“India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters. I love my country, and I am proud of its rich and varied heritage. I shall always strive to be worthy of it. I shall respect my parents, teachers and all elders and treat everyone with courtesy. To my country and all my people, I pledge my devotion. In their well-being and prosperity alone lies my happiness.”
–The Indian National Pledge of Allegiance
It’s a Wednesday morning in April. It’s already summer in Mumbai and these few morning hours are the only comfortable moments of the day before the humidity settles in like a thick, heavy cloud that covers the city. There aren’t enough handkerchiefs to wipe the perspiration that forms large droplets along the temples, between the breasts, or flowing down the small of the back. The heat has a decidedly authoritarian air about it, demanding that all succumb to its debilitating force. The brain struggles to keep up as the body focuses all its resources on cooling itself. Decision making suffers. Irritability becomes second nature. And escape? Ha!
Roadside vendors find shade under trees, makeshift shelters, or large umbrellas. Caste staring back with every passing glance. Street dogs take to napping on small patches of shadow. Even rickshaw drivers pull over to snooze. The sun is a friend and the sun is an enemy. Pollution hangs in the air as industrialization rages on. And the mounds of garbage on every street corner make social progress look next to impossible. All the while, the haves retreat into their high rise flats fitted with air conditioning units and wealth that affords them the luxury of ignoring the disparity of a growing class divide.
Over the five months I’ve spent here, I’ve been asked about my caste, blatantly, on three separate occasions. The most peculiar episode was when I got into our building’s elevator and a woman who lived a couple floors above stepped in with me. She asked if I lived in the building and then asked me point blank what my caste was. I told her I was Christian and she told me she was a Christian too. I scratched my head and looked back at her dumbfounded. She didn’t seem to notice anything ironic about that.
So here I sit. Sipping what remains of my lukewarm black tea. Laptop whirring quietly. I can’t help but think about how the last five months have changed me. In moments of frustration, I have voiced the sentiment: I love India. But India doesn’t love me. I am protective of India. But India isn’t protective of me. I want progress for India. But Indians don’t seem to care for progress any more than the stray cares for dog treats. So let’s just be real, tell the whole truth, and sit with it in all its yuckiness.
First, this whole idea that India is so welcoming and hospitable? Well, it is. If you have loads of money or are perceived to have loads of money. If you have fair skin. If you’re male. If you can make threats or appear authoritative. Or if you’re somebody’s somebody or connected. Or if you are a good little human that fits into your place, status, and function in society. For example, an unmarried woman living alone is already problematic. But most importantly, if you’re white. India’s so called “hospitality” is a testament to its internalized and overt racism, classism, and dare I say it, self-hate.
Self-hate is such a strong word, you might think. But how else would you describe a nation with a multi-billion dollar fairness industry? How else do you describe people that go gaga over foreign dog breeds but can’t take care of their own strays? How else to you describe a nation that is racist towards its own Northeasterners who are said to have (yes, this offensive and derogatory word I’m about to type is still in use) “mongoloid” features? How else do you describe those situations in which the person shouting the loudest gets served first? How else do you explain the militant staring? How else does the sexual assault of women in the general compartment of the Mumbai local train become a “normal” thing?
Most importantly, how else do you explain raving reviews about hospitality and kindness from Caucasian tourists while tourists from African nations are met with discrimination and straight-up hatred, and some are even jailed for crimes they never committed? How do you explain the disdain I face every day because my Hindi isn’t up to par, while a white person in the same situation still gets treated like a VIP? And how do you explain the rampant and ridiculous VIP culture that this country is cloaked in?
And the thing about caste is this: if you can’t value the perceived lowest among you, you aren’t valuing yourself. Because the “lowest” caste is just as much a part of you as you are a part of them. How else do you explain the common refrain: “But this is India” and “India is like this only”? All this is not to say that progress isn’t occurring. In fact, I think it is, for sure. But it is slow. And the growing global disparities in wealth distribution make social progress feel like a pipe-dream at worst and a grim hope for the future at best.
As dismal as this post reads, I have to say, I love this country. It has always evoked the closest thing to patriotism for me. Maybe it’s a connection with the earth here. Something about belonging to the land. And maybe it is precisely my love for this place that gives rise to my anger and indignation about its state of affairs. And I salute the few and far between who are working towards social progress in various areas. What am I doing about it? Well, I’m saving that for my next post.
© Copyright Benita Grace Joy 2016