Thursday, October 08, 2009

Some good, old-fashioned racism

Wrote this short piece for Tehelka, recently:

When I was five, we moved to an industrial township in Rajasthan. It was a very dusty place, full of cactus and scorpions. The other remarkable thing was the low hills against which the colony nestled and from where a muffled ‘boom!’ - they used dynamite to extract limestone - occasionally escaped.

We used to climb those hills, taking picnic hampers with us. Any adults we met along the way warned us about the ‘Bheel’. Other children brought back scary stories of youngsters being accosted and robbed of everything, including their clothes. (This business of clothes was intriguing. Sometimes clothes would disappear off washing lines, and at least twice, kitchens were broken into, and large jars full of laddoos disappeared.) The Bheel was usually accused, or perhaps, the Garasiyas.

We grew up without making friends with a single Bheel or Garasiya or Rabadi tribesperson. A handful worked as peons or gardeners. Mostly, they supplied milk or helped build houses for us. But we didn’t talk to them. And it wasn’t just about class. It was that some of them were gypsies. It was that the women seemed too ‘free’ with their laughter and backless cholis. That divorce was as easy as walking out of the house and smashing a clay pot. It was that we didn’t even know what they ate.

It took me twenty years to give all of this a name: Racism. Your usual garden variety. The ‘give them subsistence-level work; don’t let them live nearby; treat them all as potential criminals; don’t let your kids mingle with theirs’ kind. Over the years, I realised that we are a deeply racist nation. And our diversity permits racism to flourish unbounded. We are full of ‘others’ whom we might insult, wish away, attack or kill.

In college, in Ajmer, a clutch of Kenyan and Nigerian girls would narrate horror tales of being touched blatantly, roughly, in autos and tempos. ‘Kaali’ and ‘habshi’ was tossed at their faces. Habshi, once a fairly innocuous term describing a person from Africa, has now turned into a word loaded with contempt. Many south Indian girls I know have also had ‘habshi’ thrown at them like an insult.

A friend, a writer from Assam, was asked by his Delhi landlord to vacate and told ‘you people are dirty’. I have had a real estate broker ask for my ‘caste’ in north Delhi. In the Mumbai suburb where I currently live, I’m told there are newer, swankier buildings coming up where no Muslims will be allowed to buy. That’s the unofficial USP.

Oh, we’re racist alright! Look at any form in which racism manifests itself, and we make the cut. It might do us good to take a good, hard look at ourselves in the mirror and start cleaning up our own filth instead of flapping our arms and screaming ‘racist’ southwards, in the general direction of Australia.

Do read all the other essays on racism in this country. Scroll down and the links are all here.


Nithin said...

Thank You! A timely article on a contemporary debate... There is also the issue of the strict censure that independent international agencies face when they attempt to associate our 'caste-ism' with what all reasonable people think of as overtly racist behaviour anywhere in the world.

Jayant Pande said...


I just stumbled upon your blog today. And I have spent a very pleasant day going through many of your posts. They are all of course very well-written, but - it seems a bit weird to say this - also sound true. And this when I am not even always familiar with your subject matter, such as having seen neither Dasvidaniya nor Ikiru (that's maybe because of your explorations of the general underlying the particular). And this latest post too has touched a cord, especially the two lines "It was that the women seemed too ‘free’ with their laughter and backless cholis", and, "It took me twenty years to give all of this a name: Racism". Just wanted to express my appreciation.


Asheesh said...

Thank You for writing this. We need more people to talk about it. I realized long back that we are an ostrich nation/society, be it racism (how can country of Gandhi be racist right!), abuse (1000 year old culture we do not abuse), human rights (caste related abuses are not human right abuses). I like the way you write and have found myself in agreement with most of your ideas. Keep writing.

Banno said...

Great piece. Specially in that you managed to say so much in so short an article.

Siddharth said...

Is racism not a inherent part of human DNA? Is it not a part of mans nature ? Is equality not a noble but impractical myth?

As long as mnakind has existed groupism has prevailed. Us v/s them has never gone out of style.

Jai_C said...

Some memories triggered by this post, hopefully not too OT:

Petty thefts in my area *did* go noticeably up when there were a couple of apartment projects under construction nearby and subsided once they were done. Anything left outside: clothes to dry, footwear, flowerpots. Nobody really likes losing stuff Annie, but I didnt check into who, wherefrom, which tribe etc. took these.

I tried getting my son to play with one of the kids from the site. His parents were not to be seen anywhere and he was loafing around by himself.

The playmate took my son's ball and moved strategically back towards his home at each play. A real dilemma: whether to teach the kid (and my son) a life lesson, to ask for something than try to sneak away with it or just give it to him. Should I find his parents and embarrass them?

Running barefoot, this kid hopped into and out of drains to chase the ball without giving it a second thought. Did I want my son to pick this up on hygiene?

Even if we relaxed that, how about just plain immunity, he was obviously streets ahead. I realized my son would likely fall sick.

Did I need to parent this kid for the duration? He just barely listened to me. What if he hurt himself in some way? I sent him back eventually. Experiment ended very confused.

Sorry for long, personal comment. Any suggestions on what could have been done differently are welcome.


Tweets by @anniezaidi