03 Feb 2019 18:31 IST

Understanding ourselves

Are you friends with the person who breathes inside your body?

The reality of family, sexuality, identity, community… all these change as life on earth keeps evolving. It’s a question of accepting the idea of continuum and adapting to it.

Anything that exists is natural. It wouldn’t be there if the conditions for its birth and nurture did not prevail. And if the conditions are conducive, what they yield or give rise to are validated. It’s just that naming it sometimes takes time because, fallible as we are, we don’t know, we don’t see, we don’t understand, we lack experience. Besides, we are so easily conditioned, like wet cement that sets in a jiffy.

Misguided notions

So, to say that certain ideas of sexuality and sexual preference, family and relationships, identity and religious predispositions, and ways of life are ‘unnatural’ and therefore condemnable, is completely misguided. These misguided notions are based on the fact that these are not common or do not constitute the majority. Think of the kurinji flower. This shrub, Strobilanthes kunthianus, blooms only once in 12 years in the Shola forests of the Western Ghats. Is it any less a flower for this fact? Or, does it mean that just because you haven’t seen the purple fields of blossoms in the Nilgiri mountains, you will deny the existence of the kurinji flower? Whose fault is it if you haven’t seen it? And if you want to see it, all you have to do is take the trouble to be there between approximately August and October in the year 2030. But you have to make the effort.

The annual arribada or arrival of the Olive Ridley turtles on the beaches of Odisha is a well-documented phenomenon. The amazing thing is that the female Olive Ridley returns to the same beach where she herself hatched to lay her eggs, and then return to the sea. Nobody would have believed this fact had it not been visually documented and scientifically proved. Just because we don’t believe something, does it mean it is not possible?

What is ‘conventional’?

Conventional wisdom has it that it takes a male sperm and a female egg to physically combine in order to fertilise and generate an embryo that will result in a new life. It’s called conventional wisdom because it is conventional. But there’s also unconventional wisdom that tells us that some creatures are asexual, such as the Whiptail lizard and the Amazon Molly fish. The females of these species can reproduce without mating. In an article in smithsonian.com, Joshua Rapp Learn writes that “the more we learn about ‘alternative’ reproduction strategies across species, the more we realise that many of them might not be so alternative after all. Now that they know what to look for, biologists are find more and more cases of strange and hitherto unknown forms of animal procreation. In other words, baby-making outside the ‘traditional’ male-female pairing could be far more widespread than we humans are inclined to think.”

But the phrase ‘conventional wisdom’ is itself misleading and contrary. What we call conventional and wise is most often the opinion foisted upon us by the powerful. This becomes the majority opinion, depending upon the influential elements in society at different times in the course of evolution. Anyone who dared to question these ideas was immediately branded ‘mad’ or a ‘traitor’ or, as recent incidents in India have shown, lynched or shot, killed in cold blood, in order to be silenced.

Heteronormative bend

Clearly, none of this involves the exertion of any kind of wisdom. It is entirely concerned with societal conditional, religious bigotry, and political posturing, among other things. True wisdom comprises in knowing that all of these are specious and must be recognised as such and opposed, eschewed, disproved.

Take the idea of family, for instance. Typically, it’s believed to be made up of a father, a mother, and children, bolstered by grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. The father is male, the mother is female, with procreation in mind. But when the definition of ‘offspring’ does not necessarily go hand in hand with ‘biological’, the concept of family changes. It is widely established, at least in India, that the ‘father’ should be chronologically ‘older’ than the ‘mother’ and that he should be the ‘husband’ to the woman’s ‘wife’ and he should provide, protect and all of that. That’s changing. Take Chetan Bhagat, famous before he became a publishing phenomenon, for being a ‘househusband’. Or, take President Emmanuel Macron of France whose wife, Brigitte, is 24 years older than he is.

It’s natural, in India, for boys and girls to hold hands with members of their own sex. Even so, way back in the 1970s, before gay pride issues came to the forefront, I’ve seen same-sex couples in Ahmedabad move about, freely, I think… I hope. Yet, it demands enormous courage from those dealing with their sexual preferences to make their choices seen and known. In some instances, they’ve been lucky to have the support of their families. But, why should anyone have to be ‘lucky’ to have the support of families and friends. We should be able to take that for granted.

Freedom to breathe

Over the centuries, the powerful, often comprising the brute majority, have marginalised, oppressed and exterminated others such as the Native Americans, French Creoles, the Roma people, Armenians, Ahmadiyya, Aborigines, Kurds, Jews, Dalits, Rohingyas, and Jarawas. Although the human spirit refuses to be crushed, it often hangs on to life by a thread. Some forms of oppression continue to this day: it almost seems as though the more we know about each other the less we want to have each other around.

Yet, we should have the freedom to dress as we please, pray as we please, live as we please, eat as we please, sing and dance and laugh as we please in the languages that please us… Wait, we do have the freedom to do all this, and we shouldn’t have to take recourse to the Constitution for this right, good sense should give us the sensibility. It’s logical and completely reasonable. It shouldn’t have to take courage to be who we really are, to paraphrase EE Cummings (“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”) It shouldn’t require will and determination and fortitude and suffering. Nor mental strength and an unflinching sense of purpose. We should be on the outside what and who we are on the inside — naturally. Just so long as we don’t hurt each other. All that requires is a little compassion. Live and let live was never more true than today.

Tell me, are you friends with the person who breathes inside your body?