The Colonized Self

By | August 31, 2019

In the mid to late 1960s, my maternal grandfather sought to expand his industrial operations outside India, and began exploring the idea of establishing a manufacturing footprint in the newly Independent nations of South East Asia. By 1970, once the troubles of May 1969 had settled down, a joint venture was founded in what was then known as West Malaysia, and a factory to produce such light engineering goods as hacksaw blades, machine tools, and gauges was set up in the newly built industrial estates of Shah Alam.

As new factories mushroomed in Shah Alam, jobs were found aplenty, and Malaysia thrived with growth rates of 7% to 8%. We became the first of the Asian Tiger economies.

John Drabble’s Economic History of Malaysia sheds light on the timing of this expansion and the choice of country:

However, since about 1970 the leading sector in development has been a range of export-oriented manufacturing industries such as textiles, electrical and electronic goods, rubber products etc. Government policy has generally accorded a central role to foreign capital, while at the same time working towards more substantial participation for domestic, especially bumiputera, capital and enterprise.

The attraction of foreign capital; the export orientation of the factory; the industrialized nature of the venture; and, the promise to provide employment and capacity building for locals; made for an attractive partnership between the long established Indian industrialist and technocrat, and the tiny group of local capital with long historic ties to the Subcontinent. For British Malaya, the colonial administration’s labour policies created a far more multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society than has been the norm in other parts of their Empire – Malaysia, and its breakaway island, Singapore, consider Tamil and Mandarin, English and Malay as their official national languages, and the local cuisine reflects the blending of cultures over the centuries. It is hard to feel like a foreigner in either country, to be honest, but perhaps I’m biased having spent a lifetime as an outsider looking in.

And so, my father, the newly appointed Managing Director of the joint venture Malaysian Gauge & Tools Sdn Bhd, relocated from Calcutta to Kuala Lumpur, and on Christmas Eve, 1970, my very young mother arrived with two little girls in tow. We were now officially expatriates, as we were known back in the day. (The politicization of the word expat is a very recent thing). This meant we were restricted to studying in schools that would accept foreign students, and the choices available in the decade after the establishment of Malaysia in 1963 were few.

Two prep schools run on British lines for preparing children to return Home to the UK to complete their education, and the American style International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL) attracting the global diplomatic community. Over the course of the next 13 years, I was to attend them both, graduating from ISKL in 1983, after picking up 7 GCE O Levels from London University by the way of The Garden School, in 1982. But back in 1971, I began my international education in a kindergarten run by the Swiss, the closest my mother could find that resembled the Montessori kindergarten I’d been attending in Calcutta. It was close to home and even now I can picture the playground and the classroom very clearly in my mind’s eye.

Thus begins the story of my colonized self.

“i lost cultures
i lost a whole language
i lost my religion
i lost it all in the fire
that is colonization”

~ Ijeoma Umebinyuo

To be sure, my mother tried her best back in late 1972 when I finished kindergarten. Basing her decision on the fact that my father was on a 3 year contract, she arranged for me to fly back – my first solo international flight in November 1972 by the now defunct British Overseas Airways Corporation – to Calcutta so that I could begin primary school at age 7 in 1973. I was admitted to Mahadevi Birla girls school in Ballygunge, a few minutes by car from my grandfather’s house, directly into Class 2. I’ll have to confirm the facts and the name of the school, for I was only there for one year, but it would have taught me Hindi and Sanskrit eventually, and the history and geography of my own passport country. My memory informs me that life might still have a colonial flavour, for I recall being bathed and dressed by my ayah around 4pm to be walked down to play croquet with the little boy down the road, then to have tea in his nursery.

But it was not to be. By the end of 1973, having survived two bouts of typhoid that put a strain on my young unmarried aunts (my maternal grandmother having passed away in childbirth), I was to return to my parents in Malaysia where my father’s contract had been extended. I started Junior 1 in February 1974 at The Garden School, a post War school which had been designed to serve the needs of British expatriates in Malaya that would eventually come to offer the London University General Certificate of Education (O Level) examinations in the Pure Sciences, the Arts, and Commerce.

Our uniforms were made of an imported wool based fabric for the longest time, completely inappropriate for the tropical climate, and our education completely disconnected from our locale. Today, I know more about Stephen and Mathilda fighting for the crown of England than I do of Ashoka the Great, and whilst we did make maps of Peninsular Malaya in geography, our textbooks and library books were almost completely imported. By age 11, I was devouring Tolkien thanks to Mrs Allsop’s use of The Hobbit for English Literature, and John Wyndham after being introduced to The Day of the Triffids. At a younger age, my precocious readership rapidly progressed through various colour levels denoting reading ability. By age 9, I was wearing spectacles with -2.75 power and had tested at a reading level of age 13. Lots and lots of Enid Blyton was to shape my thinking for many decades thereafter.

So much so that when I finally visited the UK for the first time in 2005, I told my friend in Yorkshire that what I was really looking forward to seeing was the village bobby and the life so well described by Blyton in her children’s adventures. That was perhaps the first time the mere frisson of having been colonized passed through me. I had grown up in a newborn country carved out of a former British colony still finding its feet as an independent nation and attended the colonial master’s schools, the proper British prep school education poured into my head completely remote and disconnected from the tropical multicultural life outside.

Malaysia and Singapore are much younger than India, and were still wobbly toddlers in learning the ropes of Independence when we moved there.  You can see similar signs of this even in Kenya, although there are significant differences in the way the colonizer imposed his authority and intellectual legacy on the African as compared to the South East Asian. Happy Valley versus Somerset Maugham, if you ask me.

Music classes in primary school consisted of singing songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber, or the classics such as Scarborough Fair and The Carnival is Over accompanied by our teacher on the piano. Though 1975 is now 44 years ago, fragments of the lyrics of these tunes remain deeply embedded within me. (Hums ‘Close every door to me…’). I have never learnt a single Hindi song completely, and the words national anthem evoke the Negaraku rather than Jana Gana Mana in my mind.

Meanwhile, by the time I completed primary school and started Form One in 1977, my first language was English, and my second language was to become French, the latter compulsory until the O Level. My mother, bless her heart, tried her best to teach us Hindi – her major in college – and the Devanagari script, starting after I’d returned from school in Calcutta so that I would not forget what little I’d learnt. These informal lessons were to continue over the next few years but were never able to take us much past the basic levels of knowing the alphabet and being able to read and write at a very basic level. It was only in January 1982, 6 months prior to the O Levels, that my mother insisted I take Hindi instead of French and she and I struggled using a tattered copy of the Reader’s Digest to prepare me for the exam. It is the only C I have in the sea of As I was to receive for Math, English, Biology, Chemistry and Physics. I had to drop English Literature as well as French in order to carve out the time to study this foreign language that was officially my mother’s tongue. I suspect I would gotten As in them too.

Today I retain vestiges of this ad hoc home schooling in Hindi albeit with the reading level of a 6 or 8 year old, and can scratch devanagri letters to cope with my limited vocabulary of basic words. Time spent in Delhi in the 1990s gave me fluency in speaking and understanding but never have I been able to read a book in my own language nor comprehend the high Hindi of the state broadcaster’s news hour. I have been crippled, able to think and dream only in the colonizer’s language, and now, must claim English as my first language on official documents lest someone send me materials in my ‘native’ tongue which would be incomprehensible to me.

So, this is my starting point for exploring the themes of colonization and decolonization and what it means to have everything taken from me – the history of my heritage, the songs and music of my culture, and of my city of birth, the millennia old legacies of philosophy and science and literature in Sanskrit, even the tastes of home, which to me has become the culinary traditions of South East Asia rather than India. Even now, I’d rather stir fry some noodles or make laksa than chapatis and dal. This is my colonized self, educated in Keats and Hughes, preferring classic science fiction and fantasy to Bollywood’s heartrending melodramas. I’m more comfortable continuing my outsider/insider existence in Finland, than walking around feeling like a disconnected fake in New Delhi. This liminal space is itself my only continuous and familiar home for the best part of 50 years. I have no other place to ‘go home’ to, the colonizers took it with them.

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