The essence of an identity

“Identity is an interesting phenomenon,” said my professor breaking the silence on the first day of class. Out of all the lectures I attended for her course, I remember that one hour’s class the most, her words still echo in my head. She then gave us an exercise, “what are the three things that define you the best?” she asked. “What makes you, you? How do you identify yourself?” Some wrote their gender and political beliefs, while other jotted down their nationality and religion, and still others wrote their professional interests such as a photographer, writer or fandoms they were a part of – a sports team, a music band etc.

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For some reason, when I found this restored Viceregal Train from pre-independence times standing as a museum in Chandigarh, I remembered that lecture. My eyes were fixed to the train station’s signboard which read “Delhi. Amritsar. Lahore.” It had a soul soothing spirit which made me dance along. The names of three cities in the these three languages – English, Hindi and Urdu – had something particularly warm about them. The peace in the air, the smell of love of a community, its memories, histories, traditions and tales warmed up my day and I wondered… I thought long about identities – their importance, how it changes, the meanings it holds, significance (both symbolic and real) and how history has shaped my identity today.

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Delhi. Amritsar. Lahore. These three names carry more than an ocean full of emotions. To some people they bring out a melodious nostalgia –  an honest smile, a deep yearning of ‘the good old days’, a chest full of memories that warms up the heart – but to others, these names appear as a painful reminder of a dark and deafening past. Surely there are a lot of emotions and experiences that exist somewhere in between the two extremes too, but what I find particularly sweet are the imagined notions of my generation towards these three cities. For those of us from the Indian side who have our hearts open, I find these versions of Lahore beautiful. I know many like me who know so much yet so little about that city that lives for us not through a gory partition and several conflicts but our friends who don’t support the blue shirts in the intense India-Pakistan cricket matches. (Oh, trust me, the most fun matches are when you sit side by side and cheer and boo, chant and tease each other.) It is also the same for my green friends who in exchange have visualised Amritsar and Delhi through us.

It is because these are very powerful names, I feel that each time someone thinks of them, the emotions in their heart and the images in their mind would be different. Last week, these city names would have made me smile. They would have represented unity and resilience, served as a symbol of a culture, a people that have shared the same roots for histories. Today, when I saw this photo, for some strange reason I thought of estranged friends who always and most definitely were meant to go down in history as the definition of a great friendship. Thinking of these cities as people who shared the thickest of bonds, oldest of ties, deepest of memories who today are no more than contacts on each others’ phones and social media profiles isn’t quite incorrect but just very sad.

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