“Bulleya, kii jaanaan mein kaun..
Naa mein momin vichh maseetan, naa mein vichh kufr diyaan reetaan
…naa mein andar ved kitaabaan, naa vichh bhangaan naa sharaabaan
…naa main bhed mazhab daa paayaa, naa mein Adam havvaa jaayaa…
…avval aakhir aap nun jaanaan, naa koi dooja hor pehchaanan…
…mehthon hor na koi sayaanaa, Bulla! O kharhaa hai kaun” – Baba Bulle Shah
[(Bulle Shah says) what do I know who I (truly) am..
I am not the believer of the mosque, nor am I in the rituals of the infidels
..I do not exist in the holy Vedas (books), nor am I in opiates or wines
..I do not know the differences of faith, nor am I the progeny of Adam and Eve
..Beginning or end I know just the Self, I do not accept any other (duality)
..no one is wiser than my self, O Bulla, who is this person standing]
We recently went with friends for the play Disgraced performed at the Panasonic Theatre. It deals with the unconscious prejudices of a very successful Muslim corporate lawyer born in America and his WASP artist American wife, their Jewish curator friend and his Black American litigator wife. The play is set in Manhattan and reflects undertones of post-9/11 America and demonstrates how the characters’ perceptions change not just about others but their own selves, when confronted by racial and ethnic prejudices. It is as if when made to look at one’s self through another’s eyes we are forced to accept that which we have known exists in the recedes of the subconscious but are not prepared to acknowledge, let alone admit.
A few years ago I was working a shift with a fellow volunteer in her mid-30s. As she was displaying signs of distress, I inquired if she was okay. She burst into tears. It appears her mother was insisting on celebrating a family event in accordance with their traditional family values and would not allow her any leeway. This was upsetting the young lady, who felt that she was capable of making her own decisions and should not have to abide by her mother’s insistence that theirs was a Catholic family and certain things were just “not done”. An interesting dilemma almost all of us have faced when told that “our culture” or “family values” or “religious belief” dictate acceptable behavior.
I asked this young lady if she could recall whether she ever had a favorite frock, possibly with lace edging and a sash when she was a little girl. Her expression changed as her eyes twinkled with the memory of her fourth or fifth birthday when she wore her favorite pink frock and everybody commented on how she looked like an angel! I inquired if she wore the same dress for her fifteenth birthday and she said indignantly, “of course not”! We continued chatting and I discovered how with age her sartorial tastes changed, from frocks to jeans, miniskirts to dresses and other apparel reflecting her preference and the trends. She would not let her mother, or anyone else decide what she wanted to wear. We then discussed food preferences and this young lady, now no longer distressed, animatedly said “no one can tell me I can’t have eggs and steak for breakfast! I decide what I want to eat.” I gently inquired if she was able to decide on matters governing her own lifestyle, what was holding her back when being forced to accept “family” or “religious” values? She thought about this, smiled and hugged me saying I had helped resolve her dilemma.
I have gone through life pretty much doing things I was “told” to do. For instance, I studied engineering because my father believed this would be a better career than my wanting to be an architect. In retaliation, I ended up being a banker! Life is about choices and exercising options. These may not always turn out to have the expected outcome. However, what is important is that everyone should be empowered to take decisions and encouraged to do so. This subject of “control” came up in our conversation over coffee with friends after we had watched the Disgraced performance. We agreed that religion appears to thrive on unquestionable acceptance of “do what I say, do not do what I do” dictum. “Belief” is also such a personal, individualistic expression that it serves well to end all debate, simply because “this is what I choose to believe in”. Another dear friend, very active in his community and the United Church, used to remind me there is the “Christianity OF Christ and Christianity FOR Christ”.
We have a very endearing term used in India, generally with a quiet smile, “we are like this only” that allows us to continue to do what we have always done.
Do I really know who I am? Unlike the erudite Baba Bulle Shah, I wish I knew.