When the tears seemed reluctant to dry out, that good old convincing voice within, urged me to get up, walk out, and grab a cuppa with something sweet on the side. When I ignored it, another procrastination tactic was suggested: That I check my phone for messages and new posts on social media.
I resisted both suggestions and stayed on the mat until the string tied tightly around childhood memories of racism unravelled. I knew what was happening. I was being triggered by the #BlackLivesMatter movement that had spread around the world since the brutal murder of George Floyd two weeks earlier by police in Minneapolis, USA.
At first, I tried to fight off the memories. They were uncomfortable, but more important, I felt I had no right to explore how racism had affected me as a child. I felt lucky compared to so many then and even now. The stories coming through the news and social media made mine insignificant. But the tears kept coming and I stayed with the process, while two questions kept repeating in between the sobs: What was it about the world’s response that made me so emotional? How did this one death (George Floyd) set off such a global outcry for change, when so many others, equally horrific, barely made the news? One explanation at the start of this inner inquiry was: Maybe the world’s united response in support of the Black Lives Matter movement represented a sign of hope, that something was going to change for the better this time. In spite of restrictions on mass gatherings due to COVID 19, people all around the world, had demonstrated over the weekend. So, what had changed this time?
My childhood memories tumbled out as I lay on the yoga mat, and one story stood out from the rest. I remembered I’d written about it in my memoir. I got up from the mat and opened the manuscript, and there they were. The words that went with the feelings of a nine -year old girl, living in the Netherlands in early 1971.
‘In the playground, everyone has started playing kiss-catch. I tag along and pretend to play. But I know none of the boys will chase me because I’m not popular, and I’m Indian. A few days ago, one of the boys, C. did chase me and he caught me and kissed me on the cheek. I was just about to feel good about it when I heard one of the other boys ask him,
‘What’s it like to kiss a girl with shit-coloured skin?’
I didn’t wait to hear the answer. I ran to the other side of the playground. I don’t think I will ever be popular in this school or in this country because the people here think I am dirty, poor and ugly. Since then, the person I see in the mirror when I brush my teeth and comb my hair looks uglier than ever.’
‘The Lines on My Hands.’ ©
What stands out in this vignette, is the howling loneliness of being ‘the other.’ I know I’m not alone when I say I’ve known what it’s like to be ‘the other,’ all my life. The day I was born, my grandmother threw away the pedas she’d sat up to make the night before. My father’s family was certain I was going to be a boy, because the best astrologer in Bangalore had prophesied that ‘a most powerful boy would be born on 4th May.’ The custom in my family is to celebrate the arrival of a child by distributing sweets to family and friends. Distributing the more expensive pedas, using cow’s milk, announces the arrival of a boy. The cheaper sweets, boondi laddus, made with chickpea flour, is made to celebrate the arrival of a girl. And, if you’re wondering, no. My grandmother didn’t whip up a batch of boondi laddus that day. Disappointment drained out enthusiasm. However, she did me treat me with tin-loads of both types of sweets over the following years. Boondi laddus are my all -time favourite, even today.
When my family moved to New Delhi in the mid 1960’s, new friends at school always asked the same question.
‘How can you be a Madrasi? You’re not dark!’
Then I’d have to give them a lesson in geography and explain why I wasn’t a ‘Madrasi,’ because I came from Bangalore. Often, I’d be asked if I could teach them how to say hello in ‘Madrasi.’ The geography lesson became a class in linguistics. I explained how there were many languages in South India, while wondering to myself. ‘Gosh, don’t they know that people from Madras speak Tamil, not ‘Madrasi?’
My experience with microaggressions began early. Microaggressions, as defined by Derald Wing Sue from Columbia University, are ‘ the everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that members of a marginalised group experience in the day to day interaction with individuals who are often unaware that they have engaged in an offensive or demeaning way.’ For me, it was tiring to constantly have to ‘educate’, set the facts right, or as a woman, oftentimes stand up for the right to exist.
Yesterday, I reached out to a friend, and shared my playground memory. I needed to share the story so that the child within could have it witnessed by another in the present moment. My friend’s response was filled with tenderness, that comes from a compassionate heart. And then, this morning, there was a much longer text from her. She explained how my story had triggered her own painful memories of being severely bullied, in the playground. All because she was the new kid in class.
That’s when the epiphany came. Every one of us knows how it feels to be ‘the other.’ When a person can relate to the pain of being ‘the other’ by mining from their own life experiences, something shifts. It’s not to say that we will ever understand how it feels for the other person, or community, especially when it comes to dealing with the daily battering that racism causes to body, mind, and soul. But, we can choose to stand side by side, listen, and respond with a heart that has dared to be vulnerable, remembering what it feels like to not belong. Unity awakens the collective consciousness. It raises the bar in our understanding of what humane means. When a good dollop of indignation is added to empathy and compassion, the change we dream about can happen. Hope comes when one person at a time, says ‘Enough is Enough.’ Isn’t it uplifting to know that even in the gaping absence of world leaders, the conversation about the injustice of racism has moved into mainstream society? It’s headlining the news in Australia at the moment.
Today, while I was getting ready for my virtual Kathak dance class, I travelled back to another time in history when people united. In my mind’s eye this is what happens.
It’s the early 1930’s in India. The Indian Freedom Fighters have ramped up their peaceful protests against the British Government’s stranglehold on their country. The women have joined the peaceful protests. In Patna, a beautiful young woman in a white cotton sari leads the march, waving a tri-coloured flag with a spinning wheel at its centre. As they walk forward, the women notice the barricade up ahead. Twenty lines of policemen obstruct their way. The women brace themselves for conflict as they approach.
‘Please move. We want to march,’ Says the woman holding the flag.
Two policemen charge at her, trying to grab the flag off her. The tiny woman, screams as her eyes flare like a lioness protecting her young.
‘Nooo! Get off!’ As her raven hair tumbles out of the bun tied at the nape of her neck, she accidently whacks one of the policemen on the head with the flag pole.
The first line of policemen come to their colleagues’ rescue. Three of them charge at the woman, brandishing their lathis. They whip her until she falls, the white sari, now a patchwork of white and red. The men walk away as she lies, almost unconscious. Her comrades pick her up and retreat.
Unbeknownst to the policemen, a journalist and photographer from one of the newspapers in London, have captured the words and images.
Two days later, Londoners wake up to the front page of newspapers carrying the image of a beautiful young woman being beaten mercilessly. The British people are used to hearing about the protests. But this time something changes. The Londoners are outraged, and their intolerance for what is happening in India spreads through their country. It becomes one of the pivotal points at which the people of Great Britain turn around and say to their government, ‘Enough! It’s time to leave India.’
The beautiful woman who was brutally beaten was my great grand aunty, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. There it is. The link between George Floyd’s story and another from almost a hundred years ago. I still don’t clearly understand what it is, that makes people wake up and say NO to injustice. However, in my bones, I know the change being led by the Black Lives Matter will continue because it feels like it’s part of the new awakening of consciousness in humanity. A time when allies of the Black Lives Matter movement finally stand behind people of colour. It holds the promise of a prophecy my bloodline women shared with me 8 years ago in visions and stories.
I’ve made two decisions today. I’ve decided I’m going to return to how I was when I was younger and not as jaded by microaggression. I’m going to join the global conversation about the injustice of racism. Even though I’ve barely done any writing in the last two days, my kind- hearted muse has gifted me with a clearer direction for my next writing project. When the scene of her marching for freedom unexpectedly played out in my mind’s eye, I knew I must include Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay in my new work. Although so much has been written about her, she is still an unknown figure in the movement against British colonialism, even in India. I’d like to see that changed, because she’s left her footprints in my DNA.