28 March 2023

Who the heck do you think I am?

‘Who the heck do you think I am?’ It’s an irate question. It is asked in verbal form by those who feel insulted, typically those who have a self-image that is of an elevated nature. I can also be verbalised by someone who considers the other person an equal. It just means, ‘you really don’t know me, you’ve got me all wrong, you are mistaken and I am not pleased.’ It is also thought but not spoken by those who have a lot to lose by vocalising sentiments. You wouldn't say it to a boss, for example, unless you are ready to lose your job or your position.  It would have to be said on pain of immediate punishment.  

There’s another way to express irritation or, if that’s all that is allowed by circumstances, think irritation: who the heck do you think you are? It’s essentially saying or thinking the same thing. All about image. All about self-image. All about image-relativity. It’s about the conviction that the other person is out of order, is talking out of turn, crossing lines that are there for a reason, i.e. to  maintain some kind of status quo.

I picked the line from Bob Marley’s ‘Buffalo Soldier.’ It’s different in the song. Marley put it this way:

If you know your history
Then you would know where you coming from
Then you wouldn't have to ask me
Who the heck do I think I am

History. It’s key here. You have to know it in order to understand where you are coming from, where you’ve come from, how it all began, how it all led to the you that you are. ‘You’ can be singular or plural, a person or a collective, a family, a clan, religious flock or nation. And how ‘you’ got to where is not just your story but the story of those who were denied the ability to get to where they may have wanted to go.  Some people benefit, others pay. That’s world history and history in general, in a nutshell.  

Now beneficiaries are typically loath to admit that someone else paid for the comforts that came their way. They fall back on a version of history which is made of grave omission. That’s creative historiography and the world is full of it. The moment alternative narratives that can be substantiated are acknowledged, one taints oneself.

In other words, if the beneficiaries know and acknowledge history, they will not only know how they came to be who they are, but who were trampled upon, maimed, imprisoned, impoverished and killed in the process. In such a situation, they can’t be livid about someone asserting him/herself in terms of this history simply because the moment you know who the heck you are, you cannot ask the question, ‘who the heck do you think you are?’

If you know your history, you wouldn’t be talking of how everything was hunky-dory under the invader; you would say, ‘no, they poisoned waterways, they perpetrated genocide, burnt crops, destroyed libraries, razed temples to the ground and upon those very same foundations built their churches.’ And if someone asks ‘how about the railroads, how about the roads, how about the system of government?’ you could say, ‘built with the forced labour of my ancestors, financed by terrible taxes extracted from my people, and as for governance-structures, designed to legitimate such extraction, such plunder in fact, and continued subjugation, first by the invader and then by he invader’s proxy.’  The following questions can be asked too: ‘ever heard of the Waster Lands Ordinance?’

Rivers have sources, trees have roots, a poet once said. Rivers and trees are seen, sources often remain unknown and unacknowledged, roots are invisible and are conveniently assumed to be nonexistent.  This is what enables people to shoot questions with a pointed finger such as ‘who the heck do you think you are?’ And when you prefer the flip-question and ask ‘who the heck do you think I am?’ you are assuming that your history doesn’t exist or rather your comfy-version is all that is there to it and therefore other narratives are simply barefaced lies.

There have been attempts to do away from the subject ‘History’ from the school curriculum. If the need is to include alternative narratives, fine. You could always talk about how history is written. However, if your history makes you uncomfortable or if it is not as grand as you want others to believe it is simply because you just cannot substantiate your claims, wanting history out of the story is politically useful. Pernicious. Celebrates anti-intellectualism. Most importantly it allows you to be rude, to look down your nose at those whose histories are part of your own and moreover shows you up. Allows you to ask, ‘who the heck do you think you are?’ Allows you to ask, ‘who the heck do you think I am.’  

Where did we all come from? Do we know our history? Who the heck are we? Questions. Questions. 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart