When Melini met her Moses - My Indian identity under the spotlight

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“Hey Neha, I found this really good Indian restaurant just a couple of blocks from here, and the curry was amazing! You should check it out,” said David King from Australia.

I walked along with the rest of group, and wondered, “But what about me? I’m also Indian. Isn’t it obvious?”

Well, it would appear not. The problem was that I fell out of the clear spectrum of black and white. To the rest of the fellows, and to the Americans I met, I was simply South African. South Africans they knew, came in various shades – at the very least, in Black and White. But they couldn’t understand why I would call myself Indian. “People from India are Indian” they said, “just like people from Australia are Australian.” It was the oddest position I’d ever been in.

As a young woman, quite like many others in my generation, I never quite cared about my Indian roots. I didn’t know the difference between North Indian and South Indian - in fact it didn’t even matter. I lived in Phoenix, ate lots of curry, wore a sari now and then and cried when I happened to stumble upon a Bollywood movie. Sure, I knew that my forefathers came to South Africa from India as indentured labourers in 1860. I’d learned that in history at school. But it didn’t matter too much where in India my family was from. After all, I was born in South Africa and so were my parents and their parents. I also had no inclination to visit India, which I’d heard was a beautiful but poverty stricken place. After moving to Johannesburg five years ago, my life was all about work, photography, gym and a bit of socializing.

It was while talking to a colleague at work one day that it suddenly hit me – I knew very little about my background. Devan wanted to know if I was north or south Indian, so he hit me with a barrage of questions – Where in India are you from? What language do your grandparents speak? What is their surname? I was rather embarrassed that I didn’t know much at all, especially since he was so serious about it. On my next visit to Durban I asked my mum for a couple of details and proudly sms’d them to Devan.

The past two months have completely unravelled my concept of being Indian. And there was one person to blame – it was Neha, the woman from India.

Perhaps I would’ve had some chance of convincing people I was Indian if it wasn’t for Neha wearing sari’s to all the cocktail dinners and constantly talking about life in India. People were mesmerized by her stories – of human trafficking, of the endless variety of food, and of course the thriving Bollywood industry.

Then, here was I telling everyone that I was South African and Indian. South Africa has four race groups – Black, White, Indian and Coloured, I explained. They couldn’t understand what ‘Coloured’ could possibly be. As for me, they said “Well you may have Indian roots through your ancestors, but you are South African, not Indian”. I was almost offended. In fact I was offended. I found myself subconsciously investing energy into trying to prove that I was Indian. In hindsight, that was rather silly. But I took it personally. I felt that my identity was being questioned, that they thought I was fake.

Wilson Vega, from Columbia told me it took him over a month to grasp the concept that I was Indian, yet from South Africa. What confused some people even further was that I was Christian. Konstanze Walther from Austria told me she thought you were either recognized as Black or White in South Africa. But she did know the song “Give me hope Joanna,” by Eddie Grant. Interestingly he had performed a version of this song at the closing ceremony of the Indian Premier League T-20 cricket in 2009.

For five weeks Neha and I shared a room together moving from one city to the next. Driven by everyone’s skepticism about my ethnicity and curious to know more about India, I extracted every bit of information I could from her. I was also determined to meet my great grandmother when I got back to Durban. I had so many questions for her. I wished I had spent more time finding out about her childhood and her parents. I was crushed when I received a tweet from my aunt telling me that my 105-year old great grandmother had passed away.

Through my mum, I found out which city in India she was from. It was Hyderabad, the capital of the state of Andhra Pradesh. Neha says people there love extremely spicy pickles and breyani is a popular dish. Curious to know more, I googled the city and came across a string of personal adverts. One especially caught my attention “Old age service for high class people.” “Think of me as your member to work for your benefit and comfort,” it said. I smiled as I thought of how often we used the term ‘member’ to refer to our friends at school. During that session I also found out an interesting fact - Durban has the highest concentration of Indians in the world, outside of India.

During our final week in Minneapolis, one of our host parents jokingly told another colleague “Can you believe it? Melini has been trying to convince me that she’s Indian.” David told me it never occurred to him that I could be Indian because my face was round and my hair was curly. “Indian people usually have a thin, sort of hollow face,” he said. Daniel Renyi from Hungary explained that he hadn’t been to “Black Africa” before (ie the lower part of Africa), so he hadn’t really considered the racial differences.

During a dinner party one night I explained my dilemma to an 82-year old man I happened to sit next to. “But Indians have been in South Africa for decades!” he said, “even before Mahatma Ghandi.” His words were like a sweet rushing wind. Finally! Finally there was someone who understood!

Sadly, there were no more like him. The very next day when the group stumbled upon an Indian restaurant for lunch, it happened again. Everyone was calling out Neha’s name. “Neha, what’s this curry here? asked Ivan from Bulgaria. “Is this spicy? asked Daniel, and “what’s in this dessert?”

It didn’t matter a bit that I had eaten everything in that buffet before, from the chicken curry to the naan. “Nine weeks and nothing has changed”, I thought. Ivan was sitting right next to me. “Do you know I’m Indian too? I asked. “I know all about those curries.” “But you’re South African” he replied, “you may have Indian roots, but you’re South African.”

As I lay on my bed that night that I wondered. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps I am, as someone once suggested, “A South African of Indian descent.” Maybe race doesn’t matter as much as culture and we’re not as ‘Indian’ as we think we are. Neha says I’m tarnished. She says my identity is ambiguous and I’m too embedded in South African culture. I guess that’s true. In fact, it’s something I am now rather proud of. I’m proud to be South African, to be able to equally enjoy a braai or a bunny chow, koeksisters or vermicelli. I appreciate being able to wear dresses or jeans when I want to and a sari on a special occasion. I appreciate living in one of the most diverse countries in the world, while remaining part of the Indian diaspora. I appreciate being able to exercise my faith as a Christian while maintaining my Indian heritage. A part of me now genuinely feels connected to India, but a bigger part of me is rooted right here in South Africa. I’m a South African of Indian descent.

 

Comments

Beautiful!

Love it, Mel. You describe exactly one of the things that amazed me about WPI: besides being a trip to US, it is also a journey to ourselves.