Writing by Deepali Chhabra. Illustration by Isi Williams.
The confrontational question ‘what advice would you give to your former self?’ is usually met with angst, an awkward laugh and regret. Perhaps this is just me, but the initial jerks of discomfort I feel when I think about my younger self is mostly down to how different I think I am now. There is a strong dissociation between that person then and this person now, and the most prominent difference between the two versions is the way I view myself as an Indian person. My identity was marked with feelings of shame and trying my best to be ‘less-Indian’ which seems alien to me today – especially now that a few minutes into meeting someone I will probably tell them to explore India for six months! Of course, lots of adolescent girls imitate the attitudes, clothes, music taste, behaviour (and whatever else constitutes a personality) of their peers. I was no exception, but I had copied and pasted the persona of my friends who were white. After several high school years engraved an embarrassment of being brown and a need to conceal my family life from my peers, I came to university with no idea that I was in fact Indian. Shocker! The change in my identity is what makes the intensely retrospective question so difficult, as I would be speaking to someone who didn’t realise they were brown. I have come to value time and take comfort in the future, knowing that the things I think to be true about myself now will have no correlation to myself later on. Current insecurities, guilt and anxieties might be a distant memory later on in my life, so I think it is important to reassure the teens today that nature will take its course. Like most, I was stubborn and would retaliate when my mum would say anything against who I thought I was (‘you’re going to outgrow this obsession with The 1975, you do not need another poster’) but little did I know how much truth there was in her remarks.
Growing into your identity is something that should be emphasised more, not to the extent that teens are more anchored in adulthood than they are the present, but enough to help them relax into themselves. When you make a mistake, when you are heartbroken or when you look in the mirror and see mosquito-bites not breasts, you are usually told that things will get better as you get older. This advice is ignored in our current social climate where everything is documented online. I would cut my hair a certain way or shop at certain shops and luckily I would only have to parade a bowl cut to my school for a few weeks, rather than be hawked at, screenshotted and spread online like butter on a hot plate. When something is online it seems much more concrete, and it is intimidating to think that a phase of your life is forever stored somewhere in ‘the cloud’. So, I think now it is especially important to remind teens that the awkwardness of adolescence will eventually pass and that they will sprout into their own identity one day.
Diversity is paramount and we are slowly shifting towards a more inclusive understanding of community. Unfortunately, this did not ring true in the days I was growing up. I extrapolated the lack of colour I saw on YouTube, in school and in the shops and essentially renounced my whole culture. The weight of doing so is something that still affects me today. For example, if I was to ever be cat-called I would immediately think it is because they have a brown-fetish above anything. I was sitting on this incredible culture and connection that I decided to reject. The weight is particularly heavy because there is no one to blame but myself and my own rejection of a heritage that is so integral to my identity. There is an increased awareness surrounding the complexities of internalised racism and we can even point to some public characters today who seem to actively deny their background (we see you Priti Patel). However, it is difficult to point fingers at individuals, as not only is it a systematic struggle, but shaping your identity is plainly personal. A story I like to tell is when I was bouncing to school aged 13 and someone said to me that I didn’t smell too much like curry that day. To this day I still layer on perfume like it’s my job – but I could have chosen to retaliate and make them feel ashamed for even thinking that their behaviour was permissible. I cannot say I was unhappy or that I felt like I didn’t belong; I was almost convinced that I could settle for the lack of people that looked like me, that I could spend my whole life mixing colours of make-up to suit my skin tone or to even uphold the lie that my mum made sausage and mash rather than dhal. However, I do regret not appreciating the few mentors that were Indian and often wonder if embracing my ancestry earlier would have diminished the insecurities I was riddled with every day.
Fast forward to reality, I do not fabricate stories to seem more in line with my white peers and I have found peace with the fact that the first thing people may see is my skin tone. I can safely say I host an average of 4.5 Indian food nights a month and have no shame in calling my mum for emergency channa recipes. I am so grateful I grew up in London where the diversity is etched into most of the streets. Despite the fact I feel so disconnected from my former self, perhaps this is a positive because I have grown up too much to be tempted to jettison the Indian flag and discredit my heritage again.