Academics / Researchers / The Sunday Times / Writers

Dr. Neelika Jayawardane: Inescapably Indian

Though she was born in Sri Lanka, raised in Zambia and is currently resident in America, Dr. Neelika Jayawardane has long since resigned herself to being Indian. “In Africa, if you’re South Asian, you’re Indian,” she says. “They see us as one monolithic Indian, just as we see Africans the same way. Instead of being ashamed of that identity, I thought I would embrace it.” It’s an interesting choice because Indians abroad, it turns out, are often associated with what Neelika politely dubs a ‘negative stereotype’.

Visiting Sri Lanka last week, for a lecture at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Neelika a professor of English at the State University of New York,said she found herself really paying attention to this when in 2009 an upwelling of racist sentiments followed the exposure of a corrupt politician and his Indian fixer. In response, more than one person offered this piece of wisdom – ‘Everyone’s got their Indian’.

In a paper, for whose title Neelika borrows the phrase, she explains what it implies. ‘“Everyone’s got their Indian” expresses the fear of, necessity for, and, ultimately, the disposability of the Indian; it says that African hustlers big and small – from illegal shabeen and spaza owner to those who’ve established shop in the headiest locations of power in South Africa – all had their set-up man, their palm-greaser, their apologist, their go-between.’

For many Asians living in Africa, being tarred and feathered with the same brush used on the corrupt Indian fixer was an unpleasant experience. What was being overlooked in the process was the rich and varied tradition of Asian immigrants in the country.

South Africans of Indian origin lay proud claim to being ‘the world’s largest non-immigrant Indian population outside of India’ (larger communities in the US and the UK, it is argued, are more recent immigrants and so can’t compete). Neelika says that among those first Asians to arrive in the country were slaves imported by the Dutch from India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Subsequent waves in the 1800s would be attributed to British ships as indentured labourers were put to work on sugar plantations and railroads. Even later waves would bring merchants and professionals of every stripe. Many of the early immigrants in particular would later adopt Islam (which they saw as a religion tolerant of their varied backgrounds) and integrate completely into South African society.

Indians would also make their mark as active participants in the anti-apartheid movement. “There’s this incredible tradition of resistance,” says Neelika, adding, “But there’s also a tradition and a memory of Indians who colluded with power. That line between the political activist and the collusionist is the razor’s edge you walk as a person who is neither black nor white, neither powerful nor powerless.” Having been one of that number all her life, Neelika was very drawn to research the subject. She began to meet with people who had interesting things to tell her. One of them was Uma Dhupelia Mesthrie, Mahatma Gandhi’s granddaughter who is now a historian based in Cape Town.

Mesthrie and Riason Naidoo (incidentally the first ‘non-white’ Director of the National Gallery in Cape Town), were wonderful sources to tap on the subjects of Asian immigrants in South Africa. Thanks to the 1950s Group Areas Act, Naidoo had grown up in Chatsworth, an area designated ‘Indian’; entire communities who fell out of the ‘Whites’ and into the ‘Others’ category had been forced to leave their homes for areas such as these. Acts such as the Immigration Act of 1902 and the 1943 Trading and Occupation of Land Restriction Act (also known as the Pegging Act), as well as the Asiatic Land Tenure Act moved to make it harder for Indians to first come to South Africa and then to settle and acquire property there.

Some Indians living today in South Africa see themselves as belonging to a community not based on nation but on economic class – ‘the poors.’ Naidoo told Neelika that it was this community he grew up in. The community was plagued by relatively higher divorce and suicide rates noted researcher Ashwin Desai in his paper on ‘The Poors of Chatsworth.’ Among these profoundly impoverished people in ‘post-apartheid’ South Africa, economic conditions could be relied upon to maintain social separations as effectively as race.

When her father was hired by the African company Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines, a seven-year-old Neelika moved with her family to a little town in Zambia. She remembers her childhood as being wonderful and details ruefully the campaign her community launched to distinguish themselves from Indians. ‘We corrected those who mistakenly misidentified us. We listed and elaborated upon our differences from Indians. But our attempts to separate ourselves 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, well, much of the world thought of India and Indians back then: dusty, diseased, starved, overpopulated.’

Returning to South Africa as an adult, now a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for African Studies in the University of Cape Town, Neelika found herself enjoying how the Indian community continued to evolve. Their presence was felt in the food and popular culture, but also a burgeoning group of the nouveau riche were overturning some of the old stereotypes. She was moved in particular by an exhibition of photographs that Naidoo himself had curated which documented a quirky, moving alternate history. Here is the self-taught Indian golfer whose back handed grip became famous as the ‘Sewsunker grip.’ Sewsunker ‘Papwa’ Sewgolum himself, Neelika notes, ‘had to receive his Natal Open trophy in pelting rain – whilst the club’s white patrons sat comfortably inside – because South Africa, in 1965, didn’t permit ‘non- whites’ to enter the Durban Country Club (unless they were serving white patrons).’

My imagination is tickled by the idea of woman stunt rider Amaranee Naidoo on her Harley Davidson, ‘circling the heights of a circular ramp’ but Neelika points out that other less glamorous images of child labour on the sugar farms, and of the terrible living conditions in the ghettos in Cato Manor ‘illustrate the reality lived by most Indians of Natal.’

For her, research and art like this have tremendous value in combating the growing isolation felt by immigrants. “This is all hidden history. We don’t know about our history of involvement in this country and suddenly people are talking about us as if we don’t belong here and haven’t been involved. We need to know who we are,” she says, including in the struggle all immigrants huddling under the same umbrella.

In recent years, especially post 9/11, Neelika has begun to look for ways in which to use her “political education for real life” and seems to have settled on the classroom. With a PhD in English with a focus in Creative Writing under her belt, she teaches literature, film and visual art connected to the immigrant and post-colonial experience. She enjoys reading novels like Ishtiyaq Shukri’s ‘The Silent Minaret’ with her students – Shukri does a fine job of linking practices of racial profiling and erosion of everyone’s civil rights after 9/11, and similar practices and tactics used by the apartheid regime in South Africa, says Neelika. “I think, what the Africans do beautifully in literature is express the political through the experience of the personal,” she says.

“The history books teach you the dates but when you read Chimamanda Adichie, for instance, you know how a family was torn apart by war.” For her, these stories based on personal truths inspire a grander, many layered, more compassionate vision of society and whether she’s in Africa, America or Sri Lanka, they’re the ones she wants to tell.

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on September 30, 2012. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Susantha Liyanawatte. 

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