Where to begin? I am a British Sikh, a Londoner by birth, a petite mature woman who wishes she was 5’2’’, and yes, I have all this pent-up aggression that expresses itself in constant apologies to anybody who steps in my path, treads on my toe, or otherwise makes my life a misery.
On the night of the historic Brexit vote, I had managed to slip into an unusually peaceful slumber on the sofa, television remote in hand. I may have been dreaming of Jeremy Vine and his valiant efforts to appear enthusiastic about the ridiculously ill-conceived barometer thingymajig on BBC, or wondering why I was being robbed of Robert Peston as BBC political editor. Maybe, I just wanted it all over, and couldn’t handle The Clash’s “Should I stay or should I go” on endless loop in my head.
I awoke to the inevitable – because let’s face it, when everybody expects a certain outcome, it never happens… Sitiveni Rabuka had been appointed leader of Fiji’s main opposition party. Rabuka had been the frontman for the country’s 1987 coup, told by God to get rid of the Labour Party that had recently won a general election and to make Fiji a Christian country. No need for that, we should have told him, because practically every Fijian is Christian and goes to church on Sunday. It’s already Christian. But Rabuka wasn’t talking about religion so much as race. Those pesky Indian vulagi (visitors) who had called Fiji home for close to a century were overstepping their bounds and becoming elected national officials. How dare they?
“How dare they!” was precisely the refrain of the Out campaign in Britain – to whose victory I also awoke – and of the small majority of its citizens for whom breaking with Europe mattered largely as an expression of nascent nationalism. The Lion roars again! When I ventured out into the cold grimy light of a typical London summer’s day after the vote, and regardless of the fact that I knew non-white British nationals had also supported Brexit (the irony of immigrants hating immigrants!), I didn’t have lions on the mind so much as rivers of blood. (Remember Enoch Powell, erstwhile British racist MP, and that rousing speech? Neither do I, but if you’re of immigrant stock, you get told about it pretty early in life).
So, where was I? Yes, grimy light of day, we are Brexiting, rivers, blood… and then POW! Somebody spat in my face. In my home town. In the streets where I was born, and where I have lived on-and-off my entire life.
All 5’1” of my petite frame rose up and raged against my attacker.
Just as quickly, though, I shut the hell up. I have lost my home. I have lost my home. I have lost my home…
I, who by some sleight of birth year, managed to not experience the racism that dogged the rest of my family, and who couldn’t really ever feel that home was anywhere but London or the UK, was finally, traumatically, homeless. It’s difficult to overstate the dislocation, the fear, the sense of indictment you feel gathering pace against your very existence and presence in the place you call home.
Ironically, a research colleague was at that moment experiencing the opposite: a homecoming of spiritual proportions in Israel. We couldn’t get to grips with the chasm between us, between the intensity of homeliness they felt and the intensity of homelessness I felt. Our email conversations during this time became desultory, our mutual empathy buried beneath the urgency of the feelings that engulfed us in our separate worlds. Our friendship hurtled towards its endgame.
In the meantime, more prosaic racial biases were occupying my attention and time. Not only did the country want us out – or at least, no more of us in – but my own neighbours were trying to get a car parking zone (CPZ) law passed because of a lack of car parking spaces for residents. And for some reason, they chose to identify a local mosque and a local college as the culprits for this loss of residential comfort. Because, hey, who should have to walk beyond their front door to get into their air-conditioned car, right? What my “neighbours” forgot to mention in their rousing submission and argument for CPZ was the traffic caused by the local church and the local school. No, it must be the Muslims and the minority-prolific college students taking away our land, not the Christians or overwhelmingly white kids and their parents.
And then I realised, I had gotten used to this insipid kind of racism. I mayn’t have had a turban knocked off my head, or been beaten up, but I have internalised the quiet racism that surrounds me. It is integral to my sense of the world and of my place in it, even if I often like to think that I am just one human among billions.
We are countering the decision in favour of CPZ in our area (the manner in which it was arrived at has multiple flaws besides the clear racism), and calling our neighbours and councillors to account for this. And I am doing so in tandem with dealing with the fear that is growing like a seed inside me: that I must find another place to call home. (But where? Immigration laws everywhere are scary as hell now.)
Some days are worse than others. The CPZ argument requires stating the bleeding obvious; the fear has to be overcome on a daily basis, and the loss of a good friend is unfathomable every minute of every day.
But then Fiji, which people have been referring to anecdotally as coup-coup land for so long now that it’s come to sound like a tired cliché, comes to my rescue. Because on Saturday 9th July, the people of a province called Rewa presented a whale’s tooth to the descendants of Indian indentured labourers, and recognised them as natives of the province and, therefore, as an inherent part of Fiji. In a country known for ethnic schism and ethnic coups – though my ethnographic research finds proof of peace in the feud, especially in times of ethnic crisis – in Fiji, this was a historic day. While Indians might be constitutionally Fijian, their acceptance as people of Fiji and their own sense of belonging was finally given emotional legitimacy by the powers that matter most to them – not the state, or the constitution, but the indigenous people of Fiji.
I can’t help but feel a complex array of emotions. Here I sit, mired in homelessness in the western world, this bastion of democracy and stability; while on the other side of the world, Indians in Fiji are rightly enjoying a long overdue sense of homeliness.