The colour quotient

The colour quotient


There has been so much in the news recently about  racism in Delhi where citizens of one state have to bear the brunt of being labelled ‘Chinkies’ or ‘Madrasi’ or ‘kaalis’ (blacks) because of their non-Punjabi looks or skin colour.

This mentality is not confined to the capital, but is all over the country.

Colour is relative. Models in Mumbai, who thought themselves ‘fair’, never for a moment considered advocating the rights of darker-skinned Indian girls to walk the ramp with them. They were content to corner the market for themselves.

Then the unthinkable happened. Foreign girls began to get noticed and suddenly the same ‘fair’ Indian girls began to exclaim ‘unfair’ because, by contrast, these European girls made their skins seem ‘dark’.

Yet the idea of what constitutes an acceptable colour is again variable. When I was in kindergarten, there were a number of fair-skinned European children in my class though the vast majority were brown. One evening, I went to play with my neighbour, a blonde kid, and his mother went in search of him. He was found inside a clothes cupboard, smearing brown boot polish all over his arms and face, because he exclaimed, ‘I want to be brown like the others!’

Later, some of our class went to Kerala to participate in an event. Poor blue-eyed John Sanders wandered off on his own along the beach. A little later we heard him scream and run towards us in hysterics, chased by local village boys who were throwing pebbles and sticks at him and shouting ‘white monkey’ in Malayalam.

There are places in England where the locals have never set eyes on either a black or brown skinned person, believe it or not. One of my former students, a Sri Lankan, Jananan, gained admission in a university in the north. Having been through the school system, he spoke fluent English, but nevertheless his classmates observed him warily, as if he was an alien in their midst. However, his outgoing ways and friendly overtures soon won them over.

During my teaching years in Southall, west London, children in the school were predominantly third generation Punjabis. Due to ethnic conflicts, a number of refugee children from Sri Lanka and Somalia began to settle in Southall. Punjabi kids resented the Somalis and called them ‘tawas’ (the black iron pan used for cooking naans). They labelled them with all the attributes that the English had heaped upon their grandparents who first settled in the country.

One afternoon, just after lunch, I was in my department office marking some work, when there was a loud knock on my door. I opened it to find Suresh and Gajendren, both Sri Lankan Tamils, standing outside, eager to relate their story. It appeared that a fight had broken out between the Somali and Punjabi kids on the playground. I questioned the two Sri Lankans and hoped they hadn’t gotten involved.

Suresh answered, “But sir, you told us to participate in all the activities of the school so we would get accepted faster, so we too took part in the fight.”

Annoyed, I asked them which side they had taken, and Suresh replied, “Since I’m fairer, I took the Punjabi’s side, and Gajendren being dark, took the Somali’s side.” They were truly integrated.

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