‘It lurks in the shadows and keeps a low profile, but it is omnipresent’

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Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

Foreign tourists in India are an odd, racist lot. My 31-month-long sabbatical in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, has served to reinforce this belief.

In this timeless land, they seek nirvana, cheap tourism, cheaper drugs, enhanced spending power and (free of cost) adoration of the gora by the dark-skinned natives (in no particular order). To this timeless land, they carry a backpack stuffed full with backpackers’ favourite playthings. Among these, stored carefully right at the bottom of their packs — barely noticeable, disguised as ‘travel advisory’ — is Racism.

Considered largely obsolete since the Good Sikh said Khul ja Sim Sim to corporate deep-pockets in 1991, racism rears its ugly, multi-coloured head each time a firang interacts with an Indian, however briefly. It lurks in the shadows and keeps a low profile. It’s omnipresent, its presence merely a temper tantrum away.

The British left India in 1947. They left it battered, bruised, bleeding — still, from a million wounds, most of which now reek of fast-approaching amputation. But they left, for good. Before that, for centuries, however, a pantheon of colonial deities gorged on pieces of the Indian farmers’ coarse chapati.

When these lords and masters — the Dutch, the Portuguese, the French and the Britons — bloated from centuries of economic debauchery, called it a day, they did so with arrogance and violence.

And although the European colonial powers took their fair skins and unfair methods away from India, they left behind — by means of what scientists call ‘genetic make-up’ — a legacy of hate and hatred based on the colour of the skin.

We may laugh it off, make light of it, deny it or ignore it. But it is etched in stone (if that’s possible) in the DNA of both the hashish-aficionado hippie and of the slick East Coast moneybag, who visits the Himalayan town.

Racial intolerance is inherent in the casual snide — “You mean more black!” — thrown by a German woman at a local Manali girl. The latter had been cleaning a wood-fired oven, got soot all over and had mentioned how she’d turned all ‘black’ with the soot.

Racism is intrinsic to the expatriate Human Rights Professor from Austria who remarks that Indians should thank sanitary solutions companies because now they don’t have to fetch water from the nearest pond or lake before their morning ablutions. Racism is implicit in foreigners inviting an Indian couple I knew in Manali for a potluck-cum-satsang, where they were then charged for tea and snacks, despite — on request — taking along dessert enough for half-a-dozen grown persons.

After the failed revolt of 1857, the British ensured that prohibiting the ‘intermingling’ of East India Company officials and the natives became Her Majesty’s concern (William Dalrymple’s The White Mughals illustrates how rather well).

Quite like — in Victorian England and later in the colony of India — covering the ‘legs’ of tables in virginal white was meant to keep sensual thoughts away while eating!!! Bearing the heavy, hardwood cross of the White Man’s Burden, the British only ended up alienating Indians further. As Rudyard Kipling had rightly put it, “…And never the twain shall meet.”

After decades of trying to charm away the snake charmers and GPS-enabling the elephant god, India remains a land of clichés for the goras.

But in establishing the culpability of the fair-skinned, we may have overlooked the fact that Indians are racist too. To a nation notorious for its rigid, inviolable and violent caste hierarchy, may be this is just desserts.

 

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