Mirage

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Today’s post is inspired by a very recent conversation that I had and a result of observing social attitudes in Britain for over 10 years. I often wonder if things change for the better or if they have to become increasingly violent, devastating and evil before that change for good eventually occurs.

Living in a post 9/11 world has not only changed international relations, but drastically changed the way that millions of people view themselves with regards to ethnic identity both communally and individually. The words “Muslim” and “Islamophobia” are rampant and rife in our society. We are regularly shown images of crazed gunmen wearing turbans, wielding guns and proclaiming their hatred of the West in the deserts of faraway lands.

Ignorant people begin to make the flawed connection of brown skinned men with beards and turbans equating to terrorists, haters of the West and Al Qaeda members. Soon heart breaking stories of young Sikh men being battered to death because of their beards and dastaar reach our ears. Young Asian men with beards are being attacked without reason and young women have their hijabs ripped off in public because they’re being “oppressed” and not “being British.”  And the icing on the cake is when the media coldly says: “It was a case of mistaken identity.” Yet if a white man has a beard, he’s considered “cool” and doesn’t get stopped at Customs. And if a white woman covers her head, she’s deemed “cosmopolitan” and “appreciating culture.”

To not be who you are is a painful and draining experience

Upon seeing this, many people of ethnic descent begin to feel unsafe. They hide aspects of themselves in order to conform and fit into Western society. I remember soon after 9/11 how anything non-European was viewed with disgust. I kept my religion a secret, didn’t speak my mother tongue in public and did almost anything to not bring attention to my brown-ness. And it wasn’t just me, but many Asian kids I knew suddenly felt ashamed of their background, their name, families, their cultures, religions and heritages. To not be who you are is a painful and draining experience. It was a clash because every single day of my life I had been told: “Be proud you are Punjabi.” Yet the people around me had lumped all brown people into one ugly box and made sure that we felt and knew it.

There were days where I longed to correct an ignorant individual who made nasty comments about my culture and how everyone who wasn’t white should “go back to where they came from.” And when I look back on it, I really should have said something because I would have been standing up for a lot of people and not just myself. The day I felt confident enough to speak Punjabi with my grandmother in public, speak openly about my faith and my culture was the day that I felt like I had freed myself. I didn’t – and still don’t – care if I get given a dirty look for speaking my mother tongue in public. It forms a crucial part of who I am.

My friends hid who they were out of fear and because being brown was a bad thing. Til today, there are probably thousands of people who hide their roots because they are scared of being judged or attacked. The ironic thing is that we have nothing to be ashamed of and so much to be proud of. The actions of a few cannot and is not a good enough excuse for entire communities to be condemned.

1947

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The 14th and 15th August 1947. For those who don’t know, these are dates that are infamous with the Indian and Pakistani community worldwide. It’s the date of Independence, where the state of Pakistan was created (14th) and India was granted independence from British rule (15th). The state of Punjab was carved up leaving thousands of people, on both sides of the newly created border, displaced and journeying to their new homes.

Thousands of innocent people were caught in the crossfire of this mass migration. People who once lived peacefully and side by side, suddenly turned on each other and committed atrocities. An estimated 200,000 – 500,000 people died, but today the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that a total of 14 million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were displaced during Partition.

Since then, many Indian and Pakistani communities, in their respective motherlands and in the diaspora, celebrate Independence Day. Facebook is suddenly inundated with “Happy Independence Day” posts and that One-Day-A-Year-Indian/Pakistani-Secret-Patriot on your Facebook friends list suddenly makes an appearance. In a nutshell: it’s generally well received by British born Asians and their parents. And why shouldn’t it be? It was a day where colonial rule officially ended, people were free from their white colonial masters and Indians could finally rule India after centuries of being dominated by foreigners.

There may be Independence, but there is no freedom.

For many Punjabis, including myself, it’s a bittersweet day. It’s a glorious day, which should rightfully be celebrated and marked, but it’s also a blood soaked day. Millions of innocent people were butchered in the name of “azaadi” (freedom) and there’s not one Punjabi who isn’t affected by Partition. You only have to mention “Partition” to some Punjabis and that’s enough to unsettle them for a few days or even weeks. In one strange way or another, the fate of an ancestor ties us to Partition. For some, Partition is the reason as to why they cannot trace their family lineage.

Whilst many Asians in the diaspora are hyped on the thrill of Independence Day, the impact of Partition can still be seen and felt. Pakistan and India are – and have been – at loggerheads. My grandad used to joke that “the end of the world will come, but Pakistan and India will still be bickering on the way to Hell.” And the sad thing is that it’s true. Whilst the people of both states don’t have an issue with each other, it is politicians and both armies who forcefully keep those divisions alive.

In addition, gaining Independence is a very different thing to  gaining freedom and social justice. One only has to type in “Pakistan India conflict” or look at recent News to see how both societies are doing. In many ways, they are both strong and have the potential to become great. Yet their path to greatness is blocked by corruption. Whilst the physical presence of white colonial rulers is absent, their attitudes and social behaviours are still present in both nations’ societies. You don’t have to be an expert in Anthropology to work that one out.

Celebrate Independence Day; it is an important day for both Indians and Pakistanis. But do not forget the history behind 1947 and do not forget that both nations still have a very long way to go before they can truly be free.

 

It’s All in Your Head!

“I held my grandma’s hand as I clumsily toddled through the brightly lit corridors. I felt my grandma pick me up and I placed my chubby hand on her shoulder as I curiously looked around. Greeted by a curious metallic beeping, faint red light winking and another green light blinking at the foot of a bed, I saw a sleeping man, tucked up in a bed, with pipes and wires coming out of him. I wriggled my way out of my grandma’s arms to get a closer look. His eyes were closed. His beautiful dark hair had become tangled as he slowly breathed into a pipe. I looked at his hands and saw patches, tubes full of red stuff that wound their way to a metal box with squiggles on it. I reached out and stroked the back of his hand as I looked at my grandma with tears in my eyes.”

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This is one of my earliest memories and it’s the first time I’ve spoken about it to anyone. I was around 5-6 years old and I remember feeling confused and very upset upon seeing the man in the hospital bed. He was my dad but he didn’t look like my dad. My dad was a smiling, happy, hardworking man who was the life and soul of every party. Him and my uncle – his younger brother – would be at the heart of it all cracking jokes and making everyone laugh til their sides hurt. The man in the hospital bed was a million miles away from the man with a ready smile and a bank full of jokes.

Depression is what many call a “silent killer” – in my opinion it is the worst disease because it is so difficult to diagnose, treat and cure. It is a well known fact that 1 in 4 of us in the UK, will at some point in their life, experience a mental health illness. Depression is a disease that doesn’t discriminate yet many are reluctant to talk about it, let alone acknowledge it. My dad’s struggle with depression resulted in two nervous breakdowns, yet it wasn’t until I saw him in the hospital as a kid with tubes coming out of him, that I began to understand my dad’s inner pain. I remember insensitive relatives sneering at him: “It’s all in your head!” and “You’re mad, you’re stupid and stop being so attention seeking” to “You’re a man; act like one!”

I hated them and their poisonous words. I wish I could have protected him but I couldn’t. Sadly it sent my dad down a deeper, darker and toxic spiral, which we all saw and felt, and it took him a very long time to come out of a severe depressive state to one that is now managed by anti-depressants. If you saw him and spoke to him, you would never ever guess that my dad suffers with depression.

Depression and mental health illnesses are largely misunderstood by the South Asian community; it is still seen as a taboo with many families hiding and viewing it as something to be ashamed of. There’s the prejudice of: “It only happens to white people” to “Oh he/she is so weak. They can’t cope with life” to the devastating: “It’s all in your head!”  which is what tips depression sufferers over the edge. The isolation, the judgement and vehement denial of mental health illnesses results in  many sadly taking their own life or resorting to substance abuse in a bid to get through each moment in a day. Such remarks are as helpful as standing in the middle of a drought, looking up to the sky and screaming: “Rain!”

Monsters are real, ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win ~ Stephen King

Whilst mental health illnesses are largely swept under the carpet by the South Asian community, there is a glimmer of hope as more and more scientists hope to break down such barriers. But I worry that reports and statistics won’t be enough to change such ingrained ways of thinking. In order to fully destroy this taboo we have to go down to the root of it all and change the very way people view themselves in order to create a complete shift in attitude. This comprehensive report shows that mental health illnesses in the South Asian community are beginning to be understood and acknowledged.

The recent and deeply sad death of Robin Williams has shocked us all. One of the world’s greatest comic geniuses who made millions laugh yet his death and struggle depicted a very different man from what the media showed us. Similarly, those who struggle with depression and other mental health illnesses are the ones that we would have never guessed.