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My history is as real as yours

In the summer of 2007, I was 17. I was facing my last year of high school and had no prospects.

College might have been the logical next step, but I had always been a lousy student. With my schooling coming to an end, who - or what - would I become?

My Toronto suburb was made up of working- and middle-class immigrants from Pakistan like my parents, as well as from India, the Middle East and the West Indies.

Most had come to Canada after immigration laws were liberalised in the 1970s. They settled in places such as Scarborough and Mississauga, towns where Hindus, Muslims and Christians, blacks and whites, lived side by side - an idealised portrait of the Canadian mosaic.

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Beneath this veneer of multiculturalism, however, was a darker reality. That summer, for the first time, I began to look closely at the world around me and what I saw were brown boys and girls condemned to a dangerous aimlessness.

We were bounded by the neighbourhood, defined by it, chained to our circumstances and the invisible norms that told us we ought to know our place.

We did not know who we were and where we came from.

The schools could not tell us. Our parents could not tell us. The streets tried to tell us, but those answers posed their own problems.

It was worse for the girls, especially the Muslim ones. They faced the same struggles we did, while also living in complete terror of their fathers. Misogyny told them they were inferior to boys and should be married. They lied to protect themselves.

When aimlessness meets alienation, violence is certain. Before I picked up a serious book, I knew boys who had stabbed other kids or had themselves been stabbed.

I knew who had a gun, who had knives, how to say hello to them, when and how to run.

That summer, I had an epiphany: If I continued to do poorly in school, what lay ahead was either the street or, if I was lucky, the factory.

Throughout my adolescence, multiple people tried to tell me I had "potential".

Guidance counsellors would show me pamphlets with white faces in white coats or white faces in dark suits, and they would ask me what I wanted to do. I had no answer because these professionals were not real people, but mirages.

My parents could offer no guidance. The language I spoke, the beliefs I professed, the way I walked, all changed the minute I walked out the door.

Here is the basic conundrum the child of immigrants faces as he goes through school. Until now, he has safely assumed the identity provided to him by his family, but as he encounters innocent white faces, he is confronted with an interrogation about who he really is.

Friends might inquire about the smelly food he eats at lunch or teachers may wonder how "your people" do things. And the child, because he is a child, feels ashamed of his parents, culture, language. He begins to lie about who he is.

He is now one person at home, another at school and another at the mosque or temple.

He will soon become confused, frustrated and perhaps even angry. He has never been taught his history and does not know his origins.

He will have to transcend his ignorance or drown in it.

I now recognised my constraints, but how could I escape them?

I turned to education to purchase my freedom.

That autumn, I sat at the front of the class and studied late into the night. When I was done, I read anything I could get my hands on.

Slowly, my grades began to creep up. The year ended with a scholarship to a good university and I felt, for the first time, that I might not be a failure.

The only problem was that when I got to the university, I instantly saw how far behind I was.

My classmates had been born into a world with private tutors and parents who had planned their successes. I did not envy this privilege because I, too, was privileged - I had seen how life was actually lived, what it meant to strive twice as hard and be accepted as half as good.

The library became my safe space.

I wanted nothing less than to break down my character and let the temple of knowledge reconstruct it until I was someone who knew about himself and the world.

During freshmen week, while my classmates were partying, I was reading H.G. Wells' Invisible Man.

When I came to its most powerful line - "I am nobody but myself" - the earth shook under me.

Who am I? Where did I come from? Who were my ancestors and what did they believe?

If I could not answer these questions, I would never answer that other question that troubled me: Where did I belong?

That day, nearly a decade ago, I became conscious that I was not born out of nothing in the forgotten suburbs, but had a history that was as real as the skin on my body.

I was linked to an honourable past, even if I did not know the content of that past. My people, too, had produced poets, philosophers and scientists. Their land had been plundered, its resources extracted to fuel an industrial revolution a continent away.

I learnt that I had a context and that the brown boys and girls back home had contexts as well.

And I have been reading and writing ever since - not simply to survive, but to carve out my own tenuous place on this unsteady earth.

NYTIMES

• The writer just graduated from Yale Law School and is writing a novel.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 02, 2017, with the headline 'My history is as real as yours'. Print Edition | Subscribe