Pakistani-Kashmiri-American writer Fatimah Asghar writes about the devastation that was Partition, in her book If They Come For Us. In one of her poems, she writes, “Allah, you gave us a language where yesterday and tomorrow are the same word. Kal.”
Asghar writes about Urdu but this factual statement stands true for Hindi as well, but interestingly, not for Bhagnari.
When I (jab main…) was in fifth grade, a Pakistani-American friend told me she could no longer be friends with me because I was Indian. Nausheen’s parents told her these words and she repeated them to me while we were doing work together in class. I didn’t understand. Neither did she. However, her family apparently believed that our differences overshadowed our similarities, overshadowed our friendship. This judgment temporarily broke us apart as friends. We eventually grew up and inevitably stopped caring about what our parents thought because as (selfish, U.S.-born) adolescents, we only had space to care about what we thought.
When I grew up, I learned a different understanding of time than my non-South Asian-American peers.
To the question “When are we leaving?” our mom would say, “Ten minutes” which could mean an hour. “Five minutes” could mean up to two hours.
To the question “When can I…?” our mom would say, “Later” which would mean probably never. “Tomorrow” meant absolutely never.
When I was in high school, I tried to get a job but arrived late to the interview and was not given the position for this reason. My mom found it ridiculous. She was also the one who had driven me (late) to the interview.
When I was a Boy Scout, I organized a camping trip for my troop. I was in charge of everything from start to finish. At the end of our trip, my dad picked us up (late) and I was fuming. I was embarrassed. I was so upset that he was late and we had to wait.
When I was In college, I nearly lost a friendship because I showed up late to all our planned hangouts. By that point, I had simply been engineered to conceptualize time differently than her. My friend Cat could just not wrap her blond-haired head around the idea of showing up late. She found my actions “disrespectful.” Meanwhile, my brown and black friends found solidarity around our profoundly non-linear understandings of time. We found solace in not policing punctuality especially when it came to social events.
When I studied abroad in Ecuador in 2012, I immersed myself in a culture that was new to me. The language was not new, however. My understanding of Spanish became my entry point into learning about Ecuador’s socio-politics, human geography and majority and minority cultures. What I learned through conversation fascinated me, motivating me to traverse the Andes. I traveled by bus through Perú and Bolivia for three months stopping in various places. While situated in Cusco, I learned about the chakana—an ancient symbol for indigenous Amer-Indian communities that represents three dimensions of time: the past, present and future—each governed by a different respective animal: serpent (beneath ground), jaguar (on ground) and condor (above ground). In the middle of this sacred geometric sign lies a circle, showing the cyclical connectivity between these three dimensions and spaces. I started to see this symbol everywhere I went—in Ollantaytambo, in Isla del Sol, in La Paz…it seemed to follow me. It spoke to me. Although I was thousands of miles away from the familiarity of my family’s culture, the omnipresence of the chakana reminded me of how I was not in an entirely foreign environment. I identified a commonality in our world views, in our cosmo-visions. Both cultures acknowledge how time rebirths itself.
When I graduated college, I landed my first full-time job. A supervisor gleefully told me, “Early is on-time and on-time is late.” I silently nodded and marched to that beat of time for three exhausting years.
When I got depleted and needed to replenish my energy is when I moved to Brazil. The last time I felt happiest was when I was living in South America and I craved to reunite myself with that joy.
When I lived in Brazil I attempted to learn two languages: Portuguese and Brazilian Sign Language (Libras). I lived in a city that pioneered and promoted inclusivity of deaf populations and I found that embracement of diversity both heartwarming and heartcalming.
When I was in Libras class, I learned that because both Libras and American Sign Language derive from France, temporality is indicated through the same gesticulation: the past behind the back, the present directly in front of the chest and the future much in front of the chest.
When I started practicing Libras with my signing Brazilian friend Bruno, they told me about the Ka’apor. The Ka’apor are an indigenous tribe from the Amazon who have historically had high proportions of people born deaf. As a result, the Ka’apor developed their own sign language that is not a derivative of European sign languages. Their indication of temporality is different: the future behind the back, the present directly in front of the chest and the past much in front of the chest—the inverse.
When I asked if there were reasons behind this difference of directionality, my friend shared the explanation. The past has already been seen whereas the future is unseen, possibly yet to be seen.
When I learned this, I thought of the word kal—would the future, seen or unseen, be in front of the chest or behind the back? As a struggling Hindi speaker, I always found verb conjugations and tenses to be the hardest, and even more so when kal can mean both yesterday and tomorrow—seemingly opposite notions on a linear understanding of time.
When I was organically acquiring Hindi as a kid, verbs were not the first thing I learned. I learned letters and names of objects. For example, I could write the word केला and could laugh at the fact my friend Kayla’s name meant “banana” in Hindi but I couldn’t use the word “kayla” in a meaningful sentence.
And I also learned commands early on—which was not the case when acquiring Spanish and Portuguese. When I went to India as a child there was a washing machine commercial that my sister and I found hilarious, entertaining and easy to memorize. Upar, neeche, aage, peeche, up and down, round and round. We used to sing this to each other for fun, and I would argue, it became easy to memorize because we heard our parents using these words in-context while in taxis and auto rickshaws. We learned upar means up. We learned neeche means down. We learned aage means forward. We learned peeche means backward.
(I would also argue our privileged social class allowed us to familiarize ourselves with commands before any other parts of speech in Hindi, which is intrinsically problematic and worth deconstructing on another day.)
It’s possible in a previous life I was better at Hindi. It’s possible in a previous life I was better at being Bhagnari. But if kal really does represent both past and future, then it’s possible that later I will be able to redeem my identity as a Bhagnari, a desi and a South Asian.
When I was a kid, my family took us to a Sindhi picnic in the Bay Area. My mom said, “Just tell people you’re Sindhi if they ask.” “But I thought we’re Bhagnari?” “Just tell people you’re Sindhi,” she repeated. I now know she was trying to conserve her energy.
When I describe being Bhagnari is when I hear myself saying who I am and who I am not. When I describe being Bhagnari to other desis, they don’t know what to make of me. The Gujaratis want nothing to do with my version of Mehta because I don’t speak Gujarati. The Sindhis want to immediately claim me as their own because their unfortunate history of displacement makes them desperate to claim anything tangible. The Hindu Punjabis sort of accept me. The Sikh Punjabis totally don’t accept me. And the South Indians have no idea.
When I describe being Bhagnari to people from the Americas, I inevitably describe a history of relative pain. My Latinx friends and I bond over our disdain of colonization and colonialism. The Spanish-speakers call me “hindú” and the Portuguese-speakers call me “indiano.” My African friends and I laugh over the universal role aunties have played in shaping our upbringings and lives, usually through abuse. My African-American friends humble me saying, “it’s fascinating you know so much about where you come from. As a black person, all I know is I was brought here, enslaved, on a ship.” Poorly-intentioned white people state their desire to obtain PhDs by studying people like me for their dissertations (and they usually get government grants to do so). Well-intentioned white friends want me to continue discovering my past, to continue writing about it.
When I describe being Bhagnari to people, some people’s ears turn off, some people’s ears perk up. Some people’s mouths make statements, some people’s mouths pose questions. Some people believe I’m Indian, others nod suspiciously asking to clarify, “You’re sure you’re not Arab or middle eastern?” (¿Tú no eres árabe?/Você não é do Oriente Médio?) And the fact is, they’re right.
We know enough about our history to acknowledge our roots. Although Hindu, religion has not crafted the pheno-types of my face. Region has. Religion has not tinted my complexion. Region has. Religion has not drawn our migratory path. Region has.
Bhagnari is a place. It’s a place in our hearts. It lives in us. We are sites of (our own) memory.
Likewise, Bhagnari has a place. It has a place in humanity. And given the status of the world right now, it has a place in humanizing the future trajectories our societies take. I genuinely believe our ancestors expect us to take up space fighting for justice, for equity, for mutual understanding. How are you incorporating this bequeathed duty into your daily life?
When have Bhagnaris fought against injustice? Kal. When will Bhagnaris fight against injustice? Kal.