So my friends gifted me ‘The Zahir’ by Paulo Coelho on my birthday. To be completely honest, I wasn’t very thrilled. Not because I don’t like books as gifts or anything. It’s just that I don’t get Paulo Coelho. I mean, I had read ‘The Alchemist’ and I couldn’t understand what all the big fuss was about, with the book being the international bestseller that it was… (One of my friends later told me I hadn’t even understood the book as I wasn’t mature enough as a reader for that kind of literature. And then, something more about how the journey was much more important than the destination itself. But all that is not really important here.) Anyway, the book that I was initially so sceptical about, however, pleasantly surprised me. I don’t know whether I had finally become mature, or if the writing was direct enough for me to comprehend or if the book was just that good. Bottom line: I liked Paulo Coelho’s, ‘The Zahir’. But even as Coelho’s writing appealed to me, the one thing that I found to be very poignant and remarkable in the book was, ironically, not originally written by Coelho himself.
I may have read about the ‘Law of Jante’ for the first time in Coelho’s ‘The Zahir’ but it was officially put down in very precise words for the first time by the Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in 1933. The author writes about how the lives of the people in a small town called Jante was defined by a set of commandments; a few rules which governed the citizens of the town, identifying the way they were expected to live. The Law of Jante is as listed ahead:
I. Don’t think you’re anything special.
II. Don’t think you’re as much as us.
III. Don’t think you’re wiser than us.
IV. Don’t convince yourself that you’re better than us.
V. Don’t think you know more than us.
VI. Don’t think you are more than us.
VII. Don’t think you are good at anything.
VIII. Don’t laugh at us.
IX. Don’t think anyone cares about you.
X. Don’t think you can teach us anything.
To sum up, this set of commandments required that the citizens live a life of ambiguity and mediocrity, a life where they and their thoughts were forced into a vortex of anonymity. But even as I read more about the law I couldn’t help but wonder at the fact that, as Paulo Coelho rightly puts it, ‘it seems to exist not only on Jante but everywhere else too.’
Even if we don’t really ever realize it, we have all been witnesses to the Law of Jante. Why, even history hands us many examples of people, who have been scrutinized to unwarranted measure because they took their life down a different path. Right from Galileo being condemned by the ancient church for not agreeing to standard notions to Lady Gaga for not dressing or writing lyrics the way she should. To artists who included erotica and nudity in their works to that neighbour’s son who dropped out of medical college to become a photographer. We have always looked with doubt and uncertainty at people who chose to go against the tide. Even today all of our lives are so often dictated by the ideals society sets for us. We all need to smile and laugh in public but our sadness and tears must be visible to none. We need to be fashionable even if it hurts our physical selves and we must starve ourselves to be beautiful in the eyes of others. Because the unwritten laws that the society lays down cannot and must not be broken. For if we separate from the laws of society we will be criticised. Like it implies some sort of weakness. What I really don’t understand is, even as we preached of how broadminded our society was becoming, when and more importantly, why did we become so rigid that we started to refuse to accept anything that was not conventional?
How often have we, as a society, criticized, condemned and crucified people who left the track of conventionality to be different? Haven’t we always questioned others and ourselves for not doing something the traditional way? Have we not chuckled in mirth at the ‘foolishness’ of trying to be ‘the one in a million’? This is not to say conventional and traditional things are, in any way, to be abandoned. After all conventional can be equated to tried, tested and found successful on many levels. But our fear of change, of not being conformists is frankly, something that all of us need to question.
I guess what I am trying to say, it’s fine to be traditional. And it’s okay to make decisions that are conventional. But all of us needn’t do that. Because in the same way, choosing to drift from the crowd and be your own person isn’t something that has to be wrong. As The Gita says, everyone on earth has a certain role, a certain purpose that all of us are poised to fulfil. As long as we don’t hurt anyone and have the conviction that it takes, we can’t and more importantly shouldn’t be deterred by the fear of being condemned or criticized.