#DialogueForPeace: Culture is Not Immutable or Inflexible

By Asiem Sanyal

My earliest grasp on what the word ‘culture’ denoted began, as I believe it does for most people, at home. Born to a Gujarati Muslim mother and a Bengali Hindu father, my sister and I grew up on not just a literal diet of Gujarati and Bengali cuisines, but also the more metaphorical diet of various art forms, manner of dressing, rituals to be performed at important events, and conduct in society. However, neither of my parents purported themselves to be custodians of their respective cultures, for even as they had married, certain choices and decisions they made, jointly, put them at odds with what either of their parents would have done in accordance with ‘culture’. Perhaps it is because of this that I do not view culture as immutable or inflexible. It is always susceptible to change – through exposure to newer ideas, thought processes, and interactions with a wider pool of people.

Studying for a Master’s degree outside India, at Imperial College, London, provided me the impetus for this change. On a small campus of just about 150 students, I had the opportunity to interact and engage with people from all walks of life and all corners of the earth. Today, among my closest friends are a girl from the Canary Islands, a girl from Hong Kong, a boy from Barcelona and a girl from Trinidad, all of whom I met on this campus.  Each of them, as well as others, hailed from different circumstances and followed different customs and traditions. There is nothing like conversation in a multicultural setting for holding up a mirror to one’s prejudices and biases. All of us are, to some extent, influenced by stereotypes. Within each one of us is the ability to break free of these stereotypical thoughts and notions.


Left to right: my friend from Hong Kong, my friend from Barcelona, me (Asiem), and my friend from the Canary Islands


Since graduating, I have had the opportunity to travel to different parts of the world for my work. This has inevitably brought me in contact with a wide variety of people, many with thought processes radically different from my own. In workplaces with many people, there is always scope for different ideologies and opinions on certain issues. This may sometimes be problematic, especially if people are unwilling to set aside personal opinions and points of view in the interest of working together. I have been singularly lucky in not having had this happen to me. I am an atheist who believes in the theory of evolution as suggested by Charles Darwin. In a recent job engagement, I had a co-worker who was a scientist believing in creationism. We got along just fine.

In my experience as a marine biologist, I have often worked in close collaboration with people whose first language is not English. Having grown up in an English-speaking environment for the better part of my life so far, I have realised the folly of placing English on a pedestal as a means to communicate with anybody around the globe. For instance, in Madagascar where I recently worked, I had to brush up on my limited French to be able to converse with the locals. These experiences in different countries have also taught me the importance of being able to converse, however limitedly, in the language commonly spoken in a particular country. They have also served to undermine the English linguistic supremacy I have subconsciously carried. I have encountered some bright minds in my jobs around the world, and not all of them converse or communicate in English.


asiem 2
Right to Left: My friend from Trinidad, me, and my friend’s fiance


My biggest fear, however, is that someday I might not see eye-to-eye with one or more of my colleagues to the extent that it affects my work. This extends to people whose ideology I might not be in agreement with. I have always maintained a policy of equanimity towards people with strongly differing opinions from mine but, of late, I have found myself becoming more affected by such people — especially with discussions pertaining to issues such as gender, sexuality and race. This is a personal challenge. I wish to strive for a space where I do not let my prejudices colour my opinion of a person or their arguments, where I might be able to convince them to consider my point of view without forcing it upon them, where I might broaden my perception of a person to encompass their reasons and considerations for persisting with certain ideas and ideologies.

Solidarity and allyship are important in helping one overcome these challenges and struggles at the workplace. However, one must be wary of not allowing them to transmogrify into factionism. Within the ambit of all spaces I occupy — be it my place of work, or home — I hope to always be able to engage in peaceful dialogue and discussion, and to keep my mind open to new thoughts and ideas, so that I may constantly better myself as a person.

(The author is a marine biologist whose work takes him to far-flung corners of the earth.)


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