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Pani (Water), Memory and Post-Colonial Identity
Miles from a place fondly called home,
a small plastic bottle of FIJI Water peers at me
through the doors of a convenience store,
teasing and tormenting, begging me to take it back.
I reach out fondly,
only to jerk my hand away.
They say it’s untouched by civilization,
They say it provides jobs,
They swear to carbon-free emissions,
Then why does my body break down in sobs?
Water that leaves my people dehydrated and dead,
Water that kills,
Water that props up an illegal military regime,
Who knew it could have so much power?
Your colonial thirst for a taste of my paradise,
Highly dense and hyper-sexualized,
Life reduced to an exotic merchandise,
The blood of my people actualized.
This plastic bottle is all I have left of a place I’ll never see
With some half-forgotten memories of a country that doesn’t remember me
A Winter Vacation in Chicago
Far away from any colonized setting, glittering and shimmering, sitting on a river of lights next to Lake Michigan, with brand name outlets, world-renowned tourist spots, historical architectural designs, the buzzing energy of a lively place that never rests, this is Chicago, as urbane and metropolitan as it gets in the United States. At first glance, the city does not resonate with any pain, tragedy, or buried untold stories; it seems like a great vacation spot and escape from my own traumatic life. The city, half-imagined, returns to me each night.
Caught in a snow blizzard, I hurry past someone carrying a sign that read “I am just homeless and hungry. God gives to those that give to others.” Almost instantly, blurred images of a distant past flash through my mind. Homelessness is a part and parcel of every city and suddenly, I am not away from home, on any sort of vacation. I freeze, unable to escape my reality. This is not history yet, it is memory—intimate, painful, joyful, personal and nostalgic. Jolted out of my consumerist shopping spree, I realize with strange awe that tragedy, violence, a sense of belonging are not stuck in geographical space; they come with us in our memories, our intimate personalization and self-definitions.
Shaking off the feeling almost instantly, I walk into a convenience store to get some water for my sore throat. Staring at me through the sliding glass doors is a bottle of water from the Fiji Islands. Face to face with my reality, I stand there gazing at the tiny bottle as my mind once again loads and runs a cinematic reel. Half-remembered and half-forgotten memories from another place and time, now encompassed by this beautiful luminescent blue bottle, conjures up an entire history.
It’s problematic to hold a bottle of FIJI water with such nostalgic tenderness and pride, especially since it is owned by an US company, and yet we do it. When I discussed this with a friend from Canada, she admitted that she went into a gas station on her way to Los Angeles and bought a bottle of FIJI Water, because it is a Kai-India (Fiji Indian) thing to do. I pay for the FIJI water bottle and hold it as if I am holding Fiji and the history of my people in my hands, and coincidentally, realize that even the rights to FIJI water is owned by an ‘Other’; I am holding colonialism in my hand.
Indentured laborers from India crossed the Kala Pani (Pacific Ocean) in the late 1800s to come to Fiji. They called themselves girmitiyas, derived from the English word ‘agreement,’ which referred to the labor contract, while the British called them ‘coolies.’ The girmitiyas were supposed to simply serve as a working population, but by 1970, not only was Fiji independent of British rule, but the now free descendants of the girmitiyas were a majority population. However, as the 1900s came to a close, many more Indians (more properly referred to as Indo-Fijians) once again crossed the Kala Pani to seek refuge due to ethnic tensions at home.
I drink every drop of the water in the tiny bottle. My thirst quenched, my throat feels better. But my eyes water up.
Real tears aren’t the ones that flow easily. They are the unshed ones hiding behind hooded eyelids, stinging with permanence. And my heart cries.