considered this for a moment, sipping my vodka. For one, I said, I try not to judge this place; all I want is to understand.

She looked at me, perplexed. Don’t tell me you don’t judge this place, she said. What was all that about India’s identity crisis – wasn’t that a judgement?

No, just a hypothesis.

A hypothesis? She raised her eyebrows.

A conjecture, I replied. Something that helps me test my understanding, see if it’s true.

So why don’t you come back to India? she said. You can spend all your days hypothesising and understanding the country.

Do you want me to come back? I asked.

What has this got to do with me, goddammit! We’re talking about YOU.

In the silence that followed, I noticed that the music had stopped. Ashwini’s eyes, gleaming through the darkness, looked bloodshot. A waiter came up to announce that it was past midnight, so there will be no more alcohol served.

We’ve had enough, I said to Ashwini; time to leave?

* * *
To be continued.

[This was part five of the Visiting Home series. The other parts, in sequence, are: Arrival, Progress, Curiosity, Deliverance.]

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