How to look Indian enough
A half-Nigerian, quarter-Malayali and quarter-Nepalese writer on standing out in the crowd and the reason he always carries his passport
I can’t remember when I started carrying around my passport. But now it is just another thing even on my domestic travel checklist. I have begun to carry it everywhere, every time I leave Bengaluru—the city I call home. I just got tired of the constant suspicion and scrutiny surrounding my nationality. Initially, I thought I would just need it at national monuments, museums and the minimalist environs of an airport because in these places, the gatekeepers are trained to pick between their own and the other. In time, it has felt like everyone else has acquired this training too.
Though, to be honest, it has always been everyone else as well.
I remember being picked for sports in school, and it was never acknowledged that I was just fast, strong or good at anything by talent but, rather, by design or destiny. I would be picked and then the other person would helpfully point out, “You are fast because you are African"; “All Africans are strong, you know"; “You can sing and dance because all Africans have rhythm" and so on. Every personality trait of mine was attributed to my African genes. I was also lazy and liked to lounge because I was African, not because those were emotional places that all kinds of people liked to linger in. It has taken me a while to feel both African and Indian.
I mean, I always knew I was different. I knew I didn’t look like anyone else around me. I knew I didn’t look like my grandparents (but I have never doubted that we belonged together). Our first family portrait taken at the now shuttered Albert Raj Photo Studios on Bengaluru’s Brigade Road could have been an early advert for United Colors of Benetton. My late grandfather was a Malayali from Ernakulam in Kerala, over 6ft tall, silver-haired and striking. My grandmother was a Nepali from Kalimpong in West Bengal, under 5ft tall, funny and fierce. And there’s me in the middle: coy, curly-haired, clinging to my grandmother’s side. They were my late mother’s parents. My father is Nigerian.
I arrived with my mother in this country from Nigeria at the age of 3 in May 1989. And less than a week later, she died in an incident of medical malpractice. And soon, everything that my grandparents called their own was mine too: their language, their love of food, their life in Bengaluru. So, it made sense that their country was my country now.
I didn’t always want to be an Indian citizen but it was the pragmatism of my late maternal grandfather that convinced me. He worked tirelessly to ensure that within his lifetime, the colour of my passport went from green to navy blue. He wasn’t delusional—he didn’t think that this country was the greatest in the world. Rather, the premise of his argument was that travelling to the West on an Indian or Nigerian passport wouldn’t make a jot of difference. It would be just as hard in both cases. He understood that the function of citizenship, much like this function of belonging, is simply to make the everyday experiences easier. And as a person with great foresight, he knew it was going to be hard for me, and he hoped this change in citizenship documents would make it less so.
But more than this document, it has been about other much less grand gestures that have allowed me to remember that I belong here. It’s the fact that on returning from London after an art residency, I craved a crisp ghee-drenched dosa stuffed with potato palya and smeared with the earthy pungency of garlic chutney. It is the way that I can traverse between neighbourhoods in most cities and be able to knowingly smile at the minders of the cigarette shops, and be confident that most of them remember my obscure brand. It is the manner in which I can discuss Chitrahaar, Chandrakanta and the couple of hours of MTV programming on weekdays with anyone who has grown up in this city, in this country. It is knowing that we aren’t the best of people—always ready to mark out, marginalize and mock the other—but the ones who do try to meet me more than halfway, always do so much better.
On that evening in Delhi, walking through the light and labyrinth of Humayun’s Tomb, listening to Aditya nerding out on architecture, I felt a confirmation of many feelings. As Aditya told the story of this monument, he didn’t just focus on its engineering but also the emotion. He put into words a feeling that I was already aware of—emotions are engineered. He reminded me that the attention to the minutiae, the grace of the geometry, and the arches, angles and atmosphere weren’t created to make one feel small; they were meant to make one feel bigger than oneself. In looking at this structure, I felt like I was accessing my histories too and I could lay claim to this mausoleum—a wonder of human ingenuity and imagination. I could believe that there was always going to be room for someone like me to eventually show up here. It allowed me to believe that looking back doesn’t always have to be an exercise in tailoring one’s past to lead to the present—it can also push the story forward.
Now, every time someone says to me “you don’t look Indian but you definitely act like one", I have begun to take some small pride in that statement. It has helped take the sting out of it. In a delusion that I allow myself in these interactions, I have decided to read the sentiment as an acknowledgement that there is nothing that looks like anything in particular. And I am fully convinced the other person knows this as well. I read that admonishment as an acknowledgment of the fact that people have complicated histories, much like countries, and in reducing each of us to a single story, we lose out on the richness of the tale. Being an Indian (or not) isn’t a matter of bloodwork, belly or bone structure, it is a matter of belonging. Declaring, claiming and identifying with a place is a tumultuous experience that is always a matter of luck, of fortune. And to police these intangible sentiments on the basis of tangible documents might be one of the silliest projects of our time. It just means that in time, more of us will be less able to call this place home.
Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet, writer and columnist.
FIRST PUBLISHED02.11.2019 | 11:00 AM IST