[ Fountain Ink, April 2014 ]
Thanks to the mid-night anti ‘drug’ and ‘prostitution’ activism by the erstwhile Delhi law minister Somnath Bharti, the Khidki Village in Delhi had suddenly shot into prominence in the subcontinent and beyond. Many from New Delhi and elsewhere, who had barely heard of this place, descended upon the area in the aftermath of the ‘racist vigilantism’, to see the ‘backward’ brown creatures that inhabit that area. They wanted to see the village that lives up to its ’village-ness’, tucked in one of the armpits of the ‘cosmopolitan’ NCR metropolis. The Khidki village is older than all the malls and multiplexes of the NCR, older than all the universities of ‘New Delhi’, older than the nation’s bequeathed capital ‘New Delhi’, older than the nation, older than the idea of the ‘national’ and for that matter older than the ‘idea of India’. For all its antiquity, yuppies who claim to have a thing for brown heritage would much rather live in some sector of Gurgaon or Noida. Who wants to live in ‘Khidki village’? You know how that sounds, especially the derogation with which names like Khidki village are taken.
Outsiders (the non-village kind) from New Delhi refer to it as an ‘urban village’ (the inhabitants simply call it their village). There is a certain hip-ness that comes with the ‘urban village’ tag as it prepares the ground for using the area as a creative arts canvas by hip folks whose dads wont allow their own ‘authorised’ neighbourhoods for similar ‘creative’ projects. Khidki village and its extension have yet not earned the ‘hip and cool’ tag associated with another similar largely ‘unauthorised’ village agglomerate in Delhi called Shahpur Jat. This one has excelled as a haunt of White foreigners and brown yuppies with disposable cash. ‘Creativity’, ‘experimentation’, ‘urban village’ – brochures are full of these terms, marking out a niche as a social calendar hotspots. The elite’s ‘art’ studios feeding on low rents and insecurity of ‘unauthorised colonies’ bloom here. The inequality helps stretch the urban canvas – creative ‘arts’ indeed.
But I digress. The residents – they live there. They call it home. They have been calling it home much before six other villages were destroyed to make way for what is the New Delhi of the Union of India. Some people have roots, live in communities and do ‘come into their own’ with the fashionable beam of ‘urban anomy’.
The Khidki extension episode about Aam Aadmi Party minister Somnath Bharti’s nocturnal activism over ‘drugs’ and ‘prostitution’ has made monsters-at-large out of the minister and the complaining people of Khidki village. In circles whose voice comes most alive in European jargon, this has been called the cheap politics of ‘othering’. Worse displays of animus against African people have happened through cases of outright violence and at least one instance of vilification by a Goa minister. ‘Liberal India’ has typically swung into damage control mode. This damage control has included round after round of sanctimonious condemnation of racism against African black people. Television media knows its constituency of self-congratulation well and has followed it up with various talk shows themed around various versions of the question ‘Are we racists?’ and has invariably concluded that some bad apples are. And have added ‘I love you’ notes to Nigerians, at the end of such shows. Such shows also discuss the racism faced by desis abroad. The racism that uppity NRI desis show in their promised land and many desis show in the subcontinent can only be matched by the alarm that raised when some relatively elite brown gets paid back in the same coin in some white land.
With upward mobility for a section of the metropolis janata and the Indian Union taking a ‘greater role’ at the world stage, more of these people have white friends and acquaintances than ever before. Just when elite desis and their known whites seemed to have reached non-racist nirvana – imagining themselves as part of some universal brotherhood of idea, commerce, commodity and romance exchange, the prejudiced desi hordes are letting this emancipated side down. This is the source of embarrassment. Not themselves, but those who share their skin colour and give the whole team a bad name. During the British Raj, this embarrassed class of browns was quite well known and did well for themselves by distinguishing themselves from the ‘uncivilised’ loathsome browns. The overall rising tide of anti-colonial sentiment made such embarrassment less fashionable for sometime. Post 1990s, the sharp rise in the petulance/anger of brown consumer elites with racism they face abroad is matched by their condemnation of racism at home. This is one real contribution of GDP growth and ‘international“10 ization’ of commodity markets. With India rising and shining alongside the white world, in malls and tourist destinations, commercial and academic engagements, and anti-colonialism being passé, the time is ripe for more public display of embarrassment. The audience for this is the white World and self-image the desi liberal has created for oneself and almost believes in. They would hate to be confused with other browns.
But then, talk is cheap. The backward browns have shown their true colour through explicit racism that makes liberal, our homegrown ‘world citizens’ shudder. But what about things that are implicit in patterns of behaviour? Those are harder to track down but when done, do say a whole lot about the people practicing it. Their own displaying prejudice explicitly can be called out for it and asked to change, or at least reassess, their positions. But what about those whose public lives are epitomes of ‘ultra-liberal’ posturing peppered with condemnation of the ‘backward’ while implicit in their behaviour are exactly the for which they publicly bad-mouth the ‘backward’ every day? When you have such a class lecturing the prejudiced at every opportunity, the result is a farce of a poor quality. The farce needs to be exposed for what it is – too many people enjoy excellent views from the moral high ground that they occupy undeservedly. Too many are condemning the ‘backward’ by standing on self-constructed pedestals.When we are all naked, and the ‘liberal’ gives up the pretension of wearing ‘ultra-fine’ clothes, we can start talking truth. We can have a dialogue. We can be embarrassed or not, for what we are – irrespective of whether white people are watching.
What constitutes the ‘world’ of the ‘world citizen’– the world is mentally, if not physically located in a temperate zone OECD white-Caucasian country, given that not much of the world fits that description, the extent of the mental world of the world citizen is not so big after all. It is hard to map out the mental world but some things can give us certain clues.
The ‘free choice’ that these brown ‘world-citizens’ in matters of marriage, romance and sex can be revealing. With increasing number of non-browns coming to the subcontinent and a correspondingly increasing number of browns going to ‘foreign’ countries, there are some foreign-brown marriages that happen. That’s all good. Now close your eyes and picture such a couple. There are many such ‘cute couples’ now. Note the colour of the ‘foreigner’ in the frame. Most likely, it is not someone African or Afro-American. The ‘cute’ or the ‘angelic’, sadly is from the same races whose mental worlds have shaped the world-view of the brown liberal – typically French of Anglo.
One in eight Americans are black. More than one in six are non-Whites (including Latinos, not including other browns). Now think of some people you may know or you may have heard of, who have married Americans. Normal human interaction without any colour prejudice or special colour affinity would have resulted in one in six such marriages being with non-Whites. Is that the case? Hell no. Is that the case even among those who would declare that in their post-racist world, love runs blind? Hell no. If you ask them individually, they would have said that their own White choice is ‘incidental’. It could have been someone black. Just that it hardly ever is. Their non-prejudiced ‘choice’ is so predictable, that it takes away all suspense. Many such individual choices hide behind the mask of politically correct speech. This closely parallels the marriage choices of the ‘I don’t believe in caste’ types. Individually, they would burn the sacred-thread (if a male) and/or denounce the ‘caste system’. Just that their life choices speak louder than their speeches and posturing. The cosmopolitan Savarna liberal usually leads a schizophrenic existence.
Let us come back to the subcontinent. Darker Africans have been coming to many parts of the subcontinent in recent years. A large number of them are students. ICCR has offered 900 specialised scholarships for students from African countries. There are more than 10,000 African students in the subcontinent and the largest chunk is in the institutions of NCR. Incidentally, African students consider Kochi, a city without the intellectual pretensions of New Delhi, very safe. There are thousands of Nigerians in the NCR. As for the students, we are talking of very meritorious ones, many of them studying in significant numbers in the NCR’s most premier institutions. But when it comes to campus-coupling of browns with foreigners (especially in vogue among liberal circles of elite institutions), whites rule the roost. The students from Africa may study advanced biology, Kathak dance, journalism, architecture, literature, history, sociology, urban planning, gender studies and many other things, but they are no match. I stress the liberal and elite bit, as these are the spaces from where the shrillest chants against racism typically come, along with pronouncements that they stand above differences of race, caste, colour and such things. For the ‘radical’ and ‘liberated’, neither the African nor the East Asian students do not forms a part of their desirable cohort, for purposes of campus romance or intimacy. Those from Manipur or Nagaland are also similarly excluded, always spoken on behalf of, by the predictable crowds. But when it comes to ‘desirability’ and ‘companionship’ as equals, other aliens matter. Whites win hands on. The white on campus will have an inordinately long line of droolers. Desirability is as much about how one’s views oneself as it is about the desirable one out there.
What is the source of such desire and skewed choices? Doesn’t it have something to do with fantasies tied with the awe that power evokes in certain minds? More often than not, it comes from a weak bond with one’s living environment, developing into a hatred of things associated with one’s own community. This journey away from the self is couched in the celebratory notion of ‘liberation’ – a journey involving progress towards a universal human ‘love-in’. That suits white Caucasians on campus very well, to find suddenly themselves in the enviable position of being able to punch way above their weight. It does not matter who approaches ‘first’ but the white in skin is acutely aware of his/her ‘market value’ in postcolonial lands, especially among the tribe of those with brown bodies with culturally illiterate, trying-hard-to-be-white minds. This state of thing makes it relatively easy for the gora who only has to show a little interest in things native and might even learn a native phrase or two. Before they can show that off, the coconut native is already trying to impress by showing off his/her acquaintance with all things white – their culture (pop and sophisticated), their stories, their sitcoms, their epistemologies, their myths, their histories, their nuances with some half-baked critique thrown in so as to avoid appearing too eager. Gone are the ‘politically correct’ measures of mutual compatibility based on mutual respect – otherwise the East Asian and black African students would not be so undesirable in romance and intimacy compared to Whites, even among the ‘thinking’ and ‘elite’ academic spaces, even among the ‘liberated’ and the ‘radical’? For these coconuts, of course the next best thing after a white body with a white mind is another fellow brown body with a white-mind. Certain kinds of urban agglomerations offer excellent refuges for browns to explore their mutually shared whiteness. They are also the elite – fatafat English, chain-café hangout types, even with browns of the same mother tongue.
The ex-colony is indeed an unfortunate thing. There is always a lingering infection at the head, because the vernacular non-elites could never quite take over and are on a retreat. Transfer of power happened so that the production of brown bodies with white minds could go on with locally produced grease. Not quite Macaulay. Way sophisticated. Way sordid. At least Macaulay’s children looked like buffoons to the rest of the browns and they themselves had few illusions of reciprocal equality with the whites. Now, the illusion of reciprocal equality with whites is strong. Alienated from their own communities, they need to maintain self-respect by these means. Due to their ubiquity in media and academia, they have an inordinate influence over the aspirational dreams of the masses. The new buffoons have indeed turned the joke on the people. It must be supreme irony that some of these ‘liberated’ browns will go on to lecture us other browns on agency, structures of power, media representation, feminism, politics of culture, indigeneity, even equality.
This holding of whites in high esteem is not peculiar to certain browns. Data from millions of users of the popular US dating website OKCupid suggests exactly the same (http://qz.com/149342/the-uncomfortable-racial-preferences-revealed-by-online-dating/). Disproportionately high (as in higher than what population percentages would suggest) desirability of whites as partners cuts across most non-white races, except African-Americans. The funny bit is that the data also reveals that this special desirability is not reciprocated by whites to any non-white group. One non-white person probably gets tantalizingly close to the origins of disproportionate desire by a description. The person talks about having grown up filled primarily with white narratives and depictions of white people and felt as if she was ‘in a movie’ when she was romancing a white. From the lists of ‘hottest actors’ to ‘sexiest actresses’, from fiction to philosophy, they cast a very deep shadow on the person’s mind that felt during intimate moments with the white partner that one was living a long-pregnant fantasy, as if it was a movie. The African-Americans, having to live with the reality of whiteness, as opposed to the nurtured fantasy about whiteness, have no illusions. They are confident enough to have a spine to hold them up straight without white crutches.
The ‘conservative’ in brown-land at least makes his/her mindset clear. They probably neither like the white nor the black. However, for the ‘liberal’, among the itinerant foreigners who come for study and pleasure, it is mostly the white that gets intimate attention, with others largely avoided. The ‘liberated’ typically talks his/her way out by jargonised hypocritical bluster. In fact, the observable action of black-avoidance being same, this bit dishonesty makes them a notch worse than the conservatives – and there is the rub. For the ‘enlightened’ and the ‘liberated’ are loathe to admit that they too are products of the ‘dominant’ worldview of white-worship. That in practice boils down to racial preference and that does not sound nice. The ‘liberated’ believes that dominant world-views only affect the ‘mindless’ hoi polloi. Facts show that they are not outside but inside the circle of dominance. Such stark demonstrations can be heart wrenching. Liberation warriors become quivering and petulant balls of self-defence, alarmed at the tug at the ground beneath their feet, the ground they had fashioned into a pedestal to preach others from. All kinds of desperate and verbose ego defences come up, aided by jargonized bluster.
Those who are busy condemning and vilifying the people of Khidki extension en masse stress that some of the residents who had gathered had even uttered the ‘N-word’. It was. The ‘N-word’ was also used to build brown-black solidarity against racism and anti-communist witch-hunt in the United States of America. One does not expect the yuppie anti-racists to have heard about the song ‘Negro bhai amar, Paul Robeson’ that Kamal Sarkar composed based on Najim Hikmet’s verses, a most popular song that the legendary folk-singer Hemango Biswas extensively sang. For that matter, the N-word vigilantes probably have not heard of Paul Robeson. For them, history started with 1991. One might add that the song inspired more people in the subcontinent to develop serious anti-racist views as well as a critique of the American state that newly-learned knee-jerk political correctness about ‘N-word’ and other White speech-forms can ever evoke. The particular charge that comes with the ‘N-word’ has a certain context. Ashis Nandy has repeatedly taught us one thing – to take people’s categories seriously. Grounded social and cultural literacy is not to be expected from those who think that only white people’s categories are the ones with meaning. A peculiar kind of browns whose cosmopolitanism almost always translates into a greater understanding of nuances and contexts of things from white lands than things back ‘home’ (the flittering class actually doesn’t like to be ‘tied down’ to the concept of ‘home’) possibly doesn’t realise the ridiculousness of charging the people of Khidki extension of using the ‘N-word’. Having gained adulthood by being consumers of Anglo-American public discourse and pop trivia, they often forget that their books, TV shows, webpages and magazines are part of their bubble-existence. To think that the bubble is the world may be fine for life and times in the bubble-urbania. The problem happens when they venture out into the real world and use their bubble-derived notions and categories to judge that. While being exquisitely literate about the ‘N-word’s horrendousness, they would not be able to name even 10 derogatory words used to refer to dalits in the subcontinent. This is no sign of enlightened purity or post-casteism or castelessness but the stench of super privilege by which everyday categories and realities have been shut out of their lives. Forever coddled, forever urban, forever ‘non-casteist’, forever offended by the N-word, neither can they name 10 dalit sub-groups (not that those who can pass the ‘name test’ are virtuous, but they are at least in touch with the structure they benefit from and have no illusions of innocence). Some of the disproportionate beneficiaries of a system can afford to not know the details of the victims. What is offensive is that these are kinds who are stomping all over the Khidki residents, with a righteous indignation. The browns are an unfortunate people. Those divorced from reality are the narrative-peddlers and the chroniclers of social tension and cultural flux of the browns. Sleek presentation in elite language and idiom, coupled with political correctness has helped many of the chroniclers go places.
The reality is, hundreds of African students stayed in the Khidki area. The same cannot be said of most ‘respectable’ yuppie locations of New Delhi, Noida and Gurgaon. Not every locality allows a ‘ghetto’ to develop. The curious bit is that areas without African ‘ghettos’ are typically places where the Khidki-haters like to live in. Whites get treated differently. May be they would have been treated differently at Khidki too. But wouldn’t those who criticize the Khidki residents while regularly lounging at ‘artistic’ cafes and other upscale hangout-with-whites-like-whites locales also treat them differently? The ‘backward’ Khidki-wallas do not hide their feelings. Khidki residents have not (yet) learned the language and style of appearing to be non-racist. The ‘backward’ often responds with equal alienation to black and white. Others who hide their selective alienation, having learned the language of not letting feelings and subjectivities publicly known, uses the ill-gotten pedestal to preach against racism.
The Khidki incident has given rise to many paeans to the ‘diversity’ of New Delhi and how the ‘othering’ of the black-Africans is a blot on its ‘cosmopolitan’ image. This ‘othering’ bit, a category dutifully imported from ‘Continental’ discourse, is a non-issue here. The problem is segregation. That is a broader issue than Africans. It is also about who is typically rounded up by the police when a car-lifting happens, or who is issued an ID card or is asked to register at the local police station because one happens to work as a domestic help in a upscale area. Just because these browns do not have an explicit skin-marker, does not make the treatment meted out them any different. However, all that is normal, even as youths from these posh homes have also added their voice against Khidki. It is not a simple blind spot. What are the predictable triggers of righteous indignation? Why does it typically parallel what would trigger indignation in a supposedly post-racist Euro-American society? Why are our daily segregations, born in the belly of our society, not similarly spectacular and newsworthy? The yardsticks of whose social realities have we borrowed to assess our own? What makes us chose among the segregations? What is the rank-order in our heads? From where did we import this hierarchy? By choosing to privilege one kind of segregation over another, which audience are we signaling to? Are all these audiences domestic? What does this tacitly self-congratulatory ‘anti-racism’ vis-à-vis the silence over daily seggregations tell us about our selves?