CW: Abuse, panic attacks, white-washing
I went to a school in Hounslow, which was a predominately South Asian institute, with an occasional white person. Before then I went to one in Cranford, which was predominately white, same as the primary school before then.
So when I came into this new brown world, I was expected to feel 'at home' and more 'comfortable'...but I wasn't. In order to understand this, I've been analysing my behaviour as a child for a while and I found that a lot of it was down to my source of primary education, mental health and strangely, most effectively, family issues.
As an Indian woman, I was exposed to the politics of surviving at a very early age. The 'find a good husband to take care of!' mantra became terrifying and the neglect faced for simply being a girl was heartbreaking. Family members would cast me aside as 'just the girl' and concentrate all their efforts on my brother. I would watch the men of my (extended) family destroy the lives of their wives. Stories of women dying in the hands of their husbands would be many a time.
I found that most of my childhood was lived in fear of growing up and having to fight to survive. I would see this sentiment reflected in Bollywood films, where women were escaping a 'bad match' with a 'violent or horrible' man in order to run away with the love of their lives.
I began to suffer from panic attacks at the age of 10.
They would last a whole night, but the effect would stay for days. Sometimes I would have them 2 or 3 nights consecutively.
I stopped watching Bollywood films, I definitely didn't bother celebrating any festivals and I began hanging around as many non-Indians as possible, in order to keep my panic at bay.
My family went through some terrible times and that's not for public consumption, but what I will say, is that I didn't realise that it was abnormal. I grew up thinking that this is what being Indian is like and no matter what I do, I'll have to live a life of fear. Assuming that all other Indian families hid their fear and secrets, just like we did, I believed all Indians suffered.
So, I decided not to be Indian anymore.
I went to college in Isleworth and then university in Kent, keeping with my 'I may be brown, but I'm not Indian' mentality. My panic attacks had gone since I had denounced my culture, so I felt a sense of confidence and strength in existing like this. I was able to connect with people on films, music and pop culture, but every time something came up that I had no experience on or that I was scared of, I would laugh and say 'I had such strict parents, my god!'
'Yeah, Indian parents are so strict, like my mum just let me go out whenever I wanted!'
I would feel my mouth begin to dry as I fake smile through a joint eye roll about 'lol Indians'. On cue, my phone would buzz and it would always be mother checking up on how I am.
'She calls you so much!! My GOD!!!'
She did and still does.
She's scared for me now.
After living in fear and then denial, the next stage is alway acceptance. I got to my 30s and began dealing with the issues I had about being Indian and delved back into the importance of my culture.
It wasn't all about men hurting women and being thrown aside. It wasn't about being scared about who you were going to marry and if they would kill you. It definitely wasn't about how many abusers you could survive.
When I finally returned to the culture, it was beautiful.
The things that scare me are still there: forced marriages, abuse, death, servitude. But I managed to find a way to bypass the fear and see everything else.
The importance of being a Sikh woman with 'Kaur' in my name. The amazing rituals and festivals, the diverse religious and cultural worlds in the one country of India. There was so much for me to explore and learn, and I was crushed that I grew up thinking that being Indian was defined by abuse.
When I was a young teenager, leaving for school, my mum was cooking something (which smelt amazing but at the time I scrunched my nose and pretended I hated it) and I said to her to stop making food that made my nails yellow.
She just glared at me.
'My god, my clothes are going to stink now'
She continued to glare at me.
I left for school and left that part of me behind as I ventured into that brown school, trying to be the only white person there. We were sitting in our year room and I saw a group of my friends laughing and huddled in a corner.
'What is it?'
One girl looks at me and says 'you wouldn't understand'. I stare at her, confused. She tuts and says 'I made subji with mum yesterday and we were all talking about how my hands are stained with turmeric'.
I look at her nails and grimace.
'I knew you wouldn't get it' she says and turns her back at me. I turn to walk away and feel a pit in my stomach. I wanted to know why she was so unashamed about the stains on her hand and why I was so scared. I look back over my shoulder and see them comparing mehndi designs to wear 'just for the hell of it'. There wasn't a wedding they were being dragged to as they put on a cassette of 'Green Day', wearing too much eyeliner. They just wanted to be Indian and were happy about it.
I looked down at my hands. I thought of my mother glaring at me.
I was a brown person, trying to be white, trying desperately to remember to be brown.
When I got home (purposefully late), mum had made dinner, it was roti with chicken and I would have to delve my hands into the food to eat it. I didn't make much eye contact with her at the time, but I remember feeling conflicted. I didn't want to make my mum glare at me and be tutted at by Indian friends but I also didn't want my panic attacks to come back.
I groaned loudly.
'My hands are going to be stained with haldi again'
My mum looked up at me, surprised.
'You know what haldi is???'
There's a moment of silence and we both start laughing.
I believe at that moment that she understands.