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.