Saturday, 30 June 2012

Choosing your community

Strangely, even though I grew up in India, the idea of 'community' didn't really enter my consciousness until I was in England. This may be because I grew up in a certain type of Indian household: liberal, nuclear, English-speaking? I don't know. I don't want to suggest that all such households grow more individualised children than is the Indian norm.  But I am certainly more individualised than the Indian norm.  

In India, the notion of 'community' was something that felt stifling.  It was invariably put to me in the context of rules and judgement. I felt like community meant being born into or choosing a bounded set of rules. The group who were bounded by these common rules were a 'community'.  Of course, I witnessed some of the positive elements as well: sharing, being able to help one another, laughing together, mourning together. But I always felt a bit 'outside' because I refused the 'rules'. Which led me to think that the essential element of community was that whole 'rules' bit. 

When I told people I was coming to England, those who knew me  often commented that they thought this 'society' would suit me better because I was so 'outside'. Their notion was that since I much preferred setting my own rules (or so I thought at the time - but that's another post) I would be happier in the 'West', where individual choices are thought to be weighted over community rules (again, this is only partially true, and that's another post too). 

I agreed at the time, and still kind of do.  But I have also started to see and appreciate a whole new idea of 'community'. Not as a bunch of rules binding people but as a bunch of shared values which can actually be quite flexible. Maybe that's because the 'communities' I am now starting to identify with are not constituted the same way as I thought communities in India are.  At home, I thought of 'communities' primarily as religious and caste-based groups. Because that is often what people mean by 'your community' in India. Over here, people say 'community' about a group of people living in the same area or sharing something they value. So the 'community' I am part of is my University. I see it as a group of people (thousands strong!) all living and working in a multicultural, multilingual 'community'. We are a community inasmuch as we are situated on the campus together, but also because no matter what our differences (and glory be to God for those!), we have a sense of a shared something. Of course, we are also bound by shared rules; violation of those rules can get us kicked out. But more visible than the rules (to me) is the sense of that 'shared something'. And that is what makes me feel like I am part of the community. That's what makes it a community I want to belong to. It makes me love it, and want to cherish it, and wish it well. The 'rules' are not even part of what I think about. And crucially, the rules do not infringe in any way with my ability to express myself. We are a 'community' of tens of thousands of individuals (and are free to express this individuality as much or as little as we like - or so it appears to me). 

I wonder if, should I choose to move back to India, I will be able to find that balance between a sense of belonging and a sense of individual freedom. When I'm on the University campus, I genuinely feel the power and magic of both, simultaneously, and one does not cancel the other out. I love that. It makes me bright-eyed and adventurous and open. Here's to more of the same please, Universe! 

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