Hema Krueger Vyas and Kusum Vyas

The Colonial Games We Aren’t Meant to Win

by Hema Krueger Vyas

Zinnia Naqvi, Keep Off the Grass—Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village, 1988, 2019. “It was my discomfort that weighted the camera,” Blinkers Art & Project Space, Winnipeg, Man., July 16 to Sept. 10, 2022. (Courtesy of the artist).



“At last, it’s Shanivaar!”—a joyful phrase I heard weekly, signifying that my mother had made it to Saturday. Saturday was a busy day for our little family of three. My father would work two jobs that day—one in the morning at the Freed & Freed coat factory and one in the evening, in the parking lot of the Winnipeg Convention Centre. My mother would take advantage of having the house to herself, cooking her favourite meals for us and watching the Asian Television Network, which aired on cable TV on Saturdays. 


I was away all morning at Gujarati school in the West End of Winnipeg. Gujarati school was meant to be a place for diasporic Gujarati children to engage in culture, learn our language, and build community. At ten years old, I was a very shy person and although I sometimes found it difficult to build community, I did learn a passing level of Gujarati. I often found myself alone at both English and Gujarati school. My brownness was too different from my peers at my English or “regular” school and I was an easy target to be picked on. The shyness, largely stemming from the dynamic of English school, still translated into Gujarati school, so I didn’t quite fit in anywhere—a truly diasporic dilemma! What I hadn’t realized then was that my shyness was also a gift that allowed careful observation—a certain voyeurism—where people would forget I was even there. Nonetheless, on those mornings, I longingly imagined skipping Gujarati school and dreamt of watching Saturday-morning cartoons while stealing rotlis glistening in butter that my mom cooked. 



I didn’t quite fit in anywhere—a truly diasporic dilemma.



One thing that did keep me engaged on those Saturday mornings was the annual Winnipeg Gujarati School Rangoli Colouring Competition. It was a big deal. It was one of the many things that my mom spent the year fretting about. Rangoli is an intricate artform dating back thousands of years throughout South Asia. It is a mathematical, colourful, and creative practice in which a series of geometric circles, squares, and hexagons are placed together in relation to each other. Together they create the larger picture at hand, which are often symbols of ceremony, like coconuts and lit pooja fires. Each year, each age level of children at Gujarati school competed against each other in creating rangoli to celebrate Diwali and the new year ahead. As an only child, play was usually relegated to things I could do alone, ruling out activities like board games or sports—but it made connecting to an arts practice like rangoli very exciting. All of this would culminate with an evening gathering in a rented community hall, showcasing the artwork we had created. The winners received trophies for first, second, and third place in each category.



Rangoli is a mathematical, colourful, and creative South Asian practice, in which a series of geometric circles, squares, and hexagons are placed together in relation to each other.



I competed in the contest every year and often came in second or third place—never first. My parents proudly displayed my trophies on top of our television. They watched over my mom as she settled in for her Saturday mornings of solitude. Every year my mom and I would spend weekends, even precious Shanivaar afternoons leading up to October, working on designs and examining the photos she took of the art of previous years’ winners. “Look, beta,” she would say. “Look at whose rangoli won last year; we could do it like this. Look at the way the glitter glue shines, how did they do that? Do you think they painted it on with a paintbrush?” Some evenings there would be discussion amongst all the parents—phone calls on landlines, which seemed to bring out my mom’s competitiveness even more. On those evenings I would secretly overhear her talking to Feroz’s mom: “What kind of game is this? Look, I know you’re cheating. It’s not fair!” A silent indifference on the other end. After hanging up, she would turn to me with an expression of exhaustion: “Le, jhoto? See, this is why they win every year, Hemali.”


My mom offered to help me cheat, but as we thought it through, I couldn’t imagine taking her up on the offer. Rangoli is a dexterous artform and I imagined her hands shaking with worry as she tried to pencil in the graph lines. I sensed that in her worry, she would press the pencil down too hard as she drew out each one-centimeter line by one-centimeter line, making them impossible to erase after. Instead, I practiced for months leading up to that special Shanivaar of the competition. I practiced pencilling in gentle, straight lines. I practiced painting on the glitter glue with a small paintbrush, each sparkle shimmering back at me like a thousand tiny mirrors.


The Friday evening before the 1998 competition, I mapped out the graph of my rangoli design while my mom sat in the living room next to me watching the episode of Days of Our Lives she had taped while she was at work that day. She would pause every once in a while to check on my progress: “Can I do anything, beta?” That evening as we went to bed, the anxiety in our household was palpable. My mom could barely sleep, counting the hours down to the morning, reciting her mantras over and over again, hoping this would allow her some rest.



Hema Krueger Vyas and Kusum Vyas
Hema Krueger Vyas, seen in 1993 with her mother, Kusum Vyas, who helped her train for the Winnipeg Gujarati School Rangoli Colouring Competition. (Courtesy of the writer).



Finally, as the daylight broke on that fateful Shanivaar, I packed for the most important morning of Gujarati school in my entire life. I gathered my supplies: markers, pencils, rulers, erasers, glitter glue, and a small paintbrush to evenly spread each fleck of glitter. My mom checked over what I had packed several times, glaring at anyone who crossed her path that morning. She momentarily paused as my dad and I headed out the door to say, “Good luck, beta,” before glaring at my father and saying, “And don’t drive like an idiot! It is a special day!”


Looking back, decades later, I can better understand the ways in which the competition grew an artistic and playful connection to my culture, while also normalizing competition within my community. The pressure of competition can be all-encompassing—a pressure that shifts focus from relationships to a personal goal. In a gamelike way, the normalization of competition within every sphere of our lives works as a colonial tool, relying on the strategy of divide and conquer. In growing this understanding, I came to learn that my community is not my competition. The freedom to challenge the idea that they are, has allowed me to lean into the joy of celebrating the people around me. Perhaps, these are colonial games that we aren’t meant to win. I wonder if these are games—or systems—that we could somehow opt out of. Is there a way to cheat the system that has been imposed?



The pressure of competition can be all-encompassing—a pressure that shifts focus from relationships to a personal goal.



With these questions in mind, I turn to art. It is compelling that there are diasporic South Asian creatives in Canada bringing forward these ideas and creating opportunities for reflection, while proposing alternative ways of being in relationship on this land. While taking in Zinnia Naqvi’s exhibition, “It was my discomfort that weighted the camera,” at Blinkers Art & Project Space in Winnipeg in summer 2022, I was drawn to the themes of play in Naqvi’s photographs and the ways she highlights how colonial nation-building utilizes diasporic peoples. 


Throughout the exhibition, Naqvi draws on colonial mindsets around leisure, play, and the outdoors, which is conceptualized through settlement, competition, and civility. Naqvi illustrates the ways in which diasporic people of colour may adopt tools of colonialism through seemingly innocent activities and, in turn, work towards the ideals of colonial nation-building on this land. The exhibition, which showcased two short films and several photographs incorporating Naqvi’s family photographs, board games, books, and VHS tapes, left me with a deeper sense of reflection around my identity and community. 



Zinnia Naqvi, The Wanderers—Niagara Falls, 1988, 2019. (Courtesy of the artist).



Naqvi’s photographs superimpose her own family photographs from the 1990s onto tiles of popular board games. The board games she has chosen, Monopoly and Settlers of Catan, are games that center on the idea of nation-building through the monopolization and commodification of land and resources. The Disney VHS tapes displayed in her photographs, like Aladdin, Mary Poppins, and Pocahontas showcase the insidious nature of how colonial myths and ideals of civility are normalized throughout our lives. These images are further contextualized by the books in her photographs, which are critical theory texts like Sarah Ahmed’s On Being Included, stacked around the VHS tapes and board game pieces.


In contemplating Naqvi’s work, I was reminded of Robinder Kaur Sehdev’s article, “People of Colour in Treaty.” Kaur Sehdev brings forward the question of how we, as diaspora, can move outside of the framework of colonial nation-building, understanding that our relationships to Indigenous peoples and nations have been negotiated through this process, on this land. Naqvi’s art creates space to explore the multiplicity of our roles, recognizing how power and privilege dynamics play out for settlers of colour, within all of our relationships here. Naqvi’s photographs offer us the question: what could it be like for us to negotiate our relationships ourselves? Her work is a reminder that our lives are worth so much more than being players in a colonial agenda. Through her work, Naqvi presents a critical and necessary dialogue for settlers of colour, particularly South Asian diaspora, to engage in. 


The central theme of play is significant throughout Naqvi’s work. While her art calls attention to the sinister aspects of leisure, Naqvi also leaves room to explore the beauty within it. Her work reminds us of the importance of play—a sacred gift which can allow us to explore ourselves and others through joy and pleasure. In responding to Naqvi’s work, I was grateful for the opportunity to revisit the mindset of the young person I once was.



Naqvi’s art creates space to explore the multiplicity of our roles, recognizing how power and privilege dynamics play out for settlers of colour, within all of our relationships here.



Last year, my mom passed away—younger than her mother was when she passed. My grief was compounded by the understanding that her experiences of colonialism contributed to her passing at a younger age. However, the spirit of who she was left me motivated to keep trying. In some ways, perhaps she had lost the game, but in other ways she had cheated the system. She fought hard to leave behind so much love and to resist the ways colonialism had impacted her relationships. In many ways, I think she won, if it even was something to be won in the first place. In the end, although the rangoli colouring competitions may not have worked to grow what was an already awkward relationship to my peers, working in collaboration with my mom and strategizing together brought us both irrevocable moments of love. 


Back at the rented community hall, my mom and I sat next to each other awaiting the results as my Dad worked his evening shift at the Convention Centre. “And the award for first place in the 1998 annual Gujarati Colouring Competition goes to Hemali Vyas! Shabaash Hemali.” My heart leapt, I could hear my mom elated, cheering beside me, the way she would cheer along to her television shows. My temporary shock surrendered as I felt my mom pushing me to stand up. I walked to the front of the room and there was Mitesh Uncle beaming at me. “Hold on, let’s get your prize, beta,” he said. As he walked away, the realization of what was to come next dawned on me. My heart sank. This year was different and just like the second- and third-prize winners, I would not be getting a trophy with my name engraved on it. As he handed me a box and shook my hand, I looked down and saw, glistening in its plastic wrap, Monopoly. I won a copy of the game Monopoly. “Now,” I thought, “what kind of a game is this?”





Hema Krueger Vyas is a Gujarati writer and educator living in Winnipeg, Man., in the homelands of the Anishinaabe, Ininiw, Métis, Anish-Iniw, Dene, and Dakota Nations. While Hema’s work primarily focuses on sexual health and anti-oppression, she is re-engaging with an arts practice, carrying a steady hand whenever she brushes glitter glue.