I’m proud to be an Indian,” said Pertie on the phone. He sounded waspish. “But does that mean I have to be blind to our faults?”
“Of course not,” I replied, completely ignorant of what he meant. “Sometimes I love India because of her faults!”
“But not this one,” he butted in. “A miserable hotel in Bombay called the Juhu Plaza has just evicted a legitimate guest, with a perfect booking, because he happens to be Pakistani. And, what’s more, its despicable owner, a creature called Krishnamurthy, appeared on TV and proceeded to defend himself! The hotel claims it has a policy not to admit Pakistanis and Bangladeshis! Isn’t that racism?”
I wish I could have said yes. I wanted to but given that there are no racial distinctions between Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis I couldn’t really agree. Nonetheless, I knew what Pertie meant. This was discrimination. This was unforgiveable prejudice. This was, to be blunt, disgusting behaviour.
“If only that wretched Mr. Krishnamurthy was educated enough to know that his hotel represents the worst values Gandhi fought against. There was a time when restaurants in India had signs proclaiming ‘Europeans only’. Apartheid South Africa used to have hotels which insisted ‘Dogs and Blacks not allowed’. How is his dump any better?”
Pertie’s anger pushed me to read a story I had overlooked in that morning’s papers. Amidst the nuclear deal, the strike at AIIMS, riots in Haryana and disturbances in Bhagalpur I had chosen to ignore it. Here are the salient facts. A Pakistani film director called Hasan Zaidi checked in at the Juhu Plaza on Tuesday. He had come to Bombay to complete the post-production work on his film. He also had a confirmed hotel booking. But shortly after he settled into his room, the hotel staff rang to ask if he was Pakistani and on discovering that he was, asked him to leave. “They told me they don’t allow Pakistani and Bangladeshi guests,” Mr. Zaidi explained.
“Remember Gandhi at Pietermaritzburg?” It was Pertie ringing back to continue our conversation. “They threw him out of the first class compartment because he was Indian. Well, tell me, how is this any different?”
He was right and I certainly wasn’t going to defend either Krishnamurthy or the Juhu Plaza. Instead I found myself recalling stories of Pakistani hospitality in 2004 when the Indian cricket team visited Lahore after a long absence. One common refrain ran through all the accounts I could remember — Indians were welcomed because they were Indian! On top of that, when we beat them, the Pakistanis seemed to love us all the more.
“How should we, as Indians, respond to Mr. Krishnamurthy and the Juhu Plaza?” I felt expressing anger, feeling betrayed, or showing disillusionment were not enough. Something had to be done. But what?
Pertie was slow to respond and when he did he spoke carefully. He seemed to weigh his words. I felt he meant what he said. “We should boycott that hotel. Just stop going there.”
“And Mr. Krishnamurthy? What about him?”
This time Pertie burst out laughing. “Twenty years ago I would have said send him to South Africa and let him feel what it’s like to be discriminated against. Today, however, I would say let him suffer slowly as his hotel shuts down. Leave him to bleed financially till he cries for forgiveness.”
Perhaps that’s a bit extreme — but, then again, maybe not. Yet Pertie’s spot on in sensing that this is a test for all of us, as a nation, as a society and as individuals. Will we duck it and, ipso facto, accept, even condone, discrimination? Or will we stand up for our values and prove that, despite the execrable Krishnamurthy, we have nothing to be ashamed about?
“The world’s watching us,” said Pertie. “Maybe,” I replied, “but as far as I’m concerned we’re looking at the mirror and watching ourselves. And I’m not sure I like what I see!”