The Double-Consciousness of being Singaporean-Indian.

Lately I have been feeling strange. I have been feeling some sort of disjointed identity. I am Indian, have always been Indian and have always been proud to be Indian. But in recent times, I realised that my idea of being Indian is very different from the next person in Singapore, and definitely extremely different from a native Indian. What does being Indian mean in Singapore? Singapore is my home, I was born here, yes. I feel patriotic and my working experience with the civil service was perfect. I let all my Singaporean patriotism run free. Will I die for Singapore? Probably, yes. And yet, when I hear the Indian national anthem, it strikes a chord deeply and distantly within me. If India wins something, an undercurrent of pride runs through me.

Why, I ask myself. My roots to India can only be traced a few generations away, more so with my maternal lineage. My grandmother only recalls her grandparents being in Malaysia and Indonesia. They dress differently in bajus and only wear sarees to weddings and functions. Otherwise, they speak in a type of Malay smattered with bits of Tamil and other odd words that seem unique to our ‘kind’. They cook in a very different way whipping up dishes that are partly Malay and Indian. They are Hindus but not very religious. This is in stark contrast with my paternal side of the family. There is a rootedness to India that is evident. While my grandmother was born here, my grandfather was a young, handsome Indian boy who came from Tamil Nadu in search of better prospects. Traditional concepts in language, caste and ‘pure’ culture exists with them, till this day. But I suspect they have learnt to let go. Their children married people from different roots and we all speak Tamil (thanks to the government’s language policy). I remember my brother and I being made to call my dad Naina (father in Telugu) after about 5 years of calling him Appa (father in Tamil). But we gave up, as it was a little too odd.

This is where my dilemma starts. What am I really? A Singaporean-Indian. But what is it to be Singaporean-Indian? Or rather, Singaporean-Tamilian. My roots are not Tamil, but I speak Tamil. Why? Back to the language policy. So all my life, I have learnt Tamil, felt Tamil, spoken Tamil and I’m not even Tamil. I watch SunTV and VijayTV, television channels from India through Cable. I absolutely love Tamil songs and Tamil movies and the culture. The frightening thing is that the culture is not even mine, not in my blood. This is probably why in recent times, I’ve been feeling some displacement and mild anxiety. I will probably marry a Tamil man. No, I want to marry a Tamil man.

Which leads me to the next point. A Singaporean-Tamil man? Or any Tamil man? The cultural shock value is quite understated. I know of friends who have married Indian nationals. Will there be a clash of values, culture, practices? What does it mean to be Singaporean-Indian? It seems that part of it is the proud declaration that they can’t speak Tamil well. I’m ashamed that I can’t speak my own Mother Tongue well, especially with pro-Tamil communities lobbying for more importance to be given to our Mother Tongue. But how many Indians can pledge Tamil to be their root language? Who are the Indians lobbying for this cause? I find it awkward to feel loyal to a language that was allocated to us. Besides, what is a Mother Tongue? Something that your mother literally speaks? Or a label pasted for us by presiding governance? And who decides our Mother Tongue? That is almost like having your mother chosen for you.

Tamil’s a language adopted as a Mother Tongue for most South Indians in Singapore because of the policy. Yet, I have Singaporean friends belonging to other sub-Indian branches who speak Tamil and have managed to keep their true language and culture intact- Telugu, Malayalam etc. They cook in those styles, they dress in those styles, they speak the language, they watch channels in that language and some can even read the language. And I feel displaced. Anxious.

Who am I? Where do I belong? I am most fluent in a language that was passed to us by the colonial master and my second language was thrust onto me by a policy. Thanks to the daily barrage of Western thought and philosophy and rationality, I have questioned a culture (to which I don’t belong, but have adopted). I question my religion, I question practices. Yet, I’m selective in my loyalties. The language Tamil. Indian clothing. Should I celebrate my hybridity? The marriage of the cultures of Chitti Melaka (also known as Indian Peranakan) and Telugu-Naidu? But how? I have nothing to fall back on. My parents are probably as mixed up as I am, and have no time to think of such things anyway. Which complicates things.

When I spoke to my maternal grandfather who passed away a few years back, he was full of pride for the British Empire. He insisted on speaking English and was very firm when it came to education. He read the papers everyday and only had praise for the British. And while I was proud that my grandfather was educated in Anglo-Chinese School (at that time, a school for a selected few) and then proceeded to work in a clerical position with the British Army, I think now, “Ah, he was the perfect colonial subject.” Which is painful in an odd sense. My paternal Telugu roots have also dissolved.


And now I’m back to square one. Why should this matter? I’m Singaporean. Globalisation, westernisation, rationalisation. All the –sations. And I am feeling terribly displaced.

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2 Responses to “The Double-Consciousness of being Singaporean-Indian.”

  1. Hello there :)

    When I am asked what I am over here in this seemingly white country, I say that I am Singaporean, and that is that. They often look perplexed and expect some kind of elaboration, but I offer none (at the risk of appearing snooty, but I don’t care). I think we have to train people to understand and take us seriously when we say Singapore is a multiracial, immigrant country. It is not a mini-China, as many ignorant people often assume. I think we are the only nation that segregates the races, and puts this on our Identification Card. I have Malaysian friends who say they are Malaysian and offer no insight as to their RACE.

    Ask an American what he is, and he will not explain that his forefathers arrived from China eons ago; he will say to you that he is American. An African-American will say that he is American and identifies more with being American than African. They, too, were displaced through no choosing of their own, but they are comfortable calling themselves American. America and Australia are immigrant countries just as Singapore is. So why can’t we be as Singaporean as they are American or Australian?

    But I understand your little confusion, you desire in tracing your roots and understanding them. I, too embarked on a little research of my own. I was clueless about my paternal heritage. It says Eurasian on my IC but I never quite knew how Eurasian I was. The last I remembered of my dad was that him and my paternal grandmother spoke Portuguese, or that’s what they claimed. A few months ago, I received news that this Portuguese they spoke was in fact, Kristang, a dying language – a combination of Malay and Portuguese. I had an entire history lesson of Malaya presented me within one concise email, explaining the origins of my surname and how there is reasonable belief that we descended from ONE man that arrived in Malacca many, many moons ago. I mean, how bloody exciting! I even have his full name and his occupation!

    As for mother tongue, you are most fortunate to have studied it! I had the ill-luck of being enrolled in a primary school that did not offer it. My family grew up never learning to read or write it, and sadly, I am one of them. I can barely speak it. Add to that, the fact that the Ceylonese speak Tamil in a different way than Indian Tamils, so I’m always an object of shame when I’m at family functions and I have to meet and greet elderly Ceylonese women – like say, at the temple.

    I have little cousins who are part Filipino (mother), part Ceylonese (dad). They have neither the grasp of Tagalog nor Tamil, and are have no choice but to study Malay (as I did). Now, this is not their mother tongue. It was never mine either. But suffer they do and as I did. So, in effect, we are all displaced. Alienated from our own roots – mother tongue lessons or not.

  2. Oh, I have to tell you about this incident that happened to me.

    I had an Indian/Indian subcontinent looking young man ask me one day if I was from India. I curtly said “No”. He offered, “Sri Lanka?”. Again, I said “No”. I never volunteered any information. He went on, “Bangladesh?”. By then he was quite obviously exasperated. “No”, was my reply once again. “Then where are you from?”. Sometimes I ask them why it should matter (on my bitchy days), but that day I quipped, “Singapore!” with the brightest smile ever (I love playing these mind games with unsuspecting people). He was so dissatisfied with my answer, and looked most perplexed – with his brows all knotted up, like he was deep in thought. Then he offered this killer of a line, that till this day sends me into fits of laughter: “Then, you must go suntanning alot?”

    Meera, I swear this guy was SERIOUS. He waited for my reply most earnestly. I burst out laughing and screamed a very audible WHAT! And he very seriously, calmly asked me again, this time while pointing to his skin – “You go suntan?”

    Then it hit me that this idiot of a man thought I had to be Chinese then. A DARK Chinese.

    I swear on my mother this is a true story and I have never met a greater idiot. This will be one of those stories I will tell my grandchildren.

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