It’s a busy Saturday evening and I am walking around Kuala Lumpur, wearing a T-shirt with the words ‘I Am A Keling Too’ emblazoned across the front.
I am extremely self-conscious about it and I am wondering whether I should cross my hands across my chest in an attempt to cover the word. I see how the word throws itself at people. How people get confused, annoyed, irritated. I notice the stares, the disgruntlement, and the baffling looks on people’s faces. Was I, without even knowing it, inflicting a form of pain onto people? People who had perhaps struggled with that word, hated it, dealt with it as something that was weaponised against them?
Ask any Malaysian of Indian descent about the word and you will probably receive the very same stares and looks I got. Heck, you could even ask our Singaporean Indian friends and chances are they will have a similar reaction. For a lot of us, it’s a word that is derogatory, insulting and downright racist. The only other word that comes close to holding that level of trauma is the N-word. And even then, it’s not quite the same because the word did not originally start off as an insult.
‘Keling’ has various retellings and possible histories. Just read the Wikipedia page. Its origin is often attributed to the ancient Indian kingdom of Kalinga, which would now be modern-day Orissa in India. People hailing from that region were referred to as ‘kling’, ‘kaling’ or ‘keling’. Its first noted historical occurrence was within the Malay Annals or Sejarah Melayu, which is a romanticised history of the origin, evolution and demise of the Malacca Sultanate (a Malay maritime empire).
Verbal retellings of its origin would sometimes describe it as coming from the bell sounds of anklets on the feet of Indian women—the kling kling sound having then transformed into a term to refer to all the people of that descent.
So why and when did a word of debatable origin and meaning become an insult?
You see, Malaysia is a multiracial country made up of people of various races and descents. The country—because of various periods of colonisation and even before that, through years of trading—has always seen a unique plethora of people calling it home. The tourism boards and travel ads call us a melting pot of colours and cuisines. And they aren’t wrong.
But despite intermarriage and years of living together, the balance between the various communities is fraught at times and tolerant at best. Thanks to the original segregation of races via the policies that the British put into place as means of controlling the different communities, and which was subsequently adopted post independence as well, there has always been an unease with the way the different groups of people have lived with one another. At our best, we are caring and look out for each other regardless of race or identity. At our worst, all our differences come to light.
Keling as a word, over the decades has been used as a taunt and as an insult. A way to continue the differentiation. A way to remind Malaysian Indians of their race. And sometimes as a way to tell us that we don’t belong. Underneath the usage of the word lie many prejudices like racial stereotypes, colourism, and even class differentiation.
But as someone who hasn’t really had the word thrown at me, I didn’t properly understand the generational trauma of the word until I saw my mother’s horrified reaction when I came home with the T-shirt described above.
She was furious. My mother was so angry and upset that the word was even being printed on a tee, and more so, that I would consider wearing one. I tried explaining to her that this was a way for some of us to reclaim the word and that the T-shirt was a gift from the friend who made it, PERA. I remember her shaking her head with a grimace of disgust thinking how nonsensical we were being for even trying to reclaim such a slur.
It’s hard to understand how a word can inflict damage until it’s actually used against you. The way ‘gay’, ‘sissy’ or ‘pondan’ (Malay for effeminate male) have been used against me. The way a word can be used to exclude, torment, bully, ‘other’ someone, and make them feel bad about the very person they are.
I will be honest, I don’t know how to properly own and reclaim the word. Maybe it will take a lifetime of work, an entire life of choices. My friend PERA’s journey of exploring this led to a short film/music video about it, and also the T-shirt I wore with equal parts fury and trepidation as part of a spoken word ensemble of four Malaysian Indian poets. My own journey of exploring it saw me walk the streets with the T-shirt after the performance, plus this piece which pushes it further. You see, by using a slur deliberately and with intention—in performance, in art, in words or in life—you are not just calling it out but are also trying to heal the trauma it inflicted.
Perhaps it’s possible to try and reclaim a word and still flinch at it.
And maybe one day, if we keep doing what we are doing, the word will no longer have that power. Over me or any other person of Indian descent. Maybe then we will know the reclaiming is done.
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