Who am I? Awareness of my multifaceted identity came to me at the age of 17.
I was born in a Krishna devoted Hindu family on the Island of Zanzibar, situated on the eastern coast of Africa. Zanzibar & Pemba Islands were under the rule of an Omani Sultan, but under British protection with the presence of a British Resident on the Island. Zanzibar is now a part of Tanzania.
Thus, I grew up with Muslim, African, Hindu and British cultures. As children we enjoyed the four days funfair held at the end of the Ramadhan to celebrate Eid. Children and parents from all faiths mingled together, buying new toys. watching puppet shows in Swahili, going on a ferris wheel and a merry-go-round pushed by African men and eating Indian style Zanzibar mix and roasted mohogo. Zanzibar being a small town, during the Muharram period, we would hear the laments by Shia Muslims on public PA system. We went to watch the Muharram processions and Ismaili celebrations. We heard the call from mosques three times a day.
As Hindus, we celebrated the festival of Diwali and the New Year in great style; we got up before dawn to have a dip in the ocean during the Hindu holy month of Adhik Maas [Purshottam Maas] and did the ritual puja on the beach. Despite our annual exams being close by, we celebrated all nine days of Navaratri by dancing late into the evening. We participated in dance and drama for India’s Independence & the Republic Day celebrations. We fasted for Janmashtami & Ramanavami and went to temples to worship Shitlamata [the deity who protected children from infectious diseases] too. On Christmas day we went to picnics on a beach away from the town, had a swim in the ocean, enjoyed Indian savouries and sweets and played Antakshari of Bollywood songs, without the slightest thought of Jesus in our mind. We waited outside the English Club on New Year’s Eve to watch the glamorously dressed English ladies in their evening gowns. As part of the Queen’s birthday celebrations I lined up with other Girl Guides in the presence of many dignitaries when the monarch was greeted with 21 guns salute.
When I wore shalwaar-kameez, my staunch Hindu grandma would say to me ‘Hey young girl, if I touched you in the street and didn’t realise it was you, I would go home and have a bath.’ My mother too had the same traditional values and yet my dad was a Theosophist, with the motto ‘There is no religion higher than truth’. Thus he believed in the equality of all religions. My mum went along with him against my grandma’s nagging, ‘I am not happy with your husband’s involvement with this ‘theo sukhi’ [be happy] group!’ That’s how she used to refer to Theosophy.
In our home, my mum worshiped the child idol of Krishna, the practice I accepted gracefully but like my cousins, I didn’t partake in religious singsong held by my mum in the house. In mum’s ‘Mandali’ [religious singing group] they will be singing ‘Jay Jay Maharani Jamuna’ in praise of the Holy River Jamuna, while we sang in our Young Students Group, Vidyarthini Mandal, ‘Oh the builder of this world, why have you made such a world where people offer you a feast knowing well that you wouldn’t be eating it, while outside the temple there linger starving beggars?’ My mum would rebuke me, ‘How can you reprimand God? You should be singing his praises.’ We used to call our temples ‘Bhaktanun’ and visited it every evening after a walk on the beach and listened to the ‘kirtans’ sung by male devotees before we got home for the evening meal.
Most Hindus discriminated against Muslim African who was not allowed to enter our kitchens and so we would have a Hindu servant to do the job. After some time, a change took place and my mum allowed the African servant to wash the dishes but she poured water over them and left them to dry in the sun before putting them away. We were segregated as untouchables in the home for the first three days during our menstrual periods but we didn’t remain housebound and took part in all outdoor activities. It was easy to fit all this in the system of tolerant Hindu traditions.
When it came to education, leave aside the Convent or the Aga Khan schools, we weren’t even allowed to be friends with the so called ‘liberated’ girls who attended the Arya Samaj Girls School. They wore shorts and did exercises like boys!! Arya Samajists didn’t believe in idol worship and we dotted on our child Krishna’s idol! In our favour, for some reason, the Arya Samaj Girls School closed down and all the girls joined our Hindu Girls School, which was free for all. At that age, the philosophy of Hinduism and its various sects had no meaning for us. There were also a few Ithanashari [Shia Muslim] girls from progressive families who studied in our school, but they had to pay minimal fees.
Since we paid no fees, our school was maintained through donations from philanthropic businessmen. Without any barrier of caste, all Hindu girls studied here. There were some who came from wealthy traditional families, some from more liberal families, and some with little or no money, some with no sense of hygiene, with lice crawling over their oily hair or some who looked like they never had a bath for days. I even remember obscene writings about sex and sexuality written in our toilets which we read without understanding their meanings.
Kutchi was my home language but throughout the primary education taught through Gujarati medium, we mastered Gujarati fairly well. We started learning English as a second language from Standard Six or so. Everything progressed in a typically Indian tradition. We had some progressive Parsi lady teachers and headmistresses during my years at school, but a male headteacher was appointed much later in the 50s. While I was at school, we had a Goan Head for the first time, maybe it was my dad’s influence as the Chair of the Board of Governors of the School! Since her arrival, the standard of English in the school improved.
To get admission into Government Girls Secondary School, we had to take an entrance exam which consisted of tests in English and Maths. All primary school girls from the Islands of Zanzibar & Pemba sat for this exam. Many girls learnt by heart essays written in English on some common topics. If lucky, they got one of these and so did well for themselves. From the Asian communities we had the Bohora, Hindu and the Aga Khan primary school girls to compete with. Majority of entries were given to the Arab and African girls and one-third to the Asians. So depending on one’s ability to do well in the exam, helped by luck, one got admitted to this secondary school. In 1953 there were only 4 girls from Hindu school who got through the Entrance Exam, two of them happened to be my sister and me. Many clever students failed to get admission and ended up going to the Convent School or discontinuing their education. Later girls were admitted to the Aga Khan Boys Secondary School, and much later Hindus opened a mixed gender secondary school.
The switch from Gujarati to English as the medium of instruction in my secondary school was quite challenging. Most of the teachers were from Britain. So to understand their accent was also difficult. But we managed. It was the first time we sat next to African and Arab girls and became close friends with Muslim Gujarati girls.
Such was my Hindu Indian childhood. We had a library of excellent books in Gujarati at home, so at the age of 13, I had read G. M Tripathi’s classic novel ‘Saraswatichandra’, whereas the first English novel I ever read was ‘Anne of Green Gables’ when I was in Year 11. I wasn’t even aware of the existence of the British Council Library until much later in my school days.
The history we learnt at school was that of the British Empire and so the fight by Indian sepoys for their rights in 1857 was accepted as a Mutiny by Indian students, as described by the British history teacher. We learnt to rejoice in the victory of the British in the Battle of Plessey. I had very little awareness of the fight for India’s Independence. I had memories of joining in the early morning processions going round the narrow streets of the town, singing Indian patriotic songs asking Britain to quit India. I remember attending a big Yagna arranged when Mahatma Gandhi died and having been part of masses of people who had gathered at the docks to have a glimpse of his ashes. I had been to India for the first time in 1946 in the midst of Hindu- Muslim riots, but I had very little understanding of why this was happening. There was not a trace of the local history of Zanzibar in our syllabus which was set by Cambridge University Examination Board in UK. When that was the case, learning about the Asian contribution to the growth of East Africa was out of the question.I loved Indian music and knew many Bollywood songs, but my first English song was learnt when I joined the Girl Guides. Household chores done in the English style were also learnt when trying to get a few proficiency badges. In our domestic science classes at school, I learnt how to sweep the floor with a broom; at home we used a typical Indian sweep [fagiyo] made from grass or coconut leaf stalks. I learnt to iron a shirt and wash woollies though I didn’t even own one. Fortunately, all this was of immense help to me when I made Britain my home.
In 1957 there was a World Centenary Camp for Girl Guides at Windsor in UK. After going through many competitions, I was chosen to represent Zanzibar together with an Arab Guide. We were asked to take our national costumes with us and learn a song in our language to entertain other Guides at the Camp. Do you think either of us even thought of wearing a Swahili outfit? The Arab Guide wore her Omani Arab outfit and being a Kutchi I wore mirror-embroidered Chania-choli & Odhani. And to be honest at that time I did not know a single Swahili song.
I was there as an Indian – totally. But, there were 30 to 35 Guides from India and no one included me in their group. They were invited to perform their songs and dances for the whole camp; but no one asked me to sing my Gujarati song! That was the first time, I realised I was not Indian, but a Zanzibari. However, that too turned out to be an illusion. I was chosen to shake hands with the Queen. I had even done the rehearsal, when one of the British Guiders came and very apologetically told me that they had a telegram from Zanzibar that the Arab Guide, and not I, was to be presented to the Queen. So it was the first time that I became aware of the fact, that neither was I an Indian, nor a Zanzibari, but a second class citizen of an Arab Sultanate. This was my first experience of being the one with the wrong skin colour! And though a holder of British passport with the status of British Subject, I had never felt British. But I did know in great detail the history of the Union Flag and where the white crosses on it were narrow and where wider.
So who was I?
In 1957, I was a young girl on the threshold of adulthood, created as a result of multicultural balanced upbringing, geographically on the land of Africa, brought up with totally Indian Gujarati Hindu traditions and values, and with educational qualification based on a syllabus, that was set by a British Examination Board.
Of course with years and a wider range of influences on my life, my identity never remained static and despite the changes I faced in life, now I feel like a well grounded British Asian resident of London.