My Duality, My Sword

By Leo Kalyan

Illustration by the author

I see duality as a double-edged sword. Heavy and glistening, my reflection hits the blade and ricochets off its bevelled face to the East and to the West. We’ve trained together all my life. 

I was handed this weapon the day I was born to South Asian parents in a South London hospital, and my tutelage began in childhood. It wasn’t an education I asked for, but one that was necessary for survival; this weapon attracts danger, and an untrained handler will easily fall on his own sword. 

Before I learned to wield my duality, it was a weakness. As teenagers, my siblings and I—growing up between London and Lahore—oscillated between accents depending on who was around. At school (where I was called gora or “white boy”) we spoke Urdu and English. And no matter how hard I pushed my voice to sound like everybody else’s, my classmates wouldn’t let me forget that I was an outsider: dhobi ka kutta—na ghar ka, na ghaat ka1.

Alone at home on hot afternoons, our British intonations flowed effortlessly as we watched EastEnders on BBC Asia, dreaming of that day in June when we’d fly back to London to escape the relentless heat of summer in Punjab. Whenever the phone rang, we’d listen intently to each other’s affected accent-switches—waiting for the conversation to end so we could tease each other: “Why do you change your accent like that?!” I’d laugh and poke fun at my sisters, knowing full well that I did it too. We’d spar and jab in this way, confronting each other’s duality because we were too young to reflect on our own conflicting accents, languages, tastes—but still learning, all the same. I wanted London, and the simplicity of being just a Londoner. I missed home.

But it was this training with my siblings and schoolmates that taught me how to handle my identity. I learned to embrace my shifting sense of self as a way to protect myself from attacks on my dualism, like a fencer learns to parry his sword to defend against the opponent’s lunges. I discovered my power and honed it. I learned to switch among Urdu, English and Hindi with ease and agility. I began to dream in three languages, meandering through each tongue like a river that cuts through man-made nations without a care for the love and war that their borders demand.  

I am still mastering my duality. My training will continue throughout my life. Attacks from people who are threatened by this double-edged sword, who try to flatten my dual identity into one or the other, will always come. And at times I will fail to protect myself. Shame will puncture me; I will let hatred in and I will feel othered.

I will be the boy in Lahore not feeling Brown enough. I will be the seven-year-old at school in Britain feeling the heat of embarrassment wash over me as my mother, wearing Western clothes, and my aunts, donning burkas, arrive at the school gates to collect me, attracting the attention of my curious English classmates.

No matter how many times the world tries to break me into two simpler (but incomplete) pieces, I will pull myself back together and ensure my guard is up next time. I will brandish my double-edged sword in the faces of those who fear it, whether British or South Asian. It’s an act of rebellion, not only to see the world in more ways than one but to let the world know about it too.

More importantly, it’s a link to my ancestors, who all learned to wield the duality imposed upon them. My grandfather was born an Indian but died a Pakistani, thanks to the British Partition of India in 1947. I’ve always wondered why he chose to cross the ocean and settle in Britain after the Partition. Wasn’t he angry? Wasn’t he furious about how the English tore his homeland in two, forever separating him from his entire family because they chose to take their chances staying in India? Why would he choose to come here? Maybe it’s because he felt he’d made the wrong choice with Pakistan, but couldn’t return to India. Maybe he just wanted to give his kids a better life. 

An Urdu poet (Urdu being the South Asian language of love), my grandfather weaved stories about separation and distance with his words. Verses and couplets of his poetry hung in delicate wooden frames along the hallways of the home he created in Balham, South London. My grandmother tells me in Urdu (she’s lost her grip on English now) how proud he would be that I can sing ghazals2 and write lyrics. “When you sing, I see glimmers of him in you,” she says—her eyes twinkling. To know my grandfather through my grandmother is a gift. To know her is a gift, too. South-Asian culture is laden with endless formalities with older relatives, and had I not grown up in both Britain and South Asia—with all the difficulty and dislocation that brings—language would be yet another wall between us. But we can joke, and she can fill me with memories that keep her, my grandfather’s and their ancestors’ memories alive through me.

Duality is unavoidable for South Asians. Empire and colonialism split apart our homeland, and their shadows continue to follow us across the diaspora. All we can do is learn to turn it into a weapon against a hostile world. Let your duality in, and it will fill the places where shame and fear try to reach. I love being a Londoner, but I love being a Brown Londoner even more. I love the passion and color and excitement of being Brown. I love that we have centuries-old artistic traditions, evocative dance, intelligent and complex food. I love the way our swear words feel in my mouth, I love the limitlessness of our languages and dialects. My grandfather used to say that the limited essence of the English was illustrated by the fact that they only have one word for “love,” unlike the eighteen or more words for “love” that exist in Urdu. And being a Londoner who understands British culture makes me love all of this even more. I’m so deeply appreciative of my Brown culture because I’m not just South Asian.

My music is a love letter to my duality, and my call-to-arms for all South Asians who feel conflicted in themselves to embrace the messiness of the histories that live within us. It’s not our duality that’s heartbreaking; it’s the way that people who don’t understand duality try to erase it. But when we learn to wield our duality and fight back with it, we’re unstoppable. For now, I’ll keep learning and keep fighting.

1“You belong neither here, nor there.”

2A lyric poem, typically set to music and centered around the theme of love—basically the South Asian equivalent of the kinds of songs Ella Fitzgerald would perform. Modern ghazals are popular today across India and Pakistan.

Leo Kalyan is a London-based musician who has been releasing music independently over the last year. His most recent work appeared on fellow Brit MNEK’s new album, Language. He was recently picked by Billboard as one of “10 LGBTQ Artists To Watch This Fall” and has been previously featured on Stereogum, V Magazine, Wonderland, CLASH, The FADER and more.

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