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White people shouldn’t align themselves with Hinduism for commercial gain: Canadian-Indian author Scaachi Kaul talks tough

Koul’s debut collection of essays is hilarious, yet sharp, with observations on navigating life as an immigrant and a woman of colour

brunch Updated: Aug 05, 2017 23:25 IST
Shikha Kumar
Shikha Kumar
Hindustan Times
cultural appropriation,immigrant narrative,woman of colour
Koul’s debut anthology comprises stories of her many experiences growing up as a first-generation Indian in Canada

Early last year, Scaachi Koul put out a thread on Twitter, asking for pitches on Canada-centric reporting and essays for the media company she works at. She added that they would prefer hearing from people who were not white and not male, a statement that spiralled out of control. Koul was sent threatening tweets, subjected to vitriol and driven to deactivate her account. However, she was back two weeks later and announced her arrival rather humorously, posting a string of GIFs of The Undertaker, the renowned wrestler. These included him popping out of a casket; running towards a large white man; and hanging his arms over the ropes, his face bloodied, declaring: This is my yard.

It was a fitting way for the Toronto-based writer to get back at her trolls, who she had previously tried engaging with logic and reason. The incident is mentioned in the essay Mute, one of many in Koul’s recently released debut anthology, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter. It comprises stories of her many experiences growing up as a first-generation Indian in Canada, tackling themes like physical appearances, Indian traditions, racism, rape culture among others, many of these veiled in subtle humour.

“I wanted to write a collection that felt representative. Most of the non-fiction books I read when I was younger were often from the perspective of men, or white women. I didn’t see a lot of themes that spoke to me, like the dynamic I was having with my parents or how my particular brown body was changing or how difficult I found it to fit in this world,” says Koul.

The immigrant narrative

One Day...has been picked up for adaptation into a comedy TV series

Born in a predominantly Caucasian neighbourhood in Calgary, the 26-year-old was frequently picked on in school, with boys getting her a deodorant to mask her “natural curry scent”. She was even called Osama Bin Laden’s cousin. While she grew up shrugging off things that would mark her as an “other”, including hiding all the pieces of gold jewellery she received, Koul says she’s more comfortable with her identity now and even wears several pieces of jewellery at once.

Born in a predominantly Caucasian neighbourhood , Koul was frequently picked on in school, with boys getting her a deodorant to mask her ‘natural curry scent’. She was even called Osama Bin Laden’s cousin.

“Many children of immigrants go through phases where they think they can hide something about themselves that’s really intrinsic. But you come to a point where you look at yourself and realise you’re not fooling anybody. Everybody knows you’re brown; you’re not going to change anybody’s mind. The older I get, the less I care about other’s opinions of my culture.”

An interesting essay tackles the politics of body hair, the pains and insecurities women – especially women of colour – endure to look well-groomed. This is quite personal to Koul, who confesses shaving her face a few times a week. “There’s a misconception, at least in white-dominated countries like where I live, that Indians have a beautiful mane of hair. But we also live with a juxtaposition of how ugly our body hair is. We’re not supposed to be hairy on our legs or faces,” she says.

Appreciating culture

She also touches upon cultural appropriation in the book, discussing how descriptions of India revolve around bright colours and charming poverty. Koul says it’s become hard to identify the line between appropriation and appreciation. “I don’t mind it when white people do yoga. What bothers me is when they align themselves with Hinduism on a larger scale, giving themselves Hindu names or start adopting Hindi in a way that I find commercialising and frustrating. And that’s true of brown people as well, we think we’re minorities but we’ve done it too. There are ways to engage with a culture...travel, talk to people, read books or watch documentaries.”

“I don’t mind it when white people do yoga. What bothers me is when they align themselves with Hinduism ... giving themselves Hindu names or start adopting Hindi ...”

Koul’s father, a native of Kashmir, appears frequently in the book, particularly at the beginning of every chapter where Koul reproduces the hilarious transcripts of the emails she exchanges with him. In one, she wonders if her dad is sick as she hasn’t received any vaguely racist email from him, and he replies: “Better minds and intellects have always been wrongly interpreted by the great unwashed.”

He’s also famous on Twitter, with Koul frequently posting updates for her 21.5K followers on the platform. “He’s a menace. He emails me a lot and I wanted to break the essays up so they don’t feel too heavy. He hasn’t read the book because he knows it has themes that would make him uneasy, but he’s really enjoying everybody telling him how great he is.”

One Day...has been picked up for adaptation into a comedy TV series but Koul says there’s still a long way to go. “For now, I’m going to sit around and sip wine.”

From HT Brunch, August 6, 2017

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First Published: Aug 05, 2017 23:23 IST