Before carparks were converted into crematoriums in the capital city of the world’s second most populous nation. Before farmers drove their tractors to occupy a city known in ancient times as Indraprastha. Before the women of Shaheen Bagh sat down in the squares of the place they knew as Dilli. Before Nirbhaya’s almost lifeless body was thrown out of a moving bus. Before an English lawyer drew a line on a map that split a nation and killed millions. Before treaties were signed and flags unfurled. Before Alexander met Porus on the banks of the Jhelum. Before Tomar and Tughlaq. Before Lodi and Lutyens. Before occupation and invasion. Despite all that.
There once was a secular India. In this India, the only one I knew as a child, multiplicities competed politely with the practical business of living. Growing up in a little-understood sect of a minority religion in a Hindu country, spending 12 years in a cloistered convent run by nuns who passed on not just their austerity but the idea of a Christian God, it was hard, if not impossible, to believe in binaries. Good and Evil certainly dominated our hushed conversations in the school chapel as we stared at the statue of the naked bleeding Christ with His crown of thorns. Good and Evil also appeared in dutiful interactions with our grannies who taught us the proper way to wear odhnis as we stood on embroidered masallahs, reciting namaz in a language we didn’t understand. In the homes of our Hindu friends, we understood the importance of burning the demoness Holika before celebrating eternal love. Our Parsi friends pointed out the agiary we couldn’t enter because we were not of the pure faith. Together, all these binaries cancelled each other out and we grew up in that big messy country, receiving an education we considered normal.
Everyone worshipped, dressed, spoke and ate differently and everyone knew which taboos to practise and which ones to ignore. We knew which aunties would slap our hands away from forbidden food – ‘that’s a salami sandwich – get away from that!’ – and which ones would ignore our clandestine mouths. And even if we didn’t fully understand why the beautiful Sikh boy wept when he discovered his friends smoking in the same room as the Guru Granth Sahib, we still held him in our arms and shouted at the errant boys and never spoke to them again. But when the same boy confessed he loved us, we turned away and told him not to look at us that way. Ever. He understood it was for his own protection. Our brothers, cousins, uncles, aunties and sisters didn’t need that sort of trouble in their lives. We knew what happened to those who transgressed. The truth behind those love-marriages. The girls forcibly brought home, locked up and sent off with strangers to a city where no one knew them. We lived and breathed multiplicity and secularity as long as we bred with our own people. As long as we were tolerant of those who didn’t share our truth. And it was best not to step into the murky waters of inter-caste relationships; inter-religious ones were not to be contemplated.
Who knew then that we would find ourselves, as adults, living in a country that only understood our other country in binaries?
‘You’re Indian, right?’
‘I love curry.’
‘You speak Hindu, don’t you?’
‘Indians are so hospitable.’
We accept the labels and the descriptions; our ‘gorgeous brown skin’ will never burn in the sun like theirs; we ‘speak such good English,’ and we are ‘so clever.’ We are subsumed easily into the good immigrant narrative and feel it is churlish to point out the discomfort we stifle, the smiles we force, the singularities we ignore. We can’t explain how, when we were growing up in our other country, a little friendly dissuasion was enough to warn a Hindu boy off a Muslim girl and vice versa; no one got killed. Well, maybe sometimes they did, but only in extreme cases. Not as a matter of routine. Not as a preventive. Not as rampant ideological imperative. We can’t explain how that famous Indian hospitality has worn thin for some of our people in the country of our birth. We don’t say how often we turn away from comments on social media that demonise our people, that proclaim them to be unclean, impure, lascivious. That they should go back to where they came from. We are unclear about where our people should return to. We know that our ancestors came from Yemen and Cairo and possibly Iran, and we also know that our ancestors were converts who had always lived in India. Our people have more in common with the citizens of the prosperous state of Gujarat than they do with the people of the thirsty city of Sanaa where they are supposed to have originated. Yet Gujarat is also the home of the current Prime Minister, a man whose hatred for our people is so intense he is making laws to overturn their right to exist. A man who sanctioned violence and promoted ethnic cleansing of our people twenty years ago. A man who was subsequently rewarded with the highest office in the country. Twice. Who now presides over the devastation caused by a virus he claimed to have vanquished. Our people don’t want to return to Gujarat. The memory still inspires terror in those who remain. We remember uncles visiting from Aden and Karachi, from Colombo and Dhaka, from London and Boston, from Calgary and Auckland, and wonder if any of them know where we really come from.
Back then, in that secular India that was as much promise as reality, we had accepted our minority status. At our Catholic school, we drifted towards the others, the ones more or less like us. We could count on the fingers of one hand the number of Muslim girls at school. Both hands for Christian girls. Hurrah for the two Parsi girls. With them we shared parts of our religion, our language and our carnivorous food. We learned the art of hiding aspects of our selves. It was important not to hurt the majority – therefore we participated in their religious festivals with enthusiasm, spoke their languages fluently and became vegan for the time we spent in their company. We knew there were special glasses, cups and plates for us in their homes. These were washed separately and reserved for the likes of us. There were areas of their homes we weren’t allowed to enter. We smiled when they laughed at our bearded, cap-wearing uncles, looked away when they pointed out burqa-clad aunties, agreed when they told us our ancestors were sword wielding barbarians and accepted their sympathy when they told us they were sorry we practised such a terrible religion. We understood bigotry even when we didn’t name it. We became easeful with discrimination early. It was good training, although we didn’t know it then, for the country we would later adopt, the one we now live in.
We were so happy when we were ‘accepted’ as immigrants to this brave new country, this land down under, this former British colony. We were excited because we believed in the myth of fairness – despite Jallianwalla, despite Partition, despite Churchill. We believed our myopic elders when they told us the firangis always played fair, bar the unfortunate times they didn’t. The British were inherently decent folk, we were told, burdened by Empire and the unruliness of our people. In this new country we would have opportunities denied to us in our other country, where we would always be found wanting, always be treated with suspicion. We arrived starry-eyed, ready to test this new land of equal opportunity.
Our first encounter with an Australian is when we are interviewed for admittance as new Australians. ‘Ah, India,’ he says, smilingly. ‘That country went to the dogs after the British left. Welcome to Australia. Bet you’re glad to finally escape, eh?’ Our subsequent encounters introduce us to another concept that we don’t name – racism. Academics at universities sneer at our multiple degrees and inform us they are not valid, not the ‘equivalent’ of an Australian degree. We apply for jobs in industries classed as low skilled and are turned away because we are ‘too qualified.’ We don’t have ‘local experience’ so we volunteer at various organisations and find engineers, doctors and professors working as cleaners and medical receptionists and wonder when we will have a fair go. When we finally get a job that still doesn’t equate with our level of education and skill, but doesn’t make us feel broken, we find ourselves teaching barely literate adults. We discover they didn’t finish school, not out of hardship, because education is free in this golden place, but out of choice. We think about the sacrifices our parents made to ensure we would have an education, the money put aside, the things they went without, the insistence that we do our best. We don’t say any of this, of course. Because we sense hostility. Our unease is confirmed when, for the next 20 years, we hear them say their country is being overrun by the likes of us, we come and take away their jobs and marry their men and our wog food makes them sick. We hear other things too. We hear of the people they hate more. The original people whose home this was, who have lived here for 60,000 years before the fair-minded British came. We hear they weren’t even classified as people until recently. We read about the children stolen from their mothers, the young men in prisons, the communities devastated by alcohol and introduced diseases. We think again about Churchill and Partition and Jallianwalla and see nothing decent in any of it. We’ve been sold a furphy.
And here we are now. Grateful. Oh yes. Immeasurably grateful to be safe, alive and virus-free in this place we’ve called home for most of our lives. Guilty too. Because our other home, the one that also didn’t really want us, is fighting to breathe. And all we can see on our television screens are people who look like us. They are dying. We are dying. We don’t see this as a discriminatory virus; we see it wiping out everyone in its path. Mostly the poor, but also the ones who grew up like we did. Middle-class. Comfortable. We don’t see the virus stopping to ask which ones are pure of faith before sinking its claws into their lungs. We know by the method of death dispatches which ones are dying – we see burials and cremations. And it’s not like anyone is spared this headlong rush towards oblivion because they share the faith of their implacable Prime Minister.
We read the words that describe our country of birth. We think about banning some words forever. Like unprecedented. Hell. Catastrophe. Crisis. Our local newspaper decides to put a number of these words together and informs its readers that flights from hell are to be suspended. Once again, we become, in the eyes of those who gaze at our unruly, messy, dying brown bodies, what Edward Said warned us we were, back when we studied Culture and Imperialism for the first time. Said told us then that our sufferings will not ‘blunt the intransigence’ of our thoughts nor ‘inhibit the severity’ of our punishment by our former colonial masters; instead we will become part of the ‘rhetoric of blame.’ Our germ-ridden bodies are dangerous, ‘an atrocious nuisance,’ and cannot be allowed inside the sanctified and sanctioned safety of our adopted country. We know the truth of this because infected white bodies do not attract the same fear as brown ones. White bodies are allowed to quarantine in hotels even when it becomes clear they bring plague with them.
Our people have been on our mind a lot lately. Especially when we learn early this year that nearly 10,000 of them are seeking to return to Australia because they are, in fact, Australians like us. If they do come back though, they will be jailed for up to 6 years and fined up to $45,000. The reason, we are told, is that The Indian Virus Is Out Of Control, and we need to keep Australians safe. This logic is as flawed as the one we grew up with, but this time, it actually is a matter of life and death. Also this time, ‘our people’ actually speak up. They protest and sign petitions that lead directly to repatriation flights, and some of those 10,000 Australians begin to return. We notice our Australian Prime Minister making samosas on television again, visiting temples and assuring ‘Indians’ they would not be unfairly targeted or discriminated against. Perhaps he understood that a large cohort of Liberal-leaning ‘Indians’ would punish his government in a looming election. Perhaps he really likes making samosas.
We remember the Sikh man on the plane sitting next to us, back in 1990, when we were returning to Australia after a trip to India. We chatted. About politics mostly, as Indians do, when not talking about cricket. A proud Sikh, he said he had been called a Khalistani and faced harassment by the police on his last visit, a few years ago. He told us how he’d gone to the Australian High Commission in Delhi to seek help. He smiled and reported how the Australian Consul General had issued a stern directive to the Delhi Police Department, warning them not to annoy an Australian citizen. ‘Australia is my country now, and I am Australian,’ he said, and we felt our hearts surge with a pride we had kept in check. Yes, Australia was our country too. We knew that when we gave up our passports and our citizenship. When we achieved the Australian dream of house-car-children-cat on a quarter acre block. When our children married Australians. When our Indian family rolled their eyes and said, ‘you Aussies’ to us over and over again.
We clench hearts and fists and embody binaries. We are Indian. We are Australian. We are safe. We are afraid. We are connected. We are adrift. We grieve. We laugh. We remember summer in winter, grow coriander under the wattle, and talk to our daughters when we miss our sisters. There is no right way to feel. There never was. Citizenship does not guarantee a safe return flight or freedom from loss. The ocean that carries the name of the country we left surges towards us to remind us of all that is yet to come.