Whenever I look at this picture of myself, I am overwhelmed by the whistle-stop tour of emotions I feel: joy, pride, guilt, shame, deep sadness and, trapped at the centre of this cobweb of compulsion: nostalgia. It’s the final feeling that really unsettles me. Keen etymologists are quick to recall that ‘nostalgia’ means an ache for homecoming, but how can you come home to a place that never really existed?
Ever since the moment the photo was captured, I’ve been drifting further and further away from that home, that uncomplicated cultural delight. Bangles, sparkles and crackers were no longer things to be celebrated, they were things to be covered up, tidied away, glossed over by an English accent, with a twisted sense of pride. My Aaji bought me a Barbie with a sari who was white. I started to build myself a new house to feel nostalgic about and coloured my life in with the skin-colour-peach pencil. I allowed myself to be the Dulux swatch of adequate holiday tans and hid my foreignness.
A boy at school called me a “brownie made of bullshit”, yet even though the walls of my peachy palace cracked, it remained standing.
I left my first home for good in Secondary School, when I finished patching up the walls of the peach-pencil-pigmented house. I wore a salwar kameez for European Day of World Languages but felt ugly and ashamed. The quiet confidence of a girl-child with a pink pallu became swiftly replaced by the gawky, cringing complicatedness of a teenager.
A woman in Marks and Spencer’s tells me, unsolicited, never to pluck my monobrow. The photographer of the school play edits it out of my picture, clumsily wiping away at it until the space where my third eye should be becomes a mortifying five o’clock shadow. I cry when I finally get it threaded: once from the sting of the thread pulling, twice from the relief of my shame no longer being externally visible.
For the next European Day of World Languages, I wear a Union Jack t-shirt.
I tentatively inhabit my new house of assimilation and eloquence, learning French and German and Latin, never understanding the Hindi and Marathi my parents speak at home. I tell people half-jokingly that they didn’t teach me a mother tongue so that they can have serious conversations in the same room without me being any the wiser. They tell me they wanted me to be good at English, to sound British, to sound clever. For a long time, I relish the incongruity of my posh accent and brown face. It is funny to be underestimated and outwit people. I take pride in being a “cool Asian” who didn’t do triple-science-and-maths at A-levels.
I found out how hollow these victories were when I had to own up to the truth; someone made fun of me for mispronouncing a word (the word was innocuous, but he wouldn’t let my mistake be so). My parents now both speak English as their first language and my mother has the widest vocabulary of anyone I know. Safe in the knowledge that I’d learnt from the best, I spoke the word with confidence, which made the humiliation all the worse. Just one stress in the wrong place, just one misjudgement of the English spelling system was enough to draw the curtain on the farce that I had been constructing for so many years.
The peach house had been collapsing for some time. With every refusal to do a caricature accent, and every admittance that I loved dhal and eating with my hands, I felt more comfortable in my new position. I admitted to being a second-generation immigrant when having political discussions. I engaged with the emotions of being an outsider in the climate of today. But without that peach house, flawed as it was, I had no home to come back to – and I still have no home. The speed and apparent effortlessness of my childhood assimilation to white culture left me with a rudimentary, half-baked understanding of my real cultural background.
With no linguistic or cultural reference points, I often feel isolated from my Indian-ness.
An ugly, bitter jealousy takes over me when I witness incredible South Asian women celebrating their beauty and culture – a bindi with jeans-and-a-nice-top, a sari to a black tie event, naths and Bollywood memes. I feel that for me to try to be one of these women is also disingenuous. I know only a handful of Bollywood films, and can’t really pronounce the names of the actors. Despite having been to India multiple times, I feel so disconnected from it. I get nervous when people ask me how to say my name rather than just assuming. Every time I mispronounce it I feel so ashamed, but hearing myself and others butcher what my parents say so nicely feels treacherous to something higher than me.
All of this turmoil is made no easier by the lack of representation of South Asian women in popular culture. Blindly navigating terrain with very few cultural landmarks makes finding something I can empathise with feel impossible at times. My cultural identity has been lost in the gap between the peach and brown pencils. I fluctuate between blaming myself for letting it get to me, changing myself so readily and blaming everyone else for making me change. Still, I know that recognising these things is only the first part of the process of controlling my identity. The nostalgia I feel when I see that picture is not for a real home in the past, but for a home in another life that I will never call my own. I cannot go home to that girl in the pink sari, whose love of herself was so simple and unhindered. I can and will, however, build a new house for myself, slowly but ever so surely.