As Afram Ogoni’s train pulled into Bandra station, a bunch of ruffians in the compartment suddenly began chanting, “Kallu, get down. Kallu, get down.”
A few days later, at a bus stop in Churchgate, a man clad in a formal shirt and tie nudged his female friend and pointed a finger at him while talking to her.
Ogoni, 29, usually ignores such incidents. He has come to accept them as a part of the Sudanese student’s daily life in the Mumbai, which has the reputation of being India’s most cosmopolitan city.
He was not always so equanimous. The wagging fingers used to haunt Ogoni for hours when he first moved to the city to pursue a degree in law in 2005.
“I used to lock myself up in the hostel room,” he said. “I couldn’t understand why bikers would shout ‘kalia’ while driving past me. I didn’t know what the word meant.”
Ogoni, who grew up in a lower middle-class household in south Sudan, learnt the meaning of the word and then learnt to live with it.
“I don’t care when street urchins call me kalia,” he said. “They are just ignorant. But it is upsetting when educated people use the word. Why should they refer to me by my colour? I ask them whether they call themselves brown or Indians.”
But while people on the streets never let him forget he is different, many students and teachers at Ogoni’s college went out of their way to make him comfortable.
Yet not all colleges are open to African students.
Ogoni realised this when he was seeking admission for his cousin. He said the principal of one college told his cousin, “There is no place for you in this college. You people sell drugs.”
“I was so shocked,” said Ogoni.
Lucas Onajite, who has been working as an extra in Bollywood for the past four years, has also learnt to live with the “kalia” tag. “I am darker than Indians and kalia just means black in Hindi so I don’t care,” he said.
Onajite and Ogoni may have become immune to catcalls and sniggers about their colour. But they would have had to deal with more blatant discrimination if they ventured to the city’s suburbs where a substantial section of the African community stays.
Besides the colour angle, many Mumbaiites nurse other stereotypes about Africans.
A board displayed in the compound of a housing co-operative society in Mira Road curtly says, “Nigerians not allowed.”
“All of them are drug peddlers,” said a Colaba shop-owner requesting anonymity, about Africans. “They come here on student or tourist visas but stay on for years. They come from a poor country and they can do anything for money.”
The women, on the other hand, are often assumed to be involved in skin trade, according to an African woman who was commenting on the blog of a Hindustan Times reporter.
“Here in India, I wear loose salwars. Yet, in clubs, I’ve been approached by Indian males... The words sound like they’re being thrown at a prostitute by a kid who can go back to his buddies, puff up his chest and say, ‘Yeah, I’ve tried one of those,’” she wrote.
Ashwani Kumar, a political science professor who was a member of the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, said that colour-based discrimination is rampant here because Indians are “West-centric”.
“We are obsessed with being fair in India,” said Kumar, who now teaches in Delhi University. “Even Shahrukh Khan goes around selling fairness creams. This is one of the reasons why we discriminate against people who are dark.”
Kumar said that he had noticed a lot of discrimination against African students in his teaching career. “Many African students just don’t show up in class. They just come for the exams. It’s especially difficult for them to integrate themselves in second-tier colleges. The students there believe that all Africans are backward, lazy and belong to the international drug cartel.
“It is bizarre. India and Africa share the same history of colonial exploitation and the problem of poverty, yet we treat African students differently and arrogantly,” said Kumar.
He blamed the lack of orientation and cultural programmes to bring students together in Indian universities. “American Universities are federally mandated to create spaces for people from different races since the civil rights movement in 1964. But in India, we have not created a policy framework for interaction. There is no attempt to dispel social myths,” he said.
(Some names have been changed to protect identities)