The recent news about a college security guard calling a group of Indian students “Keling” reminded me of an incident that took place some twenty years ago.
I was a 13-year-old Form One student at Sekolah Menengah St Anne’s Convent in Kulim, Kedah at the time. Being a newbie at school, I tried to fit in and that was when a few seniors started calling me KK.
“Oi KK, hantar buku ni ke pejabat.”
“KK! Mai sini jap.”
“Siapa yang masuk Islam, KK – mak awak ka bapak awak?”
I had no idea what KK meant, and so I thought nothing of it. But soon, it got irritating being called KK all the time. That was when I decided to find out what it really meant.
“Kak, apa tu KK?” I asked one of my seniors, causing her to laugh out loud hysterically.
“KK tu awak lah. Keturunan Keling.”
Honestly, I didn’t know what ‘Keling’ meant at the time so I had to resort to my dictionary to find out.
“Keling – Orang India”. My dictionary gave a very brief explanation. I was confused at why my seniors would call me ‘Keturunan India’. I mean if I called them ‘Keturunan Melayu’ wouldn’t it sound similarly ridiculous? Who in their right mind would go about calling others ‘Keturunan Cina’, ‘Keturunan Iban’ and ‘Keturunan Benggali’? Plus they obviously knew my name from the name tag I wore, so why the need to mention my race? I was clearly puzzled.
Then one day, while casually discussing school with my family, I told my parents about my schoolmate’s calling me KK. Dad got real furious. He almost popped a blood vessel when I told him my teachers knew too and had not done anything about it.
“’Keling’ is a derogatory term. It means black skinned,” said dad. “People shouldn’t look down on others based on the colour of their skin. So never let anyone call you ‘Keling’.”
That got me even more confused. I mean I was darker skinned than most of my Malay and Chinese schoolmates. And I was Indian. As much as I did not fancy the term KK, I personally did not see anything derogatory about it. I mean the term does describe me as a dark skinned Indian.
And if anything at all, the term ‘Keling’ was no different than calling the Africans ‘Black’ or the Caucasians ‘White’. So why the hypocrisy?
Anyway, as time passed, I got accustomed to being called other names as well.
One time, I was called ‘Pariah’ by a stranger at the Kulim bus station. Now thanks to the magic box, I knew exactly what that meant – it was the lowest caste in the Indian social system. To tell you the truth, I was quite puzzled why anyone would address me as a ‘Pariah’ when we in Malaysia did not practice the caste system. Kinda silly, I must say! So I brushed it off thinking the guy who uttered it must have been a ‘bodoh siol.’
The other name I got quite accustomed to after “Keling’ and ‘Pariah’ was ‘Mamak’. Now honestly, I have no idea why Indian Muslims like me get easily offended when called ‘Mamak’. I mean that is what we are, no? Funny though, most people enjoy a sense of pride when addressed as ‘Anak Mami’ but not ‘Mamak’. It’s the same as being called ‘Indian’ but not ‘Keling.’
Today, in the true spirit of being Malaysian, it is my kids who get called ‘Mamak’ and ‘Keling’ by others. At school, at the park, at football matches – trust me, it still happens. But instead of getting offended or lashing out, my son has the perfect answer.
“Kalau tak ada Mamak macam saya, takkan ada nasi kandar. Dan kalau tak ada Keling macam saya, tentu takkan ada rempah ratus dan kari. Jadi berterima kasihlah dengan Mamak dan Keling sebab kalau tak ada kami, tentu setiap hari kena makan nasi putih dan kicap.”
(If not for Mamaks, there wouldn’t be any nasi kandar. If not for Kelings like me, there would not be hundreds of spices and curries. So, be thankful for the Mamaks and Kelings because if not for us, you’d be eating white rice and soy sauce every day.)
To the group of Indian students who were offended at being called ‘Keling’, I say stop getting offended. Admit it, we are Indians. We are ‘Kelings’. Let us keep our heads up and be proud of who we are.
We may be ‘Keling’ to some, but at least we are not lazy. At least we don’t rely on subsidies to get by. At least we are not envious of other people’s wealth. At least we are not academically slow or require special schemes to get the best opportunities in life.
We are intelligent, hardworking, sensible ‘Kelings’ – and we should be proud of it!