July 04, 2020
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Brownian Notions

The prejudice NRIs exhibit is more complex than what they face

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Brownian Notions
Prashant Panjiar
Brownian Notions
"Our women don't drive BMWs," the Gujarati mum told me some time back. Meaning they're supposed not to go for men who may be "Black, Muslim or White". And of the few who do slip? She thought that would be a family calamity of varying shades. Going out with a black man would bring shame, but with a white chap also some embarrassment. We like fairness in our species, not the whiteness of the other; there's such a world of difference between the two, a whole other language of being. Whiteness works best for an Indian when it informs a lighter shade of your own kind.

In home after home, the Indian in London loves to show off white friends, but never quite a white spouse. "Boab," the Patel will say, meaning Bob, who is of course white. There's nothing an Indian loves more than showing off an ease with white Brits, particularly in the presence of a visiting Indian from India. But he'd want for a daughter-in-law a fair Patel, not a white Brit. White in marriage is not quite a derailment, but it is off the approved track, which for a woman is to remain virgin until at 22 she marries her own sort of Indian with property, prospects and a BMW of the motoring kind.

For the Indian male, for an overwhelming most at any rate, white is for friendship—and sex. For the Indian male, to sleep with a white woman—do it to a white woman rather, speaking of the feel of it—is a mandatory conquest without which the migration experience is never complete. This is desire that carries a political thrust. A way of coming to terms with the richer, ruling world that has looked down on us, that we think still does; the sexual act feels like a happy and relatively quick correction of that imbalance. White sex legitimises the male in the world he has feared or held in awe; it's the invisible stamp on our inner passport.

Indians in the UK can be entirely unembarrassed or even unselfconscious in using racist language. "Dhoriyos" is what Gujaratis call white people. That doesn't exactly translate to 'white nigger', but it is only a lesser expression of contempt along the same lines. And blacks for the Gujaratis are 'kaaliyao', without the comparative neutrality of the word 'black' in English. The Punjabis who migrated over from East Africa call them 'nherey' (darkness). And still, there is no connection between accusing white people of racism towards Indians, and our own racism towards others.

Towards blacks especially. And from none more than the Indians who came to Britain from East Africa. Visiting Uganda, I was far from sorry to see Kampala Road in the heart of the capital reclaimed by local people, who became coolies to Indians the way the early Indian migrants came as coolies in Britain. Except that Britain made space for Indians to move on, and they did; the East African Indians wouldn't give black people space in their own land. Had Idi Amin not been so evidently insane, he might just be a sympathetic figure.

A reason to soften anger with fellow Indians over this can only be that black people are just as racist towards Indians. It's just that everyone says this sort of thing freely only among their own. I've never been racially abused in any upfront sort of way in Britain, but this is not to say that minds all around have been cleansed of colour, and views that fasten on to colour. But an Indian probably has less to fear by way of an attack from a white racist as from forms of exclusion from their own because the colour might not be light enough.

It's crude, bizarre even, to speak of people as bearers of some skin colour. It passes because all around so much of political and personal living is coloured by it. It has been a matter of some relief to me these years in England that I've never had to be a dark Indian woman looking for a husband. I suspect darkness would not stand between me and either a black man or a white man. With an Indian it would; she might never get as far as meeting the fellow. This is short of a statistical disaster yet because most Punjabis and Gujaratis, who between them are most Indians in Britain, sit around the middle shades of the "wheatish" complexion that the police in India use to describe every missing person. In Britain, miss those shades, and you might miss out on an Indian sort of life. Better then with someone less racist than Indian, which might mean almost everyone else.

(The writer is Outlook's London correspondent and has written Brideless in Wembley, a collection of non-fiction Indian stories set in Britain.)
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