When I look into this world,
there are hardly any words not already spoken,
there are hardly any thoughts not already written.
Yet there are ears that need reaching
and eyes that need showing.
I live in the 21st century. A touchy world where, despite the fact that we live in civilised democratic societies, black souls are fighting a constant fight towards emancipation, red souls are limited to their government assigned native lands, brown souls are lost in translation, and yellow souls are fighting the tide that groups them as the new money trends – all while the white souls have proper identity. Germans, Swiss, Italians, French, Americans, Austrians, Australians – the list goes on. The white souls have been brought up with the memory of the horrors of the Second World War. Some of them grew up with the knowledge and it became somehow their “second nature” to be very aware of discrimination such as racism and fascism wherever it manifests. For the white souls are naïve believers that nothing can be worse or even comparable to the horrors of the Second World War. They are protected in a bubble of their making – a bubble that says, “Nothing can be as horrible as it was during the wars.” This often manifests in forgetting those painful memories of wartime, and repeating mistakes that shouldn’t be repeated: new time, new appropriations of the word “war.” Most of the Western civilisations live in functioning democratic societies where the weapon of war is no longer physically deadly like guns and torture chambers. War weapons of our modern day society are words, body language and expressions. These can wound people deeply and even psychologically. Thus, amidst this world dominated by the white souls, and myself – a brown woman – there is forever an unasked question: unasked by those who are diplomatic and have a sense of elegance; while most people refrain from asking due to the difficulty of framing it correctly. All, nevertheless, try to find a way around it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way. They eye me curiously or compassionately, and then instead of saying directly: “How does it feel to be a foreigner?”, they phrase it in steps. ‘Where do you come from? I know an excellent Indian restaurant in my town; or, I love Indian food; or, it is so colourful in India; or, such a beautiful culture; or, don’t you miss home?’ At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require; to the real question, “how does it feel to be a foreigner?” I rarely reply. And yet, being a foreigner is a strange experience, particularly for someone who has never been anything else. The otherness that goes with being foreign is something that has been a part of my experience even at childhood, in my country of origin. Apart from being brown – I am also a woman. It was in the early days of carefree childhood that the revelation occurred. Differentiation. I remember well when the burden of reality hit me. I was a little thing, wandering in the world of daydreams, with Misha comics open in front of me. My maternal grandmother came in with a bag full of wooden toys. At my grandfather’s request, she handed me two and sat down to carefully pack the rest. When I asked her for one more from an array of about thirty wooden toys – she refused definitively, without even a glance towards me. When grandfather insisted – she replied “It’s is for our son’s daughter. Not our daughter’s daughter.” Grandfather nodded in agreement. Then it dawned upon me with certain suddenness that I was different. The “other” granddaughter shut out from their male dominated world by a vast curtain.
From then on, I had no desire to tear down the curtain, or to tiptoe around it. I kept my distance and watched over the years with fascination – how different I am or rather how different I was made to feel. I’d often get tired as this differentiation was not simply at home. Cultural capital and economic capital are certain things that define posh – particularly in a top-notch all girls’ school. Especially when one’s parents refuse to bring one up in a way that would turn one’s head, and build one to be a nonsensical nincompoop ever so content about family history, daddy’s monthly salary, mommy’s wardrobe and potential bethrove. My days otherwise overshadowed, on rare occasions would turn brighter when I could answer a teacher’s question perfectly, solve a math problem correctly, or get to walk around the school garden in peace – alone.
For most of the brown girls, it was all about being popular and being upfront and knowledgeable in pop-culture. Or, the brilliantly performing girls – it was about proving their worth at home, to be daddy’s pride. Or others, who travelled to Europe and brought back goodies that they’d only share with the easily submissive fools, ready to follow these girls on the merit of foreign travels, provided by their hardworking parents. Throughout, in every brown girl, there was a common unspoken wish to be white. As their youth shrivelled into tasteless flattery, they developed into silent admiration of the pale world that they read about in books and watched on TV. Even the few Bollywood stars, despite their Indianness, were much paler than the average Indian population. Any gossip about them was tinged with awe of everything white; as these Brown souls wasted themself in a bitter cry, “Why did God make me so brown? How can I be white?” The gloom of the imprisonment within the four walls of our own desires closed round us, as we grew older. White walls everywhere – from soap advertisements to beauty products, from hair-care to washing powder. The beating hands of brown souls trying to scale the unscalable heights of whiteness would occasionally dirty those walls with honest criticism perceived negatively: an observation which soon groomed my reality. I am born long after the world wars, yet I am growing up in a world which yields me no true self-consciousness, but only lets me see myself through the revelation of the male and pale world: a world where my gender and colour makes me the “other.”
This is a peculiar sensation – where this duality of gender and colour made me see myself through the eyes of the onlooker. Measuring my self-worth through the tape of a privileged world that looked at me with amused contempt and pity. Much more so as I moved out of my third world city of Calcutta – whose poverty did Mother Teresa jolt up a few notches to make famous. I confronted perceptions of the world where my otherness – that of a brown woman – remained reconciled. Brown. Woman. Two souls, two thoughts, and two ideals – trapped in one body, whose fierce strength alone keeps her from being torn asunder.
Despite being born in a 5000-year-old culture and civilisation – I often found myself being considered less than civilised. Surprising all with my table manners, my taste, my spoken English, learning ability and politeness. As much as it was a surprise, it was also an annoyance – for the white world attempts to negate brown civilisation and history. Brown history is the history of survival, a constant strife of surviving colonialism for over five hundred years. The brown world is neither strong like the sons and daughters of the night nor dominant like the children of the light – this dirty world is still savagely trying to survive exploits that left it hollow, crushed and confused: so confused that they worship the goddess Durga and yet makes sure a boy child is prized over a girl.
A brown woman is a product of this male dominant brown world. She is not advancing into the world to spread her colour; for there is so much that this world can learn from the unity of all the colours! A brown woman will not bleach her brown soul in a flood of white west, for she knows that her culture has a message for the world as much as every other culture does – a brown woman is simply getting out to the world for she has the opportunity to learn and teach, to have an opportunity to work, or simply be a homemaker as she stays a supportive partner for her brown man. However, there is one truth, she simply wishes to make it possible for other brown souls to be both Brown and Human. Without any repercussions from the crushing white walls and without having to worry about doors of opportunity being slammed shut in her face.
The motivation that drives a brown woman in this world is the hopeful optimism to be allowed as a co-worker in the realm of civilised democratic societies, to escape both the death and isolation of her native culture that anyhow treats her with “otherness”, to wife-partner-colleague or, to befriend and use her best knowledge, and her latent genius. For unlike the white souls, these brown women are taught to be docile, submissive, the honour of the family, a deity; basically that creature with the purpose of being put up on a pedestal. Therefore when a female tries to break free from these labels, this imprisonment through being put up on a pedestal, as imposed by the Indian society – they are often called names, derogatory in nature, inflicting shame. A faint lingering of the past where these same brown women were epitomes of intellectual and spiritual attainments, flicker a dilemma in their momentarily questioning minds; for to question any man is already her crime.
Here in Europe, in the few decades since the World Wars, the brown folks turning hither and thither in uncertain and cynical striving, which often made their very strength lose effectiveness – to seem like absence of power, absence of organisation, absence of focus – like dimness, or even to a certain extent, dim-wittedness. And yet, it is not dimness or dim-wittedness, this cynical striving is more like an inconsistency of double aims. The double-aimed struggle of brown people — on the one hand to escape the contempt of their country of origin by making enough money to send back home, and on the other hand struggling through white contempt for having the knowledge and skill-set that allows them to be hired in reputable establishments with well-paid positions. There are some who are highly liked by the white folk – these are the workers at petrol stations, kitchen hands, cleaning personnel, cashiers at grocery stores, ticket-sellers and the general poverty-stricken hordes working to make ends meet with half a heart due to their painstaking awareness of being the “other,” Some of these folk are highly educated – yet their educations remain unrecognised because their country of origin is considered inferior. The system is only made for the rich browns, who can start all over again and have means to fight – a willing family, and old money.
In all of these issues, the brown woman remains silent. In occasional cases where these women reach a certain status and class through relentless hard work, education and patience – her angry colleagues would bully her, pull her down, and discriminate her. Any angry outburst from her will only be counted and held against her. A brown woman is not given the divine right to question. As if it was not enough to face a world tempted toward quackery and demagogy, the criticism of both the white and brown worlds, toward her strong ideals would thus make her question her self-worth!
Words. Modern war weapon are words. I remember reading about the people of the Solomon Island. The power of words is such that instead of cutting down a tree, the inhabitants would gather around a tree trunk every day, chanting out their negativity through accusations, curses and derogation towards the tree. After a while, the tree would start to wane and eventually die. The psychology is the same with people, especially with coloured folks and brown women. Whether a brown woman is killed in her mother’s womb, or killed during dowry harassment, burnt alive with her dead husband on his funeral pyre, brutally beaten up with charges of witchcraft or killed with words, anyone of a privileged position is a murderer when they destroy the potential of a brown woman’s soul – a brown woman’s life.
This apart, the western brown woman is confronted by paradox. The knowledge that her people are given a twice-told story appropriated and revised by her white compatriots, modified to befit their comfort. Absorbing that what is befitting to their bubble of happy privilege and ignoring the strife of these “others” and their “otherness” that cause them discomfort. The western brown woman are seeing their men not protesting, for these men travel in their brown groups – mixing with their Brown fraternity, partially understanding the implication of words spoken in quackery and demagogy; for these men have a great support, the silent wives who keep their homes straight, – happy and functioning, devoid of outside harassment. These simple, silent wives are often happy with the little that they get – the little pleasure of being able to take a walk alone down the streets of a western country at midnight without perils. The respect and envy of other brown women left back in their home country. Yet, there is a certain discontent. The western brown women, often being the educated women who followed orders and married according to what the family arranged – these women live with the knowledge that would teach the white world about her folks, and yet knows how incomprehensible and whitewashed the history of her own flesh and blood is. How much she is still expected to remain mute and blind, in the supposedly free world of the western lands. The melancholy of this felt paradox is what makes the souls of these brown women a beautiful abstraction.
Brown women have contributed greatly to science, and yet these powers of body and mind have in the past been strangely wasted, dispersed, or forgotten. The shadow of her past flits through the tales of the Vedic age, more than 1,500 years ago, where brown women were assigned a high place in society. These women shared equal standing with their male counterparts, had liberty that truly had societal sanctions and yet these liberties had loopholes that made sure these women were tamed. This dichotomy is seen with the ancient Hindu metaphysical perception of “Shakti”; the feminine principle of energy, multitasking and strength was consequent and synonymous with brown women of the Vedic age. This took the form of worship of the female idols by Hindus. Yet today, through history, the powers of brown women flash here and there like falling stars, and die before the world has rightly appraised their brightness.
Occasionally, there comes a rebel. A wife who wishes to express or a girl who wishes to articulate her innate love of harmony and beauty that set the rougher souls of her people alight in mockery. And yet, all of these issues manifest a good amount of confusion and doubt in the soul of the brown artist; for the beauty revealed to her was the soul-beauty of a race which her larger audience despised, and she could not articulate the message of her people – to her people of both western and eastern worlds. This waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two ideals that cannot be reconciled, has shaped a sad chaos within her, with the courage and faith and deeds of billions of her people — often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and at times, has even seemed adamant about making these brown women feel ashamed of themselves for normal human actions, such as endeavours to bring back the baton of light and knowledge to her brown folks.
The days of oppression are not over for these brown women, and some wish to see that one divine event that would culminate to the end of all doubts and disappointments; few races around the world ever had the courage to worship nonconformity with half such unquestioning faith as does the educated and self-dependent western brown women. To her, so far as she thought and dreamed, colonialism was indeed the sum of all villainies, the cause of all sorrow, the root of all prejudice; independence was the key to a promised land of sweeter beauty that ever stretched before the eyes of wearied Indians. Yet, incitement swelled one refrain – emancipation. In her tears and curses at all manner of gods, she implored to have freedom in her right hand and equality in her left. She is still waiting.
A sense of belonging is that absolution one needs to truly belong somewhere.
A sense of belonging is that absolution that depends on welcoming language.
A sense of belonging is that absolution that is not given out gently, but is a tiresome fight –
That some of us are still fighting.
A sense of belonging is that absolution, in search for a loving home.
Whatever good may have come in the years following World Wars and Indian Independence, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the brown women. All the more bitter because the unattained ideal of a promised paradise – a promised land – with equal opportunities, with economic and cultural prowess was abundant save by the simple ignorance of common people. For the first few decades were merely a prolongation of the futile search for freedom, the boon that seemed ever barely to elude the grasp of Indians soon transformed to communal hate that took to streets: invading homes and butchering both Hindus and Muslims. The ghost of George Curzon’s actions in 1905 (the division of Bengal Presidency into the Muslim-majority province of East Bengal and Assam, alongside the Hindu-majority province of the present-day Indian states of West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha) is still haunting the brown existence. For that was the first blow, axing India into parts, dividing India into Hindus and Muslims: Hindustan and Pakistan. Thus flaming prejudices of far-right Hinduists, and angry Muslim Imams, culminated to restrict freedom of their collective brown women (Hindus and Muslims alike), while empowering their male folks. All these are maddening and misleading the brown folks over the lies of lazy political party representatives (often fuelling communal hate to keep their chairs), disorganisation of industry, and the inconsistent advice of friends and foes from outside the borders of the country, leaving the bewildered brown folks with no new motto beyond the old cry for freedom and paradise. Through all of this havoc, silent was, and still is, the brown woman…