In Kathmandu, intersectional identities are only celebrated if they don’t manifest in ‘Indianness’When my newlywed mother, originally a Malaysian of Indian origin, first came to Nepal, she disliked the taste of dahl. It was too thick, laced with difference and heavy with otherness. But she made do.
When my newlywed mother, originally a Malaysian of Indian origin, first came to Nepal, she disliked the taste of dahl. It was too thick, laced with difference and heavy with otherness. But she made do. To this day, she sometimes douses her bhaat in yoghurt, dusts her dahl with pickles from home and, on occasion, accompanies the tarkari on the side with some crunchy Malaysian ikaan pusu (dried fish). My mother, undoubtedly the strongest woman I know, has long mastered the art of perpetual adaption. She packed her bags, left everything she knew in Malaysia, changed her nationality and, for as long as I can remember, has poured her heart into learning from and loving this country. I can say with full certainty that I haven’t met a prouder Nepali.
But the love hasn’t always been reciprocated. To this day, she can’t walk through New Road without having to answer the ever-so-frequent ‘aunty, ap kaise hai?’ (aunty how are you?) with a defiant ‘bhai, ma Hindi boldina’ (Brother, I don’t speak Hindi). And to this day, unreasonably surprised eyes continue to demand proof of her Nepali-ness: Are you sure your last name is Dahal? Where are you really from? You don’t look Nepali. But each time she addresses the suspicion the same way—with wide forgiving eyes, a big smile, and her head positioned at an unapologetic tilt, she’ll muster a strong but polite (and slightly accented) ‘hajur, ma Nepali ho’ (yes, I’m Nepali).
I’ve never once caught my mother concealing her background. She’ll tell you, brimming with pride, about how life was like when she lived in Malaysia. She’ll draw stunning parallels between her homes on her plate. She’ll effortlessly tie her identity threads together through jokes. ‘Did you know susu in Malay means milk?’ And she’ll never apologise for her accent—she’ll let other people’s’ ears strain before ever demanding her tongue to.
While I did inherit my mother’s physical features, I missed out on her strength. Unlike my mother, I have spent most of my life trying to erase and apologise for the fragments that make up my identity.
My answer to ‘where is home?’ was almost always ‘Nepal’— even though my story was more complicated than that. On the occasional (and rare) probe, I’d have no choice but to lay out the complicated answer. My name is Lee-na. Lee, from my mother, Leelavathy, a Malaysian of Indian origin, and Na, from my father, Nabendra, a Nepali. For each of my halves, I knew from a young age that I was an other: a product of rebellion against familial expectations to marry within caste and country. Beyond blood, my identity was shaped by experiences living and studying in Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. But to most people, I paraded as Leena, the Nepali—with my fragments far from sight. Proof was never demanded. Identity—instead of hinging on my multiplicity—remained neat and static. But in the process of forcing one of my identity hats on, I began forgetting about the stockpile of other vibrant headgear that played equally important roles in defining me.
I’m back in Nepal now and I’ve learned that I can’t erase my fragments anymore. Four months ago, after completing my Master’s degree, I packed my bags and finally delivered on my self-made promise to settle in the country I was born in. But coming home, a process that I have always heavily romanticised, has been, well, difficult—especially as a fragment. I constantly find myself caught within the folds of a binary. Never completely Nepali. Never completely foreign. Just a series of fragments.
Kathmandu, I’ve learned, isn’t very forgiving of fragments. Intersectional identities are only celebrated if they don’t manifest in ‘Indianness’. At work, I’ve found that some of my colleagues are quick to form conclusions based on my melanin rather than my merit. On my first day, a co-worker thought it would be funny to tell me—assuming I didn’t understand him—‘Don’t worry, you’ll be back in India soon.’ But as the daughter of a bahun pahadi from a privileged background, I know I’ve only faced the tip of the iceberg with regards to anti-Indian sentiment. As our history has shown, Madhesi people—especially from low-caste backgrounds—have been experiencing systematic discrimination for their intersectional identities for centuries. Fragments are overlooked for people who look and speak Nepali. The others? Outsiders.
Rather than face the discomfort head-on with my mother’s strength, I’ve caught myself—on some occasions—trying to erase any trace of her. Do my glasses make me look too Indian? Why can’t I pronounce tito karela without wanting to roll my r? These days, I tell people my favourite food is momos when I know very well that it is my mother’s spicy Keralan fish curry (served with a side of mula achaar). And these days, I constantly find the need to apologise for my broken Nepali. In the past, I would grapple with my fragments by convincing myself that things would become clearer when I got ‘home.’ After living in Nepal, I’d actually become Nepali. Those fragments? They’d become less confusing. Easier to tidy up into neat little boxes and store them away for safekeeping. But over the past few months, they have only become messier. And in many ways, I’ve only increasingly felt less Nepali.
But, at the same time, because I’ve become more truthful and honest with myself, I’ve had to come to terms with the messiness. And in doing so, I’ve rewritten my mother into my life. Though the moments are only fleeting, I continually rediscover my mother’s strength in my small acts of defiance. To every ‘oh you don’t look Nepali’ there’s a quiet (but confident) ‘what does a Nepali look like?’ To every ‘you’re only kind of Nepali’ there’s a small (but bold) nod in agreement. Some nights, there’s a plate of dahl bhaat doused in yoghurt, dusted with pickles and served with a side of ikaan pusu. And to everybody who demands proof, there’s a set of wide forgiving eyes, a big smile and a strong but polite (and slightly accented) ‘hajur, ma Nepali ho.’
Dahal tweets at @LeenaDahal