The brutal attacks get all the headlines. But the impact of racism on ordinary lives is far more subtle and insidious
Chinky. Dhandewaali. (whore) Momo. These are the kind of slurs she hears every day in Delhi. Some days, a local goon would ask with a lascivious smile: “Rate kya hai?(What is the rate?)” When that happens, she simply looks away and hurries past. On reaching home at night, she thanks her lucky stars that she has got through another day with body and limb intact. Before going out the next morning, she mutters a prayer, apprehending what the city might have in store for her. Racial slurs, she has learnt to handle. When she first arrived there from her home in Manipur, they would reduce her to tears. But with time she has learnt to put up with them, as she has with the city’s heat and chaos. She realises that the big, bad city is capable of throwing far more than hateful words at her.
I contemplate her with a mixture of guilt and bemusement. She works as a barista in my neighbourhood Costa. Until the past month, she was like any other barista, greeting me with a ready smile the moment I walked in through the door, making cheerful small talk while taking my order, stopping by my table to ask if my coffee and pastry were fine as I was partaking of them. Since the brutal murder of Nido Tania, however, the smile looks strained and the cheerfulness has all but disappeared. Today, as the newspaper reports yet another case of a Manipuri girl being groped in Delhi, she looks pensive and withdrawn. It’s obvious that she can no longer summon even the semblance of a professional veneer to contain the churning inside.
I want to tell her that I understand exactly how she feels. That what happened to Nido Tania brought back memories of a horrific night in Norwich in 2005 where I was beaten black and blue by racist goons. That for almost a week after that night, one side of my face was so swollen that it was practically impossible to chew. That there were times in that week where I was so scared that my face would never heal that I wished my assailants had killed me. That for months I avoided going out at night and when I did, I would freeze each time I heard someone behind me.
But I hesitate.
I have nothing to do with the racist attacks. Yet that cannot quell the embarrassment I feel because my race places me right in the middle of the racist mob. I am unsure of how anything I say might be taken. An attempt at sympathy could sound fake or trite. Condemnation may not go far enough. And who knows, if we ever had an honest conversation about race, I might end up becoming defensive about mine and make a bad situation worse. So I do nothing. When she answers ‘fine’ to my question of how she is doing, I merely smile and nod even though I know she is lying and accept my coffee and pastry with a terse ‘thank you’.
As I walk home later, it strikes me that this is exactly how my white friends would have felt in England in the days following my attack. As I would go round Norwich with a bandaged head and a bruised face, eyes would be averted. People would fall silent as I approached, like they did not know what to do with me. The exchange that ensued focussed on the inconsequential and was chock-full of the kind of silence that breaks out when people are not sure of what to do or say. And there was palpable relief all round when it was over.
The brutal attacks get all the headlines. But the impact of racism on ordinary lives is far more subtle and insidious. Invariably, it redraws relations by placing people on the opposite sides of a divide. It instils feelings of fear and persecution among the people it targets, while creating guilt and embarrassment among many on the other side. Suddenly, the most effortless relationship becomes exhausting as a distance that is difficult to bridge opens up. There are issues that are off limits because they are too hot to touch, and the whole point of an interaction can devolve to avoiding anything unseemly. As a result, the distance between people widens. That is its inherent evil.
It is not as if we in India are new to racism. In the past, though, Indian racism was about caste and colour. Low-caste Hindus would accuse the upper castes of perpetuating a form of discrimination that amounted to racism. Then there was the gripe that dark-skinned Indians had with the nation’s fascination with light skin. The word black in most Indian languages was synonymous with ugly and it was understood that to be considered attractive you had to be fair.
Caste and colour divisions still exist in India. Just about every day an honour killing takes place, because a low-caste Hindu has dared to marry someone from an upper caste. The lust for light skin, too, is alive and well. A glance at the matrimonial pages of newspapers indicates just about every man or woman desires a light-skinned spouse. Skin-whitening creams and lotions fly off the shelves in bazaars and supermarkets, and most Bollywood movies feature actors light-skinned enough for India to resemble a South European country.
However, the kind of racism that has recently been seen in Delhi with Northeasterners or, for that matter, Africans, is of the kind that was formerly associated with the West. Caste and colour have nothing to do with it. Africans and the bulk of the Northeasterners are not Hindus. Furthermore, in terms of skin colour, most Northeasterners tend to be fairer than the average Indian. The fact that they are being targeted, along with the Africans, is for one reason only. They look different. It is no accident that if you see an Indian woman with an African man in Delhi, more often than not, she is a Northeasterner, the kind of Indian made to feel foreign in her own country.
In the past, India was always at the forefront of the battle against racism. Both Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela took inspiration from India and Mahatma Gandhi. In the United Nations and other world forums, India spoke for suppressed people wherever they were in the world. As one of the first non-white nations to throw off the yoke of European colonialism, India was a beacon of hope for freedom fighters everywhere. Yet when it comes to accepting people from other races in our own society, we are showing that we are light years away from practising what we have preached.
Racism has been the scourge of the Western world for generations. It is sad to see it spreading its tentacles in India.
(Vikram Kapur is a writer and an associate professor at Shiv Nadar University.)