Why we Indians have been called racist

Several readers have sent me a link to this article, “An African American explains why India is the most racist country in the world” and asked me to express my views. The article discusses how Indians are obsessed with skin colour and discriminate against people of darker skin. The article also progresses to discuss discrimination against people from the North East. Allegedly, Indians use terms such as “Blackie” and “Chinki” to describe certain physical attributes of fellow Indians.

There would always be agreement and disagreement on any subject, especially as sensitive as this one. A lot of people have been in the defensive mode, rejecting the author’s perspective and pointing out racial discrimination in other countries.

Having traveled extensively and having lived in the US, I feel that while racism against Indians could be diminishing around the globe, racism by Indians continues to be rampant. And this is why:

We Indians love to comment on people’s looks. We think it is our birth right. The age old wisdom “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” is not something we care to follow. We look at people. Dissect them from head to toe. Stare at them. And we are always happy to share our observations.

It starts with the birth of a baby. Yes, babies! While in the West, compliments such as “cute” and “precious” are showered upon new borns, in India the little person is also not spared from a specialized scrutiny of his / her color, facial features, weight and height! If the baby is dark but born to reasonably light-skinned parents, a whole genetic analysis is done of what could have gone wrong. Dark-skinned great grandparents are tracked down from the family tree to be blamed for such a mishap. Sometimes, the mother is questioned about what all she had been eating to have caused such unprecedented disaster in the family. A very fair cousin’s mother in law keeps regretting, what is the point of searching for a fair daughter- in- law when the granddaughter turned out to be dark?

As we grow up and start attending schools and colleges, there are nicknames given to most of us– Moti, Gappu, Chasmish, Blackie, Kali Maa, Chinki, Taklu, Ganje, Giraffe – I have heard and seen them all. Most teachers ignore such abusive behavior and the bullying continues. Teachers have more important things to worry about ofcourse – such as children’s grades. They only get involved when kids start beating each other up. Even parents do not find anything objectionable if their child indulges in such name-calling. They do not find it offensive at all, as they themselves may have such terms incorporated in their vocabulary.

I remember an incident when my friend’s daughter looked at an African lady in a restaurant and commented “Bhoot” (ghost). The parents told her not to point fingers, but also laughed at her ‘cuteness’. I told the kid that what she said was bad manners. She looked different from that lady too and what if the lady also called her bhoot just because she had never seen somebody who looked like her before? The parents were taken aback and told me not to get too serious and just let the child be and not ‘corrupt’ her innocence.

How is this innocence? Isn’t it ignorance? Shouldn’t we teach our children that this is wrong?

While traveling to other counties, I have noticed that people globally do not comment on a stranger’s looks, unless they have something nice to say. However, in India it is very common to meet people and within the first few minutes of the conversation, they have an opinion on how we look! People are quite vocal about their observations too! If you have a sibling of the same sex, people forget that you are not identical twins and that it should be perfectly normal that you both don’t look the same. They are amazed and absolutely HAVE to comment. It is like a spot the difference contest in a comic book. I have heard the following from people I have known for few minutes:

Your sister does not wear glasses. You must be watching too much TV that’s why you got it early.

You look bigger than your sister. Younger sisters are usually fatter and look older. Look at Karishma, Kareena.

Your parents are tall. How come you are so short?

Speaking of short, I remember an intelligent classmate in college whose height was much below average. The professor referred to him as “Chhotu”. Whenever he raised his hand to answer a question, the professor religiously joked that he could not see him. The boy decided not to participate in the class at all. What was the point of being smarter than most of the class when he would always remain shorter than most of them?

One time, my friend’s mother had come to pick her up from tuitions. Another friend who happened to be from Assam mentioned that her elder sister would be coming to pick her up. Aunty was curious to see what the elder sister looked like, so she stayed back, waiting for the girl to show up. The poor girl came not knowing what was in store for her. One glance at her, and Aunty remarked,

“You are much prettier. Your Didi (elder sister) looks Chinese.”

Just like that! A random and senseless remark!

In the US, commenting on women’s weight in office could potentially result in a lawsuit. In the Indian workplace, a woman gaining or losing weight could be a subject of long discussions over lunch / coffee. It is almost customary to comment on how married women put of weight, how some of them have managed to lose so soon after childbirth, and others have not. It is perfectly professional. Her weight is everybody’s business.

And God forbid, when it comes to marriage (especially arranged) it is okay to tell people that they are too ugly to get married. A daughter in law’s looks continues to be the topic of discussion and comparison for years to come, until the time that a new daughter in law enters the family to shift every body’s focus. I would not like to say that it is only women who are at the receiving end of the comments, because men get judged too.

A couple on a wedding stage is not just showered with flowers and blessings but a lot of criticism. It may be audible to them. Sometimes, we even say that it is not a match! Or something like love is blind (It is meant to be a compliment?). But it is okay. It is acceptable. It is not a big deal. We do not recognise that this is wrong. This could be a problem. This is not nice. As a society, we are used to it.

Why are we so offended with this article then? The point is not that other counties could be worse. The point is that we are like this. We judge people on their looks. We are insensitive and judgmental. And we do not wish to change.

Holi – Then and now..

Image source

When she was 7

Moni had got ready in an old worn out frock, the one that she invariably slipped into after returning from school every day until one day Maa said, “You are wearing the white and black polka dot dress one last time on Holi, after which it will be discarded.

The pain of parting with her favourite dress had not deterred her spirits though. There were too many things to look forward to that day. She had convinced Papa to buy her the biggest pichkari in the shop which was a 3 piece water-gun. Moni had been practising by filling it up with water and aiming at random objects in the house all week, much to everybody’s annoyance.

Finally, all the practising was to pay off. It was Holi!! Visitors had started pouring in. As she started flaunting her gun pichkari, aiming for her favourite cousin Sid Bhaiya, she was surprised that none of the other cousins had pichkaris. She was hoping to become a star by having the most fancy pichkari, not by being the only who had one!

Where is your pichkari, Bhaiya?

Pichkari? Small kids play with pichkari. I am playing with the growns-ups this time!

I am coming, Bhaiya, wait! I don’t play with pichkaris either! She dumped the gun and followed her cousin.

There were so many random people playing Holi at her house today! Seemed the whole town was here. The domestic helper Shambhu was filling up buckets from the handpump and adding colors to it. The eldest cousins were drenching each other directly from the pipes. Some silly kids were throwing water balloons at strangers from the roofs. By the end of the day, Moni looked at herself in the mirror, satisfied – She was a mix of red, green, yellow and blue from head to toe.

While the teachers narrated the legend of Hiranyakashyap, Holika and Prahlad to the students in school, the children seemed to be interested in creating legends of their own. The day after Holi in school used to be a testimony of who had more fun. Even though mothers struggled to scrub off colors off their children, some color still remained – behind the ears, on the neck, elbow.

Moni always took pride in being colorful till a week after Holi and the only girl in class who gave her competition was Aditi. But this time Aditi had played too much Holi and had fever. Moni was by far the dirtiest child in class, and the teacher wrote a note in her diary – asking her mother to have her cleaned up properly.

Moni did not give much thought to the moral of the story that she was taught year after year. Prahlad, the principled and righteous man that he was, would survive, and all attempts to destroy him by the evil king, Hiranyakashyap and Holika would become futile. Obviously, the victory of good would prevail over evil. It made sense, and it should be that way. She religiously believed what was taught in school..

Festivals were a time of immense excitement and happiness..

When she was 14

It was 11 am and visitors had started pouring in. Moni was annoyed. She did not understand why people still celebrate these silly festivals. She looked at herself in the mirror. This was the third pimple in five days. Her mother was calling her, the Holi special delicacies she prepared every year were ready. Moni had been thinking about food all morning. Not because she wanted to have it all, but because she could not! She was on a diet. She has been putting on weight consistently and had not been able to reduce any of it. Plus the pimples. Aghh! She must be the ugliest teenager in the world!

As she politely greeted the guests, a very excited Sharma aunty reached out to put abeer on her cheek.

Aunty, sorry I am allergic to colors, it’s not good for my skin, she held Sharma Aunty’s hand.

Just one dot Beta, nothing will happen!

Moni went to the washroom immediately to wash off the color.

Hope I don’t get any more pimples..

Festivals were a time she preferred to hide herself…

When she was 21

Moni updated her status on a social networking site on Ganesh Chaturthi:

Join me in the campaign for biodegradable idols for an environment friendly Eco Ganesha 2010!

Her status on Diwali read:

Say no to crackers. Let us come together to celebrate a pollution free Diwali this year!

And finally today:

Happy Holi to all my friends! Save water this Holi. Let nature keep playing its Holi forever on our earth.

Festivals should not give an excuse to people to behave irresponsibly.

Festivals were a time when Moni had a mission and a cause to support..

When she was 28

Moni checked her office calendar and booked tickets to go home for Holi. What did Holi mean to her?

A holiday! Getting a week off from work. Staying with mom and dad care free. Sleeping through the morning. Not having to get up to go to work. Not even to answer the door for the maid! And to go back to sleep during the afternoon. Maa would cook her favourite dishes.

One week away from away from takeaway foods, the daily responsibilities, the stress of work. From people not so genuine and true, from everything about the grown-up life as she knew it.

Festivals had a different meaning altogether now. It was a time spent and cherished with family. Being home was all that mattered. And to reflect on life since last Holi..

She thought of the story about the legend of Holi that she had heard all her life. The victory of good over evil. Did that really happen? Did good things always happen to good people? Did bad people necessarily suffer for their bad deeds? The reality and unfairness of life made her wonder otherwise…

The festivities remained the same. But the way she looked at them had changed over the years. So did her priorities and the meaning she sought from life..

But today, she wanted to be the 7 year old again, who believed in being good and the goodness of life no matter what. Unaffected by what was going around her – happy in her spirit.

She once again started believing that that the colors of this festival would indeed bring her a lot of happiness and joy.

And so it did…

Happy Women’s Day!!

I finally watched Neerja. I could not control my tears from the very first scene. A loving daughter, a doting sister, the lifeline of this family is woken up reluctantly by her mother to go to work. She is gone and the family gets to know that some trouble has come her way. They hope for the best. But God had other plans.

Throughout the movie, there are flashbacks of Neerja’s marriage. How she used to be humiliated by her husband – for being a model, for not being a good cook, for wanting to be in touch with her father regularly. Neerja’s husband had also written a letter to her father – insulting him on how a respectable father would never let his daughter be a model. On how he should not be talking to his own flesh and blood so frequently.

Why am I talking about all this and not about how she saved so many lives on the plane that day?

This woman had exceptional presence of mind. Most people would have panicked in this situation. She did not. Amidst that stress, she could think clearly and decide what was best for all. And finally, what a heart she had to take bullets protecting three unknown children?

How many of us would be able to do that?

She received awards for her bravery. We all salute her. She has become immortal because all parents are taking their children to watch the movie to show them how to be a strong woman. How to have courage in any situation. As her father rightly teaches her:

Never do anything wrong, never tolerate any injustice.”

What would have happened if Neerja stayed in that abusive marriage and tried to adjust? Everyday she would hear somebody tell her how incompetent and inadequate she is. How many flaws she has. How he is doing her a favour by being with her, and tolerating her. What would have happened to her self-esteem and her potential?

Have we all felt like that Neerja at some point? Where somebody has made us feel miserable about ourselves to the point where we have started believing it too? Is it worth taking it? Are we ever going to reach our true potential in life and become what we are meant to become, and achieve what we are capable of achieving if we continue to live with people / in situations that tarnish our self-respect and happiness every single day and moment?

We are all special, ladies. God has made us strong, compassionate and nurturing. Don’t let anybody / anything dampen your spirits. You are so much more than the world may perceive you to be!

Happy Women’s Day! Don’t settle for anything less than what you deserve! Let us choose to remove the negativity from our lives first. Our life and happiness will catch up!

Note:

I have not done any research on Neerja Bhanot. Whatever I have written above is based on the movie. I salute her and her family for raising a child who emerged as God that day, saving so many lives. May she be at peace wherever she is.

Ban on surrogacy in India

“Rhonda Wile and her husband Gerry struggled for years with infertility. With perseverance that shocked everyone around them, they tried every procedure and option available — unsuccessfully — until they finally decided to hire a surrogate. While surrogacy was being touted as a miracle for hopeful parents, for Rhonda and Gerry, it seemed an impossible and unaffordable dream. Until they came across the beaming smile of a beautiful Indian woman on the Internet. And, within a few short months, embarked on a journey that would take them deep into the emerging world of Indian carriers, international medical tourism, and the global surrogacy community.”

The desire to procreate is a very fundamental attribute of the human race. Unfortunately, many are denied the joy of parenthood due to several reasons, biological or otherwise. Developments in reproductive sciences and technologies have helped transcend the barriers to parenthood.

Surrogacy has evolved as a plausible mode of bringing a child into this world, for couples who cannot have children biologically. India, in particular has been an ideal destination in the recourse to surrogacy for foreign couples who crave for a child.

In an affidavit to the Supreme Court on Wednesday, the Government said that it “does not support commercial surrogacy. No foreigners can avail surrogacy services in India,” adding that surrogacy would be available “only for Indian couples”. I wish I understood this statement even slightly. Unfortunately, I don’t.

Surrogacy has been a means of earning large sums of money in a relatively short span, for women who would otherwise earn their livelihood from cooking or cleaning in others’ homes, or from selling vegetables or other random, unstable, odd jobs.

Mamta Sharma, 29, from Uttar Pradesh, has been a surrogate mother twice, most recently last year for an Australian couple.

“Everything has changed in my life with the money I got,” said the mother of four children who invested her earnings in a new house.

Seitha Thapa, recounts her experience of giving birth at the Surrogacy Centre India clinic in New Delhi last February, for a foreign couple:

“I wanted to be a surrogate mother because I wanted to deposit money into an account for my children for their future. I also wanted to help parents who cannot have children, I am proud to have given birth to a beautiful baby. The baby and parents are in my prayers forever. I feel like a part of the family,” said the mother of two teenagers aged 16 and 18, adding that the clinic gives courses that “prepare us mentally for the fact it’s not our baby“.

The proposed ban has come as a shock and disappointment to the surrogacy industry as well as prospective couples who had been considering the option. But would the industry still sustain itself despite becoming illegal?

“Our apprehension and fear is that the whole business will go underground,” said Manasi Mishra, who heads the research division at the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research, an organization that has published studies on surrogacy in India. “The bargaining capacity of the surrogate mother will further go down.”

The Indian Government has proposed to seek the above in an attempt to curb “exploitation” of women. With due respect to their intentions, I fail to understand, how is it an exploitation when an adult woman legally consents to carry a child for a couple in return for a monetary compensation?

Yes, I understand that there are legal, ethical, and emotional implications. And there have been instances of abandonment of the baby, health risks for the surrogate mother, citizenship issues of the child and underpayment of compensation amongst others.

But is proposing a ban the solution?

Should the government not try to regulate the industry instead and address proper implementation of surrogacy laws? The fact that it is only the foreign couples who would be denied surrogacy is even more discriminatory and confusing. If the purpose is to protect a woman from exploitation, what difference does it make to her whether the womb is being rented by an Indian or foreigner?

Speaking of exploitation, how many women in the country, poor or rich alike are married with the sole purpose of bearing a child? Everybody tells a man to find a “nice girl”, and settle down to start a family. At times, the same wife goes through multiple childbirths in an attempt to bear a male child, her consent being nobody’s concern.

In that process, she may have undergone multiple abortions as well, much to the destruction of her physical and mental health. And guess what, these women get paid nothing for the use of their womb! Isn’t that exploitation of a woman? However, nobody raised an objection because it is all under the ‘acceptable social realms of holy matrimony’.

But, when a woman is making a choice, knowing what she is getting into by carrying the child of another couple and getting compensated for it financially, she is getting exploited? The irony has made me speechless!


Originally published at akkarbakkar.com on October 29, 2015.