Tag Archives: daughters

The semantics of slaughter

We know that language matters. As people of colour, especially, we know language matters. Pauline Hanson’s debut speech in Parliament in 1996 sent a shiver up my spine. Words like swamp, ghetto and assimilate spun in my mind as I hugged my daughter. She was still at primary school, old enough to walk by herself, young enough to make me want to always keep her in my sight. In those tender high school years that followed I watched her Chinese friends dye their hair blonde and follow gangs of lanky white boys. I watched her nod to the common mispronouncing of her name – ‘yes, it’s Sarah, you can call me that.’ I watched her turn away every morning from the signs on the bus stop – Asians out or racial war. I watched the blonde girls she deliberately chose over the black-haired ones; the punk music she listened to, the food she disdained at home, the clothes that became briefer and clung to her developing body. I watched my daughter disguise her brownness in a white country.

Then, a deli was firebombed in our neighbourhood. Two Indian families, recent immigrants from Kenya, moved to be closer to their relatives in Melbourne. A South African tradie informed me that he could see what was coming. In a bookshop an old man sidled up to me, looked at the book I was smiling at, (The Lonely Planet Guide to India) and said I was lucky I didn’t live in that hell-hole. At a job interview, a blue-suited man looked at my CV and told me it would be better if I added a prefix to my name so people could tell if I was man or woman because my name meant nothing to him. A group of uni students said they knew Pauline was racist, but she had a point there, didn’t she. You had only to look at shop signs in Queensland. We were being over-run by Asians. She was right about that. And all these mosques. This isn’t bloody Arabia. This is Straya.

In Perth, then, I was still homesick enough to look covertly at brown people in supermarkets or public places and think of ways to start up a conversation. We lived in blindingly white communities and brown people were rare. Once I heard Gujrati being spoken in a supermarket aisle and I stalked the speaker until she turned around and smiled. ‘I heard you speak Gujrati,’ I said, and the woman grinned.

‘Yes, I’m a Parsi from Mumbai. Dadar. You?’

‘Bohri from Mumbai, Marine Lines, opposite Liberty,’ I replied, also grinning.

We exchanged telephone numbers, promises to share dhansak and biryani recipes and keep in touch. Twisting to face me in the car afterwards, my daughter asked, ‘what did you tell the lady you were, back there?’ And just like that, language became inadequate. The dozen words I had exchanged with the woman from Bombay grounded me in a way I could not explain to my child. I could not explain the layers, the context, the familiarity of sharing a language but not a religion with the woman. I could not tell her how some things only made sense in one language/country/ religion and not another. How your friends were as invested in the quest to save your soul from damnation as your elders. You could eat dhansak but not sorpotel, chutney sandwiches but not salami. When you said Isa Masih, your Catholic friends instinctively crossed themselves, but you weren’t meant to. Jesus was your Prophet too and the Catholic girls knew that. The Sikh girls knew why your Quran was elevated and covered with a cloth because theirs was too. Except theirs was called the Guru Granth Sahib. Your Hindu aunties made sure you removed your footwear before entering their kitchen and told you to sit outside while they finished their puja. Some uncles never ate anything your mum cooked and their tea was made by the Brahmin next door. But when Diwali came around you could go to their houses and eat their sweets and touch the feet of their grandmothers. Our mothers encouraged that – ma ke kadmon ke neeche jannat hai – heaven lies beneath a mother’s feet. This was a phrase that went across religious divide and heaven changed from jannat to swarg, and God was also Khuda and Ishwar and Allah and Bhagwan. Just like that, my own words, ‘Bohri from Bombay,’ unravelled me.

How was I to explain, without India? Without context? Without aunties and uncles and cousins? How could I tell her about that community, a minority within a minority, where I was raised? The austerity, the fun, the subversion, the sin of faking a menstrual cycle to avoid going to the mosque on holy days? The bearded uncles and the veiled aunties who prayed every day, not just Friday, and allowed us to play our games near them. They gave us sweets that appeared miraculously from under their robes and dupattas. They folded their prayer rugs, blessed us, cupped our faces in their hands, kissed our foreheads, shooed us away. Every day. In every childhood like mine.

I didn’t talk about religion with my daughter. She did not speak any of the languages I had grown up with and I hadn’t figured out how to be a Muslim in a country that would harm us both. Especially after 9/11. I was briefly alarmed when names like mine became familiar, gained currency in the aftermath of the Twin Towers. But it was far better to be Asian. There was safety in numbers, however small. White Australians were more interested in the India I had come from without recognising the significance of my name. And for my daughter’s sake, I decided to keep it that way. Nod and smile. Yes, of course I speak Hindoo. So glad you’ve been to Kerala. Yes, it’s very pretty. No, I’m from Central India. Yes, it’s a nice name, very common. Yes, that’s how you pronounce it. Not a Muslim. No.

When I read a book about the Bahai Faith in the mid-nineties I thought I had found my spiritual home and attempted to unravel those threads for my daughter. A Faith that spoke the language of my heart. A Faith that celebrated difference and proclaimed the earth was one country and mankind its citizens. I became evangelical in my desire to offer up my newly discovered faith to my daughter, thinking she would ‘get’ it. I started a blitz of religious education and sent her to Sunday school, summer camps, youth groups, firesides, music evenings. After two years of patient and occasionally panicked acceptance she came home one day to say – ‘so let me try to understand this. You used to be a Muslim who believed in Krishna and went to a Catholic school and loved Jesus and got married in a mosque? And now you want me to be a Bahai? Think about it mum.’

The Christchurch massacre brought my carefully constructed secret identity crashing down. I looked at the pictures of Haji al-Nabi and little Mucad, young Sayyad and sweet Husna, and brave Naeem and helpful Mohsen. I read about the Afghan grandfather who welcomed the killer before he was shot. I read about Pakistani engineers and Indian newlyweds and the doctors, social workers, restaurant owners, farmers, students and children killed because they were Muslim. There was no other reason. They could have been the uncles and aunties and sisters and brothers and grannies and grandfathers of my childhood. Those who disciplined, loved, cautioned, blessed and gave me this life I have carried and tried to live without being noticed. The ones who gave me their version of Islam – the religion of peace. The ones who wiped my tears when my tongue refused to twist around anything harder than bismillah ur rehman ur raheem and whispered, ‘Arabic is difficult, don’t worry, we all struggled.’ The ones who showed me how to tuck my odhni around my head so it didn’t slip off when I went into sujood – the same position many in Al-Noor mosque were when they died. I remembered my grandmother’s blue masallah and cried.

In the aftermath of the Christchurch killings, the language that led to slaughter, continues unabated. From white supremacist politicians who get egged to comment threads on friends’ timelines which indicate that ‘ghettos’ are real, ‘assimilation’ is desirable, and ‘Muslim immigration’ must be curtailed. While a grieving Prime Minister across the Tasman shows compassion and resolve, ours talks of tribalism and promises to crank up security around places of worship, while cutting back immigration to ease the congestion on our freeways. There is no acceptance of responsibility – white Australia sanctioned the genocide of its indigenous population, then built this country on that violent narrative of dispossession. Every generation of migrants and Aboriginal people have been vilified in this country. Talk to any deman, nonna, yaya, yadah, ba ngoai, zu mu, mader bozorg, dadima, nanima – and she’ll tell you. The semantics of this slaughter have their origins in our nation’s inability to accept its bloodshed and prevent it from staining the white sands of our modern cities. We can continue to quibble about freedom of speech or we can call people murderous fascists. But we cannot turn the other cheek. We cannot label one a terrorist and another a lone gunman. We cannot ask one to condemn and another to forgive the same crime. It has always been possible in this country to kill people who are inconvenient. If there’s a way forward, we should begin by accepting that.

https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/the-historians-daughter

 

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Cultural Knowledge

Such a loaded term – cultural knowledge – coming as it does with its own set of expectations and hints of secrets. When I try to unpack it a little, I think about how knowledge differs from appropriation and what the keepers of cultural knowledge can do to protect themselves from stealth and theft. And the answer is – very little. We live in times of exchange and borrowings and slippages and it is hard to skid to a stop, metaphorically speaking, and say – ‘You have gone too far.’

My cultural knowledge is a concentric circle that extends out from family and memories of family, to the community I grew up in, the school I went to, the families I married into, the town I left and the city I adopted; and the country I settled in and everything between. Growing up Indian in India, as a member of a minority sect within a minority religion taught me about culture from the inside. Growing up female in an orthodoxy that disapproved of girls and discouraged them from forming opinions or making decisions taught me to write in secret. Raising a female child outside the confines of country and cultural knowledge allowed me to trust my judgement and own my mistakes. This came at a cost – and a loss of language, tradition and family. I never imagined interpreting this complexity for easy consumption. I still can’t make dal-chawal-palida like mum does. I still shiver walking past death-scented marigolds. I still miss the drama of eid-ka-chand and diwali-ke phatake. But for more than three decades in this country, and counting, I’ve tried, and lost, translation.

Creative writing degrees across Australian universities have marketed the desirability of ‘the other.’ It is actually an advantage to write a story that falls outside the white, heterosexual norm and ‘people like me’ can tell those stories, supported by research and financial aid from our institutions. And for that we are very grateful. We need to be, because it is pointed out to us frequently by seemingly disingenuous white people. The grateful immigrant is as desirable as the grateful refugee. And in the halls of education, we share our culture carefully, because, you know, we don’t want to appear ungrateful, and after all, we are creative colleagues. It’s what we do. We imagine other realities so we can critique patriarchy and draw attention to the plight of women and children in those theocracies and pseudo democracies we come from. We stand together, white, brown and black people, in this new country of informed debate we have fashioned together, within the halls of academia.

So, in the spirit of ‘giving back’ we give away our cultural knowledge. We speak of those layers within the countries we grew up in, those of us who dream and speak in several languages. We explain the differences between our people, our food and our religions. We resist the familiar tropes that seek to define us. We agree to speak at seminars and meet colleagues for coffee to unpack that tricky terrain inscribed on our bodies and in our minds. We talk, we write and sometimes we rage at the lack of self-awareness evident in the language of appropriation. We notice the namastes and salaams and references to shakti and bhakti and try not to mind when we are encouraged to attend workshops on how to write ‘the other.’

Knowledge slips into appropriation so comfortably. It’s a marriage made in heaven, really. Gayatri Spivak, back in 1986, well before cultural appropriation was even a ‘thing,’ said she does not “make the tired nationalist claim that only a native can know the scene,” and in principle I agree. In these days of easy travel, when it is cheaper to go to Bali than Broome; when Australians regularly travel to India and Vietnam and Cambodia and come back transformed by poverty; you don’t need to be a native to know the scene. When you have experienced the country and the natives, and walked among their dusty streets, wearing their costumes, what harm can there be to sit down with one of us in Australia and ask about the things that puzzle you still, weeks after your visit, and after your tummy has settled down? And really, what harm can there be in writing about these experiences, in the interests of eliding differences or building bridges across cultures? The white gaze interprets, interrupts and translates, telling me that my cultural knowledge cannot be the sole interpretation of my reality in Australia.

I think about all I know, all that still informs my writing to this day, and realise I started writing as testimony. So I could have something for my daughter as she grew up and realised what it meant to be a young brown female in Australia. Of course, no amount of cultural knowledge and the thousands of years of ancient Eastern wisdom prepared me for the pitfalls of parenthood. Now that we are finally brown women together in a white country, one young and one not so young, the conversations with my daughter take on an urgency I did not anticipate. There is so much to tell her. So much to show her. Culture. Knowledge. Secrets. Family. Language. Grief. Outrage. To wear a sari without falling down. To understand instinctively that the word Masi always comes after my sister’s name but Aunty always comes before her name.

I don’t have answers and I doubt if I ever will. Uncertainty marks the immigrant passage much more effectively than gratitude. I have been fortunate and people have been generous. I try to give back more than I get. I am not an inexhaustible supply of cultural knowledge. Nor am I a culture hoarder. But my stories are mine to tell and cannot be bought for the price of a cup of coffee by intersectional feminists ‘exploring the idea of difference.’ And I guess that I am still able to grieve over, rage at, and feel the imposition of such selective cultural exchanges.

First published in: http://southerncrossings.com.au/arts-and-culture/cultural-knowledge/

 

Mothering under different skies

I was a paranoid mum when my daughter was growing up. Raising her in a city/country/continent far removed from where I was raised made me paranoid. My daughter always knew which two people in the world she could trust implicitly, no matter what. One of them was me. I went through every scenario in my mind that could potentially harm her and told her how to save herself if that happened. This isn’t as bizarre as it sounds. As a woman of colour living in Perth in the 80s and 90s during the ascent of Pauline Hanson, I needed my daughter to be prepared for the day someone would tell her to ‘go back where she came from’ as this happened to me on a reasonably regular basis. I also needed to warn her about the effects of drugs, alcohol and under-age sex, (this was the 90s after all). I attempted to enrol her in judo, karate and ju-jitsu classes but she drew the line at that. Once, I became hysterical because she was five minutes later than she said she’d be. She learned early to tell me things I don’t remember ever telling my own mother. Only people who had been through a stringent vetting process were considered safe to be around her. One of them was me.

I worried so much about the effects this policing of her young body would have on her. But what choice did I have? How could I raise her as I had been raised? In a country and a time so far removed I may as well have grown up on a distant planet. My mother had a relaxed parenting style. (I was her third and whatever paranoia she may have had was well and truly over by the time I arrived). And we were good girls, by and large, with no concept of drugs, sex and rock n roll. Our rebellion consisted of sneaking out for a movie when we were supposed to be at school. Or stealing loose change so we could buy berries from the old woman who wasn’t allowed inside the school. But we were never warned about what a tricky world it is to negotiate when you are young, brown and female. We were never instructed on how to protect ourselves when we were fondled and touched by people considered ‘safe.’ We did not know that our words would be automatically discounted because we were girls so we chose not to say anything. We had no idea that girl bodies were fair game to every male in the vicinity. We only learned about these things when we went to college and acquired a vocabulary for that which we felt but could not describe.

Yes, I became a paranoid mum because I had a name for all those things I did not want my daughter to know. Patriarchy mostly, and all that it covers, hides, discounts, allows, promotes.

And now, as a young woman, my daughter tells me that she knows how fiercely loved she was. How protected. How cherished. ‘You raised me without burdening me with gendered expectations’ she said to me once and my heart stilled at that. Of course she slashed at restraints. Of course we clashed. Of course she tested those boundaries. But she knew how to fight back. She knew how to prevent people from burdening her with their expectations. Sometimes she stopped me. That’s how I knew I could stop policing her body.

 

Once, long ago

When we were seventeen we knew everything. We knew our lives were complicated. We knew our parents would never understand our darkest thoughts. We knew how much hearts hurt when they break. And in between listening to moody romantic music and flicking our long hair back over our shoulders we pretended we didn’t care about anything. On wet windy mornings we loitered by the stone arches of our old college, reluctant to climb the stairs to our education. Never again in my adult life would I know things with that certainty.

Reproval from adults, including teachers was swift and stinging. And we minded that. We really did. Some of us had just been unlocked from the high walls of our all girls convent school and needed to negotiate this new world in which strange boys looked at us and our hearts felt those looks. Our brothers had not prepared us for this. Our fathers were planning our marriages and the careers of our brothers. Our mothers massaged our hair with coconut oil and adjusted our scarves over our shoulders in an attempt to make us look androgynous. They told us honour was more important than a degree in English or Economics. Our aunties told us to stop riding bicycles because we would grow muscles in our legs like boys, and who would marry a girl with tough thighs?

So we formed gangs because there was safety in numbers. Gangs of girls looked at gangs of boys across stone arches, culverts, corridors and peepul trees. Occasionally a boy and a girl would saunter across, towards each other and away from us, and we marvelled at their boldness and envied them. On the threshold of a future we couldn’t predict, we held on to the present and felt the pang of every moment that denied us our inarticulate feelings. Especially when those renegade boys and girls, sparkling with fresh knowledge, told us not to let our schooling interfere with our education and we sighed with discontent.

Our parents thought we were getting an education. We indulged them by masquerading as their obedient children and hiding from them the things that really mattered to us. Like our future. Our souls. Illicit conversations. Invincible convictions. And how we were going to sneak away to see a movie at Empire Talkies without them finding out. Even then Empire Talkies was derelict, mouldy and crumbling but it had wide chairs and screened smart English movies some evenings.

And now my daughter is older than I was then. I have raised her many thousands of miles, languages and associations away from where I was raised. To her, my hometown is a distant, exotic place with eccentric characters who speak many languages simultaneously and English with an accent. She grew up in a fiercely bright coastal city with the sun in her eyes and sea water in her hair. Here the ocean is blue and cold and familiar and she shows no fear when she treads water after a summer swim. I grew up landlocked, watching in dread and fascination as a muddy river rose and burst its banks in the monsoon. She doesn’t have to worry about being whistled at when she walks to school or avoid brothers and cousins lurking outside Coffee House, asking awkward questions. She will not be told off by the college peon for sitting on the culvert like an orphan when everyone else has gone to class. But she will always be told that the best food in the world is served in a dark hut with wooden benches, where we queued patiently, day after day, pooling our money; where, really, our education was completed.