Follow-up on ‘What #reclaimthebindi Means to Me’: an Essay

As I discussed in my previous post, discovering the hashtag #reclaimthebindi and the movement associated with it sparked a change in me. It led me to a community of people who openly embraced their heritage, which was revolutionary to me. As a child I’d tried my damned hardest to assimilate: I remember one time in Reception when I was 5, it was break time and me and these two other Indian girls were sat at a table with pieces of paper and pink pencils in hand. We were trying to decide who each of us would be in our imaginary world – and all three of us were arguing over who would be called “Sarah”. We were all so passionate about wanting to be blonde-haired, blue-eyed Sarah in this imaginary world. Eventually, the name went to the girl who was the Queen Bee among the Indian girls; and by this point we’d spent so much time arguing that we had to go inside and never got to assume our roles.

So naturally, seeing people openly discussing their South Asian heritage and publicly taking pride in it? Of course it was a shock to my system! A welcome shock, but a shock nonetheless; not once in eighteen years did I ever consider such a thing, so ingrained was my desire to assimilate in British culture. And I had no clue until I was faced with the opposite.

I wrote that article for the #ReclaimTheBindi Zine in February at the start of this year, when I was still in India. It was a comforting environment to start reclaiming my Indian heritage in, but it’s been 10 months now so I was interested in comparing my views then and my views now.

My interest in exploring this topic was sparked after I  moved to university and had made friends who shared enough similarities with me that we clicked but enough differences that our interactions are interesting and I learn something new. I had put my playlist on shuffle one day when we were hanging out, when a Bollywood song came on. I quickly, embarrassedly, apologised and changed the song to something in English. This had happened a few times before, but it wasn’t until this time that I realised what I was doing and I said “No more.” I still felt this need to apologise for my relation to Indian culture and by extension my heritage, for the Hindi language, for Bollywood, for the fact that I even liked this music and it’s a fundamental part of my soul. It wasn’t just with music either: when people would say “You’re from India? That’s so cool, I’ve always wanted to go to India. There’s a lot of poverty though” I’d feel compelled to apologise for the poverty and the cultural differences. Now that I’ve realised that I’m apologising for who I am and where I come from I stop myself from speaking. I don’t apologise for the Hindi songs on my playlist anymore, nor any of the other non-English songs. I don’t like it when people just call India dirty and poor but I don’t know how to respond to something that rude either, short of calling them out and discussing colonisation but a) anyone who makes comments like that isn’t interested in hearing me talk about colonisation and b) I start enough arguments with other people without me singing Jana Gana Mana in retaliation every time someone bashes India. This is one thing I’m still learning to navigate.

As I mentioned in that post, I was in India when I wrote it because I was there for a large chunk of my gap year. When I left for India I was excited because I had just gotten into the whole “I <3 being Indian” thing, and my view is that whenever you first find out about something you have a very black/white view of it. It’s only when you learn more and dive beneath the surface that you start to see and accept the grey nuances. When I left for India, I was still in the black/white stage; being in India gave me a new perspective that allowed me to dive beneath the surface and see the grey. Part of the grey is the hypocrisy of urban Indians in my generation: they rail against “Britishers” for destroying their homeland, judge you as being uppity simply because you have a Estuary English accent and scoff at the mistakes in your Hindi – but they are desperate to be as Western as possible and detach themselves from their heritage, which includes doing everything in their power to attain the ultimate status symbol: being educated in the UK or USA. This was, of course, only what I saw in my tiny tiny sample (relative to the population size!) but this was very much in effect, especially among the upper middle and upper classes. They may be my age, but they retain the charming judgmental and gossipy  attitude that we associate with Desi aunties while putting on a pretence that they are modern and “progressive”. Again, this is based on the tiny sample size that I saw with my own eyes.

While I tried to make friends, eventually I felt myself being made fun of in ways that I couldn’t quite put my finger on and was rejected – again. The UK had already rejected me from birth and now India had rejected me too. Funnily enough, the only friend I ended up making on that long, lonely trip was my dance teacher. Yes, we spent a lot of time in each other’s company but that doesn’t guarantee a close friendship will arise. Perhaps we were able to interact on a deeper level because she’s secure in her life: she’s happy working and dancing, she’s happy living with her parents, she’s happy with the city she lives in and has no desire to leave. Perhaps the security that comes from that kind of happiness was what allowed her to view me simply as a person from another city in another country, not as a threat or competition or someone to be jealous of. I might be over-analysing it here but after reflecting on my time trying to make friends, I think I’m on the right track.

Another grey nuance I observed was that at heart I am a true Brit. That sentence seems silly but in all honesty, discovering this was a big shock. Given that my country of birth didn’t accept me as I was, I took another route and instead of identifying myself by my nationality, I always identified myself by my ethnicity: Indian. If someone asked me where I was from, I would reply “I’m Indian”. The ensuing confusion would inevitably require me to add the addendum “- but I was born and brought up in London” but it never occurred to me to simply declare myself as being a Brit from London. I’d been around Indian family members and I watched films and I thought this was enough for me to say “I’m Indian. I’ll be fine in India, it’s no big deal.” It wasn’t until I was there for a month or two that I realised how naive I’d been: it was actually really difficult for me to deal with local Indians on their terms. Aside from the (discussed) difficulties I faced making friends, I think a large part of this was a result of my total lack of preparedness for this situation. I think as well because I knew my life in India was temporary I wasn’t prepared to alter my thinking completely. I wanted to remain me, and it was very important to me – very Peeta-Mellark-on-the-roof. Looking back, it’s strange that it was so important to me at a time when I wasn’t sure who I was.

Trying to call myself “Indian” while in India led to the realisation that my British upbringing is very much evident in how I think and act. As with realising my innate desire to assimilate into Western society, I had no clue what I was until I was faced with the opposite. I am used to British culture and British manners, and it’s hard for me to wrap my head around Indian etiquette, such as rules that dictate you to refuse a kindness more than once before accepting – it seems like a silly waste of time to me. I would say I applaud people who live within this system but they’re used to it. They probably grew up with it. I didn’t. So that’d be like applauding me for knowing British customs innately. But it was an important lesson for me to learn that my personality and perspectives have been so influenced by the society in which I grew up – and that I wouldn’t change it at all.

Understanding this has brought an unexpected peace to my soul, but it has been interesting in other ways as well. I moved to my university town in mid-September and I’m constantly meeting new people. “Where are you from?” is a standard icebreaker, but it manages to elicit a whole other discussion. When I honestly reply “London” there is always a split second where the Must-Make-a-Good-First-Impression! mask is wiped off the other person’s face and the surprise is evident: the eyebrows raise, the eyes widen, the mouth opens slightly. It’s not like my accent makes a difference and acts as a giveaway: they still expect me to name somewhere other than the UK. In almost everyone I’ve met (and believe me, when I say “everyone” I mean bar 2 people, 3 at most) there has been a physical reaction of surprise to me saying “I’m from London”. But it’s only a split second, and then the mask is back on and the conversation moves on. Occasionally they are brave enough to say “I mean originally, where are you from?” and other things along those lines – but they stutter and stumble over their words. Maybe they think I don’t notice it. Maybe they don’t even realise they’re doing it. But they all do it. They all show me their shock that I’m one of them. And it makes me feel like I’m not one of them.

I’m not fully one of them. And now I know I’m not fully Indian either. I don’t belong anywhere, and neither does the rest of the South Asian diaspora. We constantly exist in limbo, struggling to carve out spaces for ourselves. But we’re doing it: slowly but surely, we’re doing it. And we will keep fighting for it.

In the mean time, please accept my reflections on some things my time in India taught me, as my contribution to the fight for a home that accepts us and loves us as we are. If you’re a diaspora kid as well, leave me a comment letting me know if you can relate to my experiences. I haven’t seen anyone else share the specific points I’ve made here, so I’d be interested to see if it resonates with anyone else.

– S



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