MY PARENTS ARE originally from what is now Pakistan. They are Punjabi – they are from Lahore and Rawalpindi respectively, and during partition, they relocated to India. When he was in his 20s, my father moved to East Africa to be a schoolteacher in a rural part of Tanzania. He then later went to India, had an arranged marriage with my mother, and then moved back to Tanzania. That’s where I was born.
I grew up in Tanzania until I was about 12 years old, and during that time, in the late 70s, there was a huge anti-Indian, anti-Asian sentiment that was sweeping through East Africa. Many of the other South Asians decided to relocate to Canada, the UK, and so on, but my father had always said, I’m going to be buried in Africa. Though we carried Indian passports, we considered ourselves as Tanzanians. And so, when everyone was fleeing for their lives, we relocated to Botswana, where I was brought up. My mother, my brother and his family still reside there.
> My dad would say I'm going to raise my children in Africa, and not in America.
Ironically, I came to the States for college and I’m still here. I now live on the sacred lands of the Muskogee Creek (Atlanta) with my partner Charles and my children. Charles and I were very intentional about where we wanted to raise our children because they’re biracial – they’re Black-Brown-Desi. We wanted someplace where they’d feel a sense of 'I’m from here’ and so we chose Atlanta.
> If there's one thing that I've struggled with all my life it's this notion of belonging. I'm now in my forties and I'm finally coming to terms with it.
GAYATRI SETHI (she/her) is a writer and educator. Her upcoming book Un/belonging from Mango and Marigold Press is an illustrated compilation of verse-like reflections about identity, intercultural anti-Blackness and the South Asian diaspora. You can find more of her work and thoughts here.
This interview has been compiled from episodes 4 and 5 of the Desi Woman Diaspora podcast, co-created by Mala Kumar and Kiran Kumar, along with supplementary conversations with Gayatri.
ANOTHER REASON I feel like I’m an outsider amongst South Asians is because the majority of the Brown girls I grew up with didn’t marry outside their race, in fact, they stayed within their caste. That’s another part of why I am a reluctant South Asian. Because part of our culture ends up being very prejudiced. Many people in my family itself don’t associate with me, partly going back to what they see as cultural norms I violated when I married a Black man. When we asked for permission to marry, while my parents embraced Charles and his son, many of my extended relatives were displeased with that and didn’t allow their daughters to attend our wedding.
Now I’m raising South Asian and Black children in the US and it can be heart-wrenching. What I know is that children do make sense of the world. Whether or not we as parents or educators want to talk to children about what’s happening, they perceive it. And if we don’t give them the tools to talk about it and process it, they’ll fill in the blanks with misinformation. So that's kind of how I've raised them, I talk about these things, and give them a framing, but it's heart-wrenching because very often these conversations are challenging. But we keep showing up to them.
As South Asians, we often miss out on understanding the layered identities that we have. For many of us who are growing up now, we have those push and pull identities and we are forced to pick one of them. I’m a diasporic desi of Punjabi descent with Sikh and Hindu ancestors raised in interfaith Baha’i communities, now married to a Black person who was raised Christian and worshipped with Sufi Muslims when we met.
I’VE RECLAIMED MY Desi-ness by putting it in a larger identity framework that includes race, faith, caste, and class. I have stopped seeking acceptance in South Asian spaces. I have decided that I am a disruptive desi and whether it’s in the US South or visiting relatives in Delhi, I’m not going to fit in or belong. I have truly embraced that my very existence is disruptive to those overly invested in caste or race-based identity policing, and that I’ll continue to seek belonging within rather than outside of myself.
I didn’t belong in India – my Indian relatives and acquaintances meant really well but they’d make fun of the way we spoke Hindi. Even though my parents very much saw themselves as Indian, I didn’t – because I was growing up around Black people and I was the only Brown person in my class. And to me, my sense was that I was just...different, I couldn’t have the words to explain it. Even when I was in college, there were a lot of affinity groups around me, but I didn’t fit in with any of them. I didn’t fit in with the South Asian student groups because I wasn’t from South Asia. The African Student’s Association was all Black people, and I didn’t believe in taking space there.