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.
 

30 comments:

  1. Guess, it's more to do with human prejudices than anything else, I think. But, I need to share this: Once I was at Colaba when I was approached by few Nigerian dudes speaking in both broken English and Hindi, Both Hashish chahiye, syringue, ladki chahiye...' Guess, there are always two sides to things. I feel the African High Commissioner in India must do something in seperating the wheat from the chaff...the good ones and the bad ones. I am against violence and human prejudices but there is a growing perception on Africans about the involvement in illegal activities. Of course, we couldn't generalize but with cops, Government and diplomats improving communications among Indians and African communities. Perhaps, Africans staying in India should also come forward and help authorities. My honest take.

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    1. A correction..boss hashish chahiye not both as wrongly written by me!!

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    2. Appreciate your honest take Vishal. Every law and order problem should be dealt according to the law of the land.

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  2. I feel racism is a combination of ignorance, anxiety and fear that manifests itself in our behaviour towards people who are different than us. We all love stereotyping people according to their accents, dietary habits, the clothes they wear. It's comforting to put people into neat little boxes. Saves us from a cumbersome activity called logical thinking.

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    1. True. Recent events in the world have shown how xenophobic most of us are.

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    2. This is the real truth, and fully agree with what Purba wrote!Such a shame that instead of enjoying the diversity around, we get hung up with our limited vision.

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  3. It is just the biases we are born with, we see them all around us. If somebody had taken the courage to overlook them, maybe some of us would have been on the other side of the fence!

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    1. Biases and a lot more. It's complicated. :D

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  4. Racism is a very complex subject. I guess lack of exposure is the major reason as to why we stereotype. Our love for gori chamdi is another reason why we are sometimes plain antagonistic towards blacks. Besides the stereotypes of dealing in drugs, noisy partying etc. that are propagated by even Hollywood movies could bias minds. There is a significant population of African students here in Bangalore. Once l came across two ladies at a neighborhood hospital. Mostly people were starting at them not hostilely just out of curiosity as we do when we don't know people.

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    1. You pretty much say it all. Yes, it's complicated.

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  5. You nailed the situation perfectly with your last statement, To quote:
    "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."

    I don't think we're born racists. A lot of it is conditioned - parents, family, society. Which is why my parents desperately wanted me to go abroad and see beyond the four walls that they had kept me in. I'm not saying everyone should go abroad, but the more we get used a multi-cultural lifestyle and people of all race around you, the easier it becomes for you to be 'less racist'.
    Nice one, Alka.

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    1. Yes Sid. Exposure does ease our insecurities about foreigners denting our socio cultural identity.
      Thanks.

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  6. Alka, I fully agree with all you have said here. Racism, color bias is something that has inexorably been ingrained in our systems. This could be most probably due to the colonial rule or is it a human pre-disposition to prefer association with identical or better/fairer-looking people? Whatever the reasons, it exists not only here but world-wide. It is a cloaked and covered bias that is still prevalent in most countries where the darker races are still only 'tolerated, encouraged or blended' because of the value they add to their economy or technology. C'est la vie I guess, what ever progress or equality we may proclaim, these prejudices will never totally die out!

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    1. Thank you for reading and sharing Kala. The prejudices exist worldwide, true. But I was shocked to read a survey that labelled India as one of the most racist countries to live in.

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  7. It is a fact that we see people who are not like us and who don't belong to where we are from in a different manner. Like you said, in one way or the other, we are all racists. It needs a lot of introspection and acknowledgement to change this..I remember sharing an apartment with an African male when I went to Sydney for the very first time. He was tall, huge and I was scared of being in the same apartment as him but gradually I realized he's a nice fellow..Ofcourse, my Indian house owner had already assured me that he would get a female tenant and the African guy had to leave..But yes, it's about getting to know them and they are not very unlike us..And what can I say about us Indians judging others based on their food habits, just see how vegetarians judge the non vegetarians, all Indians, and vice versa..I don't know if we ever can get over that..

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    1. Thanks for sharing your experience Nabanita. True about judging others based on perceptions. But it becomes complex when we hear stories about the Nigerian lady who created ruckus in Bangalore last week.

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  8. Great post Alka. Very well written and you have brought out the subtle ways in which racism is felt but cannot always be verbalized. we all acquire some prejudice or the other, but some of them become commonly fomented by the culture and our society. The issue is that often we are not able to come back with an adult response to the parental and societal logic that has been passed on to us.

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    1. Thank you Asha, am glad you liked it.

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  9. Great post Alka. Very well written and you have brought out the subtle ways in which racism is felt but cannot always be verbalized. we all acquire some prejudice or the other, but some of them become commonly fomented by the culture and our society. The issue is that often we are not able to come back with an adult response to the parental and societal logic that has been passed on to us.

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  10. The cocktail of racism and religion will be the end of humanity. I will leave the finer details to the gaggle of 24X365 TV channels, print media and the sparkling legion of bloggers —they are capable enough.

    But I do feel compelled to recite an incident from my college days when a virtual army of our Palestinian friends began rigging the peace of our sanctuary. Drugs became commoner than samosas and bun-makkhan with their arrival. They all rode improvised bikes with a box like dicky complete with an aerial just beyond the taillight. They began robbing the odd vegetable vendor and chia-walla, picked up eve-teasing the local girls and took it several steps further; molestation became rampant and the order of the day, and I will just stop at that. Worse, the police was afraid of the embassies and dared not touch them. Till one day the boys were forced to take the law into their hands. The rest is history for that corner of the Earth. They vanished like locusts and a quite descended on the campus.

    Please don't mistake me. I have read the repelling incident about people moving away (and urging the kids to follow them) from the African toddlers, maids reacting to refrigerators over-stuffed with meat. I am also aware of the unfortunate death of an African at the hands of an outlaw in Delhi. There has to be a middle path somewhere. While we cannot brutalize folks, leave alone butchering them,just because of the pigments of their skin, or the texture of their hair, people coming in from other cultures need to be mindful of the local sensitivities too.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences. Easier said or written than done. If most of us, including me, have a choice between renting our house to an African resident or a South East Asian couple, we will opt for the second choice. The day I published this article about acceptance, a Nigerian lady in Bangalore created ruckus after violence. Its complicated. But law and order problems should be dealt according to the law.

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  11. Very well said. Your closing line was the sum of it. How our inability to accept differences comes in between all things possible. We are conditioned and that is why many North Indians feel unaccepted in the South. Is it the language, the cultural mix or is it so because they also stay different.
    Still, getting an opportunity to experience the other culture is most needed to become more receptive and open.

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    1. Thank you Parul for reading and sharing.

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  12. Let us be real.?Lets stop being hyperacts ...Racism is there in every part of the word and every country talks about it...When it comes to these Africans,even I am scared.
    During one of my trips to Zambia ,I experienced real racism.It was bad,really bad.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences Mr Chowla. Its more complex than we think. As I said, there is no one truth.

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  13. A very balanced piece as usual Alka.It is true that we ought to recognize the undercurrents and kill racism but I believe whether it is a student from north east or an African--violence is rampant today.If one African is lynched today so many north Indians too fall prey to this ugly rise of lawlessness.The media should not highlight the victim's origins like this--it conveys wrong impressions.I do not say this to just varnish the reality.

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    1. Thank you for reading Indu. And liking it. Your balanced inputs are greatly appreciated.

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  14. Rightly said.
    I know some girls who are dark but really really pretty.

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