Thursday, September 24, 2009

A ‘race’ against time

It was a lazy Saturday at the Neemrana Fort-Palace. The slanting rays of the evening sun had set the ochre walls of the terrace restaurant ablaze. Table attendants in pink livery were strutting around with laden trays, their proud bearing tempered with the humility that is the hallmark of Indian hospitality. And across the table around which I was lounging with my friends sat two adorable little girls, their braided hair adorned with beads, one of them fiddling with a straw and the other was watching a movie on a small DVD player. Facing away from the table, but sitting right next to them sat a woman. Her curly locks were tied into a tight pony-tail and with her delicately chiseled features, that complexion borrowed from well-brewed coffee and with those almond-shaped eyes imperiously scanning the menu card, she looked rather arresting. I was intrigued.

Ever since I started travelling in earnest, I have always been intrigued by accents, features and other distinguishing characteristics that define races and cultures because it is this veneer of language and features that holds the key towards understanding the civilisations and the evolutionary history that has shaped today’s world. But those are details for another day. As for today, as I looked at the three of them, presumably a mother and her two children, I couldn’t help but try and guess what their nationality might be… their African heritage was unmistakable but their slight build and strikingly delicate features distinguished them from the rugged robustness of the West and the copper tinged high cheekbones of the South. Unmistakably Ethiopian, or perhaps Eritrean, I thought. Seemed logical but now I felt I just had to be sure. So egged on by that moment of Sherlockian deduction, I walked up to the trio and choosing a moment which I felt wasn’t too intrusive, popped the question… “Hi! I hope I’m not disturbing you but I couldn’t help wondering if you were from anywhere near the Horn of Africa… Ethiopia perhaps?” The woman looked away from her menu card and turned towards me but before she could choose to respond, a rich grainy voice whispered softly into my right ear, “… Does it really matter?” The owner of the voice was a man with a graying goatee and features similar to that of the three women. Ah, the man of the house… I turned and apologised… “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to offend anybody… was just curious…” At that point, the lady turned to speak… “Yes, we are from Ethiopia, but why does everybody want to know? Wherever we go, we are asked the same question ‘Where are you from? Which country?’ Really, why is that so important?” Gosh, I seemed to have stirred a hornet’s nest. “I’m sorry if I have offended you. It wasn’t my intention to disturb you… my question seems to have upset you but I was just being curious. Please excuse me…”

I turned to leave but the man pulled a chair and asked me to sit down. “No, no we are not upset. Just that this question chases us around at every step and after a point it does get to us… We’ve travelled all over Europe and Africa and nowhere else were we asked this question this often and yet random strangers who we might never meet again seem to want to know about our ethnicity…” “And you think it might have something to do with your colour… ?” I asked. Both of them nodded in a manner that said ‘we didn’t want to put it that way but since you’ve asked, yes, that’s what it is…’ For a brief moment I was mortified as I wondered if they felt the same way when I had walked up to them to ask the question but then I’ve asked the same of people of all shades and always received enthusiastic responses. Perhaps we were just a curious race and I told them so. “You know, when I go into remote villages in India I’m asked the same question at tea stalls and gas stations. We don’t mean any harm… it is just a cultural reaction to an exotic new presence.”

“That maybe so” the lady retorted “but we’ve been in India for four years, and Hindi thoda thoda nahin, bahut aata hai and when I walk down a street in Delhi, I know what people keep saying because they think I won’t understand but we do… and it hurts us because we had known a different India back home… the land of Gandhi, the land which itself struggled against colour discrimination by its colonial masters and fought against inequality with dignity and courage… and yet in this very same country the first sign that greeted us at the airport was one that said ‘Dark is beautiful’. Agreed, there is nothing wrong with that statement, but when a nation has to make such a public assertion on the issue it proves that the nation is guiltily aware of its own deep-set racial prejudices and colour complexes, for what does colour have to do with beauty anyway? But India is a great nation and in spite of certain issues we have had a great time here. We love the culture and its people and are aware of this nation’s potential and strength. If there are certain aspects of your culture that we can’t relate to, it is up to us to change because soon India is going to become so powerful that the world will have to change with India, not India with the world.”

I was shocked by the bitterness with which she spoke. She must have had some bad experiences. I tried to explain to her that there were many Indias within one India and that colour really doesn’t matter to a large section of the population but she came back at me with “Oh, you should read your matrimonial classifieds… you’ll know… and we went into a village in North India. Even today, there is a school there which has classrooms and wells by caste… even today…”

The exchange carried on in the same vein for a while but I realised that these guys were really hurting. I went back to my friends and told them about the conversation I just had. I was expecting them to get defensive and critical of the Ethiopians and their attitude but instead one of them, a professor with a university spoke of her experience with a group of exchange students from Nepal and Italy who were in Delhi recently. Everyday, the Italian girls had complained about the behaviour they had to contend with on the streets, but what was worse were the racial taunts that the Nepalese had to endure. And yet they had hoped that at least urban Delhi with all its promise would be more accommodating.

There is nothing new about this. In the wake of the attacks on Indians in Australia, various publications had carried accounts of home-grown racism. But what my recent interactions seemed to suggest was that while India has always had a lot to be proud of, today, India sits on the cusp of greatness. Her global aura in the past has been that of a spiritual leader. Her voice has been the voice of Gandhi and Vivekananda and the values that they stood for – peace, non-violence, righteousness and tolerance. But today India is finally growing into the giant she always was, but as she grows, so would her responsibilities. To the developing world she is a beacon of what is possible, spiritually and materially, and to the developed, an assurance that her greatness, because of her heritage, would not be tainted with hubris or indifference. And when we as Indians do not live up to the values that have defined us to the world for generations, we will end up disappointing all those who come to our shores. The world awaits our coronation and the onus is on us, whether we like it or not, whether rich or not, young or not, each one of us is an ambassador for our country and we are carrying the burden of global leadership on behalf of this great nation and I sincerely hope for the sake of generations to come that the world will remember us as much for our celebrated human and spiritual values as it will for our material and military might. And to that end we will need to do all we can to shed our prejudices and embrace the world, both within and without, with all its exotic differences. After all, what good is a leader who cannot accept or embrace all, no matter how diverse and dissimilar, who come seeking guidance, a helping hand or merely a warm friendly touch…? So here’s to great power, and a greater sense of responsibility. Amen!



  1. hello sir.. Great article !! I have been reading some of your articles lately...very interesting.
    Great work !!

    Dipti Ray
    (one of your ex-students from IIPM, not sure if you remember :)

  2. a very well written article...very expressive.