Recently I have been finding myself increasingly bewildered by the clamouring world around me. All distinction between truth and lies seems to have disappeared. For each abhorrent racist statement, there appears to be an industry of those who turn up to tell me I understood wrong, that it is my own fault that I misheard, misread, misunderstood. The gaslighting voices are so loud, so pervasive that at times I fear my hold on any sense of reality.
But in the midst of the fury of inarticulate noises, one image ties me fast to lived realities, to complex histories, to truths that will not be denied: it is the gajagamini, the woman who walks like elephants.
That woman is not slender or fey or sprightly. She has no skin like alabaster or silk but instead the colour of earth, toughened by bright sun and monsoon rain and wild storm winds. Her hips are wide, her thighs strong, her round behind as generous and full as the curved belly where her laughter is born. And her laugh is no delicate chiming of bells. It bursts forth like the elephant’s trumpet, sharp, loud, bellowing. And then there is her gait. Deliberate, measured, each foot placed implacably before the other, powered interminably by those powerful muscles of her belly, hips, thighs, calves. She is not built for sprints and thousand metre runs but instead for crossing interminable lands, even continents, always with that same slow, swaying, determined grace.
Growing up in the shadowed, receding jungles of the terai, I learn that the gajagamini is attractive, seductive, aspirational. That her strength puts her beyond the reach of predators. That her power makes her near invincible. As a child, I was told that I am fortunate because the gajagamini is my heritage, that she lives in my skin, that she is my future.
The first lesson of the jungles of the terai is that silences are both dangerous and safe. That some forms of peace indicate the hunter and those are only broken by startled, sharp bursts of fear and flight and death. Then there are silences that lull, soothe, when an inexplicable tremor is shared on the skins of beings of many different kinds, passing on messages of safety, solidarity, peace on a quiet hot afternoon.
In that jungle, and before I can speak in full sentences, I learn that humans who come to see us also share the same knowledge. Our dinner table seems to draw people from many places on the globe: high plateaus in the Himalayas, river deltas along the seas, deserts and veldts from another continent, even from the steppes far to our north and the bayou on the other end of the world. Our family home at the edge of the jungle is where politics of the Cold War and aspirations of liberation movements bring strangers from many lands across the threshold. Over glasses of whisky, talk is always transactional, pragmatic, strategic. But late, after meals have been devoured, and the storm lanterns refilled with oil, a comfortable lull fills the air. Sometimes, as I fall asleep in my mother’s lap, I feel an inexplicable tremor pass from one being to another. Like a sudden breeze that awakens all senses, flows over all our skins, kindles the same understanding.
Here, now, we are safe.
Here, now, despite all the differences, we are of the same herd.
Here, now we are united in the pain that we know but of which we cannot, must not speak.
As I grow, I find that silences are comforting especially when there are no words that will not lead to further pain, misunderstanding, anger, especially because we beings of many different kinds can only speak to each other in the tongues of the colonizers. English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Dutch, German are lingua franca amongst those seeking liberation and we muddle along till we can communicate. Our own languages have been destroyed or mutilated or forgotten. Our own words have sometimes been extracted from our hearts and skins and replaced with only those that the colonizer values.
Even when we attempt to speak to each other if only to offer a balm on a wound that we recognize from our own, we stumble, we hesitate, and all too often we prod an injury that, like our own, refuses to heal. Our attempts at healing each other, at sharing if not the pain then the knowledge of it, is confused with more attempts to harm. After all, we have all been turned into weapons of the oppressor.
As a teenager in New York, I discover that I am invisible. I am invisible because women like me are not supposed to exist in this postcolonial world. Surrounded by steel and glass, wealth and power, I am invisible to white people who have no room in their lives, homes, streets or imagination for me. Just as I begin to wonder if it is better to disappear entirely, she finds me. In the middle of 137th street on a hot summer afternoon. A woman with short neat locs and the gait of the elephant.
She demands the right to befriend me, to teach me, and I gladly surrender, learning from her of her mother’s land, of reggae and Jamaica and decolonization, and of race politics in Amerika. She cajoles me into talking of things that I have been told are too painful, too immodest, too private. And before I leave on my peregrinations, she gifts me the building blocks of a language that I can use to talk to other beings. A language that is of the oppressor but recolonized by us, by people of many colours, by beings of many kinds. It is still clumsy on my tongue but she reminds me that I only need to speak carefully, slowly, deliberately.
Like the elephant.
In Mexico, they are confused by me. I look similar but different, they tell me. Paler Mexicans tell me not to call myself india because it is deregotary, although they easily use the word for their compatriots. In the Sierra Gorda, an old woman holds her arm next to mine for a long time. She tells me that my skin is aceituna, brown with an olive tone, but hers is café con leche. I can’t see the difference so she tells me I must learn to see. Later I think she must have passed on the word because people in other villages in the mountains begin to call me ‘la mujer aceituna,’ the olive woman. They mean it kindly so I begin to like it.
In Latin America, I acquire more languages of the conquerors, first Spanish, then a smattering of Portuguese and fragments of French.
Southern Africa makes me suddenly visible. Hyper visible. Accustomed to not being seen, recognized, known, my first days in Windhoek are disorientating. People know I am from India, at least in my roots. When I open my mouth, it gives me away as not local but also not directly from the subcontinent. I am a different kind of conundrum here.
But in the immediate heady days after liberation, it is not bad to be Indian. We have apparently fought on the right side, with the liberation movement. When Nelson Mandela visits, he asks to talk to a doctor I have met. She is tiny and outgoing and brilliant. It turns out she is also a respected Umkhonto we Sizwe member, her blood intertwined with histories of many peoples along the ocean rim. I meet others like her with tangled histories of colonization and displacements carried within their skins: a Norwegian-English engineer is married to a fiery warrior woman of Ghanaian and Indian parentage. Their children have an unprecedented choice: to become handmaids of white supremacy or vanguards of the liberation. They speak German and English and Oshiwambo while we eat but afterwards as they race across the veldt, their words are swallowed up by a complex system of clicking sounds.
When the sky turns psychedelic with dusk, I envy their freedom.
Each time, I find new peoples, I think of my friend from New York and try to add to the language she had begun to teach me. I use conquerors’ words glibly, sloppily, wanting to break them every time I use them. But I am much more careful when I add to the language my friend had gifted me then. Each time, I learn a new word, I check how the colonizer uses it. And then secretly, furtively, I check with those on the other side. And this new coded tongue, I use with care, even affection.
In my mind, I start to call it the language of liberation. But sometimes, after too many tequilas or piscos or cachaça, I call it the language of revolution. And I grow proud as I learn more of it.
London is a cacophony of words, sounds, languages. And it recognizes me. Knows where to slot me in its ancient filing system complete by gender, race, class, sexuality, region, religion, ethnicity, age, ability. Its creaking, ancient, ad infinitum system of fitting human beings into boxes is covered with a shiny gloss and many colours so at first it feels exhilarating. Like throwing oneself out of a plane. And it creates a kind of dreamscape where things, images, people from the past and other places disappear and reappear in different order each time. But over time, the exhilaration wears off and I begin to notice that words sound the same but mean different things.
I realise that I am visible in London. But only as the other, the foreigner, the lesser than…the natives. To be despised, demeaned, feared. When the island’s natives call me Asian, it isn’t necessarily a compliment. When they call me Indian, they are making assumptions of my political ideology and class rather than my country of origin. After a while, I begin to feel relief when they call me Paki. It is a slur and not quite true but at least the word means what they intend.
There are others like me who also face these insults. This British ability to invent a dizzying variety of racial and ethnic abuse is perhaps one of the less pernicious legacies of ruling the world. I seek out others targeted by these weapons to check if they too feel relief, if we speak the same language even if we converse in English. And often they agree.
The slurs are at least honest because at most other times, the natives tell us that we do not understand their words and actions. That we do not see truly, hear correctly. This island and its natives are very good at playing a special mind game where truth is declared false.
But we, the newly arrived, the colonized, also speak in foreign tongues even when forming the same words. I begin to worry that the Empire Mothership excises our ability to seek freedom of the mind as a condition of entry.
A British Asian writer grows furious with me for pointing out the geo-political privilege of carrying a British passport. I speak at a literary festival and the room is packed with people who want to hear about racial inequality in the UK but the audience bleeds away when I note the inequalities of class, caste, religion, ethnicities ‘back home.’ A young black British writer dismisses my work with unexpected fury and I am befuddled until I recognise that he is reading my race, age and markers of class. When a journalist with roots in the Levant asks about the protagonist of my novel, misidentifying her by race, I understand that despite the many sounds of the Empire Mothership, we are surrounded by dangerous silences. We aren’t speaking about ourselves, to ourselves. We are only speaking back to the shades and shapes of the empire.
One night, hurt and exhausted, I make a list of things I want to hear, of questions I want to ask, of answers I want to seek and learn: are we irreparably broken by our histories, especially since so many of us have been and still are weaponized against each other? Can we become friends when equality remains a dream even amongst those of us who look similar? Can we be lovers when we have been taught to fear and envy and hate each other and ourselves? Where can desire take seed when our brown and black bodies are negated and abnegated? Can we ever find ways to negotiate the many webs of dispossession and marginalization, of colour and shape and desires and histories? How can we rebuild ourselves or forge our futures when we are so angry and afraid and yet direct our frustrations at each other?
For weeks, months, even some years, I hold the questions within, understanding that my tension is that of a doe waiting for the predator to pounce. That I am afraid that the carefully maintained silences that the colonizer has built around us will shatter and bury me within if I speak these questions out loud.
Time passes and then one night at a pub in Soho, a journalist with roots in Uganda starts to talk. I recognize the quiver in her voice, the pain that throbs below her smile, the tense shiver as she forms words that I have been too afraid to speak. As her voice flows over those of us gathered around the table, I feel that old, familiar, inexplicable tremor pass over us, from one skin to the next to the next.
When she finishes, someone else speaks. And then another, and another, and another. When finally, we fall silent, someone rises to get the next round and we remain on the table. The danger has passed. Instead, the lack of words soothes and lulls and comforts. Quick glances, half-smiles, still no sound, but the message has been received.
Here, now, we are safe.
Here, now, despite all the differences, we are of the same herd.
Here, now we are united in the pain that we know and of which we can, we must speak.
On the coast of south western Africa, is one of the most arid spots on earth. Long ago, I read that it is too hot, too dry to sustain life. But now I know this isn’t true. Even in that most hostile of places, life clings on, not only existing but flourishing, and visible to those of us who make the effort to see.
Every evening, as the temperatures cool, something magical happens. Out of the dunes, come many beings. The small dung beetle. The slinking hyena. The various desert deer. The rare lion. And the elephant. They walk silently and carefully amongst white ghostly carcasses of whales and other sea creatures to seat themselves by the shoreline. As the sun disappears, a dense mist rolls in from the sea and covers the quiet beings on the beach. As hushed land is obscured, the shapes begin to move. Languidly, unhurriedly, they lick up the tears of the sea from their skins, finding sustenance on themselves until the next dusk.
Then as if by magic, the mist disappears and the moon appears high in the sky. The shapes melt away, fading back into the dunes as if they were just figments of imagination. Soon there is no sign that the lion and doe had rested side by side on the sands one more time.
But when the elephant stirs, it is hard to miss. In this place, so far from the Indian terai, the elephant still walks with the same slow grace. Its swaying gait blows up none of the loose sand. Its path back into the desert is ploughed and churned, perhaps from the daily journeys here and by many of its kind, but the spoor disappears suddenly into the vastness without a trace.
In the moonlight, the elephant too swells and ripples, sways and undulates, growing smaller and dimmer in the distance and then in just a blink of the eye, it disappears.
Sunny Singh is a London based writer, academic and literary activist. She is the author of three critically acclaimed novels: Nani’s Book of Suicides, was praised as a “first novel of rare scope and power” and its Spanish translation won the inaugural Mar de Letras prize; With Krishna’s Eyes (2006) which was commended for its “profound insight” and described as “memorable”; and Hotel Arcadia (2015) described as “powerful and absorbing” and “elegantly plotted, psychologically subtle, and almost unbearably exciting.”
Her first non-fiction book, Single in the City: The Independent Woman’s Handbook (2001), is a first-of-its-kind exploration of single women in contemporary India. She has published short stories in prestigious international literary journals including The Drawbridge, The Good Journal and World Literature Today. Her creative nonfiction and academic writing has been published across the world in key journals and anthologies. She also writes for newspapers and magazines, in Spanish and English, across the globe. Her latest book, published by the British Film Institute, is a study of the Indian superstar Amitabh Bachchan (2017). She is the current chairperson of the historic Authors Club and a founder of the Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour.