Reflections on ownership and belonging | Daily News

Reflections on ownership and belonging

Ages ago, the Advanced Level physics syllabus had a section on properties of matter. I vaguely remember the teacher talking about viscosity. There were some theories and probably formulae, but I’ve forgotten them all. I want to write about property and properties, so I looked up the term. Apparently it’s about characteristics that can be measured, for example ‘an object’s density, colour, mass, volume, length, malleability, melting point, hardness, odour, temperature etc.

Measurable. That’s the key term here. And that’s a fixation that has contributed to a lot of tragedies including the crises of civilisation and humanity. The world has by and large learned to believe that whatever cannot be measured either does not exist or is, well, immaterial. And so the decisions are based on a body of knowledge that leaves out things that cannot be measured or categorised. And we wonder what went wrong!

Of course there’s nothing intrinsically wrong or bad in material things. The issue lies in how we consider them and how we relate to them. If you see things as property, given general trends or rather notions that have been made to appear like general laws (remember, as Pierre Bourdieu once put it succinctly, what goes without saying [actually] comes without saying), you tend to perceive them in that eminently problematic binary — mine or not mine. In other words it becomes an issue of ownership.

It is perhaps not an accident that the words property and propriety (fitness, proper character) are derivatives of the same Latin root, proprieties (‘a peculiarity, one’s peculiar nature or quality, right or fact of possession, property’), which gave the Old French ‘propreté,’ and ‘proprieté.’ So we have learned to see these two as related and sometimes two sides of a single coin.

Now consider the properties or characteristics that are not of the material kind and the relevance of propriety and ownership. Something like love, for example. It simply defies definition. Perhaps this is why the focus is on the object or person associated with the sentiment, i.e the lover or the one enamoured with. It is not an accident, I feel, that people refer to the person they love as ‘my love.’ And once corporeality is inscribed on the sentiment, immediately we are faced with the issue of ownership, of exclusivity and a whole corpus of propriety-rules.

She’s mine. He’s mine. Hands off. It all boils down to such things. And, as though norms of engagement are not strong enough to affirm the principle, laws are formulated.

A young man recently told me, ‘I want her, I want her to be mine.’ I asked him, ‘You want to own her?’ ‘Yes!’ That was his immediate response. I asked him, after a pause, ‘haven’t you ever wondered that the more beautiful and tender desire would be that of wanting to belong to her?’

He was silent for a while, this poet cousin who knew how to declare love in a thousand ways and in another thousand ways convey his anxieties, sorrows and helplessness on account of unrequited love. Then he said, ‘I had never thought of it that way.’

Since faith is one of those things that people are particularly fascinated about and are attached to, a few religious or philosophical questions might help unravel the knotted issue of ownership and belonging.

There are properties of matter. There are properties of the mind. Some can be measured, most cannot. Some, on account of measurability, can be valued, purchased, sold, bartered; others are not as easily dispensable.

Propriety. Interesting word, isn’t it? Property sounds cheap, at least to me. Belonging, on the other hand, or rather the term ‘belonging to’ far more tender and wholesome. ‘I love,’ more profound than ‘love me’ or ‘I am loved.’ That’s how I feel.

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