Tamil diaspora

WE DID IT! SAATHICHITHOM! – A 21-Year Journey and Its Final Release

Saathichithom

Yesterday, I was privileged to graduate as a PhD (again), at a special first-of-its kind ceremony organized by the British High Commission and British Council for local graduates. It was a powerful moment of closure for me, and whilst I was so incredibly happy to have both my parents in attendance and a glorious day — deep emotions were working through me.

My educational journey has been an unusual one to say the least. I was intellectually advanced as a young toddler – reading materials that were 6, sometimes 9 years ahead of my reading group. My older brother was the same. Amma (Mum) knew how to stimulate our brains and whet our appetites for knowledge. If the natural aptitude that I or my brother had was a seed, Amma’s nurturing was the fertile soil in which it could sprout, and Appa’s (Dad’s) confidence the sunshine it needed.

When I eventually began kindergarten and primary school, a lot of the glowing self-confidence and the natural aptitude for self-study I had was dimmed, but not entirely snuffed out. Issues of race plagued my early years, with teachers going out of their way to humiliate me for my aptitude ‘despite’ my dark skin and Tamil identity. The administration saw fit to deny me the yearly prizes children would receive (for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place) despite my having top marks. All on the grounds that other parents complained that ‘a Tamil girl could have never beaten my son/daughter [gradeswise]’.

My mother of course, challenged the ruling by fighting like a tigress on my behalf. She never used coarse language, or raised her voice – but challenged the treatment I received with eloquent words, with facts and undeniable, documented, evidence.

I recall one formative experience, where I was late from my tae-kwon-do class (organized as part of school curricula) and had no time to change back into my school uniform. The teacher decided she would lock me out, stop what the class was doing and get the entire class to laugh and jeer at me, staring through the window. One of the kids was a boy whom the teacher regularly allowed to bully and utterly traumatize me each day – with some kind of plastic blade. She knew about it, and let it happen. All this when I was in Grade 1, so I was 6-7 years old.

Each year was a battle, my mother had to fight like a tigress, with my dad’s support just so I would get fair treatment. My brother had been through a similar experience, but his was a state-run school, and so my parents (at that time) had little recourse to methods of protest.

It was a very challenging childhood. Intense bullying. Psychological scars, a complete devastation of my self-esteem and I could not even imagine myself as beautiful.

My grades eventually slipped, and the bullying was less. I wasn’t the best in classes anymore, and a part of my identity just went into hiding from all of that pressure. There were literally – no other choices that my family could have made at the time.

When I was 11, I finished primary school (Grade 6) and announced to my parents that I would no longer be attending. They knew what I could do, and supported my decision. I then started a very dedicated, purely focused phase in my life completely committed to my education. That journey took me across several different continents.

I never really took in it, or saw it as a special achievement – till yesterday.

For me, it was just an act of survival and self-preservation. I had to find a way to be myself. It wasn’t an ideological statement or the ego’s desire for grand gestures – it was literally the only way I could survive without being crushed entirely.

Summarizing a few years, I essentially completed 6 years of secondary school education with self-tutelage in less than a year. Attempting to study at other institutions brought back the race issue (it’s there if you’re at the top and are outspoken), and, caused severe conflicts with the university administration. My political consciousness was awakening, my voice was emerging and I was no longer going to be silent.

During this time, I had my IQ tested and it was found to be at the genius-level (top 2%) when I was 12 and, later, at 15. I independently sat for and completed my O Levels at 13, did my American SATs (1 & 2), TOEFL and ACT.

We didn’t have help. All I had was my family and the Blessings of the Divine. We had no special connections, no favours, no hand-ups. Nothing. Everything was a battle, everything was a struggle. But we did it.

At 16 (in 2003), after a few years of social work with my father and emerging in my own right as the youngest trainer in the country, I finally went overseas. My political awareness needed an environment where speech was truly free. I went to the USA on my first scholarship, unaccompanied. There, I began with Physics (which was my first love as a child) and switched to Political Science. This was through the gifted teachings of Professor Benson Onyeji at Manchester College (now Manchester University). He introduced me to the histories of colonialism, the language of repression, the political economy of dependency. And the Model UN

I then left for International University Bremen (now Jacobs University Bremen) in Germany. I finished 3 years of an already accelerated program in 2 years by taking double the courseload and having a very full, active, student life. It was this time, I actually began to notice that – I was actually beautiful. I had my first experiences of organizing campus-wide petitions and more structured approaches to engaging with campus administration. I discovered I could paint and dance and play. And that was wonderful.

At 19, I graduated with my Bachelor’s in International Politics and History (a President’s List Scholar) and received a merit-based scholarship and Research Assistantship with Prof. Markus Jachtenfuchs at the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin. I had to leave the program two months after it began primarily due to illness in the family. I spent some time in India and Malaysia, and when all had settled down enough – out of the blue – I got accepted to begin my PhD, despite not having a Master’s. It was very unusual at that time.

Professor Shirin M. Rai at the University of Warwick (UK) had a visionary idea – to study aspects of ceremony and ritual in Parliaments, through a gendered lens. Having spent time in India, I sent a letter of interest and she wanted to have me on board. I got that confirmation on September 14th, 2007. And so another leg of the journey began, this time funded by the Leverhulme Trust – the one of the largest providers of grants for research in the UK.

I was 20 and I remember seeing a magpie on the way from Manchester Airport. And a whole new chapter in my life began. Through that journey, I would be standing at the House of Lords, the Indian Parliament, the Romanian Parliament, speaking at various universities/conferences and evolving through to the next phase of my life.

I was seriously ill for a great part of my PhD, and I fought through it. I faced some of the hardest challenges in my life to-date, physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally. And looking back at it all now – I wonder how I did it.

My PhD was passed with minor corrections – I remember the examiners being overjoyed – one them said, during the viva ‘thank you for writing this’. I did ask her about it later, and she said she meant it, she really felt I did good work. (I am my harshest critic … so hearing that meant a lot). In its final version, my thesis was 111,000 words and I could barely lift it. I remember submitting it, and it was about as heavy as a newborn. I had just turned 25.

Through the 5 years I spent in the UK, I learnt so much. I began to expand and blossom in so many ways through utterly debilitating circumstances. I made deep friendships and set sail for a new trajectory in my life.

When I had my actual graduation at the University of Warwick in 2013, race was an issue again. And that graduation felt as though I was in a battlefield, once more. Because the PhD gown was so markedly different from the other undergraduates’, I got started at sharply in a very unpleasant way – it wasn’t just one person, quite a few people did and those with me noticed it. I didn’t understand why … till one of the parents went out of her way to make it clear.

In the most condescending way possible, she wanted to know whether ‘I had problems with English’ and whether ‘I had borrowed the gown’ – she was unhappy her son didn’t have it. I didn’t get why she was asking me such strange questions at the time, but I managed to deflect it politely.

Friends I have mentioned this to were utterly scandalized by it, as was someone working within the University. I don’t think it’s a representative experience, but it did happen. And I am so grateful I did not have to go through that alone, but I cannot say that it was a pleasant experience.

My parents were sadly not able to be there, but my mentor was – and my supervisor also arrived just in time for me to emerge from the gowning – a very key rite of passage.

I didn’t have that feeling or sense of achievement. I felt weary. Weary that thousands of miles away, I was still the unwanted Tamil girl who couldn’t be allowed to be her best without someone trying to put her in her place. Not that I let them, but I had hoped I wouldn’t have to face it again, after so many years.

A year later, when I received an invitation for another graduation ceremony, to celebrate the achievements of local graduates who had their PhDs from the UK – I snapped up the opportunity instantly. My parents could of course, attend!

So yesterday, I had those big moments. The ones I yearned for. My dad was waiting for me with his camera as I stepped out of the gowning. My mum and dad were so proud. And it was a relaxed environment. People were celebrating one another, rather trying to put anyone down. I could hold my head up high. And any looks I got were of mutual recognition (of achievement) or happy admiration as part of a festive occasion.

But I wasn’t celebrating. I felt heavy with the weight of release … of a wound I’d held so close to me, deep within for 21 years.

The idea that my skin made me less worthy. That it meant I could never achieve anything. That I was ugly. That I was never going to be celebrated for who I was.

That wound finally healed yesterday.

I was waiting to get gowned again, and I realized the significance of this ceremony in my life, and the complete release that it was giving me, at long last. Taking it all in, I could barely stand. My legs felt weak, but I took a deep breath and kept going on.

My achievements – whilst I’m cognitively aware of them – are never ones that I really celebrated or took deep pride in. I was happy, but I never thought of them as big things.

Standing in a crowd of my peers, as the only dark-skinned woman in a saree, with that much coveted PhD plush hat and shimmering robe … I knew this was a lot more than being ‘just about me’.

It was an act of Representation. For my family, for the Tamil community in which I am a public figure, for every dark skinned child who has ever had their soul crushed through prejudice. I represent the undeniable statement – of YES, WE CAN.

I say we because I could not have done any of this alone. I worked like a machine through all those years – but this is not the achievement of just one person. But of many.

I couldn’t have done this without the upbringing I had, my parents’ emotional support, and also financially when scholarships did not cover it all. Not without the opportunities that people who had faith in me gave me. Opportunities to prove myself. To do something. Not without the Grace of the Divine and its Blessings. Not without friends whom I consider family.

And so, after a day of ceremony and an evening of celebration with my parents, as I lay in my bed, I finally released the emotions I’d been holding so close to my chest for 21 years. And I fell asleep crying, saying these words over and over again…

Thank you. We did It!

And In Tamil:

Saathichithom!

~ Dr. Bairavee Balasubramaniam, PhD

The Path of Peace can never be Forged by Hatred ~ By Priestess Bairavee Balasubramaniam, PhD

 

path to peace
Silence can be a powerful tool of protest through disengagement, but it can also be a sign of apathy, or of having been subjugated, your voice lost.

Despite having a PhD in the subject, I rarely speak about politics unless it’s in an article I write, or at a conference. I find it to be a subject that tends to polarize rather than unify. That being said, politics is woven into the world, and our personal lives in ways and levels that make it impossible to avoid.

Right now feels like one of those times where remaining silent would be apathetic.

On my page The Goddess, The Serpent and The Sea: Building Pathways of Light, I posted a meme that essentially condemned the situation in Gaza – asserting that standing in solidarity with the lives lost was not the same as hating either side. I liked it as it was a statement of empathy and solidarity without judgment. (We have enough of the latter in this world, and too little of the former).

I got two interesting responses to it: One, was a lady whom I’d never heard being aggressive, telling me that the extremists on the Palestinian side would kill me (us, the collective ‘you’) after they’d killed all the Jews. The second, was someone who’d posted a video of an son of a general in the Israeli army speaking out against the killings.

I was grateful for the second comment as it was a sign that not all Jews supported the conflict – many others are making similar efforts to put the word out there. This knowledge helps one de-link the actions of a particular military and/or government from the faith and ethnicity they are associated with. It also slows the growth and prevalence of insidious generalizations that equate people of a certain faith with aggression and war. (And it’s not just about the Judaism, I take that stance when any faith, religion and spiritual path is involved).

Equally, I was grateful for the first comment, as it was a reminder for me to get out of my silence and speak. This was my reply:

Hate manifests hate. Basic spiritual principle. By hating them, you do not change or help the situation.

I should add – By refusing to hate, you do not condone or support unjust actions. Too many people believe they must hate one side or another to support the opposite party.

If we are truly honest in our spiritual paths – we have to ask ourselves – can the Path of Peace be forged by Hatred?

I say this as a priestess, political scholar and as a Tamil woman – I am the daughter of a race that was raped and slaughtered in Sri Lanka in an act of genocide in its own right that has yet to be fully acknowledged.

Blessings to all,
Priestess Bairavee Balasubramaniam, PhD
www.bairaveebalasubramaniam.com

_________________________________________________
Image: Artist Unknown. Originally on: http://mepeace(dot)org/profiles/blogs/palestine-post

Update: It has come to my attention that the video of the son of the general may be a hoax. The idea that not all Israelis and Jews support military action on Gaza is, however, a valid one. 5,000 attended this rally in Tel Aviv, protesting for peace between Israel and Paleston: http://972mag.com/no-more-deaths-israelis-protest-the-gaza-war/94380/

 

THE POLITICS OF NAMASTE AND WAYS TO HONOR THE MILLION FACES OF INDIA

The Politics of Namaste

Blessings to all,

I’ve given much thought to writing this – as honestly, it is a sensitive subject – one that draws upon thousands of years of ideological and other forms of violence, suppression and grandstanding between two different religious and spiritual traditions in India: The Aryan (North) and the Dravidian (South). It‘s honestly a lot more nuanced than that, but there is that invisible line that is drawn across the Indian subcontinent that marks profound differences.

Whilst I love my Southern-Tamil culture and identity, I feel there is so much more to it than asserting whether it is the ‘best’ or the ‘oldest’ – but at the same time I feel deeply uncomfortable when someone does try to put down my identity by claiming cultural-linguistic-ethnic- and other forms of superiority. There is powerful linguistic evidence on both sides, which have equally been used to make such a case – and I honestly find that debate counterproductive.

I worship and integrate different aspects of both traditions, deities and divinities – placing them on par with one another. For those of you who have been following my work, you know that I do the same thing with religions and belief systems for we are all Equals in the Circle.

But what does all this have to do with Namaste?

Namaste is a specific term of – recognizing the divinity within others – that is from the Sanskritic linguistic root – strongly associated with the Hindi language.

Contrary to the kinds of cultural stereotyping that India is often subjected to (that everyone speaks Hindi, or is a Hindu, or loves Bollywood) – not every part of India uses this terminology – even in spiritual contexts.

I’m writing this as I realize that my Indian identity often makes others feel as though they are honoring that identity by saying ‘Namaste’.

I don’t blame anyone for/about it – and I see that the intention is pure.

It’s just that this discussion, or this distinction hasn’t been made in many New Age and spiritual circles. People assume that India is more homogeneous that it actually is, unless information to the contrary is given.

Simply put, it does not mean the same thing for all those who are of Indian origin. Nor do all people of Indian origin use it, even in temples.

Here are other ways that different Indian identities express a similar concept:
Vanakam – Tamil (some Tamil Brahmins use Namaskaram)
Vandanam/Namaskaram – Telugu
Swagatham/Namaskaram – Malayalam
Assamulaikum – Muslim-Indians

There are a lot of other ways that different states/regions and ethnicities express this concept. This list is but a start.

As has been shown in India’s history and politics – Language is key to one’s sense of identity. Words say a lot about who you are, where you come from, where you will go. And not having the right to express one’s self in their mother tongue was seen in India’s history as a severe limitation upon individual freedoms.

That is the reason why India recognizes more than 20 different official languages and provides for simultaneous interpretative services in its Parliament – and why MPs use English if not their mother tongue to speak with others.

The idea of a single identity, be it defined in terms of a language, a region, a belief system, could not take root – as it is a such rich land with a diversity of cultural traditions and ethnicities. Plurality and diversity were favored over imposing a common language – because that would have meant much more than ‘mere words’ to the people of India.

A friend of mine asked me (and he respects both traditions) – well, what is your point as ‘Hindi is the face of India’ (quoted with permission).

My response: Well, it is – and it isn’t.

India has a million faces, and each deserve equal recognition.

Here’s to honoring them all, and staying true to one’s roots. Tolerance and Plurality.

Vanakam,
Bairavee Balasubramaniam, PhD
www.bairaveebalasubramaniam.com

About Dr. Bairavee Balasubramaniam, PhD

Hello everyone,

My name is Dr. Bairavee Balasubramaniam, PhD.

I was born in Malaysia, of ethnic Tamil (South Indian) heritage and have been skipping across the globe (North America, Europe, Asia) since I was 16 on merit-based scholarships and awards from various universities.

51EP1_5450a resized

I was one of those kids who read a lot and began using encyclopedias when I was 4 – in my early teens, I was certified as having a Mensan IQ of 172, in the top 2% of the global population, i.e. a genius-level score. (Thank you mum for letting me follow my own curiosity, for teaching me how to stand up for myself – and for the encyclopedia set). After finishing primary school at 11, I basically took my education – and my future – into my own hands. In other words, I am auto-didactic/a self-taught learner.

I finished my high school education at 13 after months of intense self-tutelage, completed my Bachelor’s in record time at 19, skipped a Masters, and then completed a 100,000 word doctoral thesis (PhD) at the age of 25. Here’s a link to an interview where I speak about all of this (in Tamil) – this was aired in July 2013 on the ASTRO network.

I consider myself a self-made woman, driving herself but acknowledging the role of roots, conditioning influences and the wider Universe in making that happen.

screenshot bai graduating official video

In between all this academic ‘stuff’, I engaged myself with several years’ worth of social work, contributing what I could to the social, educational and general improvement of the Malaysian-Indian community, alongside my father Mr. Thannambikkai Balasubramaniam – the man who coined the phrase ‘Thanmunaippu Payirtchi’ (Self-Confidence Seminar) in the Tamil language and made motivational seminars accessible to all segments of the Malaysian-Tamil community.

DSCN2944

Speaking on stage is something that I have been very comfortable doing and have addressed crowds (in person) of about 3,000 people and have spoken on numerous Tamil-language radio and TV programs in Malaysia. I have also taught students ways to educate and empower themselves (as I did) and have raised awareness on the brain and its remarkable capabilities. Recently, I was also featured as a guest speaker on Intention Radio, a multi-national radio platform with a global audience.

You can also look at my LinkedIn profile to get an overview of the various professional and academic chapters of my life thus far. https://www.linkedin.com/pub/bairavee-balasubramaniam/40/56/82

1236580_715022031846594_491488221_n

My academic interests have varied and evolved through different phases of my life. When I was little, I loved astronomy, astrophysics and neuroscience – and so began my first degree in the US (on scholarship). There I received an introduction to the liberal arts and my taste for politics and justice grew – I then switched my major and my university and studied International Politics and History in Germany. My life-perspective (as an ethnic minority, as a woman) kept evolving through this time and I found myself with a scholarship to study Gendered Ceremony and Ritual in Parliament as part of a 5-year research project at the University of Warwick, UK. Those who’d like to view my thesis can do so here: http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/54359/

Through my academic studies of the world and its political institutions, after years of study I finally realize that I am (and happy to be labeled as such) a post-structural, post-colonial, feminist academic. One who seeks to write and live by the works she invests her energies into – which brings me onto a totally different facet of my life – one which I am integrating into my public, social and academic identity (and vice versa).

DSCN2425

In addition to the identities described above  – I am a priestess, a holistic astrologer, a spiritualist, a writer, a poetess, an artist and a bunch of other things that I keep evolving into.My spiritual journey intensified when I went through several years of soul-searching during my PhD in the UK, and I have undertaken numerous pilgrimages to sacred sites in India, Nepal, the UK, Malaysia (so far) – all of which have deeply moved, transformed and awakened parts of me that I did not realize I had. Now I know, and here it is.

I run several pages dedicated to my spiritual and astrological explorations on FB which currently (as of 23.1.2015) reach nearly 10,000 people and continue to grow. I write regularly and publish on my FB public profile and network with spiritualists all across the globe.

One reason I wanted to make this profile and ‘go public’ as it were was to accept the different facets of my identity – a decidedly liberal academic  – a post-colonial, post-structural political scientist – a internationalist- a Malaysian-Tamil – an ethnic minority – a public speaker – a motivator – a priestess – a woman – a feminist – a Goddess worshiper – a star-lover – a poetess – and to demonstrate (to myself first of all) that they can all coexist in one person.

So here’s to co-existence and creation.

1794545_475630799207587_2014462136_n

Vanakkam, Namaste and Blessings to all,

Dr. Bairavee Balasubramaniam, PhD

Use the contact form below if you would like to get in touch