All this brouhaha over racial taunts directed at Andrew Symonds deserves a perspective. So let me tell you about something that happened not very long ago that changed my perspective on racism. I was watching a cricket match in a packed stadium in one of the world’s greatest cities. Sitting close to the boundary, I had a good view of the fielding side. After some overs, one of the fielders was sent to man the ropes right where I was sitting. As soon as the fielder reached the fence, some of the spectators started jumping and whooping like gibbons, and in a disgusting display of brazen racism, started taunting him for the colour of his skin. At the time, this cricketer was one of the brightest young stars in international cricket. His name: Vinod Kambli. And the city which embarrassed itself thus was not one full of ‘white’ Australians or ‘black’ West Indians but a city as proud of its inclusive heritage as it is of its modern cosmopolitan present – the city I call home – the city of New Delhi.
This was the early 90s, when South Africa was emerging from the shadow of apartheid and India, once herself a colony and a victim of racial discrimination, was at the forefront, leading the diplomatic battle for the rights of those oppressed for their colour. But the truth is that we are a far cry from the pluralistic society we pretend to be. With a double century in his third test, the flamboyant Kambli should’ve been treated like a star. Instead, all he was treated to were chants of ‘kalu!’ and ‘Kala Bandar!’. What is worse is that Kambli did not seem surprised. Perhaps he had come to expect this cruel treatment from his countrymen. At one point, when the heckling reached a crescendo, he turned back and looked at us, our eyes met and he smiled a sad smile. At that moment I was mortified. I felt terrible that he might think I was as much a party to this shameful picketing as the idiots around me and I was too young, too helpless to stop them. As he looked away, I turned and walked away from the stadium. It was the first time I had witnessed a man being insulted for his colour and it changed my perspective on our people.
Some years later, having applied for a visa to a country that had been plagued by illegal Indian immigrants, I was interviewed and asked a question that seemed to insinuate that being an Indian, I too was likely to stay back illegally. I might have read too much into a fairly regular question but it singed my soul and I restrained myself with great difficulty. That day, while walking out with the visa, I thought of Kambli again, for while I was fuming just because my integrity as a person and as an Indian had been questioned by a foreigner, how must poor Kambli have felt for being insulted thus in his own country, by his own people. And there’s more. Last year, I was on a bus that was going from Washington D.C. to New York and I struck up a conversation with the driver. After beating around Bush for a while, I asked Jacques, a Haitian American, if he ever faced discrimination in America. Jacques stunned me when he said that while there is a certain degree of discrimination between Anglo Saxons, Hispanics, African refugees and African Americans, the group that he faced the highest degree of racial putdowns from were Indians – not American Indians, but Indian-Americans. I shouldn’t’ve been surprised though and nor should Andrew Symonds be. I mean come on, we are a people who, going by the matrimonial columns and websites, don’t believe that the fair sex deserves a partner unless she really is ‘very fair’ and we are a people amongst whom I have seen grandparents discriminating between grandchildren on the basis of colour. We are racists. Period.
The film Chak De India illustrated yet another aspect of racial discrimination and cultural corruption when it highlighted the manner in which we treat Indians from the North East. I’ve had students from Nagaland and Mizoram who have recounted experiences which convinced me that if it had happened to me, I would’ve found it impossible to believe that this really is my country. Racial xenophobia and discrimination is an intrinsic part of our collective psyche and instead of brushing it under the carpet as the Indian media seeks to do, by pointing fingers at the admittedly far more often guilty Australians, we need to identify our cultural faultlines and rebuild the institutions that create them – our schools and our families.
The slip stream
Much about melanin
Sledging isn’t a new fad. It has always been a part of the ‘gentleman’s game’ and racial slurs too have occasionally raised their ugly heads. Of the various racial issues in cricket, a classic straw in the scrubs is that of Basil D’Oliviera who was an unfortunate victim of sporting conspiracies. A ‘coloured’ South African, he was barred from playing for his home nation. He migrated to England in 1960 and played for them after becoming a British citizen. Basil performed creditably for his adopted country, but discrimination shadowed him again when he was dropped from the squad touring South Africa because South African Prime Minister Vorster had made it clear that he was unwelcome. Injuries however forced his inclusion and Basil was offered money to make himself unavailable for the tour which eventually fell through and led to South Africa’s suspension from international sport.
In the world of sports, and most other arenas, for that matter, the only race that should matter is the one against time. Incidents like the one involving Symonds, Mc Grath’s apalling outburst in the West Indies, Lehman’s ugly words against Sri Lanka and Darrell Hair being prohibited from officiating should remain the exceptions that prove the rule.