Sunday, 28 September 2014

It wasn't just charity that began at home

Over at the other blog, the "flogged" blog, which incidentally has just celebrated its third anniversary, did you even think we'd survive this long? I know! I even surprise myself sometimes. Anyways, getting back to the point, over at that very respectably-aged blog we have been talking about identity, straddling cultures and alienation and frustration resulting from the diaspora experience. With a British-Nigerian poet who knows a thing or two about straddling.  And identity and alienation. And of course, poetry.

I found that post extremely interesting.  Partly because she happens to be a native of the country where I was a foreigner once, the bakuwa, often called bature, the skinless one, the distinctions between my lighter Asian skin merrily conflated with that of Europeans, to my discomfiture, resentment as well as astonishment.  But as I reflected on my diaspora experience, it kind of appeared that my entire trajectory has been a little different, drawn awry by its own momentum.  

The first cut is the deepest

But first, a couple of actual experiences where I felt unfairly treated because I was a minority, a foreigner/stranger or some way related to my identity.

The earliest incident happened when I was maybe 6 years, my family lived in Delhi at the time.  A children's squabble somehow escalated into the parents of my friend instructing their doorman that the "Bengali kid" should be barred entry. That was the first I heard "Bengali" being used as a marker, a pejorative. Not that I understood it at the time, I just felt ghastly and came back home and sat in a corner sulking; my mum saw me and cannily paraphrased Hemingway, "no friend like a book" she said and thrust one at me and so I was rescued.

The second instance I remember was in a small town on the fringes of the Western Sahara, little known then, a world nested in a bigger world, both oblivious of each other mostly.  In the early 70's my father took a job with the Nigerian government and was posted to the remote north-eastern corner of that country, a town called Maiduguri, at that time the state capital of North-Eastern State.  It was tiny compared to Delhi, where we had moved from, and culture shock wasn't a part of my active vocab at that point, but had it been, it would still have proved to be rather inadequate.

I went from my hard-won comfort zone in Delhi, hard-won because I had been uprooted from Calcutta just four years before into a milieu as drastically different from my birthplace, as Delhi was from Maiduguri - climate, language, school curricula, social surroundings, everything.   Even the school building.  

My first classroom in Nigeria was a shed, literally, the walls were of corrugated metal about 6 feet high, a gap of maybe 2 feet running all around on top, and a similar metal roof held up above, there was no floor, it was just sand.  It was as hot as a furnace, temperatures could shoot through the 40's without any effort, there was one pedestal fan to keep the teacher cool.  I know now the reasons why it was so, and they are good and sufficient, but then it felt like the end of the world.  

But 8-year olds are resilient little people and can cut through the fluff remarkably quickly. I soon got to like my teachers, I made some friends, and I was a sturdy little girl raised in the arid Delhi climate which was close enough to the desert to be a help. The medium of instruction was English, there was no problem, and the advantage was that there was no other language to study. There was no Hindi or Bengali or Sanskrit to sit exams in, cool or what?

Like in every school, there were bullies, some of them much older, angrier, rougher.  The students were naturally a mixed bag, we the  products of relatively affluent expat professional parents were thrown together with sons and daughters of less educated, less affluent people, from far less fortunate circumstances.  Again it is easy to understand and accept their resentment and aggression in hindsight.  

I and some of the other expat girls got groped inappropriately, took quite a few hits on our backsides and fronts, and of course there was the name-calling and intimidation as well.  It took me sometime to figure out the insults in Hausa and hurl them back.  But whatever I did, whether I resisted or not, shouted back or not, the whole thing left me feeling violated and seething with the injustice of being picked on because I was a stranger, I didn't speak the same language, and/or looked different.  Those days, the coming of womanhood was not feted as it is now, it was portrayed as more a bother than a blessing, and the whole discussion on body image and confidence  had a vastly different tone.  Most times, no-one discussed anything,  victim-blaming is looked askance now, but when I was growing up, it was a given.  If she's been groped it's her fault! Groped at ten! Jeez what kind of precocious nastiness do we have here now?!

There are of course the other instances about explaining names and spellings, and people demanding why I can't speak the majority language fluently if I am travelling/residing in a foreign country, why I do or don't wear the bindi, bare my midriff, blah blah blah, but those have never felt vicious to me, more in the way of making conversation and I have never felt particularly insulted by them.

The last incident I recap here is much later, it happened here in the Gulf in the late nineties, on my first stint here.  I had changed jobs, taken up an appointment with a locally owned small research firm as their head of operations, but wanted to quit after a short while as there was NO work to be executed, and playing solitaire for 8 hours at a stretch has limited charms even if one is paid to do it.  It drove me nuts.  It also ruined my eyes forever, but that's irrelevant.  Anyways, the top boss was reluctant to let me go, he was convinced I was scooting off with his (non-existent) operational secrets to his far more successful competitors, and the more I assured him that wasn't the case, the more convinced he became of my supposed perfidy.  

The usual heated discussions ensued, wherein I was threatened with deportation (I had not transferred to their sponsorship, so that one was empty), my husband with loss of face and job, and then finally ended by equating "an Indian like" me to an unprincipled liar, cheat and a mercenary so-and-so.  I left that office shaking with rage (I was a bit more excitable and quick tempered those days, I am almost better now.  Cool as a cucumber.)  Again, knowing what I know now about the man, and the firm, it is easier to understand where he was coming from and why.  As I said, hindsight always clears up the foggy bits in the picture.

A free passport to exclusion 

What I have learnt from my experiences and the narratives all round me can be summed in a few words. Firstly, if you are a woman, you are halfway being to excluded already.  My life lessons have been mild and easy-peasy, no serious damage anywhere.   I am greatly fortunate that I come from a family where everyone forgot to point out that I was a daughter and a burden, to be married off, given away after a childhood of dependency, without any expected returns, either emotional or financial or spiritual. Or maybe they never thought of daughters in that light altogether. No-one ever said to me that education was too pricey, too risky, reserved for males only.  If you had the brains and the inclination, you were free to study whatever and up to whichever level your competencies could match.   Do whatever you wanted, except of course stay out after the curfew.

There is a family anecdote which illustrates my point.  My father was on his way to get married, my grandfather as the head of family ready to accompany the son to the venue.  Enter my youngest aunt, who was a university student then; she explained that due to some misunderstanding with her professors, her admission to her final examinations was held up, the submission of forms was closing the next day. My grandfather promptly asked my father to continue, and himself went, dressed formally for the wedding of his eldest son, to grapple with his daughter's educational hurdles.  

Let me also mention here that unlike my parents, my grandparents lost practically everything but a roof over their heads in the Partition of 1947. Money was seriously tight, and higher education was comparatively expensive.  My grandmother sold off her jewellery piece by piece to feed the family.  My grandfather sold his gold watch and chain to pay my father's architectural college fees.

Why then talk of exclusion?  Into my first job, I was young and enthusiastic and perhaps a little idealistic also, the gilded notions about equality and justice had not worn off still.  The outfit had just bagged a huge contract on farm equipment research involving rural fieldwork at the basic village unit levels, a first for the company and an exciting feather to be added to all involved caps. However, I was not allocated to the project at all, my male colleague who had joined the organisation on the same day as me, led a team of interviewers into the farming heartlands of Bihar and Bengal.  So I screwed up enough courage and went to argue with the Research Director. 

He waved me off, "It's not a matter of your abilities.  It's not safe, you'll be alone late in evenings, no proper security, no proper public toilets, sleeping out in the open some places maybe.   It's not a risk that we can take.  Besides, the respondents will likely be all males and uncomfortable speaking to women, so we might miss out on some angle."

That's it, ladies.  Back off.  No loos, stay and work in urban areas and miss out both on skill build up and the enhanced moolah. (As an aside, more than 25 years later, I am happy to report that some attempt is being made to address the loo issue at least!)

Needless to say, there have been other occasions where I have faced similar arguments, and have had to give up work that I wanted to do and that would have earned me extra income, simply because I am a woman.  The laws are there in place, the infrastructure still isn't, the attitudes are a hairsbreadth from abysmal, and implementation/enforcement is kind of a joke, though things are improving all the time, albeit at a maddeningly slow pace.  And my issues have been a piece of cake when I compare the narratives of some other women I know.

The dark is the deepest under the lamp

The second thing is that discrimination, much like charity, begins right at home. Yes, I know that sounds conflicted, especially with what I said a minute earlier, but it is a conflicted issue, how to get away from that?  My grandfather, the same grandfather who opted to go fight his daughter's right to sit an exam rather than attend his son's wedding, once showed me the family tree extending back some 10-12 generations, a rambling behemoth of branches and twigs; cousins going up to three and five then seven and then eleven limbs apart, each of the limbs formally allocated its priorities and responsibilities and duties, and pecking order as witnesses to family functions of various rigid levels of solemnity.  I was perhaps a tween, on home leave from Maiduguri for the summer vacations.

My name was not there on that huge scroll of paper.  Nor were any of my girl cousins.  Nor my father's sisters.  I was outraged.  When I asked the reason, my grandfather explained that only women who came into the family, i.e. married into it and therefore became part of the husband's family, were allowed on that parchment.  The daughters would have their names written into the families they married into, not the ones where they were born.  Why is that, grandfather?  

Because only men have the right to perform spiritually meritorious acts, the giving away of property, of wealth, of cows, and daughters.  Only sons can perform the funeral rites for their parents/foreparents, light up lamps of clarified butter to illuminate their pathway right upto the highest heavens, no daughter can do that, and therefore daughters get no place on the spiritual tally chart. And that was that, whether daughters sat exams, worked, married their chosen man and lived entirely independently otherwise had nothing to do with culture and customs going back thousands of years even before the family existed.  You can't overturn the weight of your heritage with a three-page western-style education, now can you kid?

It made an impact.  A painful one must be.  So much so that years later I am writing about it over here. The odd snarky comment, the brush offs, the misspelling of my name by a random stranger, of darker or lighter skin colour, has hurt much less than these erasures by people who know me well, the discrimination by those who I call mine. Truth be told, I don't go among strangers expecting to be accepted, I know that one has to make one's way into a group, over time, with great effort, braving rebuffs.  No-one likes a cat among the pigeons and nor do cats like a pigeon thrown into their midst, for all that they might try a little cruel sport with it as some temporary distraction.  They either kill it or turn away after having their fill of fun.  The group remains the same as before in the short run.

My teachers and headmasters in that school saw/knew the bullies, they knew what was going on, yet they never publicly made any redress, no-one was punished.  My own elder female relatives' advice - ranging from "walk a little more decorously" to "do you have to let everything stick out? must you swing arms and bums that wide?" was another form of discrimination that hurt.  Make yourself invisble, in other words.  

I didn't have to go anywhere foreign to have my first taste of exclusion, that happened right inside my own country in Delhi.  My people.  Always my own. Always the people I knew and who knew me.  People I studied with, or those who taught me, worked with me and/or paid me for my work, presumably after some kind of favourable judgement about my character, otherwise why employ me anyway?  None of them were random strangers in the street, not some abstract unknown face passing by.  That is what the face of discrimination has been in my story, and that is what has hurt.

The difference between my blogger friend and me is that she was born in Britain, and so she has a legitimate claim there.  I have no legitimate claim anywhere else except in my own community, my own state, my own country, and my own people, whether they share the same nationality or ethnicity or not. Discrimination and injustice happens only where there is a legitimate claim, and therefore for me, and millions of others like me, it can come only from the people who are the closest, groups that we feel innately connected to, groups that define our identity, and in the end make or break us.


  1. everything begins at, disparity,discrimination and re-creation...keep writing...

  2. Hi Nila - you have a wealth of experiences ... I can quite see all your feelings pouring out here in these truthful tales - you really have experienced life ...

    You should put them into a book - your experiences as they cover periods of history that reach out to this day and will no doubt carry forward ...

    Thank you for posting all these thoughts ... Hilary

    1. Hi Hilary, and thanks for your patience with this humongous post :) very pleasantly surprised :)

  3. Thanks for sharing this. Such an eye-opener...