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.