Looking like a ‘Negro’ in India and searching for a connection has provided Joshua Muyiwa with a language that is understood neither by those closest to him, nor those with whom he shares the texture of his hair.
In college, all those stories I had meticulously filed away for 18 years finally had an ear. Abhishek, my femme-on-the-street-butch-in-the-sheets friend, was an invasive listener. His own relationships were spectator sports; his telling of them endearing, and his living of them fabulous.
At four, I was accused of being a liar. I told our neighbour’s youngest daughter that my grandparents owned a lion. When she asked to see the real thing, I told her sternly that she couldn’t. Dewaki, my silver-haired, mercury-tongued, green-thumbed Nepali grandmother remembers this moment as the first inklings of a career based on telling lies. Bernard, my silverhaired, bible-thumping, Malayali grandfather uses the event to mark my straying off the straight and narrow path.
Abhishek forced me into a freedom where telling stories involved engaging all the senses. He has a way with words; he once described a momentary power-out as a “hiccup of electricity”. His stories have become my conversation; his gift of embellishing each moment with a steely innocence has forced me to do the same with my own. The well-archived inflections aren’t always linear or clear; the little can be made a lot of.
Then there’s Nithin, who functions as a kind of reward for long hours spent whispering into pillows and to whom one can tell everything − from the antics of lovers and the colour of one’s curtains to nationwide carrot-cake comparisons. His is not an easy ear to win, but a worthwhile one when won.
I began to not only anchor my stories, but also colour in the details. My desire to tell stories at all can be traced to the moment I first walked into Koshy’s − a coffee shop, restaurant and repository of conversational excess − where I encountered thinking, sexual people and a vernacular melodrama in which I knew I wanted to act out my life. Maybe it also began with looking black.
Anna Augustine, my mother, was born in Bangalore. She was a student of the Humanities and typing, and was also a huge fan of Gary Sobers. John Muyiwa, my father, was born in Nigeria: either Kano, Ibadan or Lagos, one can never be sure. He moved to Bangalore to study engineering. They met over basketball and fell in love; the exact details are sketchy because they are not easily weaselled out of my grandparents.
They were married in Bangalore, at home, and my mother moved to Nigeria. They lived in either Kano, Ibadan or Lagos, one can never be sure. Her letters to my grandmother are from addresses in all three cities. We know that she worked there as a school teacher. I was born in January 1986. A little later, I was joined by a younger brother. In 1988, we both contracted pneumonia. He died. I didn’t.
In May 1989, my mother left my father and returned to India. She died exactly eight days after arriving home. She was extremely weak after taking care of two sickly boys and losing one of them, and went straight into hospital − where a bubble entered her intravenous glucose supply, causing her to go into cardiac arrest. I’m not sure if the phrase ‘medical malpractice’ was in circulation then.
My grandparents informed my father of the death of my mother and asked him to come here and take me back. I have now lived in Bangalore for 19 years.
I don’t rem ember a single thing about Kano, Ibadan or Lagos. Sometimes, I look at the family albums my mother brought back with her and
I feel no connection to the images. People say that children only have memories from the age of three. Or maybe it’s because I don’t speak Yoruba any more, and I spent my first two years in that language.
My memories begin at about the age of three. From the comments, I remember being disconcerted that my physical presence didn’t correspond with my sense of my presence in the world. This mismatch was key to understanding my grandfather’s emotional relationship with me. He was most loving when I professed love for any kind of coconut-based gravy, or a craving for masala dosa, or if I vacated his favourite chair when he wanted to sit in the drawing room. When I spat out my food or refused to vacate his chair, I was my father’s son − a Negro.
Other people made this mismatch even clearer: I was handsome when my hair was short; I had Negro strength if a playful smack hurt even a little. And any lie I ever told was immediately used to remind me of my father’s lies − of coming from royal blood and having royal money.
But I had no time to burst into tears over any of this. I had a bigger problem on my head, namely, my hair. At the tender age of three years and four months, I remember staring at an instrument that looked like a fat, squashed fork: my first encounter with an Afro pick. I cried. It didn’t
look like the walrus teeth that Bernard, my grandfather, ran through his long, grey hair. It looked like it was meant to attack, not soothe. I wore my hair short for many years.
My grandmother had never encountered hair like mine. The closest she had seen was my Uncle Hubert’s thick, wavy locks. She would comb my hair from front to back like one would do with regular hair. If you don’t have regular hair, you will know that this hurts. Black hair must be combed from the back of the neck towards the crown; this way, it lessens the pain and maintains the curls. I figured this out in an act of rebellion, the only one that didn’t end in tears. On my sixth birthday, I tore my grandmother’s heart apart by asking for my own bedroom. I got it. This new-found freedom led to ever-increasing demands, usually denied, upon which I would express myself by running into the bathroom and messing up my hair.
When I was 14, I discovered Sparks, a local club that hosted something called “hip hop Thursdays”. I don’t think I had actually heard any hip hop before venturing into the club that first Thursday afternoon. (I’m certain that Snow and Vanilla Ice don’t count.) Many Thursdays, beers and cigarettes later, I confessed to my group of regulars that I found the music incredible. I asked if they could write me CDs of the tracks. A boy who had the charming ability to put the group’s thoughts into words said, “You like black things because you think you’re black.” I laughed at him.
The truth is, I laughed at him nervously. Something inside me simultaneously wanted to accept and evade the obvious deduction that people would come to anyway: that my tastes were the result of an instinctive affiliation with all things black − never mind that my own knowledge of anything black at that time was wholly constituted by the triumvirate of Alex Haley, Bob Marley and Michael Jackson.
When the time came, I didn’t go to black culture by instinct: it was given to me. At sixteen, via Arul, an unusually warm-hearted English teacher, I heard Fela Kuti’s music, I met Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana, and I read Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy. Fela was fabulous, subversive, random and full of resolve, and yet I don’t think I’ve gone back to him since that initial obsession. Ekwensi and Aidoo opened up a world of black literature and poetry where characters made mistakes and struggled and won and lost and generally behaved like human beings, and for this, I will always love them.
But I do not love Ekwensi and Aidoo more or less than Djuna Barnes and Billy Collins, and I will never like all of them equally or in the same way. Sometimes I accuse myself of liking black artists only because they are black. Then I comfort myself with the assurance that the accusation is only as much true as it is false.
One day not very long ago, I walked out of the rigid, structured English education system that kids from Bangalore’s old neighbourhoods are put through, and stepped into the halls of Christ College. I was finally forced to make friends with people who lived beyond the eight streets I called my neighbourhood.
I met my first real black person.
Ntemi wanted to improve his conversational English, and my English teacher, a Marge Simpson look-alike, decided that it would be best for him to meet me. At first, I didn’t understand any of Ntemi’s jokes. The odd thing was, I knew he was funny; I got the jokes. I just didn’t get them enough to laugh along. Ntemi found it hard to navigate the city because he couldn’t speak or read Kannada. He often slipped into Swahili, of which, naturally, I didn’t understand a word. We even spoke English differently. His accent marked him as African, and mine, well, mine didn’t fit my face.
There was one thing though: Ntemi never talked down to me. Our awkward and bumbling relationship lasted all of two weeks, and at the end of it I knew that I was probably never going to fit into stories that have already been written.
Ntemi took me to a social gathering of African students. People complained about the constant scrutiny they seemed to be under, and the incessant gaping on the street that made them think twice about wearing bright clothes and going out alone. I suppose they were happy to connect, but it made my own disconnection loom larger. I spent the evening alone, leaning against a wall, counting the minutes until a polite escape. On the journey home that night, I wondered how it could be that while I understood everything I had just heard − the staring, the sartorial judgement, the groping − I could not recognise the language of complaint. My language of complaint, I guess, was my very own.
I know better than to construe every stare as aggression or xenophobia; I know perfectly well that quite often, staring is an innocent expression of curiosity. This is not to deny that I’ve been asked to pay foreigner’s fees at museums, or to deny that my bag has been searched for drugs at the airport and the railway station. This is also not to deny that a faculty member at my college saw me hugging a girl and accused me of spreading “black culture”. And yet, reacting to these taunts makes me feel annoyed; I’ve learnt that ignoring them invariably makes the taunter more annoyed than me.
I am amused at what appears to be a full-fledged global movement to dim the lights on race. Colour-blindness is apparently the thing, so much so that any declaration of any racial identity has become, in itself, a kind of racist act. Of course, news of this new consciousness has not reached India, not even Bangalore, where it is still the inalienable right of the man on the street to come up to me and say: “Are you West-Indian? South African? Dawg! Brotha! Michael Jackson!”
Sometimes, I wish Nigeria would just win the World Cup.
Joshua Muyiwa‘s account also features in Chimurenga Vol. 16: The Chimurenga Chronic (available here).
Set in the week 18-24 May 2008, the Chronic, imagines the newspaper as a producer of time – a time-machine – which travels backwards and forwards, to place these events within a broader context and thereby to challenge the logic of emergencies and immediate needs that characterise contemporary African media.