சென்னை சென்ட்ரலின் நினைவுகள்

Remains of Chennai Central

The path of self-discovery through universalism and multiculturalism

By Chloé Kichenane, Opinion Editor

Growing up, I dreaded going to India every summer. The prospect of leaving France to spend two months in the heavy heat, shuttling from one family member to another, and having to speak Tamil brought me nothing but anguish and desperation for cancelled flights. My resentment of my Indian identity extended to every aspect of my life. I would doggedly refuse to address my mom in Tamil, cry for hours to avoid wearing a churidar, and sulk on our way to the temple. Apart from my mom’s cooking, I rejected every link to my Indianness—I just wanted to be a French kid.

Despite my obstinance, one memory from my annual stays remained with me: The Chennai train station. Ironically, I first encountered it in France, on the screen. Among the few Indian movies my parents and I ever watched was Madrasapattinam, a historical romantic drama set in Chennai—then called Madras—at the time of Independence.

I was about six years old when I first saw Chennai with my own eyes. Years later, my memories of that first visit are still visceral, as if it was just yesterday when our cab drove out of the Chennai Central Station and into the chaos of the city. Although modern-day Chennai is far different from the 1940s colonial setting of the movie, the station and its clock tower, where the two lovers fought for their impossible love, stood still in time. Everything was just like I imagined it to be. For the first time in my life, I recognized a piece of myself in India.

The memory of Madrasapattinam gradually faded as I grew up. What was once my favourite movie and the core of my nascent Indian identity became more and more difficult to grasp. Summers in India went by, each one more alienating than the last as a growing language barrier—an invisible wall—stood between my family and me. Every word I pronounced was tainted with a sharp French accent I couldn’t even notice until I was asked to repeat myself. Slowly, this fear of making a fool of myself, of being unable to prove myself worthy and legitimate of my Tamil heritage, led me to lose it. While my younger self—the one who would dream of roaming the streets of 1947 Chennai—spoke a charmingly flawed but intelligible Tamil, what was once my mother tongue faded to be nothing more than just my mother’s tongue.

Yet, I remind myself that language preservation is a product of transmission, not a signifier of cultural identity. Growing up with a multicultural upbringing, my Tamil dad and my elder sister both spoke to me exclusively in French, while my mom used a mix of both languages, a sweet in-between that now sounds just like home to me. My own experience is far from unique, and is merely just the reflection of a larger trend among second-generation immigrants across the world. In 2006, a study by Statistics Canada found that only 55 per cent of Canadian children born to immigrants could communicate in their parents’ native language.

This loss of heritage often goes hand-in-hand with a sense of guilt and resentment. As I look at my mom for help with panicked eyes while her father—my only remaining grandparent—tells me a story that I can only understand in glimpses, I think about all the other ones that will forever remain inaccessible. I can hear the clock ticking, like an invisible hand pushing me to get to work and learn everything before it’s too late—before history gets lost forever. But I’m only human. Instead, I stare at the poems my grandfather writes to me for my birthdays, unable to understand the meaning behind the beauty of the Tamil characters (Tata) carefully traced with colourful ink. All I can do is sit in silence and hold his hand wrinkled by the years, hoping it’s true what they say, that a heart without words is better than words without a heart.

Beyond the Lunchbox essay

For all these quiet aching moments of powerlessness, I blame French Universalism. The Republican ideals of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” —Liberty, Equality, Fraternity— obscure a darker reality for immigrant communities. Under the guise of Equality, France refuses to see our colours, washing over our individual distinctions. France neglects our identity with such tenacity that it is even illegal to collect statistics indicating directly or indirectly the racial or ethnic origins of persons. By forcing its universalist ideals on communities, France drives cultural loss for second-generation immigrants. Non-white French citizens like me tend to push their ethnic background aside and stress their Frenchness to assert their right to exist in every space and belong in society. In the eyes of many, often white, French citizens, opposing the sacred ideal of universalism—born through the fire of the French Revolution—is synonymous with supporting division within society.

Having grown up with these ideals, I’ve always considered myself French before anything else. Still to this day, introducing myself by saying, “I am French”, is a daily task, often followed by a subtle, surprised eyebrow raise. But the statement is true: I speak the same language as those whose families have lived in France for countless generations and share almost all the same cultural references. Despite having been a victim of racist micro-agressions throughout my entire life, I was socialized within a privileged white Catholic community. Though I was the only person of colour in my entire high school, I identified with my peers. This brought me to an important realization: In my case, class dynamics overruled race.

Being born in an upper-middle-class family, money washed over our main cultural differences and fostered my ability to integrate into white society. Being a minority will never be easy, but I remind myself daily that I won the lottery—and my experiences are merely anecdotes compared to the financial struggles endured by many other second-generation immigrants. Like many children of immigrants, I have had my “lunchbox moment”. I made sure to never use my hands when eating with my non-Indian peers—I know the shame and humiliation of being regarded as non-civilized, as “less than.” I have also faced discrimination and have lost opportunities because of my skin colour or my 16-letter last name that I do my best to hide. But I refuse to confine my identity to these incidents. As mortifying as these experiences are, they still arise from a place of relative privilege. We must remind ourselves that the immigrant struggle goes far past the lunchbox.

Jaime*, a member of South Asian Youth Collective (SAY), grew up with an Indian ethnic background in a country in the Middle East. She has a first-hand experience of class privilege through her family’s integration into Middle Eastern society.

“South Asians are generally considered lower because a lot of labourers would be from South Asian and South-East Asian countries,” Jaime told me. “Financial situation in this case did matter. My family was pretty financially stable and so our experience would differ compared to someone who was less financially stable.”

By limiting representation of immigrant experiences to the lunchbox trope, we risk obscuring differing experiences of oppression in the diaspora conditioned by identities such as class and gender. Jaime explained how the intersection of class and race dynamics in her home country produce racialized divisions of labour.

“A lot of labourers and maids are from South Asian, African or South-East Asian countries, and a lot of these labourers are poor or not as financially secure,” Jaime said. “It's extremely problematic and racism is a huge element of it [….] For example, Indians […] are seen as inferior […] as they occupy a significant amount of service industry jobs. You will rarely see someone from more Western countries in these jobs.”

Rushmi Perinpanathan, U2 Science, grew up in Montreal but still sees the city “through the eyes of a Tamil kid.” She echoes Jaime, having witnessed how assimilating into the dominant culture comes with its own financial and mental costs.

“When it comes to integrating into a new culture, to be able to go out and experience culture, to partake in activities with colleagues, to be able to look the part, all of this gets harder when you’re not part of the same class because you also need to afford these things, not just in money but in time and energy as well,” Perinpanathan said.

“When you’re part of the same culture, you’re already in the same boat and it becomes easier to relate to each other.”

The blessing and curse of multiculturalism

Rushmi’s experience hits close to home: Though I felt integrated into the community I grew up in, I was never fully accepted by my peers, and was always considered “the Indian friend.”

Yet, my parents did not really immerse me in Indian culture and Indian media, nor did they really listen to French music, or watch classic French movies. Rather, some of my earliest memories include road trips in my dad’s car where he blasted The Rolling Stones, Scorpions, and Dire Straits on the speakers, my sister and I mouthing all the words in the backseat. And, although I wouldn’t change this for the world, all these happy childhood memories hide a more alarming reality of biculturalism.

Many people idealize the melding of two cultures, but such romanticization obscures feelings of alienation. I grew up in an in-between of two cultures, less than half-in-touch with my Indianness, and almost integrated into my French community. Every time I lack the words to sing along to the songs my French friends play, I find myself back in this “cultural void” scaffolded by the bits and pieces I picked up from both worlds. If you asked me today if I’d rather be French or Indian, I would tell you a thousand times that I’d rather be both. But being in touch with both sides of one’s cultural identities as a child of immigrants is not innate. It requires time, introspection, and a little bit of a spark. For me, I found these in Montreal.

A couple months ago, my best friend and I were cooking baingan bharta while listening to Indian music (at his request). Everything, all of a sudden, felt as though I were six years old again. My music on shuffle, I did not expect to hear Madrasapattinam’s theme song come out of my speaker, and even less to instantly recognize it, as if it was just waiting for me to remember it this whole time—bringing me back to Chennai Central. Paradoxically, moving away from my Indian household and finding a home in Montreal helped me reconnect with my Indian identity. Switching from French universalism to the Canadian “mosaic” of “diversity”—moving from an exclusively white and French environment to a campus burgeoning with international students—was a milestone in my journey back to my roots.

Throughout my whole life, until coming here, I had considered myself “black”—noire—and had been racialized as such, as odd as this may seem in North America. Just like in a 1930s monochrome movie, France frames everything in black or white. Moving to Canada, I found a space to exist outside of this binary. For the first time in my life, being “brown” in Canada included me in an in-group, a community of South Asians. I am no longer just the negation of whiteness.

Montreal triggered a similar experience of self-discovery for Dhanishta Ambwani, U2 Science. Ambwani grew up in New Brunswick with Indian parents, but found more opportunities to commune with her Indian culture here.

“It’s just so amazing to […] be friends with people with similar experiences [...], and with whom I can relate on completely different levels,” Ambwani said. “I think being in university, and in an environment where there are classes […] that focus on my rich cultural history also helped me become more interested to learn more about my culture. I definitely feel more connected with my culture right now than I have ever felt before.”

In Montreal, my feeling of belonging to the Indian community has similarly been reinforced through academia. Being here at McGill gave me the opportunity to explore South Asian politics, studying topics that I would not in a million years be able to learn about in France. One essay at a time, Montreal and McGill bring me closer to my roots and give me the legitimacy to speak about my country—even if it is not in perfect Tamil. My academic interest in India was initially performative—piqued by the conviction that it would differentiate me from my peers. But, as I fell down a rabbit hole of politics and history, a more authentic kinship with my parents’ home country emerged. I found a fascination in studying the 1947 Partition that tore India apart and drenched it in blood, breaking up families and pulling apart lovers, separating Arya and Amy forever in independent Madras.

As unbelievable as this may seem to my younger self, I now look forward to going to India. I may not be as Indian as my blood says, but I will never be as French as my passport declares me to be, either. Stuck in this in-between, I choose not to choose, and to love both. I know that, somewhere in Chennai Central’s clock tower, time stands still—and the little piece it took of me as a child will always remain.

*Name has been changed to preserve anonymity.

Illustrations by Shireen Aamir, Design Editor