Writes: Shivani Kshirsagar
(Disclaimer: Following is a work of reality. Readers are requested to read at their discrimination, and accordingly judge their disposition.)
“Yeh yeh, yeh kaun hain? Kahan se hain?”(She! Where is she from?), as he wagged a wrinkled, sunburnt finger in her direction. “Chinese ah?”
“India. Yeh India se hain“(She’s from India), I said forcing a calm over a rising anger.
“Acha, Manipuri!(Oh! Manipuri)!”, as if that called for being any less an Indian.
“India. She’s Indian”, I pointedly answered, not without a glare and a sharpened tone.
This highly insightful conversation took place, not in some backward village, in some remote corner of the country, but in the rising metropolitan city of Hyderabad.
Not in some rustic, undeveloped parts of the city, but at Golconda Fort and at Qutub Shahi Tombs, the heritage, go-to-tourist places, where hundreds of tourists, including foreigners, flock and run their gaze over the once flourishing kingdom.
All this questioning? Why? Because of her face, her features. Her small eyes. Her straight hair. She did not, does not, look like the rest of us. Who’s this “us”? Wheat skinned, of the fifty shades of brown(something which every fairness ads never fails to point out), large-eyed, garrulous, hirsute majority of the diverse nation of India. (For the hurt sentiments of the easily offended: this is an average description. I am not pointing to you, specifically.)
She comes from Darjeeling, a geographically viable, a quaint hill station in West Bengal, which by the way, is a part of the Indian Subcontinent.
She comes from a region which is one of the most robust economies in the country, who’s tea exports to nations like US, European Union, Japan, provides for 7% percent of India’s tea exports.
She belongs to those people, whose regiment in the Indian Army, the Gorkha regiment, is one of the bravest and the most decorated(11 Vir Chakras, 2 Maha Vir Chakras, 3 Ashok Chakras and 1 Param Vir Chakra), and has fought in every major Indian campaign post Independence.
And in spite everything, people don’t stop their ogling, their stares, their catcalling. It’s not just the uneducated who practice such open racism. It’s the “educated” too.
The other day, at McDonald’s, a woman could not take her eyes off her, gaping and giggling, as she whispered lord-knows-what in her male companion’s ears. Until, my friend, her Gorkha spirit flaring up, stared her down into willful submission.
Why? Why all this hostility? This sizing up of foreignness?
I can never forget that one instance, the first time I encountered such bias when I saw how the world sees her.
It was my mistake. Not quite. But mine nevertheless, for I was ignorant. I made her take a shortcut route to one of the most lavish and extravagant malls in Hyderabad. The road, though dark, was far from the madding crowd, away from the howls and screech of traffic. Maybe that cacophony was better than the mental agony that followed. We were walking down the road, and within minutes I knew it was a bad idea, for people just would not stop looking. The road cut through some rustic part of the city. By rustic I meant, small houses and cows tied to wooden staffs, as one would park their Enfield. Still, I did not stop, cause hey! I am a woman. Used to stares right?
We walked, keeping her on my left, and mindful of every man, woman, the kid who looked and looked and did not take their eyes away unless I compelled them to do so. However, that awareness did not prepare me for what transpired next. Two men on a bike raced past us and yelled in a gunshot voice, “Eh NEPALI!!”
I froze in shock. Anger, shame, hurt, spiralled through me, as my mental mechanism chose to numb the horror. A shiver went down my spine, as I tried my hardest to collect my wits and contain my emotions. My eyes searched my friend’s face, trying to gauge her reaction. But she merely shrugged and continued the conversation as though nothing happened.
“Dude!”, I said, at last, my voice coming out with a gasp. “I am so sorry!” I don’t know what I was apologizing for, for whom I was apologizing for, but I knew, I was ashamed on behalf of my entire city, for treating its guest like that. She smiled tightly, and said, “It’s okay, Shivani Kshirsagar. I am used to it. We are used to.” And she walked on ahead, her head high, while I remained rooted to my spot, ashen-faced.
That’s the truth, isn’t it? They got used to it.
But for how long? Hence the agitations, the call for a separate state(Gorkhaland), a divorce from a state(West Bengal) that refused to consider them their own. 104 days it lasted. Yet, who would let go of the “golden egg laying bird”(as she bitterly put it)? No one. And the agitation was stifled, in spite the bravery of the people, despite the struggle of the people.
It was on that dark street, that I understood, if not for a second, that I finally saw, how difficult it is for my friends from the North East. How it is to be perceived as a stranger, an alien, even though you are one among the flesh and blood of the collective called India. And how chilling it is to imagine, what would have been, had I not be there with her.
That racism runs deep in our veins is undeniable. I am, sometimes, racially biased towards those in South though I try not to be. Those in North want nothing to do with the “Madrasis”; those in the South want nothing to do with the “Punjabis”. Everyone is a thug when it comes to Central India, and everyone eats every animal on the Eastern side of the country.
Yes, we are a racist lot. So many instances of racism go unnoticed, undocumented, that this is like a shout in the void of multiple such cases. And don’t get me started on racism worldwide. We see enough of that anti-social element on social media.
What next? The world is increasingly becoming a smaller and smaller place. And the purpose of this was not to spread hate, pain or added distress, cause there’s more than enough of that world. This is not even an awareness spreading instance, cause there’s so many of that kind out there. Sample this video by Being Indian.
But, I owe this to her, and to all those Rais, Chettris, Thappas, Subbas, Pradhans, Lamas, Tamangs( and many more) girls and boys, women and men, who I know and don’t know.
I can never claim to understand, sympathize or even empathize. But I’ll raise my voice, along with you. For I am a woman, and I know the ogles, gapes and gropes of sexist racism.
And, India is our country. All Indians are our brothers and sisters. We are proud of it’s rich and varied heritage. To our country and our people, we pledge our devotion. In their well being, and prosperity alone lies our happiness.
(P.S. The last para are excerpts from our National Pledge, tweaked a little, from “I” to “We”, cause that’s the aim, ultimately.)