By Swati Kamble
I am a Dalit woman and a marginalised women’s rights activist-researcher, born and raised in a slum in Mumbai. I am doing a PhD abroad now. I am in a heterosexual-married companionship with an upper middle class white man in a wealthy western European country. One can gauge my intersectional identity, my disadvantages, and privileges in every term I have used to describe myself.
The term ‘intersectionality’, with its genesis embedded in black women’s struggle for their rights, has sharpened my critical perspectives so I can now view the web of interconnected identities that make an individual either privileged or vulnerable. My perspectives on individuals, their privileges and disadvantages, widen with every new experience.
Two such incidences occurred recently as I was traveling to Ghent from the Brussels airport.
On the train to Ghent, I saw two little girls, about three and five, sitting with their mother on a seat opposite mine. The girls were playfully singing something. When I paid close attention, I heard “Daddy finger, daddy finger, where are you… Here I am, here I am, how do you do?” I was amused to hear that these young girls were reciting the same rhyme that my four-year-old nephew Menander from Mumbai recites. I know for the fact that in Europe it is not very common among kids to learn English rhymes unless they are raised in a multicultural household or they are Indians. I was curious and I asked the mother, “Excuse me, where do you come from?”
Only when I asked the question did I realise how deeply engrossed in thought she was. She also looked concerned. She said to me in broken English, “I am Albanie (Albanian), I am sorry I am confused,” she worriedly said, I figured. She explained to me, “I have to go to Luxembourg, but I was given a wrong direction. Only after I got on to the train, I realised it’s a wrong train.”
I asked her where she lives in Belgium. She told me she lived in a camp in Belgium for the past five months, but now she was traveling to Luxembourg, and that because of the confusion of the train route she will not have a connecting bus in Luxembourg to get to her destination. This time I looked around. The woman was carrying two bulky bags without wheels, which meant she would have to carry them. In addition to that, she had a baby stroller for the little girl and a handbag. I realised she had every reason to be worried. She was travelling with two little girls, with very heavy bags and nobody else to assist her. I further asked her, for what reasons she had come to Belgium. I thought she may be a war-affected minority from Kosovo. But she said she had escaped an abusive husband and had fled the country with her two girls to seek asylum in Belgium. We started to chat a little more. When I asked her about the rhyme the girls were singing, she said they learned it in the camp on YouTube. It amused me to see how YouTube has brought people of different cultures together. While my nephew in India enjoys watching ‘Masha and the bear’ in Russian, a friend’s daughters in Belgium relish watching Kannada animation rhymes ‘Veeri veeri gummadi paddu’, so much so that my friend could recite it without knowing the meaning.
The Albanian young mother asked me if I was Indian and if I knew Mother Teresa. She told me that Mother Teresa was Albanian and had lived in India. She told me, as a child she would look at the Indian sisters (nuns) who came to Albanian churches in her city. While we were talking, it was time for her to change the train. I told her I was going to help her with the bags. As the train stopped, I dropped the bags on the platform and helped her to get the girls off of the train safely. In that moment I realised it was not enough to just have dropped the bags on the platform, as she it would have been difficult for her to pull those bags down the stairs. Additionally, she had a stroller and two very young girls who were quite afraid of the automated train doors. In the previous ride, the doors had almost closed down on the little girls. I rushed to the compartment to get my bag to get off the train but the automated train door closed before I could rush back.
As the train moved away from the platform, I was heartbroken to see the image of a distressed mother standing with heavy bags and two little girls clinging to her. The weight of her intersecting identity as a refugee woman from a poor European country with a recent history of war, who has fled an abusive relationship was heavier than those bags. I felt sad that I could not help her more. While my husband waited at Ghent station to receive and embrace me lovingly, she had to flee her country to escape the brutalities of her husband — being a survivor of domestic abuse myself in a previous relationship, I found her to be an embodiment of a strong courageous woman; a survivor. I was sad that I didn’t ask her for her name or any other details.
On the next station, it was time for me to get off the train and get on a connecting train to Ghent. I went up the escalator to the platform where the train would come. On my way up I saw a tall young black man struggling with two big bags, one piece of handbag and a plastic bag, descending from the escalator to get to another platform. I had a déjà vu from my early student days when I too travelled to Europe with heavy bags using public transport. I know well the impulse that one has in packing a slice of one’s home s/he is leaving behind to head to the land of promises. In that time, it was announced that my train had changed platforms. I descended the escalator hurriedly, only to encounter the young black man rushing with his heavy bags again. I decided to give him a hand with one of his bags so he and I would both walk with a bag in each hand. I asked him where he was going. Since he too was headed to Ghent, it was convenient. I helped him get his bags on the train and once inside the train, we stood talking.
Wole is from Nigeria. He had gone to Nigeria for two months on holiday and was returning back to Ghent, where he came seven years ago. Wole has a masters degree in political science but came to Belgium to make a living, in search of better opportunities. Having spent seven years working part-time as a cook, he wants to leave the hustle and bustle of a European city. Wole has a four-year-old daughter whom he wants to raise in Nigeria. Life here in Europe is too demanding, he says. But as we came near Ghent, he said, “Man, I missed Ghent”. The city he made his home for seven years and clearly developed a bond with has not given him much to stick for a while longer.
We spoke a lot about global politics, about how people judge other individuals based on outer appearances — skin colour, faith, sexual orientation. And how these prejudices have taken away humanity in this era of technology, where we are globally connected and are closer than ever, where social networking strives to bring humans together, yet we are engulfed with differences that set us apart.
The two incidences on the train taught me a lot. I experienced how reaching out to fellow humans enriches you; teaches you about life in more ways than one.
Humans carry the baggage of their multiple identities, creating a complex matrix of intersectionality, which exposes their privileges and disadvantages. Diversity is necessary for celebrating differences in our society, and human interaction allows one to grasp this diversity, to embrace others despite the differences in cultural, racial, ethnic, religious and caste, rather than fearing and hating them. These interactions have the tremendous power to connect people in a world that is wounded and oozing from violence, hatred, and fear — the fear of others, who, despite all the differences, share a common thread of humanity.
I’m left with some questions. The fact that I, an Indian in a foreign land can encounter an Albanian and a Nigerian in a single trip, shows how ‘glocal’ we have become. But are we ready to embrace this diversity? To recognise the beauty and wealth it brings? Are we willing to prepare for a world order that responds to diverse individual needs? Are we willing to create a safe haven for everybody to coexist happily and meaningfully? Accepting the difference rather than tolerating it? I wish for that world, now more than ever.