Neither Desi Nor Coolie
Growing up I knew I wasn’t Indian – although that’s the label assigned to the ethnic group I belong to in Guadeloupe. I knew ‘real’ Indians were either ‘Indians from India’, or all those who have a more direct link with India than I do. Yet because displaced populations and diasporas often experience feelings of loss, nostalgia and a quest for ‘authenticity,’ my relationship with the Indian subcontinent has always been ambiguous.
In Coolie Woman, Guyanese-American writer Gaiutra Bahadur explains that “To some, we’re [Indo-Caribbeans] India’s outside child,” (p.8). “When class isn’t their issue, authenticity—some apparent concern over our parentage—seems to be.”
Last year, one of my Indian classmates asked me where I was from, because she thought I “look so Desi!” After having had so many people dismissing my Indian heritage—”You don’t look Indian at all!” “You’re racially ambiguous, are you sure you don’t have a black grandparent?”— I have to admit that my classmate’s comment felt good. At last someone was acknowledging that I could have been Indian. That if my family hadn’t moved to Guadeloupe, I would be Indian. During that year, I read a lot on post-war migration in Britain from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. I read about Gurdip Singh Chaggar, watched all seasons of Man Like Mobeen and one night cried while watching Blinded by the Light. I listened to all the available podcasts on the BBC Asian network and went to Tez Ilyas’ comedy nights. Compared to France, communities of South Asian descent – ‘British Asians’ – are more visible and celebrated in the public sphere.
This is when I finally felt like I was finding a tiny space to fit in. My British Asian friends even acknowledged me as ‘brown.’
However. although I’m brown, I’m not ‘Desi.’ Adjectives such as ‘Desi’ and ‘Indian’ make me feel less than, fake or watered-down. I always wondered whether I’d be appropriating something that doesn’t belong to me or my community by using these labels. I’m often scared when I go to events featuring communities from South Asia or of South Asian descent. I try to blend in, knowing that people will see me in a different way when I’ll start speaking and they’ll realize I’m neither British nor Asian.
Although my roots are in the same region as my South Asian friends, the differences in our histories have shaped our culinary, cultural and linguistic realities.
By engaging with Indo-Jamaicans, Indo-Trinidadians, Indo-Guyanese and Indo-Martinicans with similar histories, I realized that as Indo-Caribbeans, we don’t need to try to prove our Desi-ness and our ‘authenticity.’ We don’t have to be scared that Indians who ask us where we’re from will be disappointed to hear that we’re not ‘real’ Indians, that we don’t speak any Indian language, that we’ve never been to India.
We can be proud in telling them we’re Indo-Caribbeans, not ‘Coolies.’
We can celebrate our ancestors who crossed the oceans in spite of Kala Pani-related fears and adapting to a new environment while struggling to preserve their traditions and religion. They spent their lives working in sugarcane factories and plantations, and strove to be treated with decency in the midst of colonial abuse.
I’ve finally understood that my authenticity lies somewhere else – in the parcels full of Vicks Vaporub my parents regularly send me (Vicks is the cure for everything, even heartache), in the food I sometimes eat on banana leaves with my family and within the Creole words I use without realizing they’re also Tamil words. My very existence as an Indo-Caribbean, Guadeloupean, French woman makes me authentic. I’m not Desi, and certainly not ‘Coolie.’