By Bava Dharani
Source: Edgar Su/Reuters
I am Singaporean, Singaporean-Indian. On my national identity card, my name is written in English, then underneath it in Tamil, my mother tongue. The Indian population makes up about 9 % of the population here, most of which came during the late 1800s to early 1900s as labourers, merchants, and civil servants. My family came as labourers.
I studied in SOAS, London. The friends I met there allowed me to imagine a lifetime of learning. I am very grateful to them. I also realise the enormous privileges afforded to me, to be able to study, dig up, collect, and write these stories as someone in a Western university.
This idea that our histories are separate. That what happened in Singapore and Malaysia in the 1960s did not in some form impact India. Or England even. If we dare to even claim that sort of power over the Global North. I think this distance- that colonial historical narratives have drawn between us, between our communities, between our histories- is the biggest inhibition to our coming together. One incident helped me understand this, which I’d like to share.
Not too long ago, my family tried to gain more information about the villages from which my ancestors might have come from. This led us to a village called, Karisalkullam (Black pond) in Madurai, Tamil Nadu; my grandfather’s village. He had a family there before he had travelled to other colonies in Southeast Asia prior to settling in Singapore. It was an incident in this village that has left a deep impact on me and made me understand how my life was connected to that of my aunt’s- my atthai’s.
In Karisalkullam, my atthai lived in a small brick house painted bright green. My parents and I went in after praying at our family goddess’s temple nearby. As the afternoon passed, I had to use the washroom. Of course, my atthai did not have a washroom, she used a more environmentally conscious method that involved going out in the open with a bucket. Something I have not been accustomed to. I tell my mother that I need to use a washroom, she tells my atthai while snickering the whole time, covering her embarrassment of how whitewashed I sound.
My atthai calls out to another woman, and three very loud children come with her. This woman takes me with her to her house, her three kids follow, giggling very loudly at the purpose of my visit to their house. She tells me how her house is the only house that has an “English toilet” in the entire village. I listen and nod. She tells me how she had this toilet built because her husband makes good money from Dubai. Her husband was a construction worker in Dubai and has been for years. She then tells me how the entire long row of houses where her house is situated, all the husbands and young men are either in Dubai, Qatar, Malaysia, or (while brushing my shoulder lightly) Singapore.
I reach her house, and I see her toilet. The toilet is the first room at the entrance of the house. I walk in, and it is the cleanest toilet I have ever been in. It was a toilet at a showroom. I was confused, but I then realised that no one actually uses this English toilet, rather it was a status symbol. South Asian people are known to do that. Conventionally they love buying gold, so this English toilet was a more unconventional symbol. But a symbol, nevertheless.
I come back to my atthai’s house, and I sit with her. Her father had left for Malaysia or Sri Lanka under the pretext of finding work. And this woman, the one with the only English toilet in Karisalkullam, her husband is now in Dubai. Very different times, very different labour migration routes, and yet the idea of working abroad is a promising future for you and the preservation of your community.
To imagine this possibility, that these stories too are deserving of books, poems, and learning. People have moved, and people are moving, and people will move. These people get written with such little words in the news and are often reduced to only figures and case numbers that receive little attention. It is wild just to imagine the stories behind each case file. When I was working as a paralegal in this small employment firm after graduating from law school, I saw hundreds of case files. Hundreds of names followed by coded numbers. Some have committed petty crimes, some were complaining that they had not received their payments, and some were badly injured. Imagine if you traced each story, and each person’s journey, to their village home where the story of how they have gotten an English toilet awaits you.
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