Image by artist duo Sacrée Frangine (@sacree_frangine)
My best friend through high school was Indian by way of South Africa. She introduced me to her parents with pride: ‘Marise is more Indian than all of us, she was actually born there!’ When I first heard that, I was mortified. To me, her Gujurati family, the Patels, were the real deal. For a start, they ate all their meals with their right hand only touching the food, breaking the chapatti and scooping the dal or curry with ease. Although I did spend ten years of my life in India, I was brought up only using cutlery – fork, knife, spoon – during meals. I remember eating at roadside restaurants and the adults asking the waiter for spoons and forks for us kids.
My friend’s wardrobe had a separate section for her Indian outfits – glittering lehengas and jewel-toned real silk saris that she would lend me for Desi events. The transformative effect of wearing full traditional Indian dress, complete with jewellery and bindi was akin to stepping into another body. The only sari I owned was a jade-coloured batik printed heirloom that was over forty years old and belonged to my mother. It was too precious to ever be worn.
Like me, my best friend couldn’t speak Hindi either. For fun, and in our teenage way of playing with the language, we would call each other names like gaandu (asshole) or pagal (mad). My nickname became ‘Chuddz’, derived from chuddies (underpants). When I graduated, I seriously thought about having this title emblazoned on the back of my school leavers jacket.
We also shared a love for Bollywood. Growing up in the 2000’s, instead of Orlando Bloom and Chad Michael Murray, our school diaries were plastered with the glistening six-packs and bulging biceps of Arjun Rampal and John Abraham. On weekends we would sit and watch the two, sometimes three-hour-long movies, totally escaping into their vibrant world.
When we first met, I was surprised to hear that she had moved to Australia in 1998. The same year as I did. Yet her Australian accent was perfect, bordering on bogan. She used all the slang that the whitest Aussie contingent in our school did: the ‘surfies’ – the tanned, blonde kids. They had names like Dylan, Trent and Caitlin. Names that didn’t cause the teacher to stutter.
But my friend had mastered the skill of switching accents, which I never could. At home with her family, her accent was pure Durban. We would be hanging out and her phone would ring. Depending on how she answered it, I knew it was her family – her mum, or her sister on the other end. For me, the Australian accent was a mystery. How to roll your O’s and U’s and dull your R’s was beyond my comprehension. But it crept up on me as the years went by and now when I open my mouth, out flow these perfectly rolled O’s and U’s and R’s buffed smooth.
I used to think losing my Indian accent was like losing another link to my birth country. My skin colour is just white enough that people are often surprised to hear where I’m ‘from’.
But you’re so fair! Is your mum or dad Indian? But you don’t look Indian! What often followed, as a way of appeasing their speculation, was a history lesson on the British and European colonisation of the Indian sub-continent. Six hundred years of colonisation that resulted in countless sub-cultures and sub-ethnicities. The hugely complex history of my family’s ancestry reduced to one term: Anglo-Indian.
Being a migrant is one thing. Being a mixed-race migrant is a whole other can of confusion. As a ten-year-old in Australia in the late ‘90s, identity was a binary notion. The answer to the question, ‘Where are you from?’ seemed obvious. ‘India.’ I would respond, without having to think. If it was another South-East Asian who asked, they became a fast friend. India, where I was ‘from’, was my first and only choice, no second-guessing there. I was Indian. It never bothered me if people were surprised by it. If I was convinced, they were too.
I often think of how leaving India meant my family went from being one kind of minority, because of the way we looked, to now being able to pass as the majority: white. Instead of making things easier, I find myself trying to reconcile with an outward appearance that jars with my inner identity. I know for my family, as for many mixed-race people, this is a journey that will last all our lives, as we navigate the world based on how others see us.
Eventually, we adopt the questions and doubts about our authenticity because they become impossible to ignore.
In some ways, the flattery I received from my best friend, who accepted my Indian-ness wholeheartedly, acted as a salve. So desperately needed in those early years of settling into a new country. Even now, I rarely feel like I belong. My life feels like constantly walking into a room full of strangers who have never wasted energy on contemplating ideas I can’t seem to let go of, a history that acts as a barrier rather than a bridge.
My best friend and I now live in separate cities. Weeks and sometimes months go by where we don’t speak. I haven’t thought about those early years when we first met for ages. The excitement of getting to know each other, exploring a culture we both know somewhat second-hand and making it our own in that way teenagers, migrants do. Her friendship and so many others helped shape how I see myself today.
‘I was just about to call you!’ Is how she answers the phone when I do eventually call her. It makes me feel warm.
When I don’t know who I am anymore, I wish I could get in the car and drive to her place. We’d soon be having drinks, listening to 2000’s rap and reminiscing about old times like they were yesterday.
Marise Phillips (she/her) is an Indian-Australian writer and editor based in Boorloo/Perth, Australia. She is drawn to non-fiction writing that captures unique and untold perspectives.