A Coat of Whitewash15 March 2018
It’s a rainy afternoon in the tropics and I’m with my Nani, sharing a cup of steaming Sindhi chai, almost peppery from the ginger and multitude of spices thrown in. Teatime is my favourite time of the day in Singapore, where over a cup or two of chai and alongside a few snacks, my grandparents open the novel of their lives and start reading from any random chapter.
To my Nani especially, Sindhi chai tastes like nostalgia. To me, it’s a version of Tinkerbell’s fairy dust that brings their stories to life. It tastes like home—like a place I’m so deeply connected to, yet is still shrouded in so much mystery.
I ask questions about my great-grandmothers, about the romance between my own grandparents and how exactly they both ended up in Singapore. And suddenly we arrive at the topic of Partition.
Called one of the world’s most violent transitions from colonialism to independence, Partition was a defining moment in the lives of my grandparents and so many other Indian nationals. Everything in their stories is divided into two halves of existence: before and after Partition.
Of course, like any other person who had taken history in high school, I knew about the violence during this time. I had watched the movie Gandhi in my high school history class, and found that it gave me situational knowledge and insight into this historical period. But supporting the curriculum was material that boasted of Britain’s great gifts to India: civilised culture, a functioning civil service, medical and scientific advancements and—almost most importantly—the divine gift of cutlery to save the poor savages from eating with their hands.
So, when my Nani’s entire demeanour shifted into a more sombre mood, I was confused. How could she possibly tell me anything contrary to what I had grown up believing and learning about the glories of the empires of the past?
But when she told me about the famine in Bengal— systematically orchestrated by the upper echelons of the British Government, it rivalled the death and devastation left by the Irish Potato Famine—about trains full of massacred Indians caught up in the violence Partition created, about the kind of discrimination and degradation that my family and so many others faced in British India—it was as if someone had disrupted the surface of the pond of my existence.
And as I researched into how ‘Britishers’, as Nani calls them, cut off the hands and broke the looms of Bengali cloth-makers in order to reverse the demand for Indian-made textiles, or how great, benevolent kings were ousted and robbed of their birthright, I was filled with confliction. Her first- hand experiences and historically-backed research were so different from what I had grown up learning.
When I realised that for my entire schooling life, colonialism had been placed on the first-place platform on the world podium, my heart sank. All of what I had professed to know about my own country of origin was dripping in a coat of whitewash. It was as if no one had bothered to find out anything about the reality of Indian life during the British occupation. The only tales we ever heard about Partition were the ones that involved Gandhi. But what about the almost equally important 13-year-old girl who started fighting against the British, Jhansi ki Rani?
Tales of heroism, of valid experiences—not only of me and my ancestors but also of almost everyone who has the invisible string of heritage joining them to the subcontinent—have been lost. And in their space exists half-empty narratives, which completely discount the equally important experiences of a population who was defiled without consent. The adorned package of human experience throughout colonialism that had been presented to me had tied its ribbon tightly around the mouths of my ancestors. Colonialism had become as glossy as the ganache on a cake in the Brunetti’s window.
I’ve taken it upon myself to educate myself further, to read history books written by Indians and to balance out the uneven seesaw I rudely found myself on. Pick up your scissors this year and cut the damn ribbon that’s held your ancestors’ mouths shut for too long. It’s about time.