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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.