There’s a Little India in South Africa

AAPI Heritage Month / Autostraddle

Welcome to Autostraddle’s AAPI Heritage Month Series, about taking up space as our queer and Asian/Pacific Islander selves.

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Five years ago in Colaba, Mumbai, my jaw dropped as I surveyed the artwork in a Maharashtra gallery depicting Hindu deities with dark skin. In a state of bewilderment, I complained, “Back home in South Africa, in all the years that I snuck into my grandparents’ prayer room, I’d never seen anything like this. They were always depicted as light skinned or blue!” A Mumbai based artist herself, my friend Priyanka nodded her head and explained the whitewashing and colorism in Indian art history and society. It didn’t surprise me, given the frequency with which I had personally experienced this from Indian family members growing up.

“Tell me something I don’t know!” I said, and she explained how Raja Ravi Varma’s artwork circulated India and the Indian diasporas. Born in 1848, Varma gained acclaim and criticism for his work depicting his interpretations of Hindu mythology into the European realist historicist painting style. Amongst his extensive collection, works like Shri Rama Vanquishing the Sea offered viewers an opportunity to put an image to moments in mythology as Varma interpreted the stories of Hindu deities and characters in the epics and Puranas. In 1894, he set up a lithographic press, allowing his work to be reproduced en masse at a low rate. The innovations in technology created an affordability for ordinary people and his work began to circulate homes of people on every continent. While some write him off as a “calendar artist,” his work has had a significant impact on Indian popular art, influencing Indian religious art for generations after his death.

This is a painting of by Raja Ravi Varma of the Hindu goddess Saraswati. She is shown seated on a rock by water, playing a sitar and holding a rosary in one of her many hands. By her feet is a peacock. Saraswati is depicted as very light skinned, almost white.

Raja Ravi Varma, Saraswati

“So white Krishna is like white Jesus, then?” I asked. She laughed, explaining that although Varma’s work was far more contemporary than the depictions we’ve come to know in Christianity, it could lead to the same type of white-washed depictions that have no grounding in scripture.

We left the gallery and walked around Apollo Bandar until we reached the gateway of India, which arches over the Indian Ocean, creating what feels like a portal. Inscriptions on the wall read, “Erected to commemorate the landing in India of their Imperial Majesties King George V and Queen Mary on the Second of December MCMXI.” I sighed, heavy-hearted, wondering what secrets those waters held.

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On the Southernmost tip of Africa, the East Coast is met by the Indian Ocean. Salty and humid winds pass through the hills of greenery, which seem luscious and never ending. Whenever I land in Durban, South Africa, there’s no feeling as sweet as home nor a drive so bitter, as we pass through sugarcane plantations for miles on end. Outside of India, Durban has the largest population of Indians in the world. The population is heterogeneous, with each family line arriving at different times and under different circumstances, ranging from people who were enslaved during the Dutch colonial era, to “indentured laborers” who worked on the sugarcane plantations, to “free Indians” who immigrated at their own expense.

Apartheid-era laws had segregated the population into racially homogeneous areas. Due to the notorious Group Areas Act, Indian communities quickly formed their own worlds within South Africa, almost completely separated from the experiences of other populations and cultures within the country. To create further division amongst people of color, the Apartheid government insidiously established a racial hierarchy which placed black and indigenous people at the bottom of the rank, enforcing superiority complexes and anti-black stereotypes. To suffocate less under the Apartheid regime, one had to try their best to gain a closer proximity to whiteness through assimilation.

The caste system within Indian culture adds fuel to the fire of white assimilation in South Africa. While the caste system is specifically related to a hierarchical system of social organization within Indian culture, colorism becomes intertwined as privilege and esteem is often assigned to lighter skinned Indians. Although skin color diversity exists within each caste, historical biases towards dark skinned people remains prevalent to this day.

South African Indians have also creolized the rhetoric around the subcultures within Indian culture. People are identified amongst the group through their surnames and family histories to name a few factors. For instance, Tamil people became known as Porridge O’s (Porridge people) for their involvement in prayers known as Marie Amman Poojay. While the experiences and history of Tamil people in South Africa is not homogeneous, colorism and caste bias arise within the Indian community through anti-dark skinned slurs which are used to stereotype and demean Tamil people by associating them with the embodiment of evil from the Ramayana. And, While Roti-O’s (Roti people) are broadly defined as Hindu people, there is a distinction between religion, culture and caste as Hindu Tamil people are not considered as a part of the group. Roti-O’s are often stereotyped as lighter skinned, more affluent and while the group is not homogeneous, there is a potential for a more privileged historical introduction to South Africa due to their higher social status within the caste system in India.

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When I was born, my grandmother tried to squeeze the blackness out of my nose. She was horrified at the size and shapes of my features, scanning my infant body to find evidence of “non-Indianness” as quickly as possible, while I was still malleable. My mother walked into the room one day in protest, to which my grandmother responded, “There’s no bridgebone! You must pinch it like this everyday while the baby is still small, and it will form!” Astounded yet unsurprised, my mother pulled me away and yelled, “You’re suffocating the child!”

As the years went by, I slowly grew into my skin with a sense of pride. At school, kids bullied me for my features. “Hey Phuthu lips.” (A staple in black communities in South Africa, Phuthu is a dish made from ground maize meal.) When I told my mother about my nickname at school, she laughed, “Tell them it’s called Hollywood lips,” and although I never did, I watched closely as she affirmed everything she was criticized for, wearing it like a crown.

My high school had an Indian majority population, with students from different castes and historical backgrounds. As people aged and entered the dating scene, an underground market for skin whitening creams emerged at school. The “boys” bleached their hair blonde and secretly sold whitening creams out of their backpacks, in an attempt to win the attention of “girls,” with their Jonas Brothers inspired aesthetics.

While I witnessed high school cisheteronormativity and colorism dominate the scene, I was met with an array of people across the color and gender spectrums who stood proudly in themselves amidst the noise. From owning their sexualities in a homophobic climate, to acknowledging the beauty in being dark skinned, the process wasn’t neat, with negative self talk recurring in the process of affirmation. Regardless of the tumultuous nature of the cycle between affirmation and negative self-talk, it’s impressive to imagine the generational cycles that high school children were beginning to break with their shifting perceptions of self.

Deep within queer confusion and grey asexuality, I found myself in pockets of LGBTQ+ community, avoiding the dating scene and the school culture altogether. As I recluded into myself, I connected with a Hindu non-binary femme, who told me of her acceptance within the temples of Durban. Growing up, I’d quiver to imagine Muslims or Hindus in my family responding positively towards my transness. She explained, “I’m not just accepted, I’m celebrated. I’m in charge of all of the food preparation, and I’m part of the rituals for certain prayers like Kavadi.” She explained her process of praying and fasting as she prepared to embody the goddess Kali and carry chariots during the festival.

I began to notice the gaps between the transantagonism I experienced in daily life and scripture as I learned about the existence of trans people within Indian and African societies throughout time. There is a pattern in the way colonization has distanced people from affirming the diversity within their own cultures. On one hand, colonial influence had led to a progressive cultural whitewashing, and on the other hand, it buried the layers of gender diversity that was accepted in ancient culture and religion.

Transness, though often stereotyped as a Western innovation, has existed on the African and Asian continents for as long as humans existed. The more I spoke about LGBTQ+ elders amongst friends and studied the history through articles and photographic archives, I saw the way my ancestors looked down on me with love, instead of shame. In a similar way that my jaw dropped when witnessing dark skinned deities represented in Mumbai, I find myself enamored at the richness in gender and sexual diversity, which has been buried under years of colonial influence across cultures.

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The streets of Coloba, Mumbai are lined with Banyan trees that hold offerings in their trunks. Garlands of flowers are hung in ceremony as sages and ordinary people pass them by. Priyanka had said that it’s a holy tree that sages sit beneath in prayer. In Durban, there is a Banyan tree in my mother’s backyard. It had been there for years before we moved there, and in all the time that passed us by, we never guessed it’s origin until Priyanka had explained its significance in India. Somewhere down the line, someone from India tried to carry a piece of home with them to South Africa for familiarity and possibly, a place to pray under.

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Saif is a writer and multi-media artist based in Cape Town, South Africa. They are currently undergoing a gender affirmation process. If you'd like to make a contribution, please reach out to them on Instagram @nosaifspace

Saif has written 1 article for us.

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