when the bROwn gIRL meets the bLaCk gUy

I remember Wide Eyed And Beautiful once spoke about her experience of seeing a Black man for the first time, in a television interview. I was so amused at the time; typical case of ‘White privilege meets another category of Human’, I thought. While engaging with race and Black issues I simply seem to have put myself in the same slot. You Black, me Brown, Whiteys see us as shades of the same colour.

The other day while in the bus, the guy behind me woke me up from my reverie to ask if I knew which stop he should get off at. I grudgingly took off my headphones; I was in no mood to have a conversation. I didn’t know where he should get off, but I knew it had to be after my stop so I murmured incoherently along those lines and put my headphones back on. But once disturbed there was no going back, so I began a new story for my daydream. I began to imagine that the guy sitting behind me was Nigerian. Nigeria holds a special space in my fantasy land. Stories of the country from my favourite author had coloured my mind with chin-chin and rice and garri. I could smell Nsukka and dreamt of the university in Lagos. Often I’d find myself trying to hum the ’n’ in Nsukka. If this guy sitting behind me was Nigerian, all of those technicolour dreams could come alive. He’d say haba! and I’d say Kedu to greet him.

As I got up from my seat to get off the bus, he tapped me on my shoulder again, a lot more frantic this time and asked what he should do and where he should get off. As I started explaining that I didn’t really know, he told me where he lived and I realised he had to get off with me. I told him so, much to his relief. Of course, once out of the bus and out of my daydream, I simply put my headphones back on and prepared to walk ahead when he started making conversation.

He presumed I was from India and when I asked him where he was from…well you know what’s coming next. Haba. A Nigerian boy in flesh and blood. The reality of it made it seem completely unreal. You see, up until then Nigeria was a made-up land in a book, the characters fictitious and the brand of human being itself fictitious. I did not expect my fantasy to become reality and when it did I was terribly unprepared for the tastes and smells and sights I’d never experienced before. What was in front of me was not the love interest of my favourite protagonist in a novel. It was a Black guy.

Not the first time I had met a Black man. The first was also an encounter along the same lines, in an alien place and I was caught unawares. The guy took my number and I promptly went on to block his number. Now walking back with this man, I did the same. His offer of friendship and immediately asking for my number made me stutter and stammer and I gave it to him, when I didn’t want to at all. Now I had to seriously rethink what the problem was. Was it just that I was not used to strange men being that forward with me? If a guy from India had asked for my number immediately, I think I’d simply walk away and think the guy was a creep.

But no, there was something else about the discomfort this man caused when I was with him. I thought about my brief fantasies of endless conversations about Lagos(he was from Lagos,can you believe it) and suddenly I couldn’t picture it. Was I able to picture prospective romance only when the man was a blurry dark image and maybe I couldn’t actually see myself with an African?

I thought about all those novels I’d read. White men and White women… at the most it was Indian men and women. This Nigerian author gave me the first romance novel I truly loved that had Black men and women in it and I loved it. But at the end of the day it hadn’t taken away from the fact that however dark the brown on my skin was, Black was a shade darker and a world away. Has the deeply ingrained colourism and racism in India got the better of me or is it that years of reading books and watching television had never looked at the possibility of romance between a Brown girl and Black guy?man and woman anupam sud

When I spoke to a friend of mine about Grey Coat And Garri, she asked me to be careful. About what, I asked; “ You know they’re not the same, they’re aggressive and you don’t know what they may be capable of.”  It wasn’t just bad Hollywood movies that had informed her opinion of Black men, it was an acknowledged racism in India about Black exchange students taking over the neighbourhood with drugs and armed gangs. It reminded me of a conversation I had with my sister about how distraught my parents would be if I came back with a White boyfriend. “You know what would be worse? If you came back with a Black guy!”

***

The Nigerian author I love says something in her novel about the solution to racism: “…real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved”. The Brown Indian girl has been raised to keep away from the Black man, just as any good White girl. What do you think Gandhi thought of the kaffirs anyway?

Here’s hoping I will eat fried plantain in Lagos one day without cringing.

***

And a good read: http://theodysseyonline.com/vassar/racism-and-romance/153067

hEr fInGer In hEr BeLLy bUtton

She was probably ten years old, about four feet tall and several meters away from her father who sells balloons on the street. Her mother, further away, carrying an infant in her arms, asks for alms. The girl is busy too, pulling the sleeves of fashionable college kids who get uncomfortably embarrassed. They laugh, she persists, they give in. She walks to her father with a coin in her pocket, scratching her head with one hand, and a finger in her belly button. Her hands slowly move in a circular motion, rubbing her bare malnourished stomach. She sees another victim, but this time, something on the broken pavement distracts her. She picks it up, and looks at the world through it. She can’t see much, irritated and annoyed, she throws it against the ground it came from. The anger doesn’t stay for long; the poster on a beauty salon fascinates her. She takes tiny steps towards it, her eyes fixed on the poster. She quickly looks to the right and presses her face against the tinted glass, hoping to see the magic. She can’t see a thing. She moves a few steps to the left and does the same thing, and this time a step to the right, and now to the left, as though she is beginning to make sense of the trick. She stops, gives in and looks at the poster again. She’s extremely close this time, less afraid, more daring. She places her hands on the flawless face in the poster, and then brushes her dry muddy hair. Within a few seconds the hands move to the shiny blonde hair in the poster and down to her lips. They’re alive. She quickly touches hers and realises that there is something wrong. She folds her lips outward and is comforted by the red inside. She stops. She realises there is something wrong. She hits the face on the poster twice and walk off, her finger in her belly button.

OF thOse In mOURnIng

A deep disenchantment with academics seems to have set in. The last time I was sitting in a classroom, the entire world seemed to present itself to my abstract picking and blurred gaze. Countries and their internal conflicts were art forms I sought to master; theories and theorists I wore like branded clothes;film movements and television series dissected and analysed, each with a sticky note of political context. But I am tired of the various affectations of academia. Sitting in class with a globe in the middle,countries picked blindly and politics torn away from cultures by the blind,deaf and dumb has bored me thoroughly.

I am beginning to feel like I walk into class in a slow strut, brown skin and Indian accent, with a sash across my body that says ‘India’. China and Indonesia have their own too. Anytime we get mentioned, we sit up straight and smile and nod. We represent whole countries. I become a farmer with a family to feed on the verge of suicide thanks to Monsanto, I become Modi’s personal PR machinery, I become the nation languishing with an antiquated caste system, I have also supposedly suffered the terrible effects of inequality in income distribution. Everyday is a different role and a different representation. I am dreading the Swimsuit competition.

***

If you have just read a news article on Paris, do you have to write an angry article in rage about terrorism? Do you have to go for that candlelight vigil because a friend sent you a Fb invite?Do you have to claim you mourn every death in the world and casually throw in everything from Black slavery to Afghanistan? How can we possibly claim to understand the particulars of every conflict in the world, wax eloquent as experts on each of these “issues” when you might struggle to point out where it is on a well-marked map?

I have done a terrible injustice when I have written or spoken about these “issues” in the past. How can I write anything about an Afghani woman’s life, when I can’t even give her a name?

I don’t know what the coloured woman’s perspective is either. I have brown skin, but I haven’t ever experienced racism. I only have brown skin when I am in a sea of Whites.

***

Studying politics in the First World has reduced experiences to just this: slotting and categorisation of experiences in text book chapters, an ‘ism’ in each title. These theories that serve as rule books to explain the functioning of a world-system does little to situate humanity within it. Terrorism slips into critiques of neo-liberalism,occupations in postcolonialism, various trajectories of being a woman into feminism. Where are the people here?Where the lives? Where their different realities?

Meanwhile I sit in a class where Triumphs Of Brit Army says all of colonisation was not bad.

***

We’ve been raging about who we mourn, but who do you think gets to mourn? The blog does not support Youtube videos anymore, but here’s a little something:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVodbIi798w

OF angeR, FemIniSm and COLOURs OF the rAiNBoW

Someone once mentioned in a passing comment, that the Dalit movement in India is very different from the LGBTQ. One is about rage and anger,the other about celebration, the Pride March is full of colour and music and dance and the quintessential drugs and alcohol. The Dalit movement has its own music too, wonderful witty numbers by the likes of Sambhaji Bhagat and Sharat Chamar Nalingati. But the thing is, that while the Dalits might have a visible antagoniser held at a wary distance, the LGBTQ movement is not resentful of sympathisers outside the league. But this is not to say that they aren’t angry; their colours may seem celebratory but their language of protest is just as potent as that of the Dalit movement. In fact,I really don’t see how any issue, class struggle,caste oppression,feminism, anti-globalisation…how can any of this not be underlined by anger?

***

Over the years I have realised how overtly political I am, often I choose to believe I can titter about offensive stereotypes or dismiss a sexual comment, but you know what?I can’t. In college or outside of it, the friends I was with and the people I worked with, all deeply involved with socio-political issues, well-read and intelligent, but the conversations were never distanced from that sense of anger. So when I walked into my Feminist Society meeting at uni, I was vaguely amused by what I thought drove feminists in the first place:righteous anger about deeply disturbing inequality and injustice. Now do not get me wrong, I am not talking about resentment here, I am talking about anger. Here were a group of women and men, eager to help and excited about feminism, but can put up a powerpoint presentation on running a campaign against sexual assault and violence and smile through it all.claudiosouzapintobycatherinelarose56

A conversation with Homie from Home the other day and we realised this lack of anger and protest was explicit here. Everyone was polite, they stood in their long queues, got up for an elderly person in a crowded bus, said their thank you and their sorrys, and never posed a sense of threat to your personal space. Students in a Politics class did their readings,made powerpoint presentations everyday, spoke about Marxism and development issues, wars fought and won, recession and a breakdown of world order, all without ever getting into a heated debate! I didn’t even know you could speak about Marxism without a loud tug and jolt between opposing sides of the debate. Rallies and protests are happening in London even as I write this, some distinct shouting of slogans, against maintenance fee, higher education tuition fee, things that matter, but do they sit around and plan protests by sending out friendly requests? Baking cookies and samosas so people might sign petitions? How odd. Homie from Home says, it’s because they have nothing to aspire to, even with austerity measures and what not,they believe they can lead fairly comfortable lives and have never felt any great instability in their lives to shock them into feeling a deep sense of resistance.

Are there any angry First World activists out there who’d like to tell me about their own brand of anger?

Meanwhile I shall go back to wondering how a friend could take a Marketing class while learning Politics, so she can get a job and make some money.

mInd yOUR LangUage

In my first week at the Uni, I met several international students.Italy,Greece,Palestine,China,Armenia…all lost, fragmented in their identities, desperately in search of fellow countrymen and all feeling completely inadequate while expressing themselves. They would sit through numerous orientations, trying to glean some information, while White people in suit and tie,with flashy powerpoints would tell them what they should and shouldn’t do. They would come out, flustered and frustrated because they hadn’t understood a word of it. The Italian must have assumed she spoke fluent English back home, the Greek must have revelled in his writing skills. Then they come here to find that it was all a sham, the trouble they had gone through for years honing and correcting their accent was all for naught! Their high school English teacher was a fraud. They even have to go through a gruelling 3 hour language test, where they might excel in writing and reading but fail miserably in listening because this was not the same language they had learnt.

Meanwhile I get an exemption from the test, can chatter away in English and figure out the forms they have to fill and phone settings and bus passes. To them, I am clever merely because of my grasp of the language. I laugh as someone asks if people in India speak english, I smile graciously when they compliment my accent and vocabulary, I generously acquiesce to help them ‘figure things out’ while explaining that I have been speaking English since I was 2. My language is a validation certificate to be bandied about here to gain acknowledgment, to surpass the brown on my skin,to use well while avoiding the twang in my accent and common Indian slang.

 As a classmate explains how arduous she find the readings and how she sometimes has to find online translations of academic terms, I wonder if I might seem half as smart without being able to speak fluent English. The various affectations of my language in India, sprinkled with different regional languages gave authenticity to my ideas that atleast politically, were intrinsically Indian. The English I speak here  though, has a tendency of sounding like an outsider’s perspective even when I talk about India; atleast to my own ears. How then does a Thai student go through the process of translating her thoughts before being able to say it out loud and then have people not understand it? The very process of translation has diluted her idea and she is aware of it even as she forms the words. All meaning is lost. 

Who knows if the Over The Moon can wax eloquent on how the West refuses to see anything more to China other than perceiving them as a threat? Who knows if Just Punk Not Japanese can make long passionate speeches about politics in music?And I will never know if my very thought process would be different if I didn’t think in English.

Of stUdyIng pOLItICs In the FiRst wORLd

 It was frustrating doing my Bachelor’s in a private university in India and talking about politics. You cannot talk about things like poverty, caste system or even the functioning of governance in rural areas because almost everyone in the class is middle class/upper middle class and don’t even know what a village is might look like. There was an especially ridiculous moment when while trying to develop a campaign to get people in rural areas to drink only pasteurized milk, the lot of us in class made up fantastic ideas of what rural India looked like and how we could influence people we didn’t know a thing about.

So what do I do? I look for a bigger world, a diverse background. Hey I can’t get into a govt college in India, I’ll go to another continent and see what the world looks like from their perspective. Spend a fortune and a great amount of time applying to extremely streamlined  courses- the kind you don’t find in India. The first day in and it’s like a potluck of political and social backgrounds and everyone’s brought their own flavours on every conceivable topic. Neoliberalism, Marxism,Feminism,Postcolonialism, Aural and Visual Politics, the works! It’s quite the menu and everyone’s interested in one or all of them. The professors aren’t here to lecture, but merely prod and gently tug and push, you can say anything and everything is graciously acknowledged. Sounds like a veritable academic experience right?

But what do I talk about when in a class on Hip Hop and Politics, we travel from the US to UK to Canada and then just circle around those countries. How about when we can’t seem to move out of a Disney studio in Hollywood while discussing Visual Politics? Then there are those jerky rides through feminist movements during the Civil War or even the full ferry on NHS. No, it’s not like I have nothing to say about any of that, in fact I can wax eloquent on any of those topics. But what’s the point of the potluck when everyone only samples one dish? Are the rest there merely for show and colour?I could feign righteous anger about the NHS in crisis (talking neoliberalism) and the risks of privatising healthcare but er, farmer suicides/large scale displacement/ access to education and food and water in the rest of the world! And hey,this isn’t a ‘whose problem is bigger?’ thing,but whose problem do YOU think matters?

Looking back I realise even when I felt suffocated merely studying Indian politics in comparison to the West, I was atleast trying to expand my outlook. The world is a small place in the First World. China, Japan,Brazil,India,we appear on the menu as side dishes, to complement the main course,but can never be the subject matter as a standalone.

And as far as Aural Politics goes, how about this 

FeelIng bROwn…heAvenly hOney/CaRAmeL

brown skin

For years in primary school, the ‘skin colour’ crayon bothered me endlessly.I have never made a drawing of myself. Or whenever I did, I never gave my skin any colour. I drew it in stark black outlines on a white piece of paper, large eyes coated with black eyelashes. My skin colour most certainly wasn’t that pink toned white of the ‘skin colour’ crayon, I could tensely finger the brown one, but I couldn’t openly acknowledge I had dark skin, because i knew my friends would only reiterate it. The dark skin on my hands that I constantly hid, sometimes turning my hand palm-up to reveal the lighter shade of skin. In a thriving market of Fair and Lovelys my skin colour was a constant bother as a child. I grew up and out of being bothered about my dark skin however, and I never could draw anyway, so out went the offensive packs of crayons. For years together I hadn’t felt the brown on my skin until it brushed against a sea of whites.

How do you feel the brown on your skin burning like it’s been caught aflame? You’ll see it in the blue eyes against white skin on a bus driver who will take a closer look at your bus pass, the lady at the supermarket who will look into your wallet as you fumble with foreign currency, the flight attendant who will look through you when you ask for help. Sometimes you don’t just feel the brown, but you feel your dark hair pressing into your scalp, you feel brown eyes struggling to lock into blue ones,you feel every dark shadow and pimple and freckle, even your clothes lugged across a continent forcing you to be aware of your difference. When was the last time I felt brown? I felt brown when a girl in college said I looked pretty, my immediate shrug of dismissal made her compassionately tell me that I shouldn’t feel ugly simply because I was dark. It was possible for me to look beautiful even with my skin colour. It was easy for me to dismiss the girl then, her pettiness was just that, petty and parochial, a girl from a small town who didn’t know any better. A few big words in free-flowing English was all I needed to satisfy my own petty vengefulness. But when you are conditioned into believing in the superiority of the White race(wait, White skin) you feel remarkably small when the brown burns into you. My comfortable upbringing, excessive lifestyle, and anything else that made me feel confident and secure back home didn’t matter to those blue eyes. To them, I was something out of the covers of a Nat Geo magazine, both pitied and feared and disliked for my brown skin and foreign features. I wasn’t how people looked like, I was how the poor people from war-torn countries, littered with beggars, famine and hunger, people who didn’t speak English and were grateful to be in their country of plenty looked like.

Did the lady at the supermarket make her kids finish the food on their plates that evening telling them how the brown girl at the store fumbled about with a small bag of groceries and a nearly empty wallet? Racism is prevalent in more than just violence and exclusion and a denial of rights and opportunities, it is in the ‘gaze’, the gaze that burns your skin colour into your flesh. It is in the pity, the benevolence and the innate suspiciousness of the ‘gaze.’

OF meetIng IndIans OUtSIDe OF IndIa

Consider being in your first week in University in an alien country, where everything is pale and cold, strange and new, would you run away or toward a trace of anything familiar?

Rice and dal feel like a treat,long conversations with your parents become the highlight of your day and you have nightmares where you frantically calculate currency conversions. Walking around the city with a Greek and Italian for a week, who ran to speak with anyone who looked like they might be from their home country, it was always amusing to see how I turned my head whenever I saw brown skin. It is pretty much the same routine i followed back home when I saw someone I knew on the street; I’d turn my head around, fall ten steps behind them or make a quick escape through the nearest exit. Here, making eye contact with any Indian meant potential conversation,exchange of numbers and being added to WhatsApp groups called ‘Thani naadan’ and ‘Desi dopeheads’. you make me feel this small

You’d think that missing all things Indian would make me want to be with fellow ‘desi dopeheads’, but what really happens is that it serves as depressing reminders of how painfully different one Indian is from another. Like my Greek friend, my face does not light up when someone speaks in my language, when I meet an Indian , I speak in english and not ‘Indian’, unless of course, I choose to speak in Hindi.

Let me give you an example of what speaking ‘Indian’ here, really sounds like. Over two smokes and 5 minutes of ‘where are you from’ and ‘what course are you doing’ the conversation effortlessly slides into ‘what is your surname’ and ‘what caste are you’. This is a relatively smooth transition,believe me. It goes from casually mentioning and mutually agreeing on our food woes and suggestively asking if you happen to eat meat. This unquestionably warrants some prodding into religion, which finally leads to where the talk really begins, the caste question. My open jawed amazement at her pointed question about my surname, didn’t get any better when I flatly refused to tell her what it is. This simply prompted her to ask me if I was a ‘baniya’ (she sort of looked hopeful), it’s okay, I could tell her if it was any worse. Now, in all my life I do not remember where 5 minutes into introducing myself to someone they asked me what my caste is or everyone in the group exchanged caste and religious identities before asking for each other’s names.

At a debate on the topic, ‘What nationalism really means and why it is important for India’, I remember a professor talking about feeling a sense of home when in a new country, you see underwear hanging on a clothesline in broad daylight and you know it’s an Indian. Well, when I left India’s fiercely growing nationalist spirit behind with a sense of relief, I think I might have carried a whiff of it on me, because it sure did stink when I spent 10 minutes speaking ‘Indian’ with fellow Indians here.

i DON’t Know WHAt thE NatiONAL AntheM MEans

How many  of you Indians out there know what the lyrics of the national anthem means?(yes, hurry and Google it!)I don’t understand a word of Bangla and yes, a long time ago I might have read the translation too but I don’t remember it at all. If someone said they didn’t know the national anthem, even a five year old kid, you’d gasp and the parents would keep that poor kid awake all night memorising the jumble of words that make no sense right? Okay so I know it and I can sing it, you can question my pronunciation, but it’s all there in essence. But I don’t understand it. Does that deserve a gasp too? Perhaps it would for people in monolingual countries. So we Indians are in an odd predicament indeed. A national anthem we stand up to and sing in perfect harmony even if it is in a Karan Johar movie, in a language most of us don’t understand, still feeling patriotic(whatever that emotion might be- is patriotism an emotion?). How is music connected to language then?k3g national anthemWe learn language through associations, words that tally with an image in my head. A for apple means I see a shiny red apple in my head and hence I process the intonations of the word ‘apple’ as a logical word. A logical word- you know, when you play scrabble and you just know when someone is making up a word? That kind of thing. Which is why when we learn a new language, we translate immediately in our heads to an already established image of the new word in our mind, hence making this new jumble of words logical too. Sa se seb= A for apple= shiny red apple.

But the curious case of the national anthem is a jumble of words that have become all too familiar which correlates to no logical imagery in my head, but still makes sense because of the associative emotion. So what is this connect between language and music? How does it become a coherent whole?

National anthems have an aural politics of their own. Other than the performative aspect of it, which brings into question the ritualised motions of standing up, placing a palm on your chest, singing along, is a national anthem a genre of music in itself? The rhythm,the melody and tempo specifically designed to produce an emotion?

The idea of a national anthem is to consolidate a sense of community and solidarity, some articulate goals and others even suggest boundaries and landscape(Vindhya,Himachala,Yamuna… or And like a torrent rush, rebellious Scots we crush). How about those that produce fractures in the sense of community and a reluctance to associate to a nationhood- consider Germany’s troubled concept of the anthem. There is certainly a mixed politics to the creation and continued association with a national anthem.

Sunset

After five flights of stairs, she got to the terrace. The sunset was beautiful but before she could enjoy the view, she looked around to make sure she was alone. Then the tears came streaming down her face and she gave in. Five minutes later, she heard footsteps and put her mask back on. A small girl came running up with her mother running after her. ‘Stop running, you’ll fall!’, the mother yelled. She smiled at the kid and continued walking.

The mother smiled at her as she chased her daughter around; her daughter sure did keep her fit. ‘What’s your name?’, the mother asked. ‘I’m the girl in the black dress ‘, she said. ‘That’s a pretty mask you have on, I’d like you to see mine some day’, the mother said.