What Do You Represent ?
I am the kind of interviewee who pays more attention to the question being asked than his own answer. I love it when a question knocks my socks off and makes me relish the exquisite feeling of never having been asked such a thing before. Just a few weeks ago, I was being interviewed over the phone with the usual, expected set of questions: “How did Project FUEL start?”, “What do you like more, teaching or lyric writing”, “what motivates you?”, among many others. I have answered most of these questions so many times now that their answers are beginning to sound like auto-generated responses from a machine, even though I try to make them sound fresh and new, to the best of my ability, every single time.
Twenty-five minutes into the question and answer drill in this particular interview, the person asked in a thoughtful manner, “Mr. Ramola, I am curious to know: what do you represent?” I was caught off guard. I felt as if I was rendered out of a certain level of comfort, which I had developed in the course of the interview. I’ll be honest in admitting, it felt like an act of mental gymnastics to wrap my mind around that question and surrender to the magnanimity of it with utmost humility. The question made me think about my identity, belongingness, cultural values, belief system, ideologies and virtues. It made me think about my certainties and insecurities.
The interviewer did not ask, “What do you stand for?” or “What do you want to be remembered for?”, which are easier questions to answer. Instead, he asked me what I represent. That question is all-encompassing, and thus, much harder to answer, I feel.
Before I could attempt to construct my own answer, I reached out to the answer the great African-American Poet, Maya Angelou, had given when asked the question of identity. Reflecting on the visibility her success granted her and the responsibility that came with it she had said:
“What I represent in fact, what I’m trying like hell to represent every time I go into that hotel room, is myself. That’s what I’m trying to do. And I miss most of the time on that. I do not represent blacks or tall women or women or Sonomans or Californians or Americans. Or rather I hope I do, because I am all those things. But that is not all that I am. I am all of that and more and less. People often put labels on people so they don’t have to deal with the physical fact of those people. It’s easy to say, oh, that’s a honkie, that’s a Jew, that’s a junkie, or that’s a broad, or that’s a stud, or that’s a dude. So you don’t have to think: does this person long for Christmas? Is he afraid that the Easter bunny will become polluted? …I refuse that…I simply refuse to have my life narrowed and proscribed.”
The society we are a part of and the culture we are raised in manufactures for us an image of ourselves that must receive a couple of hundred stamps of validation from people who either have little or no contribution in that development. Because of the work we do or the way we look or dress up or the place we come from, we are easily categorized into a particular domain of service or facility that we are engaged in or are expected to excel in. This leads to the age-old trouble of labeling.
The great American author and professor, Leo Buscaglia, wrote extensively on the perils of such labeling; a narrow definition of intelligence and ability, which results in a narrow field of belonging, which in turn casts everyone outside of it as a misfit provided by society hampering not only personal but spiritual growth. He wrote, “How many kids have not been educated just because someone pinned a label on them somewhere along the line? Stupid, dumb, emotionally disturbed. I have never known a stupid child. Never! Never! I’ve only known children and never two alike. Labels are distancing phenomena. They push us away from each other. Black man. What’s a black man? I’ve never known two alike. Does he love? Does he care? What about his kids? Has he cried? Is he lonely? Is he beautiful? Is he happy? Is he giving something to someone? These are the important things. Not the fact that he is a black man or Jew or Dago or Communist or Democrat or Republican.” He further lamented by saying, “Labels are distancing phenomena — stop using them! And when people use them around you, have the gumption and the guts to say, “What and who are you talking about because I don’t know any such thing.” … There is no word vast enough to begin to describe even the simplest of man. But only you can stop it. A loving person won’t stand for it. There are too many beautiful things about each human being to call him a name and put him aside.”
Although, I must have been labeled countless times in the past 24 years of my life, I find the catechism of the interviewer about my choice of what I represent, sort of liberating. I loved that I was asked not to validate or expatiate on what people think of me but rather, what I embody? The opportunity to create my own definition demanded me to reflect on my entire life and speak not only what I feel in my bones but also in my bone marrow—the truth. After much thought and prayer, I whispered into the phone, “I represent a philosophy of liberation that comes with the acceptance of other people’s learnings.” The mere acknowledgement of the fact that someone, in some part of the world, irrespective of the time zones and transcending the hundreds of centuries that have nurtured humans before me, would have been in a situation as familiar as mine and would have emerged out of it victorious by learning something, reassures me of my own potential to get through whatever it is that I am dealing with. Fame can be overwhelming and criticism can be mortifying, love can be confounding and failure can be humbling, but to know and accept the actuality that I am not alone and never have been, is soothing on many levels.
I came out of that interview having understood myself better. I explored and found an answer to a question I’ve never been asked before and one I never felt the need to know about myself. I have a list of 50 toughest life questions, which I have curated and shortlisted after answering 3,000 relating to every aspect of life. After that interview, I am convinced the question will end up being added to the list.
For now, why don’t you begin by telling me: what do you represent?