issue 03: body of water
lands of my watersjasmin singh
The first time I thought about my identity, I had moved across the Pacific Ocean and landed on a little island at the bottom of the world. I probably cried enough to fill up the distance between Tāmaki Makaurau and Ipoh between the end of August 2011, when I moved, and the start of December 2011—my first trip back to Ipoh that summer. I didn’t feel at home in the new place I had to call home, and even now my sense of belonging ebbs and flows.
This year will mark a decade since then. Before moving, I never really questioned being Malaysian or being Punjabi. That ease was likely a mixture of comfort in where I was, youth, and naivety. Migrating generated a sense of discomfort that has peaks and dips, often accompanied by wanting to know more about the places that make me who I am.
The whenua of Aotearoa has borne witness to so much violence and resistance. When I moved here, I didn’t recognise the legacies of colonial violence this country had faced on multiple levels, but since the beginning of colonisation, Māori rights to speak their own language, maintain their own cultural customs, and retain ownership of their land have all come under attack.
Such violence was implemented through legislation including limiting land ownership to only 10 people, which undermined collective land rights,1 and the Tohunga Suppression Act, which outlawed Māori healers from practising traditional medicinal knowledge.2 There are many more stories, including of children being physically abused for speaking Māori.
But beyond this history of violence, the most important histories I learnt were of resilience and resistance: the ways in which Māori have held onto their cultures and occupied land that is rightfully theirs. The most recent example of this is the occupation of Ihumātao in South Auckland, a tangata whenua3-led occupation of land in Māngere that was confiscated by the Crown and slated to become a housing area.4 Learning of these histories has significantly informed my anti-colonial journey, in which I have actively worked on escaping my colonial mindset in order to better understand different ways of living within my world.
As well as being able to learn from these histories, there are also Māori tikanga5 that hold beautiful approaches to the past, present, and future. For example, Māori introduce themselves using their whakapapa,6 which highlights the rivers and mountains they come from, their people, and, finally, their name. Before living here I had never thought about who came before me, why we chose to cross oceans and rivers, how we moved, and why it’s important to remember this past. I learnt and continue to learn the importance of genealogy through such examples. I also came upon this whakatauki: Ka mua, ka muri (walking backwards into the future), which made me realise how little I knew about myself. Such unknowing was the source of my discomfort and aimlessness inside my identity.
Decolonising ourselves in the context of Aotearoa isn’t just about learning more Māori knowledge and customs or Māori ways of doing and being, especially if that’s not our history.7 It often means learning about ourselves, as better understanding our own languages and ways of being strengthens us and places us in a better position to be accomplices in anti-colonial work.
Over the past couple of years this journey has pushed me from a comfortable sense of Malaysian-ness towards seeing the fractures in my identity. I realised that the same violence and bureaucracy that was a part of life here also shadowed many parts of my life and ancestry, and catalysed my move to Aotearoa.
My family does not usually discuss our histories; the information has mostly come in drips. I’ve had to take an active role in learning more about both Punjab and Malaysia. While reflecting on this, I realised that many narratives from descendants of migrants used concepts of ownership and land to signify belonging: moving from one land mass to another, from unstable terrain to safe and stable lands, from a land that rejects us—where we have little—to one where we have opportunities to flourish and thrive, from a land where we are unwanted or don’t see a future to a land we can claim as our own.
Such ways of thinking seem to demand solidity. I’ve started to prefer to think of belonging through notions of water. This metaphor recognises the fluidity and constant changes that embody my sense of place. Water becomes a vessel for my multiple identities and homes, all of which are shadowed by a colonial history and mindset that offers only binaries that force us to choose one place as ours.
Being flexible like water doesn’t diminish my connections. Water flows; it can link up to other bodies of water and become bigger, or shut itself off from other connections and get smaller. My identity is fluid; it started somewhere but continues to shift. It connects and enlarges itself as I learn more about the other sources of water that connect up with mine—my own history and genealogy.
Punjab as we know it today is split between India and Pakistan. The name “Punjab,” when broken up into its component parts—“panj,” meaning five, and “aab,” meaning waters—means the land of five waters or five rivers.8 The five rivers are Chenab, Sutlej, Beas, Jhelum, and Ravi. Punjab, as the northern “gateway to India,” was often subject to invasions from other powers, such as the Persians and Afghans.9 The language of the region mixed those of the invading powers, as well as of locals already living in these areas.
Sikhism was born in Punjab when Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru, is said to have communed with God in the 15th century. The religion is a mix of Hinduism and Muslim teachings, and became a formalised religion in the late 17th century, when the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, inducted the Panj Piyare (beloved five), forming the Khalsa—the collective Sikh body.
Punjab was subject to a lot of conflict, especially during Mughal rule in India, with several Sikh gurus being killed for opposing the Mughal rule. The region was one of the last areas in the subcontinent to be conquered and occupied by the British, with many Sikh men subsequently joining the British army. Lahore and Amritsar became the two political centres of Punjab; they are now in Pakistan and India respectively.
One of the largest collective memories and sources of grief for Punjabis is the Partition of India in 1947, during the so-called independence of the country. Punjab was split into East and West Punjab, later becoming part of two separate nation-states. The Partition is particularly painful because of the mass migrations of Punjabis during this time as a result of increased racial tensions. Reportedly one of the biggest mass migrations in history, the migrants on both sides faced untold violence in their bids to reach safety among their religious fellows.
I only started learning about my ancestral homeland of Punjab after I moved to Aotearoa, even though I went back to my mum’s village multiple times as a kid and my grandparents live there even now. I think when I was younger, Punjab felt like it was part of Malaysia. I remember being young and my grandparents asking me if I wanted to go to Malaysia. I responded excitedly, thinking that it was a new place to visit because I had coded Malaysia and Punjab in my head as being in the same place geographically.
As I grew up and gained a better understanding of geography, the Punjabi parts of my identity didn’t feel like they interfered with my sense of belonging in Malaysia. I guess that’s part of the benefit of growing up in a multicultural place and not being a first-generation migrant. Even though this is the case, my Punjabi-ness was not something I really understood and was something I largely just performed. It was tied to Sikhism and that’s all I really knew. I went to the Gurudwara, asked my mum to translate stories when it was time for Kirtan and Katha10 but aside from that, it felt like something that existed outside of me.
The first years in Aotearoa felt like a bit of a blur. When I started to feel comfortable here I noticed that most Māori in particular would introduce themselves using their pepeha.11 I didn’t really feel a connection to mountains or rivers and felt like including that into an introduction of myself would be disingenuous and tokenistic. I was curious about how I could incorporate my histories and the ways that Punjabi people identify ourselves. In some ways this also felt disingenuous to me, as I didn’t know much about the history of the place I was claiming. To fully identify with it, I felt like first I had to learn about it.
I started by reading about the history of Punjab as a region. A big part of this essay comes from a book I encountered last year as part of this ongoing journey of learning: The Sixth River or Chatta Darya by Fikr Taunsvi.12 It is a searing, sarcastic, personal account of the partition of Punjab and Pakistan. The book functions as a diary outlining the raft of emotions that the author went through, contemplating his eventual departure from his beloved city of Lahore due to religious tensions escalated by the Partition. The titular sixth river is a reference to the name of Punjab and the divisions and migrations that Partition caused. The Partition or Batwara split this land of five rivers, creating what Taunsvi refers to as the sixth river.
Taunsvi’s book is translated from Urdu, so there is some contention as to what exactly his use of the “sixth river” symbolises. Some have interpreted it as the Radcliffe Line: the border that bisected Punjab in 1947. In his own journals, Taunsvi says that the sixth river represents the river of fire and blood that was the turmoil of Partition and the eventual separation of Indian Punjab and Pakistani Punjab.13
It’s strangely comforting being able to reiterate this history. The knowledge is something I cling on to as a way of knowing this place that my family comes from. When I left Malaysia I knew basically nothing about Punjab and its history. Even though I had visited multiple times, I was on stable terrain: I was Malaysian. The Punjabi parts of the cultural and religious identity that I performed and, in my youth, often rejected were a fixture of life in Malaysia. It didn’t need to be questioned. Being Punjabi to me meant also being Malaysian—the two were linked. The interconnectedness of my identities was beyond question and felt natural.
Moving caused a rift: my personal sixth river. The ocean that covers the distance between Aotearoa, Malaysia, and India, and the rivers that are left within Punjab now, have contributed to spaces of disconnection. There are many things I might not ever know about how and why my paternal family decided to move, but there’s a comfort in knowing some history, in knowing that their reasons for moving may have been the same as my family’s and mine 10 years ago. Coming to Aotearoa caused that sixth river, and it felt like a space of disconnection, but it also has slowly become a space of learning and connection. It felt dry and empty, but every day, the water returns to the shore that comforts me.
Malaysia today comprises the peninsula and two eastern states on Borneo island—Sarawak and Sabah, which joined Malaysia in 1965. The peninsula, known after British colonisation as Malaya, was home to the Orang Asli (indigenous peoples of Peninsula Malaysia) and later on the Malay (migrants from various regions in modern-
Malaysia was colonised by the British in the 1800s. At the time, Malaysia held a lot of natural resources to be extracted, and the British were resistant to using Orang Asli or Malay labour. As a result, many Chinese and Indian labourers were brought into the country. As British subjects, Punjabis were also a part of this history, and it’s understood that most Punjabis came over as police officers or watchmen, with their families following later on as farmers.14
The British policy towards all the different racial groups of the country was their classic “divide and conquer” style. The Malay, Chinese, and Indian communities were siloed into their racial categories, with little opportunity to intermingle. These racial divisions often led the Malay, who were the dominant local population of the time, into xenophobic thinking of migrants as temporary residents whose allegiances remained with their home countries. This rhetoric has existed for generations of largely Chinese and Indian Malaysians through to the present day.
Such narratives have been solidified in policies that favour the dominant population and offer non-Malay populations far fewer opportunities. These narratives are often played out in the political arena, where Indian and Chinese Malaysians are on a constant see-saw between being seen as residents of a multicultural utopia and as unwanted others who are taking resources and opportunities away from Malay Malaysians.
Within these shifting tides between acceptance and rejection of non-Malay Malaysians, there have been multiple government-driven campaigns proclaiming that, regardless of race, everyone is “one”—a united multicultural utopia. In Malaysia’s melting pot of culture, race is a touchy subject. Often when it is addressed, it is shut down with threats not to incite another 13 May.15
I knew that my parents had always wanted us to make a home outside of Malaysia due to the lack of opportunities available for us in the country, but I had only a very vague understanding of why. Then I started to read more about the history of the country, and the tactics that the British used to control the population of the colony and their role in present-day politics.
Despite rhetoric of hatred and xenophobia. Malaysia has always been “tanah airku”—a phrase used to mean homeland, but directly translating to land of my waters. I particularly love the phrase because the waters of Malaysia have fed and nourished me, and continue to do so even at a distance. It also shows that the waters of all these places I am connected to have nourished and protected my ancestors, and will continue to protect my future ancestors. I feel a connection to these lands because their waters will always be a part of me.
In July 2020, I re-read an old zine piece I wrote at Strange Haven as part of an exhibition called Signs. This piece, titled Home, was what I called an expression of “post-teenage angst” about the disconnections and connections I’ve felt as a migrant. Part of it ended up on a lightbox sign on K Road, where I lamented that my home was multiple places with borders defined by the arbitrary bureaucracy of colonial powers.
As I re-read the piece, I realised that years ago I was thinking of belonging very differently. When I was writing it, I assumed I was attempting to assert belonging here in Aotearoa; but when I look back, I think it was more of an attempt to express the fluiding of identity, and home as a multiplicitous notion.
As time goes on, I think I’ve become more and more comfortable with not feeling like I capital B Belong in any one place. I’ve come to accept that my identity shifts and changes yearly, daily, hourly. It changes depending on who I’m talking to and how I feel that day. It’s ok that on some days being an Aucklander is an opposition to being Malaysian and on others being Malaysian and Punjabi are additive, while on yet others still all three are mutually exclusive categories. Understanding my identity through water in a flowing way tethers me to my ancestry and life through all its untethered fluidity.
1 Tanira Kingi, “Māori landownership and land management in New Zealand,” Making land work. Volume two: Case studies on customary land and development in the Pacific (Canberra: Australian Agency for International Development, 2008), 129–152.
3 Translates to “people of the land,” referring to Māori, who have historical claims to the land of Aotearoa.
4 For more information, see Shannon Haunui-Thompson, “Why Ihumātao is being occupied by ‘protectors’,” The New Zealand Herald, 24 July 2019.
5 Translates to “customs.”
6 Whakapapa is defined by Ngāti Rārua Ātiawa as “our family history and...our genealogy, and it’s knowing who we are and where we’re from. As the core of mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge), our whakapapa provides us with identity and history, and connects us with our tūpuna [ancestors] and the whenua [land].” For more information, see “Whakapapa: Knowing who you are and where you belong,” Ngāti Rārua Ātiawa Iwi Trust, 15 February 2019.
8 Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, Volume 1: 1469–1839, second edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 5.
9 Singh, A History of the Sikhs, Volume 1, 13.
10 Forms of storytelling and song usually used to illustrate important Sikh values.
11 “Pepeha is a way of introducing yourself in Māori. It tells people who you are by sharing your connections with the people and places that are important to you.” See Pepeha. It is also important to be aware that, as non-Māori, we need to be conscious of tokenising or re-colonising and avoid using Māori concepts that do not apply to us as non-Māori. I highlight this thought in the essay, but for more information, see Michael Neilson, “Can Pākehā pēpeha? Thousands learning te reo but concerns over 'recolonising' the language,” The New Zealand Herald, 7 December 2019. Although the article specifically mentions Pākehā (white New Zealanders) it applies to tauiwi (non-Māori) of colour as well.
12 Fikr Taunsvi, The Sixth River: A Journal from the Partition of India (Delhi: Speaking Tiger Publishing, 2019), trans. Maaz Bin Bilal.
13 Taunsvi, The Sixth River.
15 13 May 1969 was the day that a racial riot took place in Kuala Lumpur in response to a victory celebration by largely non-Malay opposition parties—the Democratic Action and Gerakan (Malaysian People’s Movement Party) parties—after winning increased Parliamentary seats. A counter-rally was held by UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) supporters, who were largely Malay. Tensions rose at this time, with each side reportedly taunting the other, resulting in violence and a state of emergency being declared. For more information, see Barbara Andaya and Leonard Andaya, A History of Malaysia, third edition (London: MacMillan International, 2017), 302–303.