July 14, 2008

In Search of “My People”

I’m five days away from being in SA exactly six months. I’m also five days away from getting on a plane and returning to the States. And although I’ll be back in SA for another four months, it’s certainly an interesting moment of reflection. One thing I haven’t written about yet is one of the big reasons I chose this particular country when I could have gone anywhere in the world – South Africa has the largest Indian population outside of India. And as a first generation South Asian American, I have to admit that I came looking for answers amongst an Indian population hundreds of years deep.

At first blush, one immediately notices the physical distinctions of South African Indians. The majority are of South Indian decent, thus generally darker in pigment, at least than me. At second blush, one notices the class distinctions. In the 1800s the British East India Company brought 300 indentured servants from India to South Africa as labor for the sugar cane fields. History tells us that what begins as an immigration pattern based on labor doesn’t easily break from that role in the future. But third blush shows the nuances within that class structure – a business class within the laborers. Like good colonists, the British used the Indians to “manage” the African laborers, thus creating strife between the two groups that is still very real today.

Layered on top of traditional colonial and immigration issues is the role of apartheid on the South African Indian community. Traditional Indian food & dress are still very prevalent in the community, as are many traditional values. Language, on the other hand, was essentially lost by what is the equivalent of my parent’s generation. In my opinion, this has much to do with the forced homogenous living situations of apartheid, while English and Afrikaans were the pre-determined medium for schooling.

The heart of the Indian community in South Africa is on the southeast coast of the country in the city of Durban, the third largest city in SA. This is where the original laborers were brought, where the community grew, and where still today the largest Indian community lives. So recently, I dragged my boyfriend (who happens to be South African Indian) to Durban. I told him I needed to find “my people.” He told me I was crazy. To him, Durbs (as they call it here) is just Durbs. Nothing particularly exciting besides the beaches. But I insisted and so he agreed. I told him I wanted to go to Chatsworth, the Indian township. I wanted to visit a neighborhood temple. And I wanted to go to the Gandhi Settlement, where Gandhi honed his philosophy of “satyagraha.”

Convincing Quinton to take me into Chatsworth was a task and a half. And only when we got there did I really understand his apprehension. Chatsworth and Phoenix, SA’s two largest Indian townships, are not fun places to be. Riddled with crime perpetuated by a serious drug problem in the community, poverty is only the beginning of a very sad story. For me, I must admit that it was tough to see. I’ve been to some of the most rural parts of India and witnessed the most extreme of impoverished situations there, but somehow I didn’t expect it when visiting Indians in another country…. it’s as if my lens for the diasporic experience is that of the South Asian American one (largely of a professional class), even though I know that’s wrong….

Finding a neighborhood temple proved to be more difficult than we originally thought. Partly because our GPS, although aware of all the local churches, wasn’t particularly helpful with addresses for temples – even though the massive Indian community has been here for hundreds of years. When we did find one, the most striking thing for me was the dates. Pieces of the building and parts of altars were donated as far back as 1939. 1939! In my head, I’m rationally aware that the community has been in SA for that long, but to see it and feel it right in front of me was a completely other thing. My family’s neighborhood temple in the suburbs of New Orleans was created in 1996… And really it’s just a converted house with a trailer in the back where we learned Bengali and scripture… So to know that previous Indian communities began that process in another land so many years ago was both awe-inspiring and incredibly intense.

The final stop on our Durban tour was the Gandhi Settlement, which turned out to be even more difficult to find than the temple. Lauded in all the tourist guides as a “must see,” no website, pamphlet, or tourist bureau could provide us with the exact address. It turns out that the Gandhi Settlement is located within what is today an African township and the Trustees that manage the Settlement and the local municipal government seem to have some serious issues to sort out, beginning with proper publicity and signage. Apparently the Black vs. Indian struggle finds itself permeating in local government and the end result is no signage at all.

Also striking was the lack of electricity and running water at what should be a World Heritage Site. One could think that the bare bones system is a throwback to Gandhi’s way of living, but it’s not. It’s more fighting between the Trustees of the Settlement and the local community.

Even worst than all of that was the need to “rebuild” Gandhi’s home. Up until 1985, nearly one hundreds years after it was created, the home was still in perfect condition. Yet one day, randomly & viciously, the entire settlement was burned to the ground by apartheid sympathizers. The Settlement had helped many who fought against apartheid and this was the opposition’s way of getting back. Completely unnecessary and such a shame.

After we returned from Durban I got to thinking about not just the Indian tourist sites, but also all of the little things that demonstrate a long-standing Indian community here in SA. There are Indian TV shows and targeted radio stations (with names like Eastern Mosiac and Lotus fm), bhangra parties, and speciality stores. There is the “Oriental Plaza” full of Indian spices and goods, government mandated halal labeling, and a consistent availability of frozen samosas.

I also got to thinking about my many South African Indian friends in Jo’burg. Each of them once came from a township during the era of apartheid but have since come out of it to prosper. In some, there exists the twinge of continued racism, which we see consistently in our Indian community, yet they are all very aware that they face very real racism themselves. They sit in literal terms, based on the apartheid racial hierarchy, where I normally feel in the States – smack in the middle of the Black/White paradigm. And quite frankly, if SA is any indication, I don’t think that’s ever going to change.

As for the overall South African Indian community, they didn’t just create “Little Indias” for themselves. There are pockets that feel like Calcutta, but for the most part SA’s Indian community has created a unique space with unique customs and unique attitudes. I suppose time will only tell if America’s Indian community will produce our own unique version of the diasporic story.