Badamaash

For the last few weeks and months I’ve really been thinking about the way that I, as a woman of colour, view myself and others against the backdrop of the society that I live in.

When it comes to writers of colour expressing themselves and talking about aspects of their life, there’s a tendency to focus on issues that an older generation faced. This includes things like colourism, the struggle between cultural roots and Western society and more.

As a younger generation of Western born and raised children of colour grow up and begin to document their world, it’s safe to say that the issues that affect them today are very different to those which affected an older generation. That’s not to say that things like colourism don’t affect us because it does. What I have noticed is a widening gap between older British Asians and younger British Asians in terms of what matters to us in today’s society.

An example of this is technology. Another is 9/11 which was a massive game changer for every single person of colour regardless of age, background and level of wealth.

I was born and raised in London. I spent the first decade or so of my life in inner city south London before moving out to the suburbs. It was an odd neighbourhood because at the time there were two worlds existing in one area. One was very middle class and the other was working class. I hate to use the class system as an example, but it’s the only way I can describe how different life was for two groups of people who interacted with one another, lived alongside each other, but never really understood how the other half lived.

Memories from my childhood have been on my mind following a Channel 5 documentary I watched last night. It was called Gangland: Turf Wars. I wasn’t exposed to gangs directly, but I do remember the interest a lot of classmates had in it by the time I finished my education.

I spent much of last night, and today, wondering what’s happened to them.

I’d heard stories about the Kray Twins in East London, numerous murders of young men and how they’d been killed but never really thought about what drove them to join a gang or live a life of crime. I hadn’t been exposed to that and, in essence, I’d grown up in that safe bubble where things like youth violence weren’t a part of my direct everyday life. Even though I’d grown up alongside it.

When it comes to gangs, the first image many of us think of are angry, young,  black men, white men and a handful of Asians who are marginalised from society.

Then we subconsciously think of gangs as being like organised criminal groups (such as the Mafia) when the whole idea of a gang has changed. It’s changed from being an organised ‘brotherhood’ to one which is much more fluid; individuals who deal drugs are technically part of a gang but act as their own agent to reduce the risk of violence and competition.

As I grew up, I noticed that there were a lot of British Asian boys who started to adopt mannerisms and behaviour I’d seen local boys in gangs do. But these boys weren’t from council estates; they were mostly from pretty well off Asian families.

It’s a well known fact that in many Western countries, South Asians tend to live in fairly affluent areas and experience high levels of financial success which results in most of us being economically privileged. Despite this, there are Asians who live in deprived areas and end up having to make decisions such as dealing drugs or joining a gang. 

Whenever I think of a South Asian gang member, I tend to visualise the goondhas (thugs) or badamaash (gangster) from Bollywood

Yet this is something I think many British Asians don’t fully visualise. We can see rich South Asian boys pretend to be gangsters by talking and dressing a certain way; we almost accept it. But we don’t seem to realise that this could be reality for a lot of young Asian people in our cities. That tends to sit uncomfortably with us because it’s an aspect of society we don’t want to engage with.

Whenever I think of a South Asian gang member, I tend to visualise the goondhas (thugs) from Bollywood films. Larger than life, sporting massive moustaches, overly muscular and being the epitome of macho men.

Perhaps that’s why many affluent South Asian boys feel the need to behave as though they’re from a deprived area, deal drugs or are part of gang culture: because they believe that is what it means to be a ‘manly man’ or to be cool.

The reality of this couldn’t be further from that image of hyper masculinity. The glamourisation of gang culture, being a man or a woman involved in that or dealing drugs in order to survive is wrong.

I don’t think people become criminals for the thrill of it; for some of the kids I went to school with it was a way out of poverty and social marginalisation. For others, it was a way to gain control over their life and a sense of identity in horrible socio-economic circumstances that most of us will never face but are happy to become armchair critics about it.

We actively distance ourselves from it and stick our heads in the sand because ‘it’s not how Asians behave, we’re not all like that.’ We do this to escape the responsibility of admitting that South Asians can be susceptible to economic hardship, poverty, drug use and/or dealing, human trafficking, gun and gang culture.  It just adds to a long list of things many South Asians are in denial about and tend to dismiss as irrelevant when it actually does matter.

 

 

 

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Brown Melancholia

Yesterday, saw Mental Health Awareness Month (16-22 May 2016) kick off in the UK with charities, individuals and organisations holding events to talk about mental health.

When it comes to discussing mental health, there is a collective reluctance for South Asians (both in the Diaspora and the motherland) to have those important conversations with people who live with a mental health illness or those who live with family members suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other illnesses.

It’s a bizarre dichotonomy; on one hand we don’t talk about mental health problems enough yet we don’t even realise the impact it has on people who live with relatives who suffer from a mental health illness.

My father has depression, and has lived with it for many years, so much so that I don’t remember a time when my dad didn’t have depression. I love my dad – he’s been a mother and a father to me due to personal circumstances– and it’s so difficult to see someone I love so much live with a mental health illness that takes over their life.

If I were to describe how it feels, I’d say that it goes like this: my dad, depression and me. In that order. And it’s not his fault that he has bad days and doesn’t feel like he can face the world. I know that my dad is not his depression.

I’ve grown up hearing relatives say that my father ‘is mad’ or they give him a wide berth because they don’t know how to talk to him, they think that he’s an unstable, volatile freak of nature so they end up saying something offensive or backward.

That used to really get to me, but now, I know it’s because that’s all they ever knew about mental health problems and that they’re merely a product bred by the silence we choose to maintain.

With so many resources and tech at our fingertips, we can’t keep relying on the old ‘log kya kahenge

This silence which has permeated generations, and still continues to, is what frightens and angers me. As a collective Diaspora, we are so concerned with what other people will think (“log kya kahenge?”) that we would rather choose silence over losing face in order to save a loved one.

 

You have no idea how much I hate those three words: log kya kahenge and the untold suffering, melancholy, helplnessness and pain it inflicts upon so many people of South Asian descent.

When it comes to topics, any topic, we all know that silence is complicit yet so many South Asians will choose to stay silent, make ignorant comments or shift uncomfortably in their seats if someone talks about depression, suicide or counselling.

We’ve ended up turning another thing into a stigma because we refuse to let go off our ego, pride and arrogance, which may give us short term social prestige, but it makes our lives a misery.

This in turn makes it very difficult for us to assess how widespread this issue is, given that there already is very little data to help doctors and mental health experts on how to approach South Asians who suffer from mental health problems.

Today, there is not a single valid excuse, for Diasporic Asians to make ignorant statements about mental health given that 1 in 4 people will suffer from/experience a mental health illness at some point in their lifetime.

In the same way that so many of us choose silence over awareness, we can also make the choice to educate ourselves about mental health illlnesses, support those living with one and choose unity over living in our respective ivory towers.

 

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The Scars that No One Can See

 

Image sourced from: https://www.edvardmunch.org

 

 

As a writer, I love reading and writing stories, yet it is listening to other people’s stories which fills me with a sense of wonder.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve always imagined that other people walk around with a massive scroll of inky parchment inside of them, which spills out of their eyes, mouths and hearts whenever they talk about an aspect of their life

Yesterday, I was working with BBC Asian Network on a radio package which has turned out to be one of those experiences which has imprinted itself in my mind and my heart. It was a really emotive and powerful phone-in discussion which saw many people (from all walks of life, backgrounds, religions etc) feel compelled to contact the show to tell their stories.

“Literature, the arts and storytelling are the ultimate expression of what it means  to be a human being – the good, the bad and the ugly.”

The playback link is here, I’d urge you to listen to it, even though it is  heart-wrenching in places because of the topic we were discussing, it’s  important for us all to listen to these people’s stories about emotional abuse.

What struck me, was how many people contacted the show to tell their stories, how candid they were and how widespread instances of emotional abuse are.

I, like many others in the South Asian Diaspora, have often grown up either indirectly/directly/seeing/experiencing emotional abuse happen to someone we know – or even to us as individuals. Many of us have grown up knowing the stigma surrounding mental health, divorced families and having children out of wedlock – there’s a reluctance to discuss depression let alone emotional abuse!

At first I thought: “How have we managed to fail so many people across generations, in the motherland and the Diaspora, and not address a toxic behaviour that has the ability to destroy people’s lives, their families and sense of being?”

It was heart-breaking to listen to people crying on the phone, their voices breaking as they told their stories and this only reinforced the latter. I felt furious that this sort of behaviour is generally not taken seriously because some people believe that it is ‘not as bad as physical violence.’

“It chips away at you; it’s not like a single nasty statement which would make you walk away. It’s difficult for South Asian women to walk away and leave everything you love/know behind.”

What was even more poignant, was the number of people who realised that it counts as a form of abuse and is illegal under UK law, when they looked back on their experiences.

Growing up, I remember being told by teachers that: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will not affect me.”

As a young adult, I believe that this the stupidest phrase I have heard in my existence on planet Earth (so far). Everyone knows that words are specifically designed to either boost or cut people; look at how most women react after someone calls them fat.

Throw a rock at someone any day (not that I endorse or advocate such behaviour). They’ll go to A&E for a bandage to heal that wound and be ok, but it is scars from cruel words that no one can see which cause us the most excruciating pain, because no one can see it.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will not affect me.”

When it comes to trying to define emotional abuse, it’s often like trying to navigate your way through smoke with a blindfold on.

So many of us are simply not aware of what it entails or what counts as emotional abuse, yet, we know the devastating impact that it has on the lives of thousands of men, women and children across ethnic groups, religions and cultures.

Towards the end of the phone-in discussion, I suddenly felt a golden balloon of hope begin to swell inside of my throat. While I had initially felt a sense of white-hot anger and disgust at the unnecessary suffering these people had experienced, I suddenly felt proud of them.

I felt so proud of them for being brave to tell their stories, to discuss an issue that many South Asians are not willing to acknowledge (let alone discuss), to challenge bigots on national radio, to stand up for themselves/other victims of emotional abuse, to reclaim their sense of self, their power and break through that barrier of silence that so many South Asians have become accustomed to living under.

It felt like every single one of these people were subconsciously trying to help others who might be in similar positions and to give them a simple message:

“You are not alone. There are people who will help you.”