When I was in 2nd std, my dad took us all to Australia. That was my first encounter with white people. Many of them were nice and friendly and some were goodlooking too. My benchmate Mark was cute and he gave me a sweet to eat. So he is definitely one of the good guys. And Miss Mary was beautiful and sensible and extremely smart and kind. I was quite her young fan.
Then there was Jack something, a boy if Italian descent who called me blackie. I told him I was brown and he was colour blind. He used to ask me if I had blue blood and if I was an aboriginie. I always thought aboriginies were cool, but I wasn’t one, couldn’t he see? This guy was on the same walk home from school, so I saw him everyday. An annoyance.
Then my mom went to teacher’s training in Australia. So we had to go to a baby sitter. Her son always made us the Red Indian squaws, while he and his friends were the great white American settlers. Well this made me love all Red Indians or Native Americans as they are called now and I decided I would marry one when I grew up. They seemed better people than these white settlers any way. (I recently saw a movie called Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee and my sympathies are still with the Native Americans. On a sadder note, when I was bout 30 I did meet an actual native American in Detroit, where he worked as a janitor. He described the pathetic conditions of the ‘reservations’ and I did not have the heart (or time) to go and visit. And he did offer to marry me, so that I could get American citizenship and then divorce him after the legalities of immigration were through. But how could I explain my caste situation to him? And clearly he did not know what a big and complicated deal marriage is for Indian women. But I did give him lots of Indian money for his collection and I hope he still has some of the coins and notes).
The baby-sitter, dear old aunty Jones, gave me a lot of Santa Claus and apostle books for Christmas, and I had a brush with some of the more pleasant aspects of Christianity and attempts at saving my poor heathen soul. The nasty aspects were a teacher at school who told me that Rama and Krishna were stones and Hindus who worshipped them were idiots. I came home crying and complained to my dad. He wrote a letter to the school and I never had to sit in that awful, evil class again. I read that hurting someone with words causes as much pain as a punch between the ribs. That teacher should have been locked up for physically abusing a young child.
My dad told me the entire Ramayanam and Bhagavatham in our daily walks to our little locality park, my outraged feelings were assuaged, and I fell in love with them very deeply. I also decided that Christ was OK, but Christians who are out to convert you are definitely Not Ok. I still hold this view.
However we thought that Christmas presents, Easter Eggs and birthday parties were cool, so we enlarged our celebration list to include these festivals.
In India Again.
I liked Australia and did feel a little bad when it was time to come back to India in my 4th grade. By now, I had forgotten my mother tongue Telugu and spoke English with an Australian accent. My rural cousins laughed at my accent, my clothes and made the most distressing comments.
When I went back to my old school (Himamshu), I was backward in all Indian languages (Hindi and Kannada) and in Indian manners. My English had improved beyond all recognition though. There were many teachers who pampered and loved me and a few who thought I was insufferable. The class bully Sudhakar always got on my case calling me an Australian. The class duffer, forget his name, was assigned to my study group and he declared that he would rather fail than take help from a girl. But the smartest boy in class had a kind of crush on me, so that was OK.
We read a lot of history from Amar Chitra Katha and got very involved. My sister and I would frequently fight the British for independence – they were the bushes and we had sticks. Our favorite movie was Alluri Sita Rama Raju.
When I changed my school in 8th std, I never told anyone that I had ever left the country, and kept much of my life and feelings private. My high school days were happy, all I knew was that the different girls in my class spoke different languages. The girl who topped the class, Chitra E.L., said that she was smart because she was a Palghat Iyer. And that was it. I caught up with Indian languages Kannada, Hindi, Sanskrit and Telugu. I tried my hand at Tamil, and learnt the accent but not much language.
At this time my grandfather introduced me to the essence of Buddhist philosophy. Of the several Buddha images we had at that time, we still have one big one in our living room. What I understood and remember is that our past janmas give us strong impulses in this life time, but we do not have to act on them. We can decide for ourselves. Living rightly is far more important than worrying about God. Living rightly is the greatest and best adventure of all.
Then in my 11th std, my dad took us all to West Indies. I learnt about race from a black perspective this time. I learnt that Indians were called white devils in Nigeria as we were called blackies in Australia. I learnt that I was a ‘coolie’ chick. The blacks would call the Indians coolies, the Indians would call the black slaves. And any pure breed was considered better than any hybrid. There were creoles and dongras(?) and what have you. It shocked me that not all blacks were on our side. This was because when the slavery ended in the West Indies, the British brought Indian indentured labour over to Trinidad as cheap labour. By the way, I have heard the ‘cheap labour’ term applied to Indians by all races all over the world. It isn’t funny.
At school at lunch I had one Trinidadian Indian Muslim friend called Amina Mustafa, one Trinidadian Brahmin friend called Madhuri Maharaj (extremely nice girl), a Trinidadian black girl called Carol Wynn and I think another Carrol too and a Trinidadian Hindu girl called Aditi. A white girl called Rosemary Barnes was a nice friend who visited me at home and played shuttlecock with me at school. Camille was a wonderful girl with the genes of several European nations, Caribs and Africans too. She was very friendly, very pretty, very cultured and very talented playing a piano. My sister and I liked her very much. We also had plenty of Indian friends from many states and castes and realised how different ‘their India’ was from ours. There are one billion Indians and I think there are at least 1 million Indias. So when we tell foreigners about India and Indian customs, we are really talking about our region, our economic and professional class and our caste. We don’t even know each other really well.
However, there was a lot of political tension between the Trinidadian Indians and the Trinidadian blacks. The Indians there were playing population catch up and one lady with 22 children was publicly honoured when we were there. At the same time a Trinidadian Indian man was very disappointed when he learnt that my father had just two girls.
Inspite of all this, Trinidadian Indians preserved their religious and caste identities. Occasionally they would marry Indians from India, but this was often a disaster for the Indians. There was too much cultural difference. Some of these Indians complained that the Trinidadian Indians too materliastic. Truth be told, Madhuri Maharaj was far more traditional than I was. She used to say that though things in India had changed, memories of India in Trinidad had not changed and she was forced to confirm to those old memories.
Interesting hybrid customs also sprang up. You could see old Indian ladies in frocks, not sarees, but with an Odni! The temples there had church pew stlye chairs to sit on. In India, we sit on the floor in temples. I learnt beautiful Christian hymns at school as well as their national anthem which I sang with as much respect and feeling as I sing my own Jana Gana Mana. Only someone who loves themselves and their own culture can love others and their culture. I also learned what evangelists were and how to give them a miss.
When in Trinidad, my general knowledge teacher taught me what the apartheid conditions were like in South Africa. I felt very happy that India was against apartheid. I saw a TV serial called Roots, which depicted the history of black slavery in America. Abraham Lincoln became a personal hero to me, because of what he stood for.
There I had a white teacher called Mrs. Beckles who is the best chemistry teacher in the world in my experience. She used to wear a sleeveless short mini frock to school. And tell my classmates who were dreaming of boys, to acquire an education that would protect them from the horrors of a bad marriage. “When your man is giving you horrors and you can’t leave because of the children, then you will realise the value of a good education! ” Then I realised that clothes have nothing to do with a brilliant mind and a kind loving heart. Clothes are just custom and convenience, not morals as I was taught in my high school in India.
Back In Bangalore.
When we came back to India, I was surprised to see that some of Indian lecturers had prejudice against western clothes, that boys and girls were segregated in co-ed colleges and that some Indian girls went to parties and dated. See in India, even today, a corrupt official feels morally superior to a woman who has an affair. If you are a celibate and kill people in riots you are probably morally superior to a teenage girl who goes on a date. Like that and all that!
Talking to boys was a high end crime that I committed freely.. because I took part in all cultural activities at the college. But then many people were unsure about me.. I took the boys’ stair case if it was emptier than the girls’ stair case and I wore pants, rode a cycle, asked questions in class!!! .. the list is endless… I walked out on a preachy swamiji’s lecture at college who arrived in an ac car and started telling us that the youth did not know our tradition. I had already spent several years learning carnatic music, had studied the Bhagavad Gita, had studied Sanskrit for 4 years and knew all the scriptures and stories from my father and grandfather. I had also read the children’s bible! I wasn’t about to be talked down by a swamiji who had not yet renounced physical comfort.
Studying in Mysore.
Then I went to Mysore to study Engg. I learnt that I was a “Bomman” a distortion for Brahman and that my close friend Sumana hated Bommans (but liked me inspite of that). I learnt that Lingayats were very powerful and Vokkaligas were another powerful caste. I learnt that Manglorian Shetties (Tulu Bunts?) were very modern and that Coorgis called Chitranna – picture rice. I discovered that churches are peaceful when no one is there and sermons are to be avoided at all costs. Especially when they start criticising Hinduism. I learnt to fight in Kannada. I realised that I like Chinamayananda very much and I was surprised to see that a girl who spent so much time serving Bal Vihar, thought nothing of flirting with other people’s boyfriends.
I started reading the Upanishads and I liked them very much. I continued learning carnatic music. I went quite regularly to temples and Ramakrishna Math. I found a Kannada Brahmin boy that I wanted to marry, and we moved to Bombay after that.
Here I realised that I was a South Indian (all 4 states, languages castes and all lumped into one: Are there brahmins in south India? really? Telugu is Madrasi!) but that the locals were all Maharashtrians, who were not to be clubbed even with Gujarathis as say., West Indians. I was warned that Sindhis were not be trusted (`kill the Sindhi and then the snake…’) and found that my best, most respectful students were Sindhis. Other than that in Bombay no one pretty much cared who you were or what you did, except for telling you once in a way that Bombay was for Maharashtrians.
My In-Laws place, Bangalore
Here I was acutely made aware that I was a telugu and not a kannadiga and that telugu people had ruined the movie industry with the song and dance culture and that we had wierd food habits like pesarattu upma and that we did not respect husbands as they should be respected. I was also told that I was mistaken in considering myself a woman, because I did not know how to stick to my place.
The Software Corporate, Bangalore
In one company I found out that I was a non-Tamil. At the company where I worked you were a Tamil and therefore cool, or not one and therefore a non-person. There was also a Kannada group (or maybe it was just one Kannadiga) and they did not like me either. It was the Telugu group who came to my rescue and made friends with me, were warm and helped me out with stuff. I came to the conclusion that telugu people were very nice. I learnt a lot more regional stereotyping – malayalis are very good subordinates, but they did not stay subordinate very long, telugu people are great friends and managers but not very great subordinates. Then I found that the center manager who I idolised and respected was a tamilian and that the person who offered me a good break in an MNC was a Malayali. And the person who gave me two good career breaks in my life was a Tamil Christian. And of two closest friends that are still in touch with me from my corporate days one is a tamilian and another a Tulu kannadiga. And the gentleman who not only gave me good career breaks but also supported me during tough times was a telugu Kshatriya.
So what I finally learned was that there was groupism along various lines, but individual trust and friendship and professionalism did also strongly cut across those group barriers. You cannot do anything about people who hate you for being a Telugu or a brahmin or a woman or a black etc., but there are enough people who do not subscribe to that way of thinking. A pattern was beginning to emerge.
The software corporate, USA
I went to USA many times on work trips. On my first visit to Detroit, two white ladies Barbara and Jane (of my mother’s age) made friends with me. Jane gave me two winter coats, took me to her home, her son’s school, her church, an outing with her family and sent me home to India with presents for my son from her son. She even tried to set me up with a middle aged NRI who had such a low opinion of India as to make me want to shake him and avoid him. Then I realised that he had to keep telling himself why he was there and not here. Barbara and Jane introduced me to delicious middle eastern food and had me try on blonde wigs, to cure my desire to dye my hair blond. It worked for a decade or so. (Later when it was a fashion for Indian women to streak their hair with blonde colour, I did it too. It made me look to my traditional friends as if I had grayed early, so I never did it again.)
On another trip to a company in KY, I had a taste of boone town white racism, where they would stare if you tried to pay the electricity bill in saree, or call Indian boys Mexican Immigrants, or become a little colder and stand a little further if they found out you were an Indian. Black co-workers would tell me in the ladies room of some of their experiences with the umasked hostility in the eyes of the whites, which I too had seen. This was a far cry from Detroit. Added to this, there was such a large Indian team there, predominantly Bengali, that there was language groupism and company groupism again. One Bengali gentleman told me that I ought to take help only from South Indians and not expect any help from them. This period counts as one of the worst in my life.
The fun thing was when my brother-in-law who is Bengali came there to visit with my sister, towards the end of my trip. My family is a kind of integrated India, with my marrying a Kannadiga, some cousins and my sister marrying Bengalis, another cousin and one aunt marrying tamilians. One cousin married a Kayasth. And if you count the families that they are married to and so on, I think we have got most Indian states covered. And as a general rule the families that have married into ours are so nice, that it was a shock for me to see the regionalism that exists outside my extended family.
The general language of communication is English, except for my little niece who can suddenly lapse into French when she is tried sorely. You see, my sister’s family are now Canadian citizens with dual citizenship, who vacation in Paris, France. Several cousin branches are U.S. citizens. So a family gathering can take on all the flavours of a United Nations Assembly.
DEC, in Nashua, NH was an entirely different affair from KY. No one was after my immortal soul, or cared about what I wore. There was a colleague called David Sweeney, who practiced meditation and was far more centred than I was. I had a one hour corridor conversation with a bearded white gentleman about the Bhagavad Gita. And I was told by a white lady of Greek descent that I was not black, but a caucasian. I also met a black European lady (Dutch), who took a great interest in our culture. I gifted her several paintings, pictures and an Indian shawl when I left. My time in Digital enriched me in many ways. I also met some Britishers. An Englishman called Chris Brown who was very nice, and also an Irishman who was equally nice. My host manager, a WASP, told me that both Americans and Indians suffered under British rule. I told him that since Americans were of the same race as the British, it should not have bothered them. He said, the question is not one of race, it is a question of being ruled. No body likes to be ruled. I remember that till today.
Teaching in Visakhapatnam
In Visakhapatnam, there is a college which is in many ways an exemplary college. I taught there for a year and this time I discovered caste. Almost everyone was telugu, so the people who liked you and helped you were those of your caste. The college was controlled by the Kamma caste and there was a strong brahmin group and a kapu group. You could eat with and make friends with anyone. But there were picnics meant only for kammas or only for kapus or for brahmins etc, which students and teachers of that caste would attend.
I was told very proudly by a young and good looking Christian teacher, that people mistook him for a choudary (kamma) because he was so handsome. When I asked him what a Choudary was, he said ”are you so ignorant as to think that there are only 4 varnas (castes) in Hindusim? There are thousands.”” A malayali Christian girl teacher explained to me that she was an SRC or a syrian roman catholic and that her caste was different from that other male teacher. I discovered for the first time that there were castes among Christians too.
Recently, I met a Muslim gentleman on a bus who organised a seat for me on a crowded bus. He had married a brahmin girl and had converted her to Islam and was planning to do the same thing for his son. When I mentioned Sir Sri Abdul Kalam, our president, he said that Abdul Kalam was not a muslim but of some other caste. What should I think? He also told me that all of us had the same God, since there were no two Gods to be had! That thought, I liked!
fact 1: There is racism, casteism, regionalism, nationalism, gender bias and religious communalism in India as well as in the rest of the world.
fact 2: This can be very unpleasant if you are at the receiving end of groupism based hostility, prejudice or discrimination.
fact 3: There are some nice and enlightened human beings in all groups.
fact 4: All groups have some people at the social pinnacle and others in poverty stricken pits.
fact 5: When in distress, people in groups tend to band together and help each other out.
fact 6: It is good to have a group to back you up when you are in trouble.
fact 7: Groupism leads to inter-group power struggles, prejudice, stereotyping and hostility.
Question: Is there an alternative?