In and out of Kingdoms

[A guest post by Tipu Sultan]

Once, I Was An Oil Drop

I was taught that oil was the most glorious thing that had ever happened to humankind.

My first memory of this education was at age six. I was inducted into the girl-scouts, along with some of the other girls in the corporate-garrison town-city of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where I grew up. We were made to dress up as oil drops for the annual Saudi ARAMCO Day Parade. Who dresses six-year-old girls in large black plastic garbage bags to be paraded around for two hours, in over a hundred degrees of heat? That is some serious love of the Company. As the mothers effusively took our photographs, beads of sweat coagulated between the thick, dark plastic, and my skin. I wasn’t just dressed up as an oil drop—I was turning into one. We all felt hot, suffocated, and sticky. But the adults had decided that we looked too adorable dressed up as oil drops. For what felt like forever, we walked all around Dhahran in single file, and were rewarded for our efforts afterwards with soft drinks and chocolate-chip covered cake. The great love for the Rumplestiltskin-like benefactor who spun oil into dollars, had transformed otherwise cautious adults who would keep kids away from wearing plastic bags, into oil-besotted tyrants. Oil was anthropomorphized in that moment. We were made to experience the ‘life’ of an oil drop.
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“Everyone’s Got Their Indian” – II: Entanglements

[Editor’s note: This is the first part of M. Neelika Jayawardane‘s two-part essay on South African Desis. A longer version of this essay appeared in Transition 107]

In my return to Southern Africa as an adult, I was delighted to find a space in which “Indianness” was engaged in a different conversation. It was only then, almost twenty years after I first left, that I realised that it is possible to renegotiate a relationship with a place that had little patience for the nuances of difference. But that interstice—where confluences between seemingly vastly different bodies could take place—wasn’t found on the front pages and the blaring headlines. Just by the pervasiveness of samosas along the eateries of Cape Town and the interior of the Western Cape, for instance, one knows that there had to have been Indians in these quarters for much longer than the nouveau-riches that make the front page. We don’t know exactly how the famous fried savory pastry got to Cape Town, but it’s firmly ensconced there.

But one does not have to rely on taste alone to see the hallmarks of India all over the Cape. The cobblestoned streets that line the hill of the Bo-Kaap, a historical neighbourhood built by those transported forcibly from Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and parts of India – the locations in which the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (the Dutch East India Company) carried out “colonial activities,” empowered by the 21-year monopoly granted by the States-General of the Netherlands in 1602 –are swirling with signs of the Indian Ocean. I recognise one person’s sidelong shy smile, the hairline on another, and the disgusted curl on the lips of a street-hawker, spitting unhappily as a deal goes awry. These embodied connections, as old as the slave ships that brought people from that region, reach back to 1654.

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Continue reading ““Everyone’s Got Their Indian” – II: Entanglements”

“Everyone’s Got Their Indian” – I: Separations

[editor’s note: This is the first part of M. Neelika Jayawardane‘s two-part essay on South African Desis. A longer version of this essay appeared in Transition 107. Our sincere thanks to her for allowing CM to host it.]

As a child growing up within Southern Africa’s socio-political landscape, I found no easy, seamless fitting in. South Asians were always Indians in Africa, and Africa’s encounter with Indians didn’t teach them about the beauties and wonders my own father had encountered there: his stories about his student days in India were littered with nostalgia for the seven temples of Mahabalipuram crumbling into the Indian Ocean, and the fineness of silk saris that could be threaded through the eye of a needle; he conjured up Calcutta as the beloved seat of Indian literary knowledge and classical music, and the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu as Sri Lanka’s once-conjoined siblings, separated by the imprecise surgery of oceanic waters.

I remember that our small Sri Lankan community in Zambia did everything they could to differentiate themselves from Indians in Africa. But for all practical purposes, no one on the continent (or anywhere else, for that matter) could see any difference. We corrected those who mistakenly misidentified us. We listed and elaborated upon our differences from Indians. But our attempts to separate ourselves from Indian barbarity were to no avail: for Africans, India remained a broken nation. And Indians in Africa were the shop-keeping, corner-crisps-shop-running, trader-cum-smuggler-cum-briber, arse-kissing, yes-no-head-lolling-and-“r”-rolling, expel-from-your-African-nation-Asians. Africans thought of Indians in much the same way as much of the world thought of India and Indians back then: dusty, diseased, starved, overpopulated.

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Continue reading ““Everyone’s Got Their Indian” – I: Separations”

The Journey of Everywoman

I. Years ago, while writing my dissertation, I stepped out one evening to one of those enormous drug stores that are open all night in cities. I browsed idly among the nail colors, wondering if I should consider adding layers of glitter to my already elaborate manicure. The aisles of women’s products were full of women browsing and wondering such things. Over the loudspeaker the music changed from one anodyne pop hit to another, until all at once Whitney Houston’s voice slid into the audioscape, then erupted into her super hit “I Will Always Love You.” The women began to hum, and then to sing, softly, as they gently cradled canisters of hairspray in their hands. And then they sang, loudly; we sang loudly, unashamedly: “I will always love youuuuuuuu!” And I thought, “Yes. Yes, I can go with glitter. Yes, I will do blue. Yes. Yes. Yes.”

II. In her memoir of her time as a sex slave to Osama bin Laden during his playboy phase, Kola Boof, a Sudanese poet, wrote that bin Laden was in love with Whitney Houston. It was his fantasy that he would give her a mansion he owned in Khartoum and take her as one of his wives. And he would order a hit on Bobby Brown. If only he had. If only he had shown that same sticktoitiveness he showed later in life, he could have helped Americans avoid a national tragedy.

III. An essay eulogizing Whitney Houston from India compares her tragic tale to that of Choti Bahu (played by Meena Kumari) in the Guru Dutt film Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam. Choti Bahu wants to attract the attention of her husband, who ignores her each night in favor of the courtesans that entertain him and drink with him. She takes up drink herself. The plan backfires and she becomes a sad drunk, spurned yet again by her cruel husband.

Whitney did it all for Bobby too, argues Lakshmi Chaudhry, quoting an Oprah interview in which Houston said:

He was my drug. I didn’t do anything without him. I wasn’t getting high by myself. It was me and him together. You know, we were partners. And that’s what my high was. Him. He and I being together. And whatever we did, we did together. No matter what, we did it together.

“Because you were his wife.” Responds Oprah. “Yes,” she replied, “Yes. And he was my husband.”

IV. In 2003, Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown made a visit to Israel on the invitation of the Black Hebrew Israelites. In all the photographs of the trip, Houston looks skinny and unkempt. The trip involved a spiritual dip in the Jordan River near the Sea of Galilee. Brown and Houston, both wearing red dashikis, also met with then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. When Sharon held out his hand to shake hers, Houston looked visibly uneasy and made Brown shake his hand in her stead.

V. When Whitney Houston died in her bathtub, I tried to block out the sordid image with thoughts of Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, floating peacefully among the flowers. Numerous articles and blog posts explored the depressing details of the life of a drug addict. This one even discussed, from first-hand knowledge, the unsurprisingness of a celebrity drug addict dying in her bathtub:

So while stars are infamous for their hard partying, their dizzying downward spirals, their headline-making binges, but the truth is, when they use most heavily and subsequently die, it’s usually in their most private places, where they can relax, be in quiet, and don’t have to appear functional to the outside world.

Much more rare are the overdoses out in the world of the living, like River Phoenix’s in front of the Viper Room many years ago. After beds (recently these deaths include Anna Nicole Smith, Heath Ledger, Casey Johnson, Michael Jackson), it seems that bathtubs are where drug abusers die.

I tried to blot the image out again by painting it but could not. I meditate instead upon the famous painting by John Everett Millais, a postcard of which my mother hung next to the bathtub in the house where I grew up.