Me, Coolie (?) & the sugar in my tea.
Some things are harder to write than others, I guess.
I’m writing this as a fraud, or at least that’s what it feels like. Having no real roots to speak of – in my lived experience – to any real Indian community that allowed me no more access than that of a voyeur. So these thoughts will be tainted with that emotional distance, written safely from the foot of the door or through lenses of the stained glass of the memories of others.
I was standing in the kitchen pouring a cup of black tea, Five Roses. I lazily looked over the side of deep red box as I waited for the tea to paint the clear water and my mind began to wonder as I stared at the words “Ceylon” in small white writing on the box..
It was just the other day when mum said that her mother’s bloodline arrived in the first wave of indentured labourers from India. She sort of said it in a distant way as if it had been something that happened in a time before anyone could remember – like some sort of proto-history of the family. A place without much tangible record, not all too different to lore.
Like with most people from that strata of society our history, too, began with signing the papers to leave India.
Our history begins through ebb and flow of European capital from the southern shores of what was then Madras in the subcontinent to the East Coast of South Africa, in what was then known as Natal.
Sugar farms I think it must have been.
Tied to production in the colonies through wage-slavery, undoubtedly in the company of many others who’s only record in the history books will be their names on wage books. Mum thought out loud the other day.. “To be honest it was probably worse back home”.
I wonder how they related to Africans when they had arrived?
What unspeakable damage had the caste system of India done to their interpretation of what they must have seen here?
By now I was dropping to modest scoops of white sugar into the cup and I slowly watched the grains fall into the burning liquid below.
There is lot happening in this cup, I thought.
“Kuli” means wages or payment of work in Tamil, the internet told me as I typed flicking through articles on my phone.. Another word to perfectly fit into the mosaic of imperial tools of dehumanisation – used to strip peoples of their agency.. and reconstitute their very existence of factors of production, usually for White European profit. Ugh.
Mum said when she was a child she had some vague sense of how to move around a little bit of Tamil. She grew up Hindu as well and now all we have are a few small brass lamps and small pots that were once used for rituals of which I have no conception.
Not being very religious myself I never really saw those special objects as spiritual in the godly sense.. They sat, shiny, in a glass cabinet like some kind of crystalised cultural artifacts of an ancient people – how absurd right? .. Well that’s how it felt.
Soaking in my own submission to euro-modern understandings of progress and presentness the artifacts of our family’s past almost exist on a different temporal plane. As if through “education” we were accelerated in a generation to a post-culture future, a better one.
Those artifacts.. the empty pots and now-ornamental lamps could be filled to carry “backwardness”, they could contain “anti-black” attitudes I had encountered from “live” Indian people.. those attitudes that were subtle to me and so brazen to others who embodied darker “Africans”. These now-ornaments were usually scrubbed clean with a dark paste, I think it was called tamarind. That process described well the psychoanalytic rationale of my early encounter with “Indianness”, it was a feeling of aspiring to purity. Like trying to scrub clean my very skin embodied by the darkness of the tamarind to arrive at the fictitious purity of the gold-looking brass.
I wonder though whether the scrubbing of the tamarind symobilsed the aspiration to Indian-acceptance or assimilation to White world. The pit in my stomach seemed to suggest that it was a bit of both. Of the two roots that planted my feet to the ground.. the Indian and the Ugandan.. The Indian, perhaps, in the obscene perversion of the British-American-Apartheid racial hierarchy provided more options more capital – provide you played your part.
Somehow though there were things that didn’t make sense for me as an outsider who in the early days tried to “break in”. The remnants of India’s caste system seemed to cast a long shadow, the image of the “Indian” through the racialisation of Apartheid in particular was one that did not match up well with the few stories mum would share with me. She is a first generation university goer.. she does not come from a space where every second person was Doctor or Lawyer etc.. Places like the likes of Chatsworth, that were now far from my context and experience, seemed lost in the psyche of the popular construction of the South African Indian.
I wondered there, knowing intuitively that anti-blackness may probably be heightened there in its brash manifestations, whether these are people and communities that hold a closer promise to resolving painful antagonisms identity between so called Indian and Black South Africans in our present day..
Ugh, I don’t know. As a fraud in the middle class your imagination can only take you so far, I thought.
Lifting my cup up to my lips I wondered how to unfreeze my understanding of “India” from stasis. To liberate the imagination from empty-objects and confront the real body politics that are at play in the social world where my voice is constituted, what must be done..?
As I tasted the tea it somehow felt too sweet – I wonder if it was the sugar..
Me, Coolie(?) & the sugar in my tea.