When my English teacher in Karachi asks about the subtle strategies of racism, I respond promptly, “Making fun of people’s accents.” Every word leaves a subtle aftertaste, the vowels spraying crumbs of an accent I spent years performing. My teacher nods enthusiastically and I feel a sharp itch at the back of my neck. An invisible pinprick. My hand lifts to scratch it but its poison has melted through me, reaching with gnarled hands of its own around my windpipe. My breath leaves me as the memories return.
Four girls with slicked back ponytails ruled my existence at my primary school in Bahrain. They rolled up their skirts to reveal delicate legs that moved with aplomb and had nothing to hide. The world smiled at them and they smiled back, their faces glowing in a spotlight that tailed them everywhere they went. They became the very girls we watched on TV without permission, girls whose faces smiled and pouted and scoffed and cried in moments you could frame, in posters you could put up on your wall. And when they spoke, their voices mimicked seamlessly the rhythm and cadences of the TV girls, the rolled r’s, the half-there t’s, the twisting of pitch that turned every sentence into a question. I yanked my own skirt downwards over plumper, stouter legs. The ones the spotlight inched away from. I felt it slipping from me then, leaving to follow the charming laughing girls it was drawn to. I was desperate, I needed them to look at me. And so, without a second thought, I opened my mouth and the words spilled from me…
“GUYS! Jayati’s accent around you is fake! It’s actually really, really Indian…” Their ponytails flipped as they turned around, ears perked up. I could feel the spotlight trailing back to me, and with it, a disgusting joy crawling through my veins.
Jayati and I had grown closer during debate sessions. After several exhausting hours of practiced, prepared speech, we loosened our words in each other’s company. I raved about my favorite food at home – my mother’s signature chicken curry. She told me about her weekend kathak classes with the other Indian girls at school and all her favorite Coldplay songs. We exchanged words on spice levels, Bollywood films, and how the brown people somehow ranked highest for every single subject – except sports. On journeys home, and then at each other’s houses, we unraveled ourselves and our origins. Although I continued to speak in a variation of the accent I had at home with heavy British overtones, I felt her dialect break loose every now and then, like the fraying of a strained elastic band.
One day on the bus, the band inside her snapped. She voiced her purest inflections, all the emphasized t’s and interchangeable v’s and w’s. She spoke of her past friendships. Friends whom she showed herself to, and who walked away snickering.
“Vee used to be so close. She told evvreebuddy about me.”
I listened deeply. It occurred to me that her unfiltered words had pierced through me, reaching ruthlessly towards the parts of myself I kept locked away. Somewhere in my nerves, I felt the echoes of a sickeningly familiar laughter…
“Oh my god Pireh. It’s TET-nus. What on earth is tet-AYY-nus!” Taken back a few weeks before our bus ride, I was now avoiding the eyes of the peach skinned girl in front of me. I stared at the floor, knees almost folding in the glaring spotlight, as she threw her head back cackling.
I had heard the whispers. They knew about my friendship with Jayati, and they had begun to ask questions. The ghosts of their conversations circled me. “Those two brown girls are always together.” “The debate room always smells of curry.” “Which one is Indian?” “They’re lucky to be here.” “My mum says they can’t celebrate Christmas.” “Do you think they get beat up by their dads?” “They get their v’s and w’s all wrong…”
Their words charged at me in a searing white light – the kind that blazes on the dark crimson wounds of patients in surgery. To be seen in this light was to become something to look away from; an unspeakable stain for those who turned their heads once and then turned back, squirming. And yet, there was a stubbornness in me, pining for the same burning light in the hope that it would one day see me right.
It took only a second to sever my friendship with Jayati, the day after the bus ride. One tiny wretched second for all those hours spent together. It terrifies me, what blinding light can do to people. What I am capable of when the light is on me.
I think of her now, as I walk out of class, on the way home, and then at dinner, as I swallow spoonfuls of the same delicious chicken curry. A soft chuckle escapes my tears as I am reminded of the infamous stereotype. Perhaps we do end up smelling like curry, after all. My mind drifts and I think of how the accent holding me by a thread in Bahrain placed me on a pedestal when I moved back to Karachi. How the jittery nervousness that had smothered me for so long began to stifle people around me. I am relieved, repulsed, fearful, angry, and many other suppressions that have morphed into a miserable indigo smoke. Defeated, I resign myself to the truth that nothing good can come from chasing the bright white light. No reward or satisfaction, when its color is not yours to begin with.
Before I stepped out of the bus that day, Jayati looked right at me, a beaming smile stretching across her face. There was another spotlight we shared in that moment. Not a blinding one, but one that shimmered softly on our darker skin. A clear blue.
There will always be spotlights that will never shine on us. But perhaps our revolution begins quietly, here. With two people who stand together in stillness, making their own light.