A Chameleon's Tale, Refugee Recollections


"Refugee, where are you running to?" said the soldier standing next to a guava tree on the dusty road. Immediately I went into my shell, as if hypnotized.

Shudders ran through my body any time I heard the word ‘refugee' spoken around me. Demons that lay hidden in the corners of my brain raised their ugly heads. Images that I had pushed deep down came surging forth, till they were swimming in front of my eyes.

In Africa... A guava tree in front of our house in Madras Gardens where, every afternoon after school, as children, both brown and black, we played tree games till our mothers called us home for dinner. In the pink twilight, crocodiles fighting over dead black bodies dumped in Lake Victoria by Idi Amin's soldiers.

A screaming Indian girl in Punjabi dress crushed by Ugandan tanks storming down Kampala Road; her oily braided ponytail severed from her head by the grinding tank treads, the only taunting reminder of her existence. "The Brits and the Indians are playing ping pong with us. Nobody wants us." My brother's voice worried me as we shuffled from embassy to embassy, seeking refuge.

In England... Enoch Powell ranting in the House of Commons that the Tory government's acceptance of the Ugandan Asians into Britain was "a drastic policy mistake."

These Asians had no real links to Britain, he claimed. They were either born in India or had retained close connection with India.

They certainly had no connection with Britain by blood or residence. And a piece of graffiti I remember seeing on a station wall in Southall, South London, in 1974: "Skinheads, beware of Pakistani hockey sticks bashing your heads!"

In America... A Californian cop, mistaking me for an illegal Mexican 'wetback', handcuffed me while I was searching for my lost wallet in my own garden at my Balboa Beach apartment.

In Wyoming, pick-up truck passengers taking rifle shots at me hitchhiking on Interstate 80, yelling "Run, Injun, run!" as I scurried into the bushes.

I came out of my reverie and saw the soldier leaning on the trunk of the guava tree. But this wasn't Africa. The guava tree was not in Kampala at all. I looked around me. Near a Buddhist temple in front of a barbed-wire fence, thousands of Vietnamese people were milling around trucks distributing food and water rations. I was in a refugee camp somewhere in Thailand. How did I end up here? Events in Southeast Asia, moving faster than the cars zooming on the Californian highway I had been living next to, took me there. But I am getting ahead of myself...

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