So I woke up a week back to find that the R-word was doing the rounds. You know, the one that kind of rhymes with ‘escapism’. An American humorist did what a lot of humorists seem to do these days -- turn a stream-of-consciousness blend of reminiscence, observation and cliché into something that he hoped would be funny. As an essay, it was hardly Bacon. As humour, it was undercooked. But was it racism? It skirts the borderline between mocking and perpetuating stereotypes . It’s a muddle and to a large extent it received the muddled responses it deserves.
Most commentators have taken a few standard routes: take Joel Stein to task for an article that was insensitive at best, offensive at worst, point out that racism is an equal-opportunity sport that Indians indulge in too, or claim there was no racism and this was just another tantrum thrown by the PC brigade. These responses miss the point.
What is the point? I think the issue is a more fundamental one that relates to how we as human beings adapt to the realities of our world. An interesting slogan did the rounds some years ago: ‘This is Bangalore. No Kannada only English.’ While making one wonder about the mindset that framed a slogan which managed to negate itself so thoroughly, it showed that xenophobia doesn’t just operate across racial lines. Most of the people speaking English in Bangalore are from the same community as the sloganeer if not the same country.
Another slogan that I remember is ‘Bangalore is full. Go home’. It’s an egalitarian slogan, applicable to people from Adelaide, Atlantic City or Ahmedabad. To my shame and remorse, I once raised it myself, late one night in my lamented twenties when a group of western tourists wanted to enter an already packed establishment on Rest House Road that I used to patronize. I wasn’t being racist – I have nothing against westerners. I gleefully claim the best of their art, literature and music as a part of my universal human heritage while being equally comfortable with using a language and mode of dress that was originated in points westward. But at that moment, this particular group of westerners wanted to enter what I perceived as my space and that made them the enemy.
But was it really my space? If anyone, it belonged to the landlord and he obviously had no problem with admitting any paying customer who observed a modicum of good behavior. And did they really change it? Maybe a little, but places change. The Bangalore I used to know has changed for ever, if not for better and most of those changes were engineered by my fellow Indians. Change happens, and the thing is that it’s happening faster and more thoroughly than ever before in human history. This makes us disoriented, and disoriented people can get punchy. There are a lot of people who feel left behind by changes they didn’t anticipate and lash out at someone, anyone who might be to blame. It’s probably too late to decelerate the rate of change, so it may be time for us to start redefining our concepts. I believe that we tend to cling to a lot of 19th-century concepts that had a lot of utility at one time, but are now counterproductive if not actively destructive. And that might just include our definitions of race, place and identity. Perhaps the world is too small to sustain these artifices anymore. It’s worth thinking about.
A slightly edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Herald on 18th July, 2009.