One of my fondest memories of Christchurch is of an incident during my visit in 2006. The city wasn’t ruined by earthquake then. On a public bus a teenage school girl said to me, “You look like Mr Bean.” I was stunned. Just to convince myself that I heard it correct I asked the girl, “You mean Rowan Atkinson?” She nodded. I didn’t take that incident seriously until about a year later when in India a distant niece Sreeja called me ‘Mr Bean mama’. Now an eight year old would speak straight from her heart I thought. That’s when this alleged resemblance became part of my subconscious.
Like everyone, my appearance has been compared with the looks of other people at different stages of my life. First obvious comparisons were with my grandfather, father and mother. Outside of blood relation, I have been said to resemble random celebrities from cricketer Mohammad Azharuddin to film star Sanjeev Kumar. I would laugh such comparisons away. Resemblance with Rowan Atkinson is different though. He is not Indian or subcontinental. How could a person born in rural eastern India and raised in central India look so much like a British celebrity that a Caucasian can spot the similarity? I found only one irrelevant parallel in our circumstances — we both are youngest of four siblings. Of course I also share 99.9% of DNA with Rowan. But so does any random human on Earth.
In our quest to find distinct features, we often forget that all human beings are almost alike by nature’s design. That every organ functions exactly the same in all individuals except when it is affected by a disease. The minor variations are mostly there to help an individual cope with the local environment. Yet those minor variations become focal points of our observation. The genetic commonality is effectively masked by the differences in the exterior. We become slaves to our limits of perception.
How do we ‘learn’ to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’? What makes us discriminate against some while embracing others? If we are on a mission to seek differences, we will be standing alone because an individual is biologically designed to be unique. On the other extreme, if we are on the lookout for similarities, a fish embryo is not that different from a human embryo.
It all boils down to our urge to survive. We have this innate fear of losing our possessions and our lives. It goes back a billion years or more in time when organisms were yet to evolve into multi-cellular colonies. The mechanism of differentiating between ‘self’ and ‘non-self’ appeared very early in the evolution of our cellular ancestors — long before the arrival of plants and animals. This natural immunity is broad-based — anything that is not ‘self’ must be kept away.
Organisms thereafter evolved into sets of complex systems. The complex systems gradually became adept at handling defence situations on a case-by-case basis. While the natural defence mechanism of self/non-self discrimination still continued to be the gatekeeper, everything was not left to its dated strategy. An adaptive immunity took centre stage.
A special type of white blood cells is responsible for the adaptive defence system in animals. They watch and identify a foreign element. Once satisfied of its harmful intentions, they not only try to eliminate it, they also ‘remember’ it. They then use this memory to present a strong response to attack by that particular foreign element the next time.
This adaptive immunity came about approximately at the same time when animals acquired a backbone. It is almost as if the structure became internally stable and therefore there was no need for indiscriminate embargo. Perhaps there was a need to allow ‘ally’ foreign elements while refusing entry to ‘enemy’ foreign elements.
While the defence system tells a story of antagonism, one should not underestimate the significance of collaboration in life’s evolution. If cells hadn’t come together to form a multi-cellular organism more than half a billion years ago, we wouldn’t be us.
We humans are the most evolved organism on the planet. Numerous evolutionary innovations directed by alternative splicing of genes are continuously being targeted towards our brains. The nature wants us to move away from primitive animal instinct and make use of the ever increasing potential of human brain. Are we listening? How long can we continue with this naive practice of associating ‘good’ and ‘evil’ with human-made divisions of humans? I have said this before: unlike plants, we are not ‘rooted’ for a reason. The nature wants us to explore and take life to places. Make uninhabitable places worth living. Take life forward to even other planets. Barriers of land, ocean and air are challenges that we will continue to overcome.
On a personal front, I still have a lot of explorations to do in the beautiful South Island of New Zealand. Christchurch, I will be back. Last time I went only up to Te Anau. I want to go further south. And while I am in Christchurch the next time, I will think about that school girl for sure. She must have become a lady now. I hope ageing has not taken away her knack for identifying commonalities rather than differences among people. I wish we bump into each other and she calls me Mr Bean again just as I am now forever ‘Mr Bean mama’ to Sreeja.