It’s an exciting month for many South Asians. Mindy Kaling’s second season of Never Have I Ever is hitting Netflix, the UK is celebrating South Asian Heritage Month, and Justin Narayan just won MasterChef Australia.
As someone who grew up struggling to see anyone who looked like themselves on television, I’ve always celebrated South Asian representation whenever it just pops up in the media. I’m proud and I’m loud about it. But Justin’s MasterChef victory on Tuesday night evoked a different feeling. On one hand, I was squealing at the TV screen when the victory music started playing as he plated up his final dishes. On the other, I felt a wave of calmness come over me because I hadn’t felt more at home watching Aussie TV than I did in that moment.
Like Justin, I’m the daughter of Fijian Indian immigrants. Most people from the South Asian diaspora will tell you that there’s a sharp cultural difference between Indians from Fiji, and Indians from India (or Africa or Malaysia and so on). As a Fijian Indian woman, I’ve struggled to be heard and understood within the wider Indian community, and I’ve questioned where I really fit in within the realm of brown-ess. Am I really an Indian?
“You’re not a real Indian… because you’re from Fiji and can’t speak proper Hindi,” I recall another Indian woman telling me when I was back at school.
“You’re Fijian Indian… oh yeah, you do look a bit Islander,” a white person once told me.
My great grandparents migrated to Fiji from Gujarat, India in the 1930s and 1940s as tailors. My grandfathers both became businessmen in the country’s capital, Suva, and my parents were raised there before travelling to Australia and New Zealand for a university education. My upbringing has been different to many of my Indian friends whose parents and grandparents were raised in India. While my friends travelled to India every Summer school holidays, I went back to Fiji.
To this day, I’ve never been to India, yet am obsessed with Bollywood and mehendhi, so is that enough to make me a ‘real’ Indian? While I can’t speak Hindi, I can speak what we call the more laidback, slang Fiji-style of Gujarati. There’s also Fiji Hindi which my parents can fluently speak, and if I ever rarely hear anyone speak it on the train, I smile as I’m instantly transported back to Suva seawall or Nadi airport where ‘Bula shirts’ and palm trees meet your gaze from every direction.
“It’s not Fiji time, man,” Justin’s dad said during the MasterChef grand final on Tuesday. I excitedly bounced from the couch when he said that, because it’s those small phrases that virtually every Fijian Indian father (mine included) has used as the excuse for our family rocking up to a wedding one hour late. “It’s Fiji time, we’re not late at all,” my dad has uttered on countless occasions. Who thought we’d ever hear that on mainstream Aussie TV?
Then we come to the food. I loved that I could text a Fijian Indian friend while Justin was cooking and speculate whether he would serve up a classic jungli murgi (chicken) dish. When Justin cooked one of his mother’s fish curries, I recognised each of the spices. I knew the sour tang he spoke of was the mouthwatering flavour that made my mum’s own fish curry recipe, passed down generations, be nothing like what you’d be served at any Indian restaurant.
Justin’s victory is not only a big win for South Asian representation in general, but for us Fijian Indian kids who didn’t realise until now that it was this representation we’d been yearning to see.