January 2014: Probing pigeonholing from my experience as an educated urban Indian.
I'm brown skinned, and that, along with my features and fusion dressing style clearly mark me as being from the Indian subcontinent. I travel to the ‘First World' a fair bit, and spend a lot of time in Australia, where most of my family live. More often than not, when I have conversations with locals there—on the street, at the post office, paying for groceries—a standard, unanimous response when I tell them that I'm only visiting, that I live in India is: "But your English is so good!"
I realise that this is not simply racism and arrogant Euro-/white-centricity—it is also curiosity and ignorance. Whatever it is, for the longest time, I didn't know whether to be all WTFed about it, or simply amused at their ignorance. And I certainly didn't know how to react—was I to justify this with: "I studied literature/Worked with the BBC/Was a magazine editor" and/or "Where I come from, English speakers are the norm, honey"? How about: "Your English is not bad either." Or should I have mentioned Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth…? And then storm off (not!) or smile or be condescending? How does one react to racial stereotyping?
Holes for Pigeons & People
They say that every stereotype exists for a reason. Within India too, there are ‘typical' traits we attribute to people belonging to different communities—Gujaratis are wily and money-minded, as are the Baniyas; Punjabis are both passionate and obnoxious; Bengalis are intellectual but slothful; Goans are drunken, fun-loving buggers who don't do much work; the Christian community is often represented by a ‘Sandra from Bandra' (a suburb in Mumbai with a large Christian population) wearing a long, flowing skirt and speaking terrible Hindi. These typecasts exist in the mainstream and are readily caricatured in Bollywood films.
From the outside, for the most part, Indians—with our vast population, lack of homogenous culture and religion, and many realities—are hard to pigeonhole: we have and are everything and nothing. The macro India, and view of it, is a complicated hotchpotch of Slumdogs and Millionaires; Maharajas and sadhus and snake charmers; uneducated masses, cab drivers and revered IITians; The Party's Hrundi Bakshi and Shah Rukh Khan; dancing beauties and Bollywood; colour and kitsch. That we speak good-ish English (with Indianisms, of course) is just one of the things that surprises people abroad about many of us urban Indians. There are many others: we live in houses, not huts; don't go to school on elephants or horses; Chicken Tikka Masala is not our national dish (but is Britain's—it doesn't even exist here!); etc.
Perhaps some of the cultural stereotypes about us are justified. For instance, we are known for our lack of personal space, quick intimacy and intrusiveness, born of years of sardine-canning in local trains and living in overcrowded cities. Many years ago, as an 18-year-old, I befriended an older man on a long-distance train out of Washington. We spoke for hours, and I thought it time to ask him about the small pits on his face. "You know what," he said kindly, "I've had these on my skin since I was born. Only two strangers have ever asked me about them—and both of them have been Indian!" We also seem to have a complicated relationship with simple rules, like traffic and housing societies, given our colonial hangover, and jugaad (loosely translated as ‘find a fix') and chalta hai ('anything goes') way of life.
Then there's the label of being dirty. My beautiful aunt Alice, who has lived all over the world and is one of Asia's premier experts on cross-cultural communication, tells me of this incident with a real estate agent in Dubai when looking for a house to rent (on a generous budget, might I add). Discussing desirable neighbourhoods over the phone, the agent dissuaded ‘Alice from Australia' from living in an Indian locality. "You don't want to live with the dirty Indians," she said, not realising that Alice is brown and of Indian origin. Needless to say the face-to-face encounter didn't go very well!
And sloppy dressers, who wear Western clothes badly and don white sneakers with everything. Partly in response to this prejudice (and also because she likes looking her best) Alice is always impeccably turned out. When I first went abroad as a youngster, she told me how important it was to dress carefully, more so than I do (or did then) at home, lest I get typecast.
Anyway, somewhere, in all of these impressions, hides the individual.
On the surface, stereotypes are innocuous, busted or validated upon closer one-on-one interactions. A bit like star signs and horoscopes, we go ‘Aha' when the shoe fits, and put differences down to individual atypicality. In actual fact, though, stereotypes are insidious and very dangerous.
Stereotypes dehumanise people, making us make assumptions about them based on their colour, race, religion, gender, sexual preferences, whatever—lumping them together based on factors often not of their choosing. When you ascribe certain characteristics to whole groups of people, all is well as long as those characteristics are positive. The problem arises when you find faults with this group… Not all Muslims (and residents of Muslim nations) are radical terror-mongers, those from the Heart of Darkness are not all savages and dimwits, and women are not all less capable than men. In the dehumanisation through stereotypes, one can see roots of great injustices, of Orientalism and anti-Semitism, of the philosophies that have justified the perpetration of social inequality, persecution and oppression, wars and genocide. Shakespeare's Shylock's famous 'If you prick us' speech is an eloquent appeal against being stereotyped as a Jew... It also raises the point that one who is so labelled reacts to the labelling—in internalising and adopting the characteristics a member of his/her set is meant to have, or in going against the grain.
Every one of us is indoctrinated with stereotypes of some sort or the other from childhood, whether positive or negative, and it is important to revaluate these prisms as one grows. If one can see people as people sans prejudice, as individuals beyond their macro- and even microcosms, one will find these casts either reinforced or broken—but never a one-size-fits-all.
In believing that one's history determines who we are as individuals, stereotypes completely discount individual agency. Naval Officers' children do not end up being Naval Officers, (a Muslim) Salman Rushdie wrote Satanic Verses... Names, cultures, histories, families' religions come with prejudice that may just not apply to who we are! Like Zappa said: "You are what you is"—and people, everywhere, are all similar in that we are all different.
Bottom-line: the world is not a small-enough place yet. We are still so ignorant about other peoples and cultures—in India, all whites are assumed to be rich (which is why our building's security guard would hassle my American friend Jordyn for money, and none of our other friends). The solution is an open mind, knowledge, travel and an expanded worldview.
Me? I'm still looking for that sucker-punch answer to use the next time sometime tells me my "English is so good"!
This column appeared on 3QD in January 2014.