Friday essay: ‘why is it always on public transport?’ – racist threats have shaped, but not defeated me

Preeti Maharaj Black Inc.
Preeti Maharaj Black Inc.

I am 14. It is 1991. It is a Wednesday. I am in Year 9.

“N—-r! N—-r!”

To get to school in inner-city South Melbourne from Sunbury in the outer northwest, it takes me an hour and a half. I have to catch two trains, a tram and then walk. This is the price for a brown immigrant girl of attending a select-entry girls school.

“N—-r! N—-r!”

I am in my school uniform. I am reading. I glance up and see that everyone is looking at me. I can’t remember how long it takes me to realise that I am the n—-r. I am at the end of the carriage, facing the torrent. I can tell by the hunched backs of the commuters that he is standing behind them. I can see their terrified faces. I cannot see him.

“Go back to where you came from. We don’t want you here.”

All the clichés are spewing out. Even the most pedestrian words of racism have a visceral impact. I do not know then how much this one moment, layered over all the other moments, will shape me. I do not know that it will imbue my cells with a fear and shame that I know rationally I should not have, but that will become wholly and silently mine.

‘Ignore him, dear’

I am 14 and I am ten. As I listen to him ranting at the train door, I remember the sharpening of cane knives at night while the men take turns keeping sentry in the early days, when we do not know if the friendly tourist destination all Australians love will have a civil war. I remember two military coups that teach me that the country of my birth does not want me or mine. I remember the media blackouts, roadblocks and curfews . . .

I remember my kaka, my father’s brother, his wife and two young children leaving the country overnight with my aaji, my maternal grandmother. If one of us gets out, then maybe one day, the rest of us can get the others out. The day after they leave, the military grounds the planes. Then no one can get out. Getting out becomes a dream for most Fiji-Indians. I remember an army raid and a friendly man in uniform holding a gun to my head, telling me and the other children to keep playing Monopoly while the other friendly military men search the house.

I remember all this as a stranger shouts at me to go back to where I came from and calls me names. This is the period when my life becomes a tangle of tenses that exist simultaneously.

I put down the book as we approach a station, and the elderly lady next to me gets up and touches my hand gently. She has spots on her hand.

“Ignore him, dear. Don’t listen to him. We don’t all think that way.”

She gets off the train. I panic. I look at everyone left on the train. I search for the adults. No one makes eye contact. I am in my school uniform. I wear glasses that are too big for my face. I have unruly long black hair. I am awkward. I am a child. I am alone.

Threats of violence

I am 35 and I am 14. I am a teacher. I share this story with my class. The Somali hijabi students laugh and their eyes glow with sympathetic understanding.

“Miss, public transport. That’s where it always happens.”
“Miss, for me it was on a tram.”
“Miss, someone tore off my hijab.”
“Miss, why is it always on public transport?”

Preeti Maharaj. Jessica D Cruze/Black Inc.
Preeti Maharaj. Jessica D Cruze/Black Inc.

I am 40, I am ten and I am 14. I unravel. I resign as an assistant principal. I take a term off work. I cannot think. I can only cry. I cannot stop crying. I see two psychologists before I realise I will have to find one who understands me. I finally find her. She looks like one of my cousins.

“When you were a child, who was the adult you talked to about your feelings when you were distressed and needed reassurance?”

I do not understand this question. I ask my parents. They too do not understand this question. For our people, the Girmityas, the indentured labourers taken to Fiji from India to work the cane fields, it has been about generations of survival. If you have clothes, access to food and are safe from harm, then it is obvious you are loved. Generations of our children, surrounded by adults yet wholly and silently alone.

I do not know then that he is holding a broken glass bottle, that he will block my exit from the station, that I will not be able to get out, that I will by this stage be sobbing and incoherent, that he will push the train conductor who tries to help me off the platform onto the train tracks, that the police will be called and that they will laugh because they know him but say they cannot do anything.

I do not know then that for the rest of my life I will be scanning crowded spaces, alert, always looking for him. These threats of violence shape my life.

“Go back to where you came from.”
“We don’t want you here.”

‘It is the talking back that matters’

I am 39 and I am 14. I am reading. I am on the 96 tram to St Kilda. I am standing near the door. I hear him. I remember. I put the book away. I look up. I am ready.

He is shouting at a brown man for sitting in the wrong seat. The brown man moves seats. He continues shouting. The brown man speaks with an accent and is being mocked and threatened. The brown man tries to make himself smaller. I look around the tram, I see others on the tram who look like me. I speak.

My broad Australian accent protects me but speaking up means making myself a target of violence. I take that chance. My words are not important; for me it is the talking back that matters. This time, there are others who join in and we win. I tell my students this story as well. Teenagers love a good smackdown redemption arc.

I am 45, I am 35 and I am 25. I talk to immigrant taxi drivers. I tell them things will get better, that my father and his two brothers did the same work when they first came to Australia. I reassure them their dreams for their children were also my parents’ dreams and they mostly have come true.

Hours spent across decades, passing on what it is like still growing up in Australia, huddling and talking in taxis that light up the driveways of homes I have rented across all four of Melbourne’s inner quadrants.

I am 22, I am 14 and I am 10. I start teaching and meet teenagers who have experienced dislocation, dispossession and displacement. Some, like me, have lived through the threat of violence, others have been witness to violence, some are survivors of violence and every other combination you can imagine that should never happen.

I spend two decades in classrooms in high schools, creating safe spaces to share our stories. Because my life is a tangle of tenses.

This essay is extracted from Growing Up Indian in Australia, edited by Aarti Betigeri (Black Inc.) and published on July 2.

This article is republished from The Conversation. It was written by: Preeti Maharaj, Victoria University

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Preeti Maharaj has her own educational consultancy company. She is a member of the Australian Education Union.