Making Peace with Essex and How Photography Brought me Closer to my Identity

March 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of Indians say

‘I live in such a white area. There are only two other Indians in my class!’

Living in a white area is when you drive for miles without seeing a turban; where you’re the only non-white in your school; and every other school in town; and one of maybe five in the wider locality. Where your local temple is an hour away. Where if you happen to see a solitary, lost turban floating amongst the perfectly-matched-shade-of-blonde-gang on the high street, you make a beeline for the wearer, ecstatically greet them and take them home for tea and samosas.

I was born and bred in a beautiful village in Essex. I adore the place with its village feel. I like that my morning runs here are punctured with mandatory ‘good morning’s to everyone I pass and squirrels hopping from branch to branch in inquisitive excitement. It’s not hard to see why my parents chose the place for us to spend our years. I wasn’t always a fan, though; maybe this new Enjoyable Essex has manifested because I’m spending a couple of months here for the first time for five years. In fact, I’m ashamed to say that for the majority of my time living here I positively hated it. I even squirmed inside when, earlier in this paragraph, I called the place beautiful.

On my 8th birthday, as if wisdom had been stalling for the perfect moment to scatter itself lightly onto my shoulders, I realised that I was different. It’s a funny thing to realise that your skin colour makes you different to your friends. I had never experienced racism but for some peculiar reason I wanted to be exactly the same as everyone else. The strength and pride of character that flowed from my mother’s fingers into my two plaits every morning wasn’t able to knock my obsession. I wanted to be Georgina and Samantha. I even had an English alias. But why was I always Scary Spice? I wanted to be Baby Spice, or any of the others.

Adolescence happened, racism couldn’t be avoided. I spent lunchtimes in detention washing spare rugby shirts by hand for no reason whatsoever. I mused over the meaning of the word ‘Paki’ and why on earth it was shouted at me across the playground. Teachers ignored my reports and sent me to detention, in which I speculated comebacks to ‘go back to your own country’. ‘This is my country’ didn’t cut it, yet it was all I could manage. It wasn’t long before my fellow pupils figured out where I lived. My mum spent Saturday mornings cleaning accurately-fired egg off our conservatory with a broom bought specifically for the purpose, and Bombay mix off our doormat (‘What a waste of Bombay Mix!’ the policemen would jest). In an attempt to block out what was actually happening, I’d squint up at the dripping yolks and imagine them to be warm suns, raging balls of fire melting from the inside out; force my friends not to report the endless stream of Paki comments to our Head of Year; do everything I could to repress my skill at school so as not to stand out and attract more attention than my fortuitous skin colour already afforded. The thought of my parents marching up to the school and demanding to be taken seriously by the same pursed-lipped teachers who walked indifferently past bullies calling my dad rag-head and chasing me around classrooms with scissors to cut off my hair, was too much.

Luckily I had the chance to move away for Sixth Form. Despite the 2hr15 door-to-door journey I had great friends and an environment where I could express myself. I compensated for my high school years by creating a ridiculously outlandish image of myself in the hope that it would distract from my skin colour; I wore leather platform boots and bright purple flares, listened to death metal and read The Great Gatsby. I studied fine art, literature and film studies, sung in a heavy-metal-with-a-harpist-and-two-female-singers band and studied photography at lunchtimes and after college, such was my obsession. For the first time I was able to channel my experience of life into something explorative, tangible and theraputic. I was good at photography, and it taught me not to be afraid of standing out.

At the Arts University Bournemouth I finally began to make peace with my culture. I documented my grandmother making langar at her local temple, my father tying his turban. It was as if I was experiencing these perfect moments for the first time. They had never been even vaguely interesting; I am ashamed to say they had embarrassed me. My dad was Braintree’s resident curry-munching Indian-accent ‘Turbanator’ and god forbid my grandmother should visit in her salwaar-kameez, speaking loudly in Punjabi and trying with her turmeric-stained fingernails to hold my hand. I’d spent years falling in love with the cultures around me, documenting Black barbers in Brixton and Jews in Synagogues in Golders Green, but I was gradually beginning to appreciate the other world on my doorstep. I’d surprise myself when bragging to my friends about my trips to India and my saris, post photos on facebook of my brother and I at weddings, him wearing his turban and me wearing a bindi. The flustered teen who was once embarrassed to be picked up from parties by a mouthless red-flourescent-turban-wearing figure was peculiarly becoming less ashamed; in fact, I was starting to feel lucky to be surrounded with such fascinating exoticism to document. The food, the language, the fashion- how could I have held onto so much hatred and humiliation for what is now a primary source of strength? Photography taught me to embrace my culture and my difference; through it I’ve been able to explore my identity. I am emancipated from the idea that I must mirror everyone else.

“The theoretical recognition of the split-space of enunciation may open the way to conceptualising an international culture, based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity. It is the inbetween space that carries the burden of the meaning of culture, and by exploring this Third Space, we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves.”

– Although I have much dislike for Homi K Bhabha, this is from his fascinating discourse The Location of Culture.

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