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Aadhiya Tulsi | Dichotomy, Diaspora, Dissonance

I                                        Childhood; first imprints

The bell rings, marking the end of prayer. Incense wafts through the house. My mom passes through my room toward me and offers me some of the aarti; blessed light from tiny ghee lit lamps surrounding a single centrepiece, a shard of white camphor aflame. I drop back into bed and into summer’s sticky alcove. Feverish dreams beset me.

I am small again, playing outside on the porch of my grandmother’s house. Jasmine perfumes the air, marigolds in sight, Tulsi trees and the object of my fascination, a cotton bush. Red ants scurry up my limbs and sink in their pesky claws. A well of laughter overflows, beginning in the pit of my stomach; I’m giggling in a way that expresses ancient truth.

I flicker my eyes open to the stifling heat, my body feels leaden. I immerse myself in a culture distinct from my morning, from my childhood, from my dreams. I observe at school, I absorb from various forms of media, how the world works and what has space for the traditions I’m taught at home. In this way I learn to build an ego, to form earthly attachments, to forget. To forget about karmic retribution, the endless cycles of life and rebirth, to forget about the musicality of mantras I never understood, to forget about some of the defining features of life as a small South African girl from a Gujarati home. To slowly leave behind cultural richness for worldly richness, where riches are always a little more superficial.

In this way, I learn to build and occupy the form of a double, and how to continue splitting myself until but a single glance at the self causes infinite splintering. Here is where I believe deep dichotomies began to take root; a diaspora inherited.

 

  II                                 Adolescence; unsteady footing

The Indian Mynah peers deep into the soul, or so I had always felt. The backyard in my childhood home was verdant and wild, fertile ground for a vivid imagination. Frangipani and strelitzias scattered the yard. Wild vines crept across our collapsing fence and hadedas lurked. My sister and I were obsessed with the mystical phenomena that sprawled across cultures, searched for faeries under shrubs to befriend, hid rose quartz and amethysts and clear quartz in leafy crevices, made secret wishes, spun around and around until we flung ourselves abruptly into adolescence. In those times, we rarely visited the garden, we rarely engaged in cultural customs with any conviction, systematically we purged ourselves of the Gita with atheism, science, existentialism and mostly an air of rebellion.

Deeper questioning, darker sentiments, heavier rains. The climate was changing in a way that turned our endless summers overcast, filled instead with tropical storms that swept across seasons. My sister left for education overseas, the backyard lost all its charm and mystery and I avoided visiting it. I fell deeper into subjects like radio-astronomy, epistemology, romantic poetry and literary classics; progressively becoming less preoccupied with abandoning materiality and attaining salvation by chanting hymns in this the age of Kali Yuga.  I deviate, and detach from the confusion manifest as diaspora that I felt so deeply yet inarticulately in childhood; instead, I fall into deep dissonance. The dichotomy is further entrenched.

 

III                               Adulthood; descent into dissonance

I moved away from Durban, the East Coast which can better be described as my ancestral homeland, for what was to become an eight-year journey in Cape Town along the West Coast. The air was drier, the coastlines colder, the greens lighter and plants more windswept. The city itself was steeped in a deep aesthetic glamour I’d never quite encountered before, in my derelict yet lush seaside hometown. Mountains towered over the city’s inhabitants; the sky picked up more hues than merely a deeply blanketing blue. Nature was a little more alive and more accessible and the culture was permeated by secular, liberal ideals. It was time to arrange my fragments into a new shape far away from the home I knew.

Now a creature of the arts, spirituality, jazz, forests, femininity, queerness and metaphysics I truly learnt to inhabit the skin I grew into existence. Yet, here in this dreamy climate, heritage was doomed to die by fetishisation. Here in the West Coast, otherness and weirdness was valued as an aesthetic commodity rather than for its anthropological richness. Strangely enough, I saw my own culture being superficially wielded by others in the city, capitalised upon, repackaged and divorced almost entirely of its origins. Yoga turned into a form of image-driven exercise, ayurveda as tinctures in wellness cafes, sanskrit chanting as part of monthly lunar ceremonies, etc.

Under this tension, and with new fervour to reclaim my culture from the distorted lens of whiteness through which it was filtered, I fell back into contemplating the primordial currents that grew this self into existence.

I had to really grow roots of my own, redefine what a third generation descendent from Gujarat really meant to me. It was time to reclaim my lost culture, tease out the identity forever trapped in a dichotomy.

*

If diaspora means to be estranged from one’s homeland, I never felt the estrangement at all, only ever the sense of displacement and the resounding hollowness of a global culture. There is a sense of dissonance that permeates my identity, for I am estranged not from a homeland but from the communities of its conception; what I know of Indian culture is but a watered down version. A version that presented itself in a foreign land by those displaced trying to keep whatever they could alive. Trying to piece together a puzzle that captures a pseudo-scene only further estranges from reality.

Why am I even grappling with this estrangement? It all begins in the early 1800s with the tortured arrival of Indians in South Africa as indentured labourers. Indian families in the first wave were forced to work under brutal conditions set by colonial farmers on sugarcane plantations in KwaZulu Natal. Shortly thereafter, there was a second influx of passenger Indians, British subjects who voluntarily started to migrate to KwaZulu Natal as traders.

Seven-year-old boys intentionally exiled by their families to a new, promised land, alone on a ship. These boys, like small fawns left to fend for themselves, were my grandfathers, the passengers. It’s no great coincidence that I was confronted by the diaspora when I left Durban, one of the largest Indian-populated cities outside of India. My ancestors came to Durban seeking job opportunities, not as indentured labourers, meaning that in some important sense they (or rather their families) had chosen this life, they had chosen to be separated from the homeland.

I’m not quite sure what this means for me but it does solidify that the etchings of my ancestry unfolded differently from that of the other Indian families surrounding me; it reinforces that the nature of the trauma of leaving the homeland was different for me as it was different for other Indian families. Is there such a thing as a unified diaspora experience? I’m growing ever more certain that the diaspora is not a single blanketing hue, but all the gradients inbetween. Indianness, perhaps, like most other facets of individuality needs to be self-defined; but, for it to make sense, it needs to find expression in a whole.

*

I’m in an open field, at a trance festival, incense slowly wafts on by, psytrance and hard techno blares in the background, I suddenly spot emblems of Indian culture everywhere. Linen scarves printed with Om signs, skirts cut from the cloth of old saris, pants like dhotis; my culture assimilated into the world of psytrance, why? Was this appropriation? I felt a sense of possessiveness but moreover a need to repossess. The feeling hasn’t yet left me.

Stitching back pieces of an ancient tapestry into my aesthetics and personhood, I take the first steps toward integration. Long silken skirts made out of old saris find their way into my wardrobe, incense sticks take up a new place in my home, the sounds of harp and sitar into my playlists, ancient Indian murals of maidens into my collections of art and Gita-style abstract metaphors into my writing. Still, this is surface level. I know the deeper dichotomy might require sutures if the rift is ever to be mended.

Maybe the self is more mosaic than seamless garment. Patchy and disjointed, a constantly reworked collage.

 

IV                                          Growing up, finding new ways to splinter

I think a consequence of my diaspora experience is a resounding sense that I don’t belong anywhere. I really don’t belong in India as it is now; I’m too estranged from its customs through my childhood exposure to years of augmented ones. I can’t quite carve out the right space in South Africa, the discordance in the diaspora experiences of other Indian families is too vast – split by unique familial customs across cultural lines. I’m beginning to realise how colonialism has decimated cohesion within cultures. Estranged from the homeland forever with an ad hoc nostalgia for a place that never quite existed.

A large part of my experience of feeling like an outsider trickles down from this effect. How do I exist in a world without a sense of belonging?

Virtue is often tied down to religion, with moral frameworks attached. Since my journey into godlessness, I’ve felt somewhat untethered while trying to build my ethical systems anew. A new dichotomy between good and bad fissures. When my virtue system was initially bound to Hinduism, ideas of egolessness, the temporality of the material world and pure asceticism was the norm; outside of this cocoon, in the real Westernised word, it became jarring to engage with ego, excess and the concept of possessing anything. Some fundamental part of myself seems tied down to virtue systems that my cognitive beliefs have long since abandoned. I cannot unwork the idea that somehow the value system I have come to adopt, a kind of secular spirituality, has corrupted me in some meaningful way if only because I have strayed from the primaeval idea of goodness etched into me since birth.

Society, too, conditions by praising the global culture over any specific one; and is the global culture not intrinsically shaped by Western ideals that have iteratively come to solidify into normal over time? We are taught to assimilate to fit in, but this forces us to discourage expression of certain unique aspects of ourselves, cultural heritage included. It is here that early models of negative associations with our cultural backgrounds begin to take route; good and bad are reworked. When the home environment is never echoed in the external environment, otherness is amplified.

In grappling with the very idea of “good Indian girl”, I always felt like I never quite fit the mould. Other Indian girls my age, fully embraced their culture, wielded it around, listened to Bollywood music, ardently attended prayers and took pride in Indian culture. I, on the other hand, was never sure what to seek refuge in. I hated the cloying smell of punjabi-dresses, the sounds of new Bollywood music, and classical Indian dancing classes all but worsened my body dysmorphia. Most of all I detested trying to assimilate into something I never felt an attachment to. I was too preoccupied with growing up as a South African to understand how my Indianness fit into the picture, too consumed with trying to unravel the racial politics that imbued the land to really wrap my head around an identity that, in my head, separated me from other South Africans. I was after all born free.

Too much is erased if I try merely to exist as a South African, the only country I’ve ever lived in and whose culture is etched within me. In fact, an integral part of what it means to be South African lies in embracing your unique heritage. I have always felt like, and still do, a “bad Indian girl.” I’m learning in fact that these identities can coexist. I am both, an emergent form; South African Indian.  

 

V                                               Patchwork

I’ve stopped thinking of my body as a temple, my actions in terms of good and bad karma, my soul as an existent concept or better yet as being bound to an eternal cyclicality. And what of me now? I’m left with gaping holes in my consciousness where these concepts once lived. But I’m slowly patching them up with pieces I’ve picked up along my little cosmic journey; pieces from spiritual secularity and some from the ancient Indian scriptures I knew so well. Still, I’ve got another world to dive into whenever it takes my fancy, a secret pool of excerpts and concepts from cryptic and poetically formed Indian scriptures. Texts so rich in metaphor and laden with an abstractness that I dream of seeing manifest in real life. In time, perhaps I’ll be more human than whole     .

I’ve always thought it best to lie a little left of centre, if only because my internal tensions split me right down the middle. I’d like to avoid being severed in the process. Like a magpie wielding its buried treasure, I am only just excavating and learning how to lean into the specialness of the individual Indianness into which I was born and to harness it as a power. I’m still learning to play with my identity, to toy with the dichotomies and flip the diaspora on its head in the hope of creating a harmonious integration between all the disparate parts of myself.

————–

Image: Max Michatz on Unsplash

Aadhiya Tulsi
Aadhiya Tulsi
Aadhiya is a junior doctor and an aspiring writer from South Africa. She is interested in short story and essay writing, nature, art, metaphysics and all things abstract! Social media: Instagram: @aadhiyatulsi X:@sadmouse_

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