My ancestors are descendants of the Dravidian race, otherwise known as black South Indians. Five generations on my mother’s side and at least, two generations on my father’s side that I know of, have been born in Tamil Nadu. The generation following my grandparents’, including my parents, my sister, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews were all born in Chennai. I, the metaphorical black sheep of the family, was born in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.
There is a chapter in Frantz Fanon’s classic The Wretched of the Earth dedicated to Colonial War and Mental Disorders. Himself a psychiatrist, Fanon begins this chapter with the statement, “But the war goes on…” delineating for the reader the sustained onslaught of colonialism on the mental health of the colonized individuals. He writes,
“Because it [colonialism] is a systematic negation of the other person and a furious determination to deny the other person all attributes of humanity, colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: ‘In reality, who am I?’”
Fanon was asking the question ‘In reality, who am I?’ in 1961, a question that I would ask first in the year 2013 and in the subsequent years, until now. By far, I have no concrete answer to this fluid, metaphysical question, but I have, in the process of asking this question to myself and sometimes others, learned a few things about its nature, the conditions under which this question is asked, and the individuals who have to ask this question. For the purpose of this essay, I refer to my own origins, which I understand limits the content, nonetheless, providing one individual’s understanding of her world among the seven billion.
I was born in a private hospital, as the first child to a Tamil couple, in the last breath of the 80s. I have often tried to track down the history of how my mother and father had met and the circumstances in which they had married. But between my mother’s refusal to talk about it and my cousins’ inability to provide me with details, I have learned to stick to one version – my parents had fallen in love and after a brief period of courtship, unknown to their respective families, had married on an April morning. I was born the following year. The birth of my sister the year later completed our family unit.
This period of the 80s immediately preceded liberalization of the country’s economy and its markets and was relatively a promising period to raise a family. My father was working as an Architectural Draftsman with an American agency that promoted cultural studies between the two countries, the particulars to which are still unknown to me but have recently drawn my interest. My mother, by default, stayed at home, raising her two children, and managing the household with the skills and knowledge that she had learned through observation, experimentation, and from their eventual perfection.
As any child would have, I learned to speak two languages – Tamil, which I learned from my parents and Hindi, the colloquial form learned from conversing with friends and in the school, while my official introduction to the language was achieved by my mother. This insignificant piece of information is, for me, relevant exceeding any other. My mother, a high school graduate, with no prior induction or instruction in Hindi, learned the language by watching public television (the art of national integration, was at the time, through language [imposition] pursued by media, in this case, through Doordarshan). Although my mother is a woman of good cognitive skills, well-versed and opinionated in politics, a great reader and retainer, the requirement to learn and use an alien language for purposes of running the household, made her seem uneducated, naïve, and infantile to her new neighbours. She persevered for herself, but mostly for us; always alert to the undertones, the undercurrents, and critically analyzed them to be weaved as stories that we grew up listening. Her defiant confidence has benefitted us in ways that we cannot even recount.
Until my fourth year in school, my sister and I communicated with our parents in Tamil. Our parents insisted and demanded that we speak in Tamil. We were reprimanded when we didn’t obey them. That preserving the language and the identity that they had identified with mattered so much to our parents never occurred to us then. By the time, I entered into the third grade, my sister and I, with new social influences and requirements from school, started conversing in Hindi with the added burden of Speak in English. For this reason, the Hindi that I speak with was the Hindi that I learned in Varanasi, just as my peers learned their first language. So, having born in the Northern belt, raised under the influence of regional linguistics, it comes as a surprise to me, when I am told, even by strangers that I cannot speak the language well.
The fact that I stutter today, when the situation demands me to speak in Hindi especially in a formal setting is because the language has changed (deteriorated) inside me after numerous regional influences (resulting from our frequent migration) including the Hindi that is spoken in Gurgaon and the Hindi that is spoken in Delhi. Perhaps, it is my South Indian blackness that makes it difficult to excuse a slipped pronunciation in the flow of an unrehearsed statement. I contend that my otherness has become the overarching logic to enforce upon me the status of one possessing lower knowledge, and hence, default inferiority just as my mother was enforced.
Colonization, one that targets the psyche of an individual or a group, is perhaps its worst implication. The results of the colonization can be seen in subtle and manifested behaviours and notions in multiple generations until the mould is broken. I implore to understand its necessity, the subversive means used by it, and the way, we, the colonized agree to perform it, as one accords when at gun point.
In her million-copy bestseller Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Women Archetype, Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes of women and the wolves,
“Yet both have been hounded, harassed, and falsely imputed to be devouring and devious, overly aggressive, of less value than those who are their detractors. They have been the targets of those who would clean up the wilds as well as the wildish environs of the psyche, extincting the instinctual, and leaving no trace of it behind. The predation of wolves and women by those who misunderstand them is strikingly similar.”
This argument, by its powerful distinction of how the oppressed are “hounded, harassed, and falsely imputed” can be extended to any relationship that creates an oppressor and an oppressed. For this essay, I extend it to the predicament of the ancestors who gave birth to me, the cultures and traditions that they built and inducted their young ones into, and the faltering crisis that I call my identity. “Who am I?”
My parents, after they migrated to live in an alien culture thirty years ago, gave up the minimal rights that they were accorded to under the solemn Constitution, often without protest. This subjugation, economically, socially, and mentally, has left in them a void, which longs for the familiarity of their origin, their culture. In my teenage, my mother was diagnosed with critically low bone mineral density, which predicted that she may be prone to osteoporosis, in her future. She suffers and puts up with her pain as many women endure throughout their life. What bothers me, when I realized it, was that her body’s deficiency could have been because of the radical change in her dietary intake. As a family that has rented its accommodation, my parents were demanded (and, not requested) that they cannot prepare non-vegetarian food items. This meant for my parents, to give up a habit they had cultivated by default, having consumed seafood for most of their living years until then. As human bodies and predisposition go, what you don’t do for long, the more resistance your body develops, so that my parents no longer have the willing inclination to eat seafood.
Perhaps, it was the knowledge of losing their power, their knowledge of being alienated and un-grouped that runs in their minds as they make decisions, as their choose their behaviours, even today. It exists in me as well, even today. It is for this very reason that I had to ask myself, “Who am I?” by culture, by descent, and by birth. That even though I have been marauded by multicultural realities, traditions, linguistics, and knowledge, none of these identities stick to me and stay with me. For a long time, I devised ways to exist, at times, defending, at times by being aggressive. I have said in spaces where this idea may be kept that I do not identify as a Tamil. But, in other places, the colour of my skin speaks for me.
It is equally difficult – not knowing one’s identity, not being given one’s identity, and having one predominant identity enforced upon. I suffer all three, just like many do. I believe there are countless stories that are waiting to be heard from all corners of the country, individuals rising to speak for themselves in their own words despite the hegemonic hand asphyxiating them. Perhaps, one day in the distant future, I would learn about my ancestors not as black, wild, uncouth, and as asuras, but as a people, a distinct group of people, with people-like dreams, aspirations, and travails. A history that is not written in comparison, in beatification, in negation, in resurrection, in contradiction, in contraction, or in exaggeration but written in agency and for human salvation, for all.
Then, I will tell my beautiful, intelligent, dark-skinned daughter, tucking away an overflowing curl of hair behind her ear, “You are a black South Indian, just as I am, just as your ancestors were”.