During the third Test match for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy between Australia and India at the Sydney Cricket Ground last January, India’s fast bowler Mohammed Siraj complained to umpire Paul Reiffel about some spectators who were racially abusing him. Siraj was allegedly called a ‘Brown Dog’ and ‘Big Monkey’. Fellow pacer Jasprit Bumrah was also abused by a drunk spectator. The International Cricket Council condemned the incidents of racism, and the host Cricket Australia apologized to the Indian team, with both saying that there is no place for discrimination in the sport and this abhorrent behaviour was unacceptable. This brings us to a very niggling question – Are the Indians sensitive towards racist issues?
Recently, filmmaker Nicholas Kharkongor made a movie called Axone. It dealt with people from the Northeast living in the narrow lanes of Humayunpur in Delhi. The north-easterners encounter racial abuse and sexist slurs, even from their North Indian landlady. Through the film, Kharkongor projects a vivid picture of north-eastern strong-smelling delicacies, the community forming a close space for themselves amid the racial scenario, getting stereotyped based on the ‘north-eastern’ look, among others.
This writer lived for 10 years in Delhi, even in some of the dingy by-lanes where you don’t have any shop selling chicken (non-vegetarian food is still a taboo in a few areas!), but never faced racism, probably due to the fact that yours truly doesn’t look ‘north-eastern’ enough. Yours truly’s Hindi is also moderately on the better side, which helped quite a lot in a few places where the North Indians actually speak nothing else but Haryanvi.
Does one remember this name – Shriporwarmara Attapattu Jayasurya Natwarshri Ramkrishna Shivavenkata Rajashekhara Srinivasa Natrichipalli Yekeparampir Perambudur Chinnaswami Muttuswami Venugopal Iyer – in the movie Dhamaal where the characters all search for money hidden in a graveyard? Actor Arshad Warsi takes a lift in the Tamil person’s car and becomes irritated on hearing his long name. He asks him, “Are you telling me your name or the Chennai telephone directory?” and the person replies, “Sir, it’s just my pet name!”
There is a very famous television serial, Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah (TMKOC), which, through follies and achievements of its characters, often projects social messages on issues like swachhata, online fraud, child labour, adoption, girl education, inter-caste marriages, stay-at-home parent, adolescence, etc. The serial projects so many social messages that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has mentioned it many times in his public speeches, and has even chosen the serial as an ambassador for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan!
So much so for the good, now for the bad. TMKOC has numerous characters based on ideas of Padma Shri recipient Gujarati author Taarak Mehta who wrote the column Duniya Ne Undha Chasma. The place where they live is called Gokuldham Society, and the residents themselves call it a ‘Mini India’ as there are two Gujarati families, one from Uttar Pradesh, one Marathi family, one is a mixture of a Tamil and a Bengali while another is a mixture of a Sikh and a Parsi. They all speak a common language, as the serial is a Hindi one, but sometimes a Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil, Bengali, or Gurmukhi one-liner is added to make the situation humorous. But the characters are stereotyped to the very core. Though the narrator is a fictionalized version of Taarak Mehta himself, the lead character is a Gujarati businessman Jethalal Gada, who is shown as shrewd even though he has not even passed high school, and who does not know any English. His wife is also shown as an intelligent but illiterate woman. The Bengali-Tamil couple is stereotyped to the highest possible extent. The Tamil husband is a space research scientist who designs spaceships for India, but he does not know proper Hindi, due to which the others often make fun of him. Thus, one of the recurring storylines is the language problem – when some of the characters do not understand what the others are saying. The Marathi couple is shown as thrifty while the Sikh husband of the Parsi lady is shown as a drunkard or one who enjoys drinking anytime, anywhere!
Take another example. Though people might have enjoyed the hilarious movie 3 Idiots starring Aamir Khan, there is a racist undertone in it. The Tamil student (Chatur Ramalingam) from Uganda is shown as not knowing any Hindi at all, which leads to funny situations, while the lead character is a ‘Gujju’, whose lady love says ‘Yuck’ to his surname and refuses to take it after their marriage (also later when he is actually found to be a Ladakhi, not a Gujarati). While she also says she finds Gujarati boys ‘very cute’, the names of their dishes ‘sound like missiles’.
If one digresses a little bit and goes back to Delhi 10 years back, yours truly’s surname often led people to mistake the writer for a Bengali, though one is actually a ‘Khar-khuwa Asomiya’. This often led to funny situations. People later were fascinated to learn more about the ‘remote Northeast’ – whether the region actually had trains, do people here eat raw meat, do people eat ants and other insects, and someone was shocked to learn that here people can go from Guwahati to Shillong on a taxi booked from our very own Paltan Bazar! A lady colleague from Dibrugarh was asked whether rhinos roamed around in her backyard. Even at the place where I stayed, people were curious to know more about the Northeast: Do most of us come to buy clothes in Delhi?
Now, as water flows down the bridge, one has realized that many of the queries about the ‘exotic’ people from the Northeast were probably due to ignorance about the region, which holds true even for us. How many people from the Northeast can claim to know about Tamil or Malayali poets, or traditional Marathi or Gujarati food or their historical significance?
We have often observed people in Assam showing dislike for people from the other north-eastern States. Now, if we cannot restrain ourselves from calling our fellow north-easterners with a derogatory term, do we have the right to question when we are racially targeted by people from other races outside Assam?