Saturday, October 22, 2016

A Merry Wink and a Warm Smile

An idle pastime of mine is to watch old movies and reflect on the current mood of the nation. It may seem like a silly indulgence because I’m not even sure if movies imitate life or otherwise. But the idea is to observe gentle winds of change. Look around and what do we see? Acid attacks, groping, stalking, harassment and molestation. Given that the world is not a friendly place for women, it is somehow comforting to observe any silver lining that beams through ominous clouds of reality.
There are many ways to go about it. One of them is to observe the characterization of women against diverse social backdrops. How and what characters say is equally effective. As is the theme of the movie.

Long ago and far away, Nasir Hussain, the quintessential filmy dad of the sixties used to admonish his salwar kameez clad daughter, “Raat ke nau baj rahe hai, ye koi time hai ghar aane ka?” The guilt ridden heroine would hang her head in shame and rush upstairs. We have come a long way to Amitabh Bachchan in Pink where he says, “Hamare yahan ghadi ki sui character decide karti hai.” As an aging father figure, Amitabh goes on to rip several bogeys in his signature stealth style. “If the girl is at a rock show, it’s a hint but if she’s at a temple or a library, it’s not a hint? Will the venue decide the girl’s character?” 

Change. It’s inevitable. I’m fairly certain that even Amitabh cannot identify with his Mohabattein lecture of ‘Parampara, Pratishtha and Anushasan’ delivered sixteen years ago. 

Growing up in the late seventies and eighties, the leading lady used to be ‘paraya dhan’ and not a kudi who would insist on ‘Saturday-Saturday’. It was a time when the widowed sister and the blind mother were captured for final negotiation (Karz). Cinema that revolved around women was either so called ‘parallel cinema’ (MirchMasala, Arth) or directed by the likes of Basu Chatterjee and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. It was also a time when the heroine’s character remained untouched by any ambition to walk up the corporate ladder or desire for sexual fulfillment. And if the leading lady ventured into grey areas (Tabu in Astitva), the immorality of her act was painstakingly justified.

It is telling that the song belted by Kangana in the recent movie Queen (Maine hothon se lagayi to hungama ho gaya) was picturised on Helen – the bar dancer in Anhonee. Because the monsters of drinking, smoking and dancing in pubs used to claim the evil women, not the sanskari girl. 
Why, even two decades ago in ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’ when Shah Rukh opens a bottle of Cognac, ostensibly to beat the cold, a dazed Kajol says, “Sharm nahi aati ladki ke samne sharaab peete hue?” This was 1995 when Gurgaon had not heard of fresh breweries, when pub hopping was restricted to Brigade Road in Bangalore and when Deepika Padukone had not had her moments of cinematic tipsiness.

Change. It’s inevitable. Today we have Pink where Amitabh says, “Sharab ko yahan kharab character ki nishani mana jata hai, ladkiyon ke liye. Ladko ke liye nahin. Ladkon ke liye ye sirf health hazard hai.” But wait. This is not to say that young girls should drink but to underline a social shift of sensibilities. 

While most leading ladies continued to be decorative items in the nineties, there were intermittent sparks of Rajkumar Santoshi’s Damini and Prakash Jha’s Mrityudand. Later, with the success of diverse stories like Chak De India, Fashion and Kahani, directors realized that women-centric movies were commercially viable. As for me, the landmark movie where a woman was unapologetically ambitious and unabashedly vocal about her sexual urge has to be Aitraaz, followed by Dirty Picture.

As India began celebrating women characters, a slew of movies like Queen, Mardaani, Piku, Pink and Parched became mirrors of a new world. This is a world where characters point towards changes that define new boundaries for women. Even as I write, glimpses of Aamir Khan’s upcoming Dangal indicate that women in this sport based movie are fierce protagonists unlike pretty cheerleaders of Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikander (1992).

Another minor, yet significant change that has unobtrusively seeped after the Nirbhaya incident is the gradual demise of the customary ‘item song’. While rapes and murders continue unabated, the public anger against Nirbhaya incident ensured that film makers tone down the objectification of women. The bust heaving item songs like ‘Shiela ki Jawani’ or the pelvic thrusting ‘Munni Badnam’ have paved way for foot thumping party songs like ‘Ladki Beautiful’ and ‘Kala Chashma’. 

To say that women have broken all ceilings would be presumptuous. Because eventually it’s the story that clinches the deal. Nonetheless, the audiences have evolved and so have the directors and script writers. That they are brave enough to emphasize on a woman’s freedom of choice and relevance of consent indicates that the concept echoes with the audience. No wonder the iconic Pink dialogue 'No....means no’ blazed into history.

Amidst all the gloom and doom these sparks of change do leave a merry wink and a bright smile. And for this reason alone it’s fun to indulge in my pastime. It gives me hope that like all Bollywood movies – end mein sab theek ho jayega
Image courtesy : From here

Saturday, September 17, 2016


With the launch of Reliance Jio, 'Mukesh Returns' is now playing in the Indian telecom theaters after a gap of eleven years. Jio has promised cheaper data, 4G network, free voice calls and faster internet speed that will change the face of India’s telecom industry. Now that Mukesh Data-bhai Ambani has cast his network far and wide, his rivals are going weak in their signals. The new release has ensured that the Triple Play of Airtel, Vodafone, and Idea is  compelled to change the rules of the game. You can’t sit and watch Reliance broadband-bajao you in public, can you?

With an investment of Rs1, 50,000 Cr, Jio is said to be world’s largest startup. Truly wirelessly yours. Given that Jio announced lifetime free calling at a time when 70% of the revenues come from voice, how is Jio going push the boulder up the mountain? Too good to be true, eh? 

For one, Reliance has built humongous digital infrastructure (designed to handle 5G and 6G) and has enough bandwidth to assert its Data-giri. This is where China comes into the picture.  Reliance has picked VoLTE (voice over LTE) 4G compatible Lyf phones  from China that come with a Jio SIM. Moreover, the real story hinges on the Jio apps that are currently free for you to get addicted to.
While Reliance has created a capacity to take 100 million customers, initial users say Jio is in its beta stage where the speed is faster than Usain Bolt but the connection erratic. Once the initial interconnect glitches are surpassed, we will know if Jio is able to assert its Data-giri or end up revising plans. Or find itself in a hotspot. Only time will tell if Jio Bullet is able to beat the Airtel Rajdhani, Voda Shatabdi or the Idea Express! Where's  BSNL, you ask? Well, the market is big enough for the the passenger trains to chug along. 

According to Mr Ambani, “Two hundred years ago it was electricity that changed human life. Fifty years from now when you write history, one technology that would have changed civilization would be mobile internet.” He’s right. Humans have never engaged in an activity as dedicatedly as they have in mobile internet. 

The arrival of  Jio will change the telecom landscape in myriad  ways. If voice calls are free, we could face a scenario where landlines become as ineffective as typewriters. With unlimited data and 4G speeds, what is an average Indian residing in say, Lakhimpur do? Watch movies, download songs, engage on social media, but then what? There are limited avenues to fritter unlimited data!
With the telecom mavens promising a gradual but eventual shift to 5G by 2018, cheaper and faster data will create a new band of consumers. While the upper middle class users of Netflix, Wynk, and YouTube will continue to use data for shopping and entertainment, the lower middle class Hindi speaking consumer will demand content that suits his palate. 

The probabilities are immense, the market huge and the potential beyond imagination.

But before that there is politics. And technology and politics seldom go hand in hand. While Jio promised the moon, politicians began singing the age old ditty of roti kapda aur makaan. Targeting the PM, one killjoy said that the poor need Atta (Wheat flour), not Data. Well, damning technology is unlikely to provide Atta. Embracing it can. But who wants an informed voter? An informed, connected voter is a politician’s worse nightmare.Thus began the suit boot jibes and the condemnation that the government is only for the rich. When it comes to technology, neither politics nor condemnation make for meaningful debate because the first doesn’t translate into good economics and the second is an outcome of the  first.

Regardless, politics cannot stop an idea whose time has come. Reliance Jio can be a formidable brand if it creates value for customers and does not fizzle out like it did in 2005. Even though the name Ambani has long been the very definition of success, the prudent are holding the champagne. They will say cheers in January 2017.

Image Courtesy: From here
Entire article in Diplomacy&Beyond

Monday, September 5, 2016

My Way or the HighWay

Every once in a while, a controversy washes up our shores and we take positions on opposite sides of the fence. A minister said this, a celebrity said that. A film depicts this, a book quotes that. A news anchor tweeted this, a politician tweeted that. Whether it is a socio- political debate or a controversial comment - social media discourse ensures that there is little space for nuance.

Soon the prickly discourse boils down to ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’. More often than not, our response is not for other people or their logic, but for their political affiliations. Since we are more vicious and angry in the virtual realm, we want our opponents to shut-up and disappear.

And suddenly the idea that there can be two sides to a story seems far-fetched, too complicated to be true. What opinion, after all, holds true if it does not have roots in a rigid belief? What argument makes sense if it finds some merit in a dissenting voice?
This mocking the ‘other side’ is a worldwide phenomenon ranging from Trump versus Hillary to Salman versus Shah Rukh. The outright rejection of those who don’t feel the same way as we do is reflected in reactions when friends respond with, “How could you? Never imagined you were his fan?” Which essentially translates to, “How can you like someone I don’t?”

Given that Twitter trends decide the national narrative and vice versa, the news anchors too have fallen for the ‘either-or’ trap. If one pompous anchor invites a dozen odd panelists and begins his show with a pre-conceived notion that he is always right, the other is unwilling to engage with those who disagree. If one reduces nationalism to shouting over neighboring guests, the other eulogizes separatists by sympathizing with anti-national voices. If one is ordained by the TRP compulsions to be always right, the other is a member of a powerful cozy club.

What if I don’t agree with both?

Vinod Mehta, the Outlook editor hit the nail when he wrote, “A television anchor’s nightmare guest is one who takes, ‘on the other hand’ kind of positions. Complexity, subtlety, an effort to explore grey areas is positively discouraged. If you recommend street hangings and public floggings you are likely to do well on television.”

With shortened attention spans, one hundred and forty characters set the agenda. While brevity has advantages, it does little to address complex issues. Besides, it’s so much fun to mock 'them'. Paint them all with one brush. All Sanghis are illiterate abusers. All Liberals are pseudo-sickulars. All Pakistanis are evil. All journalists are presstitues. The pot-shots minus Marijuana add kick to our everyday mundane niceties. Wicked is fun, abuse liberating. Politeness is pretense, civility weakness.

The question is:
Why have we become so opinionated and polarized  about simple  issues such as an advertisement, a campaign, an opinion or a silly comment?
Let’s for a moment refuse to take a strong judgmental stance and meekly resign to an acceptance that everyone is entitled to their views. Wouldn’t it be a lazy acceptance of live and let live? Worse, our restrained stand could embolden extreme voices, shoving the already shrinking moderate voices down the silent valley?

On the other hand, what if we continue to call our opponents ‘stupid’ and refuse to engage with ‘them’? Wouldn’t our refusal to engage with 'them' push them away? Shouldn’t this refusal be seen as intellectual smugness to get to know the ‘other side’? Isn’t this refusal the very thing we rage against the ‘other side’?

There are no easy answers. For one, engaging with rigid minds requires patience. And ours is a generation that sees little merit in delayed answers.Who has the patience for a contextual explanation? What’s reassuring is that most issues that get us riled up on social media have little to do with our everyday lives. Who mocked our sportsmen or our hero are not the issues that really matter. Also because when we meet a flesh and blood person, we respect the boundary of ‘agreeing to disagree’. 

So who am I if I take an ‘on the other hand’ stance instead of a blanket Yes or No? Who am I, if I’m mostly conservative, oftentimes moderate but occasionally liberal? Confused? No. While I have a stand, I’m willing to listen and reflect. I am willing  to leave a small window for the thought that the ‘other side’ could possibly have some merit in their opinion. Can you?

Image Courtesy: From here

Monday, August 22, 2016

Powerpuff Girls

Image from here

It is true that our dismal performance at the Rio Olympics was as much a reflection of national health as it was a reflection of our politicized sports federations. It is true that our regression from London to Rio warrants a drastic revamp. It is also true that sports are not a part of our socio-cultural ethos. And yet, despite all our shortcomings, the terrific trio of Dipa, Sakshi and Sindhu managed to etch a silver lining on an otherwise cloudy month of August.

It all began when a young Dipa Karmakar pulled off a breathtaking vault, missed the bronze by a whisker but landed straight into our hearts with her toothy grin and earnest humility. Twitter, not exactly known for its kindness, supported Dipa by reinforcing that she  was already a winner for being the first Indian gymnast to attempt the Vault of Death. Thereafter, when we saw Sakshi Malik’s opponents writhing on the mat, we wondered how an unassuming girl from a patriarchal state with a skewed sex ratio could show such aggression. And when PV Sindhu rose like a phoenix, slaying her opponents one smash at a time, the entire country was transfixed to their televisions, mobiles, laptops, and tablets. Sindhu lost the match but won a silver medal, underlining the truism that sports does not build character, sports reveals it. Harder the battle, sweeter the victory.
But the larger question remains. What exactly are we celebrating? Why are we feeling good about a brave attempt and two medals coming from a billion plus nation?
For one, there is something about sports that creates nationalistic camaraderie. Anticipation of a win by unknown players ignites unmatched patriotic fervor. Their struggle, their tears, their hopes, their pride – all become ours. And yet, such passion was hitherto reserved for cricket. To generate curiosity about other sports in a cricket crazy, Bollywood obsessed nation is no mean feat. It is telling that when it came to appointing brand ambassadors for Rio, Salman Khan and Sachin Tendulkar were the first on the list.

Second, for a nation that evinces little interest prior to the games but hopes to fill its empty medal shelves, the girls achieved something beyond medals. As the social media was awash with messages like, ‘we failed our girls but girls saved our pride’, it didn’t take long for the sub-text to become obvious. The trio did more than any lip service could do for the Prime Minister’s ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign, the #SavetheGirlChild crusade or the symbolic #SelfieWithDaughter.

The idea is not to play the gender card because we know that our sportsmen deliver despite sporting federations and abysmal facilities, and not because of them. We know that it’s not only the lack of money (oil rich Arab nations should be churning out champions) but the lack of sporting culture that is our bane. We know that our kids excel at Math Olympiads and Spelling Bee competitions, but not as much at sports. And we also know that the barriers of societal pressure and parental obligations faced by Indian women, particularly from low income groups are almost insurmountable. So every time a small town girl like Mary Kom comes closer to an Olympic medal, she punctures the deep rooted misogyny that has become a part of our vocabulary. Don’t be such a girl. Girls in short dresses invite men. Don’t you have any balls? When will you settle down? It’s not a girl’s game. When a Whatsapp forward read, ‘Dipa’s Coach – Bisbeshwar. Sakshi’s Coach – Kuldeep. Sindhu’s coach – Gopi. It’s time for Indian men to say, behind every successful woman, there’s a man’ we realized that the trio had debunked some conventional biases.
Every smash from Sindhu, every stride from Dipa and every tackle by Sakshi discredited the narrow identity created by our societal norms. Rather unconsciously, the girls had charmed the nation. Whether their charm resided in their disarming smiles, their relentless pursuit, or earnest humility, it cannot be denied that these girls drove the nail right through the heart of ‘Fair and Lovely’ bogey. Albeit for a few days, the conventional 'beautiful' brigade was sidelined, no matter what they wore at Cannes, how pretty they looked at the Miss India pageant or how they sashayed at a  fashion show.

All said our ambition of becoming a sporting nation looks distant. But what began with Saina Nehwal and Mary Kom in 2012 was underlined by girl power in the 2016. When we don’t look at medals as our only aim, we did take a small step forward in changing attitudes and exposing conventional biases. And for this reason alone we must celebrate. Because the girls are worth it.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Your Vampires, Our Snakes

Image from here

Scare them. Shock them. Keep them guessing. Television producers are on the top of the game. If you flip television channels, you will come across believe-it-or-nuts soaps where the titular character turns into a housefly. If this does not make you goggle eyed, the hero turning into a mongoose man will. Welcome to supernatural genre which is forcibly absurd, largely superstitious, shoddily animated and overtly religious in nature.
You might think that a country known for snake charmers would be more kindly disposed to shows where the protagonist is a vengeful snake woman. But city slickers are lampooning the onslaught of naagins and dayans in their living rooms. Urban folks may say that these serials are regressive and that they cannot identify with such ridiculous fantasy. But we know that success is the only truth. What sells must be popular.

Little surprise then that television producers including soap sultana Ekta Kapoor are cooking melodrama with dark shades of fantasy. After all, how many house hold dramas can the audiences endure? The dutiful bahu sorted all her domestic problems. She now knows that the laptops are not to be washed with soap and water. The malevolent matriarch has tormented the household members by poisoning enough milk glasses. The innocent child-bride has conveyed the right messages for more than eight years. As has the gutsy widow who opts for re-marriage. So, what’s next?

Themes of love and revenge now play via mythical characters with religious overtones. More than a twists of the plot, the twist of a character makes for riveting viewing. If it was the evil sister-in-law who was creating impediments, it is now her evil double. If it was plastic surgery that created twists, vardaan (boon) and shrap(curse) are more effective.
And yet, most tried and tested formulas endure. The titular characters continue to be black and white, with little scope for grey. The sanskaari bahu always wins over the evil other woman. The grass grows faster than the story and one engagement ceremony is stretched over several weeks. Thanks to re-incarnation, popular characters enter and exit depending on their dates and popularity. Dressed in faux-ethnic ensembles, women continue to live in garish homes, wear hideous wigs and oversized bindis. Above all, the drama continues to play itself out with every eyebrow twitch, lip tremble, pupil dilation and nostril flare in full camera glare. Up-close and in-your-face.

If you are cerebral viewer of Friends, House of Cards or Breaking Bad, you will perhaps shake your head in disbelief to know that Indian soap stars are household names in many countries. Balika Vadhu is running in more than 15 countries in almost equal number of languages. Frankly, you have no right to sneer if you are spending more time on your laptop and less time on television. Why should producers care for net savvy audiences who prefer Netflix over Colors, Star or Zee?
Other than saas-bahu overkill, the serial producers blame the genre shift on the popularity of fantasies like the Game of Thrones, The Conjuring, The Twilight Saga and Pottermania. Many ancient stories, as in Bahubali, are being told with modern camera effects. You have your fantasies, we have our folklore. You love your vampires, we love our snakes. All good? No. Not really. The unfortunate part is that scary can be engrossing, fantasy can pack a punch and sci-fi can be compelling but most desi soaps prove nothing of the above. When the promo of a desi soap imitated the Game of Thrones it ended up being laughing stock on social media.

And those who yearn for good old Ye Jo Hai Jindagi, Hasratein, Dekh Bhai Dekh or Sarabhai versus Sarabhai, keep dreaming. In the age of technology and Pokemons, there is no place for simplicity. Because there is no Ekta Kapoor without the viewer. Also because it is not Ekta who enjoys watching a possessed bride headbanging on her wedding night. It is her audience.
Anil Kapoor can try his best with 24, but it is not easy to beat the TRPs of the vampires, dayans and shaitans. Go get your Netflix. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Frankly Speaking

Image Courtesy

Frankly Speaking on CNBC18

The month of June triggered a great deal of market volatility. The Sensex was as unpredictable as Subramaniam Swamy. June was also about multiple exits. Rajan said goodbye the Governor’s office, Britain walked away from the European Union, Messi bid adieu to international football, Rahul Gandhi exited the country, and Arnab left behind his interruptive streak, albeit for a day.

While the markets are recovering from  Brexit jitters, Indian media is rattled by the aftershocks of Arnab Goswami’s interview with the Prime Minister. Frankly speaking, a direct interview of any sitting Prime Minister is of great relevance. And I am glad Modi decided to talk to Arnab Goswami and not Rajat Sharma. However, like the markets, there was a huge correction in Arnab Goswami’s notorious adversarial style of interviewing. The sharp decline in frequent interruptions ensured that it was a buying opportunity for rivals. Sagarika Ghose, tweeted, ‘Dear@PMO please hold an open press conference rather than bestow favors on individual journalists.’ But the unbiased champion of free speech deleted her tweet when the interview appeared in the newspaper she works for. 
While most channels were victims of Monday’s bloodbath, a tweet from Aaj Tak called Arnab a chamcha of the Prime Minister. The channel tried to recover lost ground by deleting the tweet and blaming it on human error. The slump in media commodities was obvious when another editor questioned the absence of embers from the Times Now ticker. Shekhar Gupta took it on the chin saying that it was a case of sour grapes for fellow foxes. Whatever be the case, the interview ensured that Times Now indulged in huge profit booking. 

Shattering the aftermath of the interview, the opposition stood afloat by condemning the interview, the interviewer and the interviewee. Arvind Kejriwal felt that Arnab was acting as Modi’s propagandist and not a journalist. One is tempted to ask if Arnab was AAP’s propaganda agent in 2013 when Mr Kejriwal was the guest on the same show. For one, Arnab had adopted a similar non-disruptive pitch and many had called Arnab an AAP stooge. Second, Mr Kejriwal himself prefers a shoot and scoot press conference where no one can ask him any questions.

And finally, Congress stocks tumbled when they said, “Modi ji, let our journalists ask you questions." OUR journalists matlab? If there ever was a medal for axing your own foot, the gold medal goes to the Congress party. 

So, was this media bloodbath because Arnab didn’t ask relevant questions about Kanhaiya Kumar, Arvind Kejriwal, Intolerance and Award Wapasi? Perhaps, Arnab should have asked Prime Minister if it was the bounden duty of a dutiful Hindu woman to pop out quintuplets as suggested by a Yogi!
If you saw the interview, the Prime Minister clearly said, “I request you to not create controversies out of this interview but use it for the larger benefit of the country.” Memories of the puppy analogy must be hounding him before facing the camera. But the national dailies went ahead and picked up the juiciest bone - Swamy. Who wants to talk about Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna?

As for me, the government stocks would have risen if the loud mouths were reprimanded strongly and timely. While the Prime Minister’s defense of Rajan was welcome, it came at a time when Shanghai, Kospi, Nikkei and BJPei were grappling with uncertainty over who the Swamy was. Moreover, doesn’t look like the loud mouths are in a mood to listen. If the BJP wants to build on recovery, it is time for action and not words.
So even after the closing bell there is an awful lot of turmoil among the under performers. The trading for rival channels has temporarily halted. However, their stocks can zoom if Rahul Gandhi decides to give a tell-all interview about where he was, and what he was doing. I'm bullish on NDTV, Headlines Today and CNN. Unless, of course, Rahul decides to grace Times Now again.

Arnab answers his critics in this article.

Friday, June 24, 2016

What's Simmering?

Image from Here

The kids play area in my apartment is buzzing with excitement. As it happens, most kids are accompanied by grandparents and maids carrying water bottles. Enthused by the frenzied excitement, I sit down on a nearby bench. Just then, two African toddlers come rushing towards the swings. Almost instinctively, the grandmother accompanying the Indian kids says, “Let’s go to the other swing.”

There are moments when trivial incidents lead you on a thought trail. The following day, when my house-help narrates stories about why she doesn’t want to work for the new African residents, I am intrigued. Being a writer, after all, is about observing people and paying attention. Sensing a story, I tentatively ask, “What happened?” She promptly replies, “They speak a different language. And there’s a lot of kitch-kitch for payment.” I try to dig deeper. “So what? You’ve worked for expats earlier?” To which she says, “Didi, in logo se darr lagta hai (I’m scared of them). And their fridge is over-stuffed with meat.”
During the last few months, we have witnessed a surge in unfortunate incidents of violence against African nationals. What exactly is behind these violent incidents? There are, after all, three sides to a story. Your side. My side. And the truth. The truth, as always, happens to be a complex grey muddle that requires introspection.

We, Africa and India, have gone through the pain of subjugation and the joy of liberation. Given our shared history, and also given that a large Indian Diaspora lives in Africa, political dispensations have worked towards strengthening the Indo-African ties. With so much in common, what is it that is making us drift apart? Is it because the African way of life is different from our conservative ‘Indian way of life’? Well, African nationals do have a distinctive style that is not a facsimile of Indian style when it comes to what clothes they wear, what music they hear or what food they eat. One could also argue that people from different cultures including Japan and Korea co-exist peacefully with the ‘Indian way of life’, so, what exactly is simmering in the Indo-Afro curry bowl?

Blame it on cinema or a handful of real-life incidents, people hang on to the perception that Africans deal with drugs and wild sex. Remember how Priyanka Chopra, in the movie Fashion, squirms when she discovers that she slept with an African national after a wild night of drugs and sex? Or how Kangana screams when she spots a French African in her dorm? When Sushma Swaraj, in all good faith, tweeted, ‘I appeal to fellow Indians. Next time you meet an African citizen, pl shake hand and say ‘India loves you’, Twitter exploded with jokes, taunts and memes. It was hilarious how South African cricketers were tagged by their fans telling them ‘India loves you’. However, what remained with me was a tweet that said, ‘Say India loves you before asking them maal hai kya’.
All said, Indo-African relations cannot be viewed without addressing the R word - Racism. Our boast of not being racists is deflated by the sale of skin whitening creams and the problems faced by Africans in renting a house. My own matrimonial ad, I’m told, mentioned me as a gori girl. Before I could create a fuss over this chicanery, the advertisement was in the newspaper.
One reason for what appears to be our contempt for dark skin could be because of the colonial domination and subservience to the West. It could, perhaps, have something to do with being protective about our patriotic and cultural identity. Recent Brexit vote has shown how xenophobia plays a role on our psyche. Any foreigner, a Bihari in Maharashtra, a North-Easterner in UP, or an African in Delhi is viewed as an outsider who is likely to dent our socio-cultural fabric. The thing with racism is that it is more felt than measured. Not necessarily in acts of violence but in understated ways like the incident in the kids play area.

All said, ignoring the undercurrents is unlikely to resolve misunderstandings. Acknowledging them will. And indeed, respecting mutual sensitivities will foster better understanding. Come to think of it, how many African friends do we have? What do we know about their culture? And most importantly, do we even want to know them?
Whether it is a student from the North East, Bihar, Middle East, or Africa, our differences don’t divide us - it is the inability to accept the differences that creates friction.