Topic: A Muslim Growing up in Hamilton
Welcome to this page and thank you for visiting. Here I intend to put down some brief notes of my experience of life in Hamilton.
Kia ora everyone
I tend to be a pretty private person, and don't like to put too much personal information in the public sphere. Then there is the dilemma that my experiences are shared with other family members, and I have a responsiblity to protect their privacy as well. So keeping these things in mind, I'll begin to share some things about myself.
I'll start with the present. I currently work as a chartered accountant in Hamilton. I have two daughters, and my parents live in the city as well. I have two siblings who have migrated from New Zealand and are now happily settled elsewhere. I'm involved in a few volunteer organisations, the main ones at present being a trustee of Community Radio Hamilton, and a trustee of Shama (Hamilton Ethnic Women's Centre). I've also been a list candidate for the New Zealand Labour Party, and continue to be an active member of the Party. I've been actively involved with interfaith activities, including the Waikato Interfaith Council, and have been a member of the Legal Aid Review Panel.
So as you can see, I have a pretty busy life! But I believe that when you belong to a community, then you should be an active participant in any way that you can, especially in areas where you can make life better for others. However, it is always a juggling act to ensure that I leave enough time for family and for relaxing.
Primary School Years
My history in Hamilton goes back to 1972. In June of that year, I migrated to Hamilton, New Zealand with my family. I was 5 years old at the time, almost 6. We had been living in Canada prior to that, though I had been born in a small village in the Ganges Plains, in India. My father had been offered employment by the then Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries for a two year post-doctrate fellowship. At the end of two years, a permanent job was offered, and my parents loved living in Hamilton so much that they decided to stay.
So my first home was in the house then owned by the Ministry on Peachgrove Road - between Ruakura Rd and Peachgrove Intermediate School. I started attending Fifth Avenue Primary School, which was not a kura kaupapa at that time. In fact, I don't recall very many Maori attending the school at the time. Two years later, once they had decided to stay, my parents bought a house and I shifted to Silverdale Normal School.
I can't remember much about life at Fifth Avenue School, as I was quite young at the time. I remember enjoying kapahaka, and going to something after school called "happy hour", but mostly I remember being quite lonely. However, the shift to Silverdale Normal School made things worse rather than better. At the time, I seem to recall that the roll was around 600. I was the only Asian child at the school - there were no other Chinese, Indian, Korean, South American, African, or even Middle Eastern children. There were no children of other religions either - no Jews, Bahai's, Hindus, or Buddhists. The only bit of colour were the Maori children, but I recall a strict social segregation - the Maori kids played with each other and kept pretty much to themselves. It turned out that I didn't fit in very well with them. The children of European ancestry wanted nothing to do with me either. I think it was because I was different in a way that they couldn't understand.
At that time, I didn't cover my hair, but did wear clothes that stood out in that I would always wear trousers under my skirts or dresses. I also had food restrictions, and couldn't eat anything with meat (because of course halal meat was not available then). This last was something unheard of at the time. New Zealand was a country of meat eaters - lamb, beef and pork were key ingredients for almost every meal. Vegetarianism had hardly been heard of.
But the worst thing by far was my first teacher at Silverdale. I still remember her name and how she looks. I met her some years ago for the first time since primary school, and she was (I think) a deputy principal. This made me quite sad, as I hated the thought of her having an impact on such a large number of students, especially if she treated any of them the way she had treated me. She made me the object of ridicule in class, ignored my abilities and highlighted my weaknesses. As a result, the other children felt a permission to do the same. While I was rescued from her class after a few months (my parents had seen a huge reduction in my performance at school and demanded that I be shifted to another class), the pattern of behaviour from the children remained the same. I was teased often and laughed at, and had very few friends.
Life at home was pretty lonely in another way. We never had any close family in New Zealand, and travel was relatively more expensive and rare. Today I spent an hour on skype, chatting with my siblings and their families. Communication is so easy now, with email, mobile phones, and the like. Back in the 1970s, the only contact possible would be by snail mail and it took two weeks for a letter from New Zealand to reach an Indian village. My parents taught me to read and write Urdu at home, but I wasn't very proficient at it. It would take me and hour to write a paragraph, which I would do once a month when writing to my paternal grandfather. My only relative who spoke and wrote English was my maternal grandfather, and I enjoyed writing to him. His English was so good that he was constantly correcting my grammar!
Since we had no family, we had very strong and close friendships. In 1972, we were the only Muslim family in Hamilton. There was another family in Ngaruawahia and one in Putaruru, and we were very close with both of these. There was a larger Muslim population in Auckland, mostly originating from the Gujrat area of India or from Fiji. Petrol was pretty cheap at the time, so we would often be driving to Auckland in the weekend.
In Hamilton, our closest friends were Hindu. They were the closest in culture, though not in language. One family was from Bangalore (so spoke Kannada), another from Madras (so spoke Tamil), another was from Sri Lanka (so spoke Singhalese), and another was from Bangladesh (so spoke Bengali). As you can see, the Indian subcontinent has such a variety of languages that the most common language amongst us was English!
I remember the difficulties we had with food. When we first landed in Hamilton, there was no Halal food available, so we were vegetarian for a while. Then, because my father worked at the Ministry, he had the opportunity to organise Halal meat at their abbatoir, where they killed and sold meat from animals that had been used for research. The abbatoir staff would ring my father when a batch of animals came in, and he would go and follow the Halal procedures. This worked out really well, and because the meat was provided at subsidised rates to staff, it was much cheaper than eggs or vegetables. This process stopped some time ago, and we now get our halal meat from the many butcheries in Hamilton or Auckland.
Spices were also a major problem. Can you imagine a time when the local supermarkets wouldn't sell basic spices like tumeric, cummin, ground coriander, whole cloves and paprika! No possible way to make a curry, unless you bought some muck that was called "curry powder" and used it to create this inedible yellow paste - yuk, i feel sick even thinking about what was served up as "curry" at the time by the local restaurants. So, we would have to travel up to Auckland to shop for spices at the Healtheries shop. They at least had the basic stuff, but not things like cardamom. I was very lucky to have a mother who cooked very well, and made us chapattis every night for dinner.
Bollywood movies were pretty much unheard of here as well. However, somebody (it may have been the Indian Association) would hire a theatre in a small town and put on Bollywood films. I remember travelling to Ngaruawahia to watch those old 1970s Bollywood films with Rajesh Khanna and Hema Malini. I was such a crybaby that I would inevitably ball my eyes out during every film. Bollywood films would always be a mix of comedy, musical, action and drama that there would always be some really emotional scenes somewhere in the movie. The arrival of video recorders put a stop to this practice, and in the 1980s we would watch films on video. This was the era of Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha.
I got a reasonable dose of Indian culture from family, friends, and bollywood films. But the main emphasis of my parents was on teaching me about my religion. My father would sit with me for an hour every day, teaching me how to read Arabic, so that I could read the Qur'an. He also taught me from Urdu books that went through the basics of Islamic thought and practice, which meant that I had to learn how to read Urdu as well. Since it uses the same alphabet as Arabic, it wasn't too difficult. I also had to memorise verses of the Qur'an, in order to be able to say my daily prayers.
I feel very lucky that my parents put so much effort into this extra education, which they had to provide themselves. It gave me a strong grounding in faith, and though it did mean so much to me at the time, in later years I came to realise how important it was.
During these years I really struggled with my identity. I was not quite Indian, but not accepted as a New Zealander. I felt (and almost certainly behaved) like a complete misfit. I stood out so much all the time that the strongest desire I had was to blend into the background. I was extremely shy and didn't open up to people easily, coupled with a lack of confidence in myself. In most situations, I felt like an outsider, and because I was never comfortable with myself, I probably made other people uncomfortable. It wasn't until my university years that I began to develop my own identity and to start to lose some of that terrible awkwardness.
If you have made it this far in my personal history, well done! This is obviously a work in progress, and I will be putting in further instalments as time permits. Hope you've enjoyed it thus far.