Kuralgal

Kuralgal
by Nadyanna Majeed

“Half Indian, half Chinese,
how come Muslim?”

“Your IC what race?”
Indian, following grandfather.

“Mother tongue what then?”
Malay. “Huh?! Why?!”

The questions never end,
even from myself.

老师,早安。
Selamat hari, Cikgu.

Why can’t I complete
that last one-third?

“Indian cannot speak Tamil?
How can liddat?”

“Take Malay because easy,
that’s why right?”

“HUH YOU MUSLIM AH??
Don’t look like!!”

“Oh half Chinese? No
wonder so smart.”

Incensed, I ignore implications
and go home.

Ramadan comes and goes;
Raya starts soon.

“Wear sari for Raya,”
my mother says.

“Selamat Hari Raya Puasa,”
greets the Chindian.

Chinoiserie and curry creates
the atmosphere here.

I’m always so torn
between three communities.

__

1. Is there a reason why you have chosen the poetic form of the Kural for this particular poem?

 

The Kural is an important form of classical Tamil language poetry and is very short (exactly two lines) and exact (four words in the first line and three words in the second line) in its form. Being of Tamil descent myself, I found it apt to write about my heritage using a Tamil form of poetry.

I also found that the rigidity of the form reflects how, for many people, the relationship between race and religion is rigid (“You’re Muslim? So you must be Malay ah?”). Being forced to fit each encounter in only seven words also corresponds to how people of mixed heritage often feel forced to fit into certain ‘boxes’ or categories (Malay-Muslim, Indian-Hindu, etc) by the people around them.

2. Your poem reveals how Singaporeans often view race and religion in a simplistic way. Where do you think such parochial views come from?
 
This simplistic view stems from many different factors influencing us as we grow up, but perhaps the most concrete example (and one which I remember very clearly) would be from Singapore’s moral education textbooks and lessons. Often, once the topic of racial/religious harmony is broached, it’s presented as Ali the Malay celebrating Hari Raya and explaining the need to fast to his non-Malay friends (because he must be Muslim), while Bala the Indian explains why he doesn’t eat beef (because he must be Hindu), etc.
As children, we absorb and internalise everything and these assumptions we make are difficult to break if we don’t grow up being exposed to those who break these (although possibly statistically true) stereotypes.

3. You mention how the scrutinisation of your identity comes not just from without, but from within. Are the questions you ask yourself different from the ones that are asked by others, and if so, what is the difference?
 
The questions that others ask are usually quite superficial and neutral, and are in relation to stereotypes common in Singapore, like “Huh you Indian then why Muslim?”

Occasionally, there’s a comment that’s much more problematic, like “You have Chinese blood, no wonder you get good grades!” These comments obviously reveal some kind of negative sentiment towards another group when people express relief that I’m not part of that group.

As for myself, the scrutiny often comes in the form of contemplating whether I truly belong to any community. In school, I was never part of the Malay-Muslim community who would often go visiting together during Hari Raya, or break their fast together during Ramadan. I’ve also met people who have refused to acknowledge my Chinese heritage, instead insisting that I must be Malay or Indian (or Malay-Indian). So I often ask myself, what does it take for someone to be part of a community? Is it just enough for me to identify as part of it, or do other people get to decide what I am?

4. How has the perpetual interrogations on your identity shaped the way you understand race and religion?
 
To me, race and religion have never been linked. As a child, I saw so many different combinations that I could never put people into boxes. However, I’m now much more aware of the perceptions that other people may hold, whether positive, neutral or negative.

I’m also more conscious now that there are always people who will refuse to acknowledge you as part of their own community (be it racial or religious or both) because you don’t look like them, or you don’t eat what they eat, or you don’t fulfil some other arbitrary criterion that varies from person to person. What you consider yourself to be may not tie in with what others perceive you to be.

It’s not really a “best of both worlds” situation; you can be of a certain race and religion but if they don’t fall neatly into place with what others expect, you’ll often find it difficult to belong.

_

Nadyanna Majeed is a young Singaporean poet of mixed Chinese and Indian descent who also speaks Malay, much to the confusion of others. Having been immersed in Literature during her time at Victoria Junior College, she started writing poetry at the age of 17 and has continued since then. 
Illustration by Wan Xiang Lee
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