Chettiars in Singapore, (Photo -

When Singapore Tamils visit India, they don’t “go home”, they leave their home.

By Kokila Annamalai

When Singapore Tamils visit India or move to India, they are not necessarily “returning” or “moving back”. The three years I spent in India (in two parts), were not me “going home”, but leaving home. And when my mother moved to India two years ago, it wasn’t a homecoming for her. Rather, it forced a complete re-imagination and fresh construction of home and identity. After living in Singapore for 54 years (her whole life), she had to discover new meaning in an unfamiliar place.

People also often decide that my living alone in a rental room, with no family or relatives in Singapore, must mean I’m not a “real Singaporean”. If I don’t have family in Singapore, then surely, I couldn’t have grown up here? If my family moved away, then obviously, they couldn’t have been “from here” to begin with!

There is more than one narrative of migration, and of the relationship Tamils here have with India (and Singapore). The narrative of the “motherland” may be true for some, but to impose it on all Tamils/Indians in Singapore is to make us permanent immigrants and outsiders in Singapore. It is to imply that our stakes here are less significant than the stakes of the Chinese majority in Singapore. I have never seen Chinese Singaporeans being asked, when they go on a holiday to China, how their “trip back home” was. I don’t know if other ethnic/racial minorities experience this, but it seems to be a shared experience amongst people of South Asian origin in Singapore.

Many of my friends see themselves as Singapore Tamils and as South East Asians – they do not in the least identify with India as their motherland. To them, India is a tourist destination, or a place to shop for pretty saris and eat delicious food. They might enjoy recognising places they’ve seen in Tamil movies or visiting the street their favourite film star lives on. Often, they are conscious of how different their Tamil sounds, or how little they know about the place they’re told is their motherland.

Some Singapore Tamils don’t trace their ancestry back to India/Tamil Nadu at all. They trace it back to Sri Lanka. For some others, like me, it is the place their grandparents came from, and which they have a fond relationship with, but definitely don’t consider home. And these are just some of many complex, nuanced relationships Tamils here have with India.

I am not offended by questions about my relationship to India or Singapore. I am actually quite happy to talk about these things at length. I realise my story can be confusing, but it is only so because it is seen through such a narrow lens and we keep hearing the same few stories represented and repeated in narratives about race and migration in Singapore.

What will happen if we allow stories to be non-linear, ambiguous? If we let them lead to more questions than answers and to therefore challenge our assumptions? I am often told to fit my story into the reductive constructs and simplistic notions that are more familiar, more comfortable. Even after multiple, patient explanations of why my mother moved to India (think Eat Pray Love), I am told it must be wonderful for her to finally be in her homeland again. Regardless of my claims to the contrary, I am repeatedly told that when I get on a flight to India, I’m going back to where I *really* come from. And while I can empathise with confusion, even bewilderment, it is difficult to tolerate denial, distortion and erasure.