It’s a surname that denotes many things. It means “headman” or “village chief”, describing a caste of village leaders. It commonly originates from Gujarati, or Indian, meaning that whoever happens to have Patel as a surname must definitely be Indian, no questions asked. It’s a popular surname that’s synonymous with goodness knows how many doctors, shop-keepers and wealthy hotel-owners that live in this world – probably more than the population of South Africa, I’d bet.
Of those millions of people, I, too, happen to have Patel as my last name. But I can tell you right now, it’s not a name that I’ve lived up to. And believe you me, the territory that comes with being a Patel is something that non-Patels always expect you to abide by.
The moment I tell someone my name, they automatically say, “Oh, so you’re Indian?” Cue me trying to awkwardly explain that I’m half-Indian, that my father and his family are Indian; it gets even more awkward they ask me, “Then what’s your mother?” Cue the uneasy stammerings and the stumbling evasions. I loathe talking about my race – for me, labels don’t matter because people will (and child, they will) automatically make assumptions about you if you say you’re Indian, Coloured or over the bloody rainbow (thus adding to the level of difficulty when it comes to filling out forms that ask what race you are). Hell, my skin colour itself – and the fact that I come from Cape Town – makes most people tick the Coloured box. Although I’m proud of my Indian heritage, I didn’t – or don’t, rather – fit in with the other slim (en slim) Indian kids on campus. ‘Cause frankly, who ever heard of an Indian coming to Rhodes University to study Journalism instead of Pharmacy? Oh right, a not-quite-Indian girl might do that.
“Headman”? “Village chief”? Never! Even my past little school positions are mediocre in comparison, and I have no aspirations to become a village chief or whatever’s the next best thing when I had my own problems to worry about. And, although my father was a GP, I never pursued a path to science, medicine, pharmaceuticals or business. Mine was a path paved with black ink with the written word acting as signposts to guide my way. Yes, Patel the Writer seems quite unusual in comparison to Patel the Shop-owner on the corner of so-and-so street.
This would be the ideal time to insert ol’ Shakespeare’s “A rose by any other name” quote because it goes with what I’m trying to say, and heeeey, literary allusions for the win. But I think I made my point. Patel the Writer has always faced assumptions due to her name and appearance. Writing has been a passion of mine for many years (the many books that I sadly vandalised can attest to that) and it has allowed me, a shrinking African violet, to express my creativity, my opinions and, importantly, my imagination. But blessed “Patel” and “the writer” just doesn’t mix well with some folk. That, and its normality lumps you together with the other Patels of the world, making you stand out less.
The many websites I used – from Archive Of Our Own to FanFiction.net – to practise and use my writing skills made me hide behind various pseudonyms. Covering myself up with pen-names allowed me to express my opinions freely, to touch on topics and issues such as race and gender among others that I wouldn’t be brave enough to debate about in real (the pen’s mightier than the sword, but Lord knows I scramble behind my books when someone tries to verbally cut me down with their sharp tongue), and naturally, it allows me to ship Character A with Character B because they jolly well belong together no matter what other people say. But I digress.
Writing demands thought, curiosity and even doubt. It is an artistic tool that allows one to paint a picture of the subject. You, as the painter, want the audience to see what you have produced; you want to see their own interpretations, how their own opinions develop as a result. Their responses vary, but they are able to express their views on any subject through any means. Expression for me is in the form of a pen, humans are the colourful subject matter, and I want to sketch a picture of them for my audience to enjoy (or critique).
But now, instead of the makeshift names I’ve come up for myself, it my real name that I must now use as my signature to stamp on these works. It’s a frightening concept for Patel the Writer, but ever so slowly I’m warming up it. Expression has its roots in politics, gender, race and religion, and South Africa itself is rich and diverse with expression and creativity …
… and somehow, I kind of like the idea of expounding on those things with my surname in the byline.
Hey, I might be one in a million of Patels, but this Patel has her own origins – and passions – to live by.