Reflecting on My Life

We were given three options to choose from as a topic for our term paper. We could either study our own lives, interview someone else, or scrutinize the life stories of two other individuals. I believe the decision was quite an easy one for me. Knowing oneself or answering theexistential question of life has never been within the reach of humans, although many have tried. So if I have been given this opportunity to understand myself a little more and maybe learn about myself in the process and not taking it would seem foolish.

Not that the other topics weren’t interesting; they just did not pique my curiosity enough. Reading and studying the life stories of two individuals I could never personally meet or interact with, seemed rather dry to me. And interviewing someone, delving deep into their personal lives, even if from a sociology study perspective, is not really my forte.

So how do I begin to reflect on myself? Writing my own life story, though interesting, is not going to be an easy task. At this point I realize that it is much more difficult to introspect and scrutinize myself than to observe someone else. It cannot be objective and there will be much self serving bias. There will be places where I will use tactical impression management for my self enhancement where I will feel my image is at stake.

I feel that starting at the roots would be a good beginning. I was born near Nagpur, in Maharashtra. I always found it amusing that even though we were Maharashtrians, my dad and I were the only ones in my family to be born there. Yes, I am a Maharashtrian. A Hindu Maharashtrian Brahmin.

Those three words have had a subtle yet defining effect on my life. I cannot clearly pick out incidents or experiences that would bring out their effect, but they have played a major role in determining the environment I have been brought up in, the social interactions I have had and the person I am today.

I have lived in Jabalpur nearly all my life. Living in a predominantly Hindi speaking state probably brought out the fact of our being Maharashtrian more evidently than if we had always lived in Maharashtra. I know many people who cannot speak their mother tongue for the reason that they lived in a different linguistic region all their lives. My parents did not let that happen.

When at home, it was compulsory for us to talk to each other in Marathi. It was equally important to learn Hindi because we lived in a Hindi speaking state. And once school started, english was added to the list. I attended a Christian school, so they made sure we always talked in English while in school. They said that you think according to the language you speak.

Whether the obvious difference in the languages I spoke at home and school was the only cause that led to my assuming different identities in both places, I cannot tell, but I am certain it played a major role. The school I attended was a Christian, all-girls school. The school is nearly a century and a half old and it was basically started for British children back then. Therefore, many of the traditions are still carried on. School life was completely different from life at home.

At home, I was never compulsorily made to pray every daybut in school, it was a rule that required us to attend the daily morning assembly. We were taught hymns, carols, the Lord’s Prayer and the National Anthem. One can only imagine how funny it is when little kids who barely know their own mother tongue are simply told to repeat alien words in an alien tongue. I remember saying, “hello is my name” for “Hallowed be thy name” and “Christmas” for “trespass”. It was difficult to adjust to the difference in surroundings of home and school, because while I was singing hymns and reciting the Lord’s Prayer in school, I was still going back home to “Shubham Karoti Kalyanam” every day.

The fact that I was in an all girls school was not really brought to the fore till I was a little older, I never really had kids my age around my neighborhood to play with. But when I was about eight or nine, there were a lot of kids. But even then, they were all boys, older or younger to me. Every evening, we used to cycle or run around the neighborhood.

That was probably the first time that I encountered gender differences and their perceptions. Jabalpur is a very conservative society, so even as kids, “girls are different from boys” was deeply ingrained in many of the boys minds, especially the older ones. Once, I remember, everyone was trying out stunts with their bicycles, skidding the rear tyre. After many of their failed attempts, I decided to try it out with them. In a few attempts I managed to do
something that ended up being much better than what they were doing. I was stunned myself.

What surprised me more was that two of the boys came up to me and said, “Tum ladki ho, tumhe yeh nahin karna chahiye, yeh sirf ladkon ke liye hai” (You are a girl, you shouldn’t do this, its only for boys). Although minor, it was an example of gender programming being shown in the words of those boys.

Gender typing is not always seen openly in society. Sometimes, certain social beliefs, passed on from generation to generation, become more than just beliefs. They become the basis of everyday living for people in the society without which people cannot function. I have observed this myself very recently. One of my very close friends lives with her parents, aunt and older brother.

Due to some medical condition, her father had to give up his job. That made her aunt the sole bread winner of the family. For this reason, she did not get married. A few months ago, my friend’s father passed away owing to poor health. Her brother became the only male in the house. I recall my friend telling me how much burden was suddenly thrust upon him. Earlier, he had assumed the role identity of a son, brother and nephew.

But after his father’s death, he also had to assume the role identity ofthe man of the house, even at the extremely young age of eighteen. Over the years, I have come across many such examples and I have realized that as one grows older and more mature, the seemingly hidden ugly realities of life start glaring.

Earlier, I spoke of assuming different identities at home and in school. At home, I played the roles of daughter and sister. These were, and are, the most defining roles of my life because my parents and sister have been the most significant others in my life and also because they are my permanent identities. When I went to school, my entire social life was restructured.

The friends I made, the people I chose to work with, the teachers I liked or disliked defined my various social identities, in other words, they formed my generalized other. To exemplify this, I would like to recall the group I belonged to at school. When we came to high school, all our sections were shuffled up. Everyone was busy making new friends and settling down with the changes.

In a matter of a few months, six of us became really good friends and eventually came to be recognized by the others as a group. All of us happened to be the top scorers of our class, with each one of us engaged in several other co-curricular activities. Gradually, teachers began to get tired of trying to seat us as far away from each other as
possible and other girls stopped talking to us whenever we were together.

I observed that girls would never talk to us as long as we were together but they always found it easy to approach us individually. It made me realize that my social identity as a member of that group affected my interactions with the rest of my classmates greatly.

The earliest socialization processes that I can remember are interactions at school. I was always the cute, innocent looking, confident, bright student. It may be taken as self enhancement, but it was largely true. That easily made me the teacher’s favorite. What also helped promote this was the fact that my sister, who is five years older to me, already had a very good impression on the teachers.

But it wasn’t always good because then people already had great expectations from me. However, my being in the good books of most of the teachers made many of my classmates nervous. For obvious reasons, no one wants to get on the bad side of the class monitor now, do they? All these perceptions of myself by others gave a huge boost to my self esteem.

I have always regarded myself highly, though some would call that narcissism, and that has only done me good till now. I am never upset about anything for long because I don’t let situations affect me easily. As far as I can remember, I have always been a highly optimistic person, some might even say, optimistic to the silly.

I have also always been emotionally detached from the people around me. I believe that this emotional detachment raised my optimism because I could never be easily hurt by others. But it also made me easily empathetic towards others because I can understand other’s feelings without being carried away or personally attached.

Looking back at life, I find that I went through drastic emotional changes between the ages of eleven to sixteen. From being very confused and bewildered at the changes happening around me at eleven to finally coming to terms with myself at around sixteen, I have come a long way. I was always quite a stubborn person. It is very difficult for me to change my views about anything or anyone.

Everyone goes through major personality makeovers during their preteens and early teens. In middle school, people around me were constantly changing, we were learning more concepts about life than we could handle, and I’m sure everyone will agree that there is also a constant social pressure to grow up.

All these changes began to challenge the opinions and ideologies I had about things like God, right and wrong, friendships and my purpose in life. It was a period of great emotional turbulence for me but I feel that I came out of it a much improved human being. Along with emotional changes, I also went through many attitude changes. I have always
placed importance on first impressions and outwardly visible information about people to assess them.

I am usually right in such assessments but of course, there are chances of errors in cognition too. Jabalpur is a very small city. There are very few really good schools. The school one comes from becomes a big part of their identity and people do get judged according to which school they attend. I attended the best school there, mean as it may sound, I did have my prejudices against people from other schools, though it did not always affect my interactions with them. I remember, once my best friend introduced me to a friend of her’s.

He had not been in Jabalpur for some years and was going to move back. We became great friends, and I had a very good opinion of him. When he was about to move to Jabalpur, he told me the school he had got admission to. Immediately, my impression of him went spiraling down. It was because I had always held the stereotype that people from that school were just not good enough.

Obviously, I never let him know that, and we continued to be in touch. Gradually, I got to know him better and realized that his going to that school did not affect his individual personality. That was truly one incident that challenged my stereotype and permanently changed my attitude about judging people just by their group membership.

After having introspected so deeply I feel that I have observed some of my life incidents in a light that I never looked at them before. I can now give greater importance to the influences of all the people in my life who have shaped me and continue to shape me into who I am and who I will be.

In the beginning, it seemed like a joke and I thought it would be very easy and effortless to write about myself. Turns out, it was a very difficult job that required great effort and perseverance on my part. At this point, I remember the first sociology essay we read, an essay by C. Wright Mills.

Individuals fail to recognize the relation between themselves and society and hence often feel trapped by the society. It is an apt recollection. I have started believing that only when a highly personalized study, such as this, is
conducted of an individual, can the effect of society on the individual and of the individual on the society can be realized. Of course, it is not possible or practical for everyone to assess themselves all the time, but then, I think we can each take out a little time from our everyday lives to simply appreciate the interplay of social interactions around us.

Smita Mujumdar