Updated: Feb 8, 2021
This piece is about me, myself and I, broken into four parts: 'Blurred Lines, Dark is Exotic, What Kind of Indian Are You & A New Era of Mission'.
📷 Wix Media
I. Blurred Lines
Aaaarrrgghhhh??!! I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked, “Where are you from?” because apparently, I look exotic (yes, exotic!) - you’re kidding me, right?
And I answer, ‘I’m South African’ … calmly awaiting the most common response that I’m now accustomed to: ‘Really, but you don’t look or sound South African’ (whatever that means?!). And then smiling through gritted teeth, I tell my story for the umpteenth time:
Indians arrived in South Africa as indentured labourers in 1860 to work on the sugar cane, tea and coffee plantations and now Durban, where I was born and brought up, has the largest Indian population on the African continent with over one million people of Indian descent.
And if you’re wondering - no, I have never been to India nor do I know anyone in India. Although, admittedly my curiosity has intensified over the last few years, having discovered that my surname ‘Nair’ (pronounced ‘Ni-er’ and not ‘N-air’ like the hair removal cream) hails from the southern state of Kerala.
‘South African Indian’ is a unique cross-cultural mix yet not without its many similarities to our colourful Indian/Bollywood heritage, but it’s our vibrant and eclectic Western/African traits that truly set us apart.
II. Dark is Exotic
When I first moved to London, I was stunned at the new glossary of colourful terms – especially the term ‘exotic’. I eventually became familiar with such terminology through lived experience, as you do.
However fresh off the boat, I found it utterly bizarre … and pretty offensive (being dark-skinned with thick lips and outrageously curly locks, myself)! It was only later I learnt it was actually a compliment – ridiculously British (right?!) and one of the many weird facts that make the British - well, quintessentially British (if you know what I mean)!
Try to see it my way … because at the beginning, I thought the world had gone mad?!
Originally, I come from a predominantly Black (79.2%)¹ country where white was (and to some extent still is!) considered more beautiful and ‘superior’ and thick lips and big butts are not attractive; where colourism and the desire to appear fair-skinned is widely practiced from Indian Ayurvedic home remedies for skin whitening to African traditional medicine to bleach skin in the hope to naturally lighten one’s skin tone.
And then one day I woke up (11h55 mins later) in a new land a long, long way from home where 86.0%² of the population is White and a ‘bronzed’ skin tone, big lips (the bigger, the better) and a big ass (yes, I’m referring to the Kim Kardashian-like ‘big fake bubble butts’) are considered beautiful and sexy; where regular sessions in a tanning salon (yes, my fellow South Africans – such shops actually exist), and the use of fake tanning lotion and bronzing creams are hugely popular, and applied all in the hope of achieving the perfect (and streak-free) ‘glow’!
¹ Source: Census 2011
² Source: Census 2011
III. What Kind of Indian Are You?!
At home, in my younger years I was often (playfully) teased for being a ‘coconut’ - brown on the outside and white on the inside – for ‘acting white’; for example, eating with a knife and fork (as it’s traditional practice to eat with your fingers, without any cutlery). In the UK, the term ‘Bounty’ (yes - the chocolate bar!) seems be more popular whilst (I’ve heard) ‘Oreo’ is more applicable in the States.
Acting, dressing and speaking differently meant I would never really fit in with the ingrained gender and cultural stereotypes, and honestly, I‘ve never had the need to fit in with society, as I simply refused to believe in limitations.
My friends would always ask, ‘What kind of Indian are you, Mel?!'
I am the kind of Indian that:
learnt how to prepare and cook an authentic German schnitzel and Italian arancini before I cooked my first Durban curry.
visits a local curry house and still struggles to understand the different curry styles on the menu. Chicken patia, chicken jalfrezi – mmm, what’s that?! Durban curry is simply a choice of meat, fish or vegetable cooked to a desired strength - mild, medium or hot! Many a curry enthusiast has declared that Durban curry might just be the best in the world ...
wears a (rather) short leather skirt (in winter) whilst standing in the longest line outside a traditional Indian sweet shop patiently waiting to pick up Indian sweets to celebrate Diwali¹. Can you imagine the disapproving looks from the aunties and uncles all decked out in traditional garb and their surprised faces when I didn’t speak Hindi or Tamil and ordered in English (heaven forbid!). The horror intensified when I pointed to the sweets I recognised (as I could barely understand the traditional Indian names).
has (for those that aren’t aware), English as a mother-tongue, Afrikaans as a second language (not out of choice!), Zulu as a third, and German and French as fourth and fifth. I grew up speaking English, as did my mum, my dad, my brother and our extended family. And just for the record, many of the Indian sweets and desserts in the UK are referred to in the Indian local language and differ much from the South African Indian names I’m accustomed to.
expects you to familiarise yourself with the hand-to-mouth eating etiquette, when visiting my home for a traditional Durban Indian dinner – especially our famous #bunnychow (half a loaf of bread, hollowed out and filled with curry), hot crab curry or a #braai (South African BBQ). Although some may consider the practice of eating with one’s hands somewhat primal and uncivilized, it is still a very real custom in my home and within the Indian community; in fact it’s the norm in large parts of the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and South America. #WhatKindOfIndianAreYou
¹ Indian Festival of Lights is one of the most popular festivals of Hinduism symbolizing the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance.
IV. A New Era of Mission
A crop of fine South African home-grown talent is on the rise and making a splash abroad:
Funny-man #TrevorNoah, the most successful comedian in Africa, is conquering US comedy by powering American television's satirical staple ‘The Daily Show’ to new heights;
DJ and record producer Master KG’s smash hit song #Jerusalema in Zulu (one of South Africa’s 11 official languages) has not only become a global music phenomenon and the most Shazam-ed song in the world, but a rousing anthem of hope for millions across Southern Africa amid the battle against #Covid19;
Out with the ‘Kardashians’ (finally!) and in with the ‘Kandasamys’¹ – the first South African (Indian) comedy film widely acclaimed for its portrayal and celebration of the South African Indian community of our rainbow nation that is not often represented on the world’s stage.
Reigning dance champion, #OtiMabuse dazzles British TV audiences on BBC's Strictly Come Dancing as she Cha Cha Chas to Miriam Makeba's (aka Mama Africa) Pata Pata - once called 'the world’s most defiantly joyful song' - all whilst she prepares for her first hotly anticipated solo tour.
It is these kinds of stories that have spurred me into action. I’ve decided the time has come to pursue my creative ambitions. Ideally, I would like to use my creativity to make the kind of difference I want to make – to fight the good fight with all my might in my stand against #ethnic #gender #religious and #racialinjustice.
We live in a world full of urgent problems, and when something’s not all right, no matter how slight, it’s important to speak up, raise awareness and create change.
The echoes of injustice and discrimination continue to reverberate through society and in too many places across the globe.
It couldn’t be a better time to speak out. So I’m going to raise my voice, speak up (by saying what I really want to say) and join the collective movement in the fight for equality.
Fuelled by my upbringing in South Africa during apartheid as well as a very unexpected awakening when I moved to Europe to live and work, my motivation to inspire change - not just for the good of a minority but for the good of everyone, is deeply personal and a burning desire I can no longer ignore.
Better to be bold than safe, right?!
¹ Watch ‘Keeping Up With The Kandasamys’ and ‘Kandasamys: The Wedding’ on Netflix