'Sit Down; You're Brown' - by Javi Reddy
Whenever I was on the cusp of greatness, my uncle, who could drink more vodka than he could properly articulate himself, would utter his one true sentence:
‘Sit down, you’re brown!’
He wasn’t just a master of ensuring his glass never ran dry - he was also well equipped to make sure that both my posterior and my confidence managed to find its way back to earth, should I dare to dream.
I guess there are better colours to wear in South Africa than brown. White. Yes, privileged, well-taken-care-of white. With a hint of denial and dissociation of the past. Or black. BEE Black - top of the list of opportunity and streaks ahead of any other specimen hoping to land the right job.
I had always had grounds to question my self-destructing uncle. How could I trust a man who refrained from pouring any orange juice or soda into his vodka? How dare he breathe so heavily on me, with the belief that a clear drink brought him a clear argument?
Looking back, the dipsomaniac may have had a point. Growing into my Indianness or rather possessing a general inability to shun it, meant that I was soon walloped with the horrid realization that brown (excuse the ghastly pun) was a shitty colour. Indians are good at running their family businesses or striking up a good bargain, right? Or they’re supposedly the numbers kings - dominating engineering or accounting positions in companies, right? Well, I didn’t get that fucking manual. I was probably outside trying to get my uncle to keep his clothes on, when they were dishing out the modus operandi booklets on how to be a solid Indian.
In the end, I boasted no business skills, except the skill of making it my business to keep my head down and avoid any reason to feel that I mattered. To sit down at an average job in an average company. I especially refrained from following all the hyped-up ridiculousness that flows through this country in an attempt to celebrate its diversity. Because diversity means mixing. And I don’t know how to mix.
Sometimes you cannot avoid the coming together and you’re cemented into certain occasions. Occasions like this fucking day. Every year, I sit here wondering if I have gained more insight into my culture. If I can actually contribute to this ‘occasion’ in a fulfilling way. That's Heritage Day, ladies and gents. One of the many over-the-top public holidays celebrated by South Africans, annually. A corner is a lovely place to hide today, here at work, especially if you’re not entirely sure why you’re dressed the way you are. Or what you’re supposed to say. I look to the middle of our canteen and centre stage we have the Xhosa ladies in their bright traditional dresses; the Zulu clan in their leopard pattern clothing and the Boers in khaki outfits. They’re all so….ready.
I am the only Indian participating in Heritage Day. Which means I am the only one in a kurta top. In a company of over 4000 employees, not one other brown brother stood up for the challenge. God, even the Chileans outnumber me. The three of them came over in some exchange program. The tall one’s wearing a football kit. I love football. Why can’t the rest of India agree that it should be favoured over cricket? At least then I could wear an Indian football kit. Inconsiderate lot. Instead, I’ve got this kurta’s silk collar around me, like a noose.
What will I share today? Last year, I got away with bringing everyone the famous Indian treats that are sweetmeats (and possibly sped up that fat guy in HR’s type 2 diabetes). The year before I behearted an extract on Wikipedia about Diwali, the Festival of Lights. A day when people complain about fireworks (which somehow doesn’t affect pets as badly as it does on Guy Fawkes Day). You would think that would piss me off but, alas, you are sorely wrong. Whilst people of our Mzansi shores all seem to have a sense of pride about standing up for their respective groups in this melting pot of multi-culture, I have no urge to complain about those putting down my people on Diwali. Because I am nothing on that day. Nothing except the cheating employee who gets an extra chance to miss work by taking off a day of religious leave. I get all the other Christian holidays as well. Thank you, Jesus and Krishna - maybe you guys can co-exist. I won’t tell anyone, I promise. Imagine a world full of tolerance? Ya, neither can I.
Technically, Heritage Day is on Monday, but we must celebrate early this Friday, so that everyone can display their cultures proudly in a work environment, in front of people who do not even know each other's full names. Yeah, I get Diwali to stay away from the office, but the others can hardly grumble. There are enough days to make up for it. 1 May - celebrate equality amongst working conditions by not going to work.
9 August - you may not have a uterus but you can still take advantage of the fairer sex’s achievements by not going to work.
26 Dec - this is now called a Day of Goodwill because Boxing Day was brought to this lovely land by the Poms. Either way, you’re not going to work on that day.
And of course, Heritage Day, the bane of my existence.
Could our company be any more nauseating? Oh yes, here we go. Fredrick is up first. He’s the fat guy from HR who shits sunbeams when he gets to talk about his German heritage. To me, he’ll always be another guy from Boksburg. There’s no bond uber-strong enough to make me see him any differently. He normally sports that baggy jeans and 90s takkies combo (yes, you know the one) but today he’s come to us in his knee-high socks, short leather trousers with braces and an alpine hat. The fucker didn’t even bring any beer. He doesn’t speak German - not fluently anyway. He has been to the motherland often, however, thanks to the skewing of inherited wealth in this country. He doesn’t even know that Bayern Munich are playing Borussia Dortmund this weekend. I cannot take this tub of lard seriously. He rambles on. There’s an hour of this to get through. I look upwards towards the heavens. I know I don’t call often. But I need you to get me through this. Whoever you are and whatever form or shape you may take, rescue me. Fredrick is told to end his speech by our head of HR. Thank you, Lord. Tomorrow I’ll ask for world peace. And the day after that, for Fredrick’s release from captivity.
Thandekile goes next. She’s beautiful in a way I cannot quite describe. And that’s the problem. I fail to instantly recognise her radiance because we are grown up to be taught that ‘white is right’. That there are certain features that make a woman beautiful. The fair skin, the fine nose - all carved out by Western sculptors and chiseled into our brains that this is the desired form of the Goddesses. But I look at her and curly hair and wider hips are not as unattractive as we are made to believe. Thandekile (or TK as she affectionately known amongst peers) is Zimbabwean. She takes us through what it means that Uncle Bob is now finally out and whilst her homeland rejoices, she is far more subdued in that she knows corruption in politics is like the Lernaean Hydra. You cut one head off, another grows back. Who’s going to ruin her country next?
Given my love for colours as a kid, thanks to my art class filled with glorious minutes of pastels smudged on my fingers, you would think I’d have a general interest in the Rainbow Nation. And embrace days like this. I feel no connection to SA. Or India. But a strange itch seems to take over as I sit in this canteen. The thing is, no one is better than you. No one has a better crayon or pastel in their hand than you do. We have to colour in the grey areas on our own. If brown is my only pastel, then I will find a way. Perhaps that is what bonds us as South Africans. We bitch; we moan; but we endure.
I zone out and become concerned as to whether I should have bought that copy of Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’ from the second hand bookshop on Oxford Road last week. It probably won’t be there the next time I visit. And this will haunt me for some time. Worry today, but worry less, for tomorrow brings us new hells. There’s always something else. Load-shedding. State Capture. A new hashtag to follow or an online racist to unfollow. We find new things to get under our skin, irrespective of the colour of our skin. No one is better. No one.
Suddenly, it’s my turn and they’re all looking at me like I’m Deepak Chopra, Sachin Tendulkar and that guy from the ‘Big Bang Theory’ all rolled into one.
Why must I move into the centre? Can I not remain corner stage; a periphery figure merely adding to the background as I listen in on the main showmen (and beautiful woman)? I trudge towards the middle. Their eyes are all heavy on me. My heart begins to pound like an African drum. That’s the closest form of association I have with this day. I am...I am fucked.
A tune goes through my head. ‘There’s a brown boy in the ring...tra la la la la...Brown boy in the ring...tra la la la la…He looks like his head’s up his bum...bum bum!!’
Here I am. The final act of this tragi-comedy. The fool and his soliloquy. I open my mouth but no words come. I look around. They’re just as tired as I am. I smile.
‘I’m not going to bore you with any arduous tales. The day has taken its toll. Instead, I will merely utter two words.’ They lean in.
‘SWEET MEATS!’I open the white box in my hand, filled with guilty pleasures that are laced with sugar and food colourants. Here’s your Rainbow Nation, right in this box. Every damn colour you can think of. They all cheer.
I’ve done it for another year at least. They greedily tuck in. I leave the box on the counter and return to corner stage.TK comes over with a piece of barfi made from condensed milk in her hand.
‘You know, technically “Sweetmeats” is one word.’
The Goddess winks and leaves.
This fucking day.