Among people of color, this question is universally panned and acknowledged as the most annoying ones we can receive. Still, we continue to be on the receiving end of it more times than we care to recall, in every situation imaginable.
Our default reaction too often is to grit our teeth, grin, and politely say what is expected—the country of our ancestry—lest we are perceived as overly-sensitive, ashamed, or ridiculous, which is me when someone asks where I’m “really” from.
But after decades of fielding this ignorant query, the main thought that comes to mind is this: It’s 2015. With centuries of colonization and immigration under our global belt, the human family has become a beautiful melting pot of people of all appearances hailing from every corner of the world. And, you all should really know better.
I realize, however, that many of you all reallydon’t know better.
Since I believe that many people who ask this question mean no offense, I wanted to share all the possible reasons why it could come across as offensive.
Because if people remain silent when something offends them, it can leave everyone involved confused and frustrated and perpetuate misunderstandings.
1. You’re “othering” me
Othering refers to any action, including verbiage, through which a person separates themselves from another individual or group, categorizing them as “not one of us.”
Historically, othering has been used as a means to justify exploitation of the other group. For instance, the backbone of segregation hinged on the principles of “othering.”
Put simply, when you ask someone where they are “really/originally” from after they have already responded with <insert American location here>, you are implying that they are not “really” American.
That they are an “other” of some kind.
2. This question is so deeply linked to race
With perhaps the exception of hijab-wearing Caucasians, this insulting line is almost exclusively reserved for people of color. Without even remotely delving into the painfully racist past of our nation, it goes without saying that in the year 2015, we should have moved away from the antiquated thinking that White = American DECADES ago, and use language that is reflective of this.
3. It’s condescending
Even if you don’t mean to ask, “Where are you ‘really’ from?” suggests at best dishonesty, as if the person answering the question willingly dodged your question, and at worst, that they were too dense to figure out what you were asking in the first place.
Apply this language to any other situation and the condescension instantly becomes clear:
Hey Nishi, what did you have for lunch today?
I had a kale salad with kimchi.
Ok, but what did you really have?
You got me! I actually had five big macs! With supersized fries! And two milkshakes!!
4. It is often used to make PoCs a tool to reinforce stereotypes or self-images about being well-cultured
People who troll for “where are you really from” are often just waiting to hear me say ‘Indian’ so they can immediately explode into a series of delightful comments:
I’ve seen a “60 Minutes” special on honor killings. Do you like, know anyone who has done that?
I had a coworker named Kumar Patel who was tragically forced into an arranged marriage (But I attended the wedding it was so fun!).
I love Naan. Where can I get good naan? Do you make naan? What’s the best kind of naan? Can there be gluten-free naan?
So here’s my advice to those who think these are acceptable interactions. It’s cool that you took a “Chicken Soup for the Soul”/ Middle-aged crisis/millennial self-discovery/cheap gap year trip to Bangkok/Bombay/Istanbul/wherever.
But do you really have to tell me all about it within five minutes of meeting me?
The truth is that most people do not appreciate being the vehicle on which you propagate self-images of how well-traveled and cosmopolitan you are, nor reinforce inane ideas you acquired from “Slumdog Millionaire” or “Memoirs of a Geisha.”
5. It reeks of entitlement
It suggests that our original answer isn’t good enough for you. We just met, and suddenly I owe you my whole life story? Negative. You are in no way owed this information. This is no different than going around asking people their age or their weight. It has the same potential to feel violating and disrespectful.
So read your audience, people. If someone says they are from Texas, accept they are from Texas, regardless of your bias regarding what a Texan looks like.
6. It reinforces our obsession with putting people into boxes
It is true that we are race-obsessed, but not always in a productive way. Instead of focusing on socially constructive ways to reduce racism and ignorance, we often instead obsess about knowing exactly what race/ethnicity/nationality a person is upon meeting them.
If you become friends with someone, these details emerge organically over time. But by fixating on this, too often the result is that we judge them—for better or worse—based on what (little) we know about their background.
The question is, why? Do we really need these neat little racial cultural boxes to help us form bonds, or is it just a cop-out way for us to relate or disassociate as we please?
When we make where someone is “really from” such an important part of knowing them, we run the risk of writing our biases into their narrative. Instead of viewing each human as a unique, complex, and beautiful bundle of memories, thoughts, experiences, and emotions, it becomes easy to dismiss them as just being Indian or African or French. People are the sum of their parts.
By making “Where are you from?” one of the first things you ask and then pressing the issue beyond what they answer, reduces them to a thought, to one element of their being.
7. It can create a sense of race-shaming
Sometimes, when someone asks me this question, I sometimes feel goaded into replying “Indian” because I don’t want to come off as if I’m trying to hide something. This is because interactions such as the following are a reality in my life:
Guy at coffee shop: Hey girl, where you from?
Guy: Cool. So where are you really from?
Guy (annoyed): “Oh c’mon. you know what I’m asking.”
Me: “I don’t think I do.”
Guy: “Like, where you’re FROM from. Don’t be ashamed of your ethnic roots even though it’s not as civilized or modern as American culture.”
While I was simply answering the question honestly, there are people who actually are deliberately keeping this information from you.
Maybe an Iraqi-American kid who has been bullied his/her whole life because of their background isn’t forthright with their origins.
Perhaps the Ugandan refugee actually DOES feel shame saying he’s from Uganda due to the anger and rejection he feels towards a government that wanted to persecute him.
Their life history may contain something that makes them feel vulnerable and, therefore, they are more reluctant to share.
8. It hinders patriotism
The irony of this question is that people who ask where I’m “really” from tend to be the same people who want immigrants and their children to unequivocally declare their pride and loyalty for America. What they don’t realize is the degree to which our patriotic identity is undermined with this question.
So my question back is: How can I be a heartfelt Patriot as is expected of the “good immigrants” when I’m viewed as not “really” American?
Needless to day, it’s difficult to feel warm about your patriotic identity when it’s constantly questioned based on how you look.
Americans need to realize why acceptance doesn’t stop at standing against brazen racism, and that our subtle words and attitudes carry a deeper meaning than we realize.
So, I hope for a day when all Americans can once and for all stop being intrusively pressed to share their ethnic background with a group of strangers simply because in their eyes, he/she doesn’t “look American.”
Nishi Fatima is a blogger, traveler, Air BnB peruser, and illegal street rapper (well, mainly in her dreams) who day jobs as an Audiologist in the city of Denver, C.O. When she’s not tweeting on the current state of racism or deeply musing on the nuances of the desi diaspora via an awkward vlog, she’s probably enthralled by “Law & Order: SVU” on a treadmill somewhere. Her writing has appeared in The Austin-American Statesmen, the Associated Press, and the Dallas Morning News. Follow her thoughts and misadventures at her blog.
This story was published as a collaboration between Brown Girl Magazine and Reckon, a national news organization that covers the people powering change, the challenges shaping our time, and what it means for all of us.
This is a special year for Ramadan. For the first time in three years my mosque will fill to capacity, giving my community a chance to rebuild lost connections and overcome heartache. It reminds me of a simple truth: healing comes not when you expect it but when you need it.
For Muslims, Ramadan symbolizes the time of the year in which Islam’s prophet Muhammad first received the revelation of the Quran. Since Islam follows a calendar based on the monthly cycles of the moon, the start of the holy month of Ramadan is determined when a crescent moon is sighted in Saudi Arabia.
The Quran is said to have been received throughout the life of the prophet Muhammad, and Ramadan marks the days it took for him to receive its first verses. When Muhammad received this revelation, it is said that he isolated himself in a cave to reflect and devoted himself to endless worship. In the same way that Muhammad secluded himself to focus on gratitude and prayer, Muslims around the world use the time to distance themselves from daily distractions and focus on spiritual growth through a month of fasting.
Siyam in community
The Arabic word for fasting is siyam which translates to ‘be at rest.’ Abstaining from eating and drinking allows us to take the rest our body and soul so deeply crave and ground ourselves and one another in a physical, mental and spiritual reset.
When I was a child, Ramadan symbolized the one time it was normal to spend your entire weekend in the Mosque. It was my first experience of a sleepover, with pajamas hidden under my abaya and Pakistani kurtas. Beyond the gender divide of the prayer halls, children would take naps on parents laps as the community prayed throughout the night. The Mosque was a beautiful gathering space open to anyone who needed a meal, whether or not they were fasting.
During the pandemic, Ramadan was different. Endless nights in the Mosque filled with prayer and community were scaled down to Zoom hangouts. Programs that were once filled with intimate in-person conversations on the floor of the Mosque, were now faceless squares on a screen, their names barely visible.
The Jummah or Friday prayers that were once so packed with people that the crowd spilled out onto the surrounding grass and sidewalks were conducted in parked cars. The mosque decorated the parking lot for drive-through visitors for the Eid Namaz, and community members waved from a distance to others with the same time slot.
I still remember when a friend’s mother died of COVID-19. What would have been a Janaza or funeral that surrounded the grieving family with community and prayer, turned into a Zoom call. Watching the tears of my friend’s family during the burial services, unable to visit her home and read the Quran together was heartbreaking.
Even before the pandemic, the world was not always a safe place for me and my community. From my family and I being yelled at to “go back to our country” when we were on vacation, to the looks my mother received when she wore her hijab in public, I understood even as a young child the ways in which Muslims were perceived as outsiders in our own country.
In many ways the pandemic compounded the islamophobia that my community began experiencing at heightened levels after 9/11. During Trump’s time in office, the Muslim community—which in the US mostly consists of people who identify as Asian and Black—faced heightened racism and incidents of violence, in part due to misinformation about the coronavirus. In the racial justice uprisings of 2020, Black Muslims—which make up more than 20% of all Muslims in the US—were not only targeted for their race but their religious background. Mosques across the country were vandalized, and continue to experience increased threats to this day.
Ramadan as a space to heal
These last few years made me realize how badly I craved the sanctuary of my Mosque, and to physically return to a space where I felt safe. I feel relieved and at peace to return back to nights where I am surrounded by familiar faces praying together side by side and breaking our fast without any fear of judgment.
BGM literary editor Nimarta Narang is honored to publish this short story by the brilliant writer Ria Mazumdar. This story delves into very deeply important and timely themes of assimilation, family, mental health, and familial obligations.
Trigger warning: Self-harm and suicide.
America just didn’t have the right supply of spices, Neel thought as he scanned the towering aisles of the grocery store for the third time. White fluorescent overhead lights illuminated the vast shelves, which contained over three different brands of ground black pepper. While cardamom, let alone coriander powder, was nowhere to be found. On a daring day, Americans would venture to purchase paprika, which was about as seasoned as their cuisine would get. Although he had spent years in this country, the aroma of his home — an exquisite blend of turmeric, cumin, and freshly monsoon-drenched earth — still haunted Neel’s memory as he sighed into the dry, stale, air-conditioned atmosphere of the American supermarket. The same land that was supposed to grant him more constitutional rights had also robbed him of his sensory joys.
Resigned, he loaded up the metal shopping cart with ground pepper and paprika, wheeling it toward the cash register. A foreboding premonition rose to the front of his mind: without the right spices, his cooking just wouldn’t turn out right, and his wife Rana would break into tears, launching into her routine tirade. Paprika was one of many triggers of homesickness. She would rage against the frigid winters of Massachusetts and lament the absence of her family, telling him how much she regretted ever meeting him. Neel mentally prepared himself for this reaction as he braced himself to exit the store, walking headfirst into the harsh New England chill.
The pristine plains outside the supermarket stretched endlessly, as silent flakes cascaded down like sunbeams in the moonlight. As he clenched the thin plastic bags with his gloved hands, Neel proceeded toward his used Toyota Camry. The wind snarled mercilessly, tearing through the night like a whip, bearing no consideration for Neel’s circumstances. It did not recognize that he was a foreigner who had not seen snow until the age of 30, when he was tossed headlong into this abrasive climate, greeted by raging frost on a frigid December dusk. Though the walk was short, Neel trembled to the bone, pulling the diaphanous fabric of his navy blue Big Lots jacket closer to his skin. He was well aware that the flimsy, six-dollar garment was completely inadequate protection, but every penny he earned had to go toward a soft, down jacket for his small daughter.
The thought of his daughter gave him the adrenaline he needed to prevail against the hissing wind. One foot in front of another, he trudged cautiously along the snowy path, seeing nothing but a flat expanse of white before him. In the distance, a streetlamp cast a bluish glow. Finally, he reached the car and opened the door hastily, leaping inside to preserve every drop of heat. Arranging the groceries carefully on the seat beside him, he put the key in the ignition, immediately turning on the cassette player.
Barely any cars had cassette players these days, but Neel had gone out of his way to install one specifically so that he could listen to his old tapes from home. Familiar melodies were his only company on these long, solitary drives, providing stolen moments of tranquility. He emptied his mind, following the undulating roads from muscle memory, erasing any obligations to the outside world. The lyrics of his mother tongue washed over him like lukewarm water.
Sinking into a familiar tune lined with the rising drone of a harmonium, Neel came to a stoplight, drifting in this rare state of mental peace. Suddenly, two loud knocks rammed on the car’s rear window. Neel rolled down the window, seeing two men in the shadows. They were pale-skinned, dressed in extra-large gray hoodies and baggy black sweatpants, rapping at the car rambunctiously — the vapor of their breath emerging in wispy, smoke-like clouds. “Hey, sand n****r!” one yelled. “We don’t need another 9/11, go back to where you came from!”
The light turned green, as though it wanted to let Neel escape, and he stepped firmly on the gas, leaving the men’s laughter trailing in the distance. A small American flag ruffled halfheartedly on the dashboard, just above Neel’s brand new U.S. passport stowed in between the seats.
Neel drove on, feeling more resignation than anger. Such incidents were nothing short of expected for someone coming into this great country, where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were granted to all, as long as they read the fine print. Racism and liberty — it was a package deal. Neel internalized each of these encounters as an exam, an opportunity to prove his stoic nature. He had adapted to his new life. Anyway, with whom could he share such experiences? The last real conversation he had with Rana occurred even before their wedding when he still lived under the euphoric illusion that his parents had discovered the right girl for him. Now, he dreaded seeing his daughter if he knew Rana would be around as well. Maybe someday the little girl could help shoulder some of this burden. Until then, he kept his chin up and moved along, expressionless.
He pulled into the garage, grabbed the groceries and steadied himself before stepping into the doorway. Old photos of his parents greeted him; the only fixtures on the white walls. His daughter, darting through the simply-furnished living room, ran up to hug his calf. He smiled and picked her up, twirling her around a couple of times.
“Want to help me unpack the groceries?” he asked. She nodded and skipped into the kitchen, her fluffy pink slippers thudding solidly with each landing.
As Neel followed her into the kitchen, he caught sight of Rana watching television, slouched on a couch, wearing her stained purple bathrobe as though she hadn’t moved since the morning.
“Ey,” she called out by way of greeting, her eyes still transfixed on the screen. “Did you bring the fish?”
Neel scanned the items laid out on the kitchen table. “No,” he said with a sigh. “Just chicken — I thought fish was for you to buy next week.”
“I wrote it on your list,” she retorted, her eyes still unmoving. “Why do you never listen to me?” Neel remained silent. As Rana’s tone grew icy, the daughter continued to prance around in the kitchen, unperturbed. Not oblivious, merely accustomed.
Neel poured the paprika onto a plate with some salt and prepared to turn on the stove. Suddenly, Rana got up from the couch and ambled into the kitchen.
“I want to take her to India next month,” she said, gesturing at her daughter. “We haven’t been back in over two years, it’s time.”
“We barely have enough saved up to get her a proper jacket,” Neel said, continuing to prepare his cooking.
“If she had been brought up in India, she wouldn’t need this ‘down jacket.’”
Ignoring this counterfactual, Neel smiled dejectedly. “Well, maybe you could bring back some cumin. God knows this house is missing some.” He regretted these words as soon as they left his mouth. His half-hearted jokes these days simply hung suspended in the air, dissipating and leaving quiet trails of resentment lingering in their wake.
“So, you’re saying we can go? You need cumin. I need my family.”
“No,” Neel said firmly. “We have to wait some more.”
His words seemed to flip a switch in Rana’s eyes. Previously drooping and groggy, her pupils alighted with sparkling embers.
“I always wait for you!” she shouted. “I don’t want to live in this godforsaken place. We don’t even have a proper store nearby. We can’t even eat proper food. You dragged me here!”
His ensuing silence only served as an additional provocation. Rana raised both hands to her head, grabbing her hair in tufts. “I HATE you!” she screamed, yanking out hair in chunks while wincing at the pain she was inflicting upon herself. Neel, all too familiar with this show, silently continued to chop tomatoes. Right down the seam in the middle, a clean slice, taking great care not to let them burst and lose juice to the cutting board. He clicked his tongue in exasperation as one lone seed came away from the whole, breaking the fruit’s pristine symmetry.
Neel’s lack of attention infuriated Rana further, while the daughter continued to sit serenely near her father’s calf. Glancing around the kitchen, Rana seized a small white ceramic plate from the Corelle set her parents had given them for their wedding. Scrunching up her face, she hurled it at the wall in a sudden burst of energy.
“I wish I were dead!” she yelled, her voice breaking and her breathing quickening, growing shallow. Neel kept his gaze on the tomato before him. He mustn’t lose any more seeds. Dice the half down the center, turn and dice again. Rana turned, running out of the kitchen, while her daughter stared confusedly at the shattered ceramic.
Indian cooking is a methodical process. In some cuisines, people throw everything in a pot and let their concoctions simmer. Not so here. One must first sauté the onions, and then gently lower the heat. Only then can the spices be added, coating the onions in a thin layer. After hitting a certain level of fragrance, the remaining ingredients are added, one by one. These steps are like a formula, nothing short of mathematical. Neel approached the stove, following these motions, seeking solace in his own muscle memory as he did during those peaceful, solo drives. The daughter skipped happily out of the kitchen.
Once everything had been added to the pot, Neel bent down to pick up the shards of ceramic Rana had left on the floor, sweeping them as far away from his daughter as he could. He felt a distinct lack of loss looking down at the broken pieces, remembering the day her father had presented them with the Corelle set and a pack of gleaming silverware. He really did like his father-in-law. He recalled smiling and laughing, putting his arm around Rana and envisioning the setup of the Americanhome they would call their very own. Although he could replay these memories in sharp focus, he now felt a strange emptiness in his chest. The knifelike pangs of the past seemed to have left him, just as his fury abandoned him when those two men tapped on his rear window. Part of him wished he could muster up that rage. Rage at the men, rage at himself for allowing the societal taboo of divorce to keep him trapped in his crumbling marriage. But instead, numbness enveloped his heart like a thin sheen of ice, simultaneously sheltering him from the polarity of emotion and inhibiting him from release.
Suddenly, he heard a loud thud outside the kitchen. Alarmed, he stepped out, running to the bathroom. The long glass mirror, stained with the debris of the past few weeks, interrupted his reflection as he stood at the door. Three glass dolls that were also once wedding gifts guarded the basin, once pearly white, now discolored in splotchy, uneven patches, grime lining their foreheads in faded streaks. Inside the basin lay twenty sleeping pills, clumped together, just fallen from reach. The open pill bottle lay sideways by the faucet. On top of the toilet lay a razor stained with fresh blood, the scarlet liquid slowly trickling onto the porcelain. Rana lay weeping on the floor, a lone pill in her hand and three long gashes tearing open her shin. The daughter watched.
“I couldn’t do it,” Rana sobbed. “I have to live, for her.”
Rana knew, but could only admit in her own mind, that she did not want to die. She did not believe in a life after death, only in blankness. But what she wanted was the opposite of blankness. She wanted a release from life as an immigrant. No fresh start can numb the pain of a tree that becomes uprooted from the place it has always stood. Suddenly, it is commanded, not merely to adapt, but assimilate. To shed old leaves and camouflage amid a new, foreign forest. To survive in sub-zero temperatures after being kissed by humid tropics its whole life. To withstand a snowstorm with nothing but a six-dollar Big Lots jacket.
So Rana did not want death. She wanted her hometown, the vibrant island of joy that lay on the opposite end of the planet. She wanted the fragrant monsoon rains that pelted the soil with scent, the same soil from which her own roots sprouted for years before being cut. She wanted a place where English was subservient to her mother tongue, the latter emblazoned everywhere from street signs to soap bottles. She wanted the spices, those long-lost aromas that the “ethnic” food aisle could only dream of capturing. Her body ached to take a dip in the Ganga River. What some, to this day, call the “Third World,” was always her first and only. This place she had landed in was not home. Regardless of what animal inhabited the cover of her passport, it would never be her home. While her body had crossed the circumference of a planet, her heart had stayed back. She knew that her family was a casualty of her pain. Yet it consumed her in clutches so tight, she felt like a puppet of her own longing. Her actions were no longer her own, driven by an unquenchable thirst, the desire for return. So she lay helplessly on the bathroom floor, rocking silently to the rhythm of her sadness.
The daughter looked on, hips akimbo, her head slightly tilted to one side. She was ignorant of her future as a sacrificial hybrid tree, one that grows uncertainly, unsure of its own existence between two lives, two anthems, two tongues, two allegiances, and even two parents.
As the daughter observed the scene — the glaze of innocence veiling her sight — Neel watched her with a dull sense of regret. He approached the bathroom sink without looking down at Rana, who remained curled up at his feet. He reached in with those hands, worn beyond their years, and picked up the pills one by one. This was one routine he hoped he would never have to teach his daughter.
Taking the little girl by the hand, Neel guided her to his own room, handing her some toys and turning on the DVD player.
“Just wait for me to finish making dinner, okay?”
She plopped down on the bed, already distracted.
Rana stayed on the floor, bearing the distance of an ocean in her empty chest. The daughter, playing with a Barbie doll in the other room while watching a Bengali cartoon, was already bearing the duality of a world she could not yet understand. And Neel, impassive, carried the weight of a thousand retorts buried deep within his heart. He and Rana had crossed a sea together but failed to cross the impasse that lay impenetrably between them. Neel stood at one end, unwavering, while Rana lay at the other end, drifting amid her own salty tears.
Neel finished cleaning the sink and set the pill bottle back inside the medicine cabinet. He returned to the kitchen, as though the entire incident had been just another task on his to-do list. As he sprinkled more paprika onto the food and resumed his work at the cutting board, his vision clouded. Onions had always made his eyes water.
When you grow up seeing blood stains on your shampoo bottles, your sense of normalcy shifts as mine did. You don’t cry when you trip and fall on the playground, because you had just seen blood the night before when your mother took a clothespin to her forearms. You watched the blood leak slowly down her clothes and onto the floor, where it left a dark brown shadow for you to see the next day too. You are unfazed when your classmates roughhouse and toss pencils across the room because a pressure cooker was hurled right past your head on your fourth birthday. You rip out pieces of your hair when you get stuck on a math problem because you are following the example of the biological role model that the world assigned to you. You hate this biologyfor making you what you are: a living reminder of your parent’s suffering, of the hurting of immigrants worldwide. You have escaped that pain simply because of the soil you were born on. And so the burden on your shoulders is inexplicable, as you carry the weight of a parent’s mental health, her suicide threats, the weight of her entire life, day in, day out. Your heart slowly starts to contort inward, its once fiery heat chilling over time like that cold Massachusetts night, for the only love you have ever known is wrapped in tears, sleeping pills, and razor blades.
Featured Photo Credit Kevita Junior | Left to Right: Tu hiya ka kare he, Tu kaha bate, Tu hamar ke bate
Thundering waves clawed on the body of the vessel as the sea swallowed the voices of terrified passengers. They clung to the shreds of the Eagle Speed as each hour submerged the ship deeper within the kala pani (dark waters). Steamer ships were sent for rescue, finding two children alone, clenching to the remains of the mast. The unscathed captain and crew fled in boats, leaving the lives of coolies (indentured laborers) to the fate of the dark waters. TheEagle Speed set sail on August 19th, 1865 from Calcutta to Demerara. This tragedy took the lives of over 300 hundred indentured laborers. The coolies onboard were not just casualties of the kala pani, but a larger system of British colonialism.
The crossing of these tumultuous seas wasforbidden for Hindus, as it meant the severance of reincarnation and the unraveling of caste. Yet more than 2 million Indians were taken across the kala pani. The forbidden water carried stories along its transatlantic waves, bearing witness to history lost against its tides. The restraints of caste drowned along the voyages as surnames and relations were cast across the seas. They became Singhs (lions) and Maharaj’s (great kings), Brahmins by boatinstead of birth.
These indentured workers were mainly taken from regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to different corners of the globe, with some of the largest to the Caribbean. Guyana experienced around238,909 workers, Trinidad 143,939 and Suriname 34,304. With 399 Indians, the Lalla Rookh docked on June 5, 1873, at Nieuw Amsterdam in Suriname, later becoming known as the coolie depot. As workers poured out of ships and onto plantations, they experienced violence and oppression at alarming rates, especially against women.
They were nameless and barefooted with gold jhumkas and bangles adorning their bodies. As tourism increased in the Caribbean’s, photographing indentured women on postcards became part of its selling point. These women became subjects to appease the white colonizer gaze and fetishized exotic ‘Coolie belles.’ A bulk of these postcards were shot in Trinidad and sold in local shops to visiting tourists. Yet these postcards failed to translate the hierarchy of power between the photographed and those behind the camera. The white European men who carried out these photoshoots chose backdrops that masked the real conditions of sugar cane fields and living quarters. Who were these women? What were their names? The women were juxtaposed with the term ‘Coolie,’ a slur for laborer and ‘Belle,’ the French word for beautiful. They were coined as laborers of beauty, yet their eyes tell a story of fear of pain.
Tu hamár ke bate? (Who are you to me?) Tu hiyá ká kare he? (What are you doing here?) Tu kahá báte? (Where are you?) Artist Nazrina Rodjan posits these questions that rummage through the minds of many Indo Caribbean descendants. Who were my ancestors? What did they experience? Rodjan aims to explore the experiences of indentured women through her oil painting series “Kala Pani.” In this series, she reimagines the postcards of indentured women alike the depictions of European nobility. In conversation with Rodjan she mentions,
I’ve thought long and hard about whether it would be ethical to reproduce these staged images of women who might have felt scared and uncomfortable being brought into these studios to be photographed by men. I will never know their true experiences and how they might have felt knowing a stranger in the future will decide to paint them in the same positions they were put in for the original photograph.
Rodjan’s art series started as a way to commemorate 150 years since the first indentured workers arrived in Suriname and expanded to include regions like Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica.
Wanting to reclaim these images comes from feelings of injustice whenever I see these postcards. They were made from a dehumanizing perspective. Reclaiming these images becomes necessary knowing how the violence Indo-Caribbean women still face today is just a continuation of the violence brought onto indentured Indian women then. To me, creating this piece, symbolized the acceptance of questions remaining unanswered, stories being lost forever, and realizing that after a history full of trauma, there’s a treasure in the women that are still here to tell their stories.
The ratio of men to women arriving on these ships left little to no autonomy for women. Experiences of violence on ships and plantations were common throughout the Caribbean. Despite this, indentured women became trailblazers and pioneers in uprisings against poor working conditions.
Everything about these women seems to be a question we can never answer, but I decided to give them titles in Hindustani that are questions they might have for me as the painter who looks at them and sees both a stranger and a loved one. Tu hamár ke báte? Who are you to me?
Living in the Netherlands, Rodjan talks about her experiences tracing her ancestry and honoring this history:
Unfortunately, in the Netherlands learning about the history of Dutch colonization only meant memorizing all the different spices they brought in and listening to teachers talking proudly about the Dutch East India Company in elementary school. Tracing back my ancestors has so far only led to a picture of my parnani and a few more names in the family tree.
OnMay 5, 1838, Anat Ram stepped foot on the rich grounds of Berbice, becoming the first Indian laborer in Guyana. The Whitby and Hesperus departed from Calcutta on January 13 and arrived in Berbice first then West Demerara. Over the course of 79 years, approximately259 ships voyaged from India to Guyana. While the experiences of these ancestors may remain unknown, artists like Suchitra Mattai aims to revitalize the voices of our indentured ancestors.
Suchitra Mattai is an Indo Guyanese multi-disciplinary artist. Through her work, she uses the experience of her family’s migration and the history of indentureship to rewrite and expand our notions of history. In her piece, Life-line, a rope of saris pours out of a tilted boat, mirroring the experiences of her ancestor’s journey across the transatlantic. The saris serve as both water and a connection to two lands, India and Guyana. Mattai further explores indentureship in the piece “Coolie Woman,” depicting a woman seated with a sari, embellished with jewelry and flowers.
I wanted to reimagine the photo to give her agency. I also wanted to address the desire for people of the diaspora to connect to their homelands and ancestral pasts. The painted wallpaper drips and fades to parallel the way my memory of Guyana ebbs and flows, Mattai says.
Anchoring at the Port of Spain on April 22, 1917, the last ship to ever carry indentured Indians made its final stop. A system that bound Indians to an unknown land finally ended after 79 years.
To invoke conversation and pay homage to their memory, artist Gabrielle Francis creatively analyzes indentureship. Gabrielle Francis is an Indo Trinidadian queer interdisciplinary artist, writer and organizer from Queens, New York. In her piece “206:21 Queer Altar Mixed Media Performance,” Francis pays homage to her indentured ancestors with a focus on queer identities. The title 206:21 reflects the ratio of men to women that journeyed on the Fatel Razack, the first ship from India to Trinidad. A mirror is decorated with the colors of Trinidad’s flag along with six candles embodying the pride flag and vibrant red carnations. Written across the mirror is, “I wonder how many of you were queer?” A question that allows for openness and conversation around potential queer ancestors. Written records around indentureship were translated and produced by European men, leaving little to no room for women or queer folks. Francis’s work aims to transform and challenge Eurocentric narratives surrounding indentured history.
As descendants of indentureship, it becomes difficult to sit with questions that may never have answers. Visiting National Archives or exploringdigital databases can help connect descendants to learn about their own history. As we unravel difficult experiences of the past it’s important to ask, how do we carry the legacies of our ancestors? How do we honor their sacrifices?
As they were stripped of their identities and reduced to passenger numbers, they fostered new relations—jahaji bhai and jahaji bhain (ship brother and sister). From shipmates to family, to present-day melodies of chutney music to the stew of pepper pot on Christmas morning, these bonds of community have evolved and are seen across the diaspora today.