does not need to know where she stands from where she sits in a class
learning a language in a tongue that isn’t hers
although the only place where she belongs
is Malay words in karangan with double ticks
and her favourite topic of death and its test
which gets her the highest marks among the rest
“Cikgu kenapa budak India boleh dapat markah tinggi?”
could it be that she can only talk about her loved ones dying
to one-up an exam?
Come on, she’s trying
but lying about knowing how dying is a trauma
is lying about lying about what she knows is an Indian aura
It’s a colloquial slang to be able to converse
but when I talk its strange just a show of how diverse
my mouth can bend and twist like in a show of a circus
Peribahasa queen once risen
but now in reverse
a list of deeper meanings, something I traverse
as I memorise and speak to teachers, greetings I rehearse
berapa berat mata memandang,
berat lagi bahu memikul
shoulder hunched when I answer for oral,
I describe a picture one round, my head never shaking
a task to make sure; I never stop talking
outside I am told, why I don’t do its opposite
“Yelah kan dah takde titik, sebabtu lah tak tau diam”
Indian, who thought she was a part of the geng
when I didn’t know the answer to why Keleng
felt wrong to my core but no detailed retort
for nicknames that have stuck
Michael Jackson terbakar just out of luck
dropped out of Urdu school from just learning too many
languages that confused the rest
on why my father would marry
a Madarasi who was just not Desi,
the origin mistaken but the insult readily given
Amma is Mummy, waiting in a canteen for her daughters
alone and friendless among women with expensive taste
for chauffeuring husbands and gossip gluttons
Perhaps I could’ve written about the separation we all feel,
when forced into the almost impossible task
of blending in to find where we belong
in a crowd of people who knew nothing
of how much of ourselves they’d taken from us,
when they only gave us so little
We only seem to be able to understand that
much later, and sometimes too late.
when the ones who’ve taunted can barely remember.
I’ve always noticed the way race and religion have seemed more separate for some and synonymous for others. Being Malay and Muslim to me, in my experience, has been a commonly understood norm in society, where race and religion overlap. However, being Indian and Muslim is always perceived to be antonymous. One is the opposite of the other instead of sharing the same space.
Even till now, I notice the ease of which other Muslims who look the part, can do things while someone like myself, am restricted socially by odd looks or sometimes the inability of others to comprehend how an Indian can be Indian and Muslim.
I usually have to introduce myself as Indian to which later on – I will somehow interject with, “but I’m Muslim.” There are people who are aware of the spectrum of which race can belong with religion, but I guess, sometimes we’re not sure if that’s enough. I take being Muslim, as a metaphorical sphere where it’s clock radius allows me to move around a little within myself. Where I get to evolve with my identity without ever being questioned if I am Muslim enough just by the way I look or what I practice. Religion is subjective and yet for an Indian, it is a heavier task to prove how Muslim I am at times as compared to another who is presumably a Muslim just by appearance. This is accompanied by the common misunderstanding that a person needs a physical identifier to be Muslim, like a Hijab to show that an Indian can be Muslim, or the need to wear a Baju Kurung or Kebaya on Eid too.
My piece is called Bahar(sa) because Bahar in Urdu means outside, playing on the word Bahasa. An outsider speaking a language that is more associated to being Muslim than her appearance. I hadn’t intended for this piece to go to a sombre place where bullying seemed a huge part of my identity, more so than the space my race lived in. Yet somehow, the two always seemed connected, that what I’d experienced felt at times unreal and made up when they weren’t. I see people appreciating the things I’d been made fun of.
Long hair, the Bollywood dream, the tan skin, glitter from bangles and dupattas in the limelight. It’s odd because these aspects were seen opposite when worn by me, “too curly” hair, such “dark” skin, “village girl” with an “accent”. When I see the sudden spike in Indian outfits being worn for Malay weddings, it seems foreign to me – because I don’t see any similarities with what I identify as my race or culture. It seems like caricature at certain moments, because it feels like I’m a costume – worn for times when someone needs to look beautiful and taken off for when it is of no use. I’ve often times gone head to head with people, calling them out for their offhanded statements about transforming into an Indian for a while, or wearing a drape and identifying it with being Indian, or worse calling on one Indian friend to show they aren’t doing something unacceptable.
I find myself angry at times when I see the difference, in how things on me and what I own are more likeable, more wearable and embraced when the part of me that it represents, is not.
*baharwali ladki – outsider girl
*karangan – composition
*Peribahasa – Malay idioms
*“cikgu kenapa budak india boleh dapat markah tinggi” – Teacher, how come a kid from India can get high marks?
* berapa berat mata memandang, berat lagi bahu memikul – sesusah-susah orang yang melihat penderitaan seseorang itu tentulah tidak sama dengan penanggungan orang yang menderita itu sendiri – as difficult as it is to witness someone else’s pain, it is always harder for the one experiencing it
* Yelah kan dah takde titik, sebabtu lah tak tau diam – Yes lah, now don’t have full stop, that’s why don’t know how to shut up.
*geng – is slang for gang
*Keleng – derogatory term for Indians
*terbakar – burnt
Sarah Farheenshah Begum writes from the middle of a North-South Indian magnet. With her experiences of multiple conflicting and overlapping parts of what she sees and feels, she writes for herself, her past selves, and the way her future imagines itself, whether continuous or in pause.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu