About two weeks ago I did a radio interview for Otherwise an SAFM radio programme that was looking at women and identity. In the interview I said that I was not an Indian; that I was a South African; that my culture was a culture of learning and I identified myself as a learner. I do not wish to think in racial terms; we did enough of that in the past and to be called Indian is to be thought of in racial terms. I prefer to identify myself in terms of nationality rather than race.
I know that I am of Indian origin and am glad to have that as part of my make-up but I am not an Indian. The problem with being called Indian is that it sets me apart from other South Africans, focuses on race, places me in a ghetto and condemns me to everlasting apartheid and xenophobia. The term ‘Indian’ relegates me to a stereotype and denies me an authentic identity. It is true that my forbears came from India, but I have lived all my life as a South African and I have a mixed culture, a rainbow culture if you will. I have had a western education, I speak English, have a smattering of Afrikaans and live a life that emanates from my experiences in South Africa and not anywhere else. Those of us still practising a separate development culture will insist on my identity as Indian because they think in racial terms and I only make sense to them as a stereotype. In their eyes I am a sari and curries; I have an exotic culture, different, inferior, exploitative and pagan.
But my culture is South African. As I have lived most of my life in apartheid South Africa, I have an apartheid culture. Like many black people, living in South Africa in an of ethos separate and unequal, I began as a child to evaluate my cultural background and traditions because they were despised and deemed inferior. While I was growing up, I tried to give them up and adhere to the dominant culture – the racist culture of the country and in the process gave up my self-esteem. My social conditioning, therefore, led me away from Indian practices that included caste prejudices, and into a culture of racial discrimination. But having questioned the traditions of my forebears, my personal culture became one of doubting, and I doubted all traditions, including the racist conventions that relegated me to second-class citizenship. And that gave me freedom – the freedom to examine reality and not remain fixed in symbolic and mythical understandings of being. I had the freedom to create a culture that was uniquely mine made up of elements that came from everything I learned in my environment and in my studies. And I am still learning because there is so much to learn.
I began to study the Hindu religion, the religion into which I was born some twenty years ago, when I was middle-aged, and I discovered that many aspects of it made a great deal of sense to me and when I looked at other religions, I discovered great similarities. I understand the need for religious beliefs; they give one a sense of security and comfort and a sense of community, but they tend to become insular and exclusive and they break all the humane laws that they set for themselves. For myself, I find the work of scientists far more liberating and satisfying. On the planet, so many brilliant minds are at work opening up new vistas of understanding and knowledge that enthral, delight and deepen one’s understanding of oneself and one’s place among human beings and in the universe. What we learn from them is to accept our miniscule status in an ever-expanding universe and they make us truly aware of the miraculous nature of life.