I like White people. Even if they sometimes end up being terribly confused about whether I’m cracking a joke or being dead serious (try any wisecrack about Gandhi or Mother Teresa and watch them stumbling between a laugh and a cough), most of them, like most of everyone else, are quite all right. What is nice is that most White people don’t start clapping their hands with glee any more when they find out that we know about Jedi Knights, Desperate Housewives and the Brothers Karamazov. (Although we continue to think that if any of them speak even a smattering of any Indian language, they must be PhDs in anthropology.)
Some of them, either visiting or living in India, do talk gobbledygook about ‘enriching themselves spiritually’ or ‘finding themselves’ here even while they sit at a local TGIF. But most of them aren’t nutters. They, too, appreciate the comforts of soft pillows, good drinks and company here in India like most of us bilingual urban types. In fact, White people can now air their woes about living in our cities — the lack of water, electricity, good roads, etc — something that would have been considered rude some ten years ago in the same way it would be rude for us desis to complain about the lack of spicy food and Indian style loos in a Reykjavik household.
So one would have supposed that we Indians would also have started meting out less differential treatment to White foreigners than we mete out to our own folks by now. That, as I re-realised last week, was a naive supposition.
At the Radisson Hotel in Noida, a couple of friends and I had plonked ourselves at the coffee shop in the late evening. Being a moderately regular visitor to the closest hotel near my house, I vaguely remembered that we were sitting in a no-smoking area. Being the last day before Uncle Ramadoss was allowing us to smoke in public spaces, I was keen to have my coffee-ying with a cigarette-yang. I was ready to walk to the smoking area, when I saw that a table occupied by three White people was a merry source of tobacco smoke. Maybe, I figured, the hotel had lifted the rules for one last time before nicotine darkness descended the next day.
I was about to light up when a waiter rushed up. “Sorry sir, but this is a no-smoking area.” Checking quickly to see whether the foreigners were burning napkins or waving incense sticks, I pointed to the next table and told the waiter Osama bin Ladenishly, “But the White people are smoking! Just because they’re White, you’re ok with them?” He smiled like a Merchant-Ivory film extra. “Sir, that’s their last cigarette. After that,” he continued, “we won’t allow them to smoke.”
At that moment, I could have joined both the Indian Mujahideen and the Bajrang Dal. Even that chap who was thrown out of a first class compartment of a train at Pietermaritzburg on May 31, 1893, wasn’t thrown out by one of his own kind. Are we the only people in the world, I said to myself quivering, who are self-racists?
Whether it’s the overt preferential treatment given to White people in hotels or restaurants — Bonsai, the Japanese restaurant in Connaught Place in Delhi, for instance, provides White customers with a cold towel without being asked, while sweat gland-less Indians have to ask for it — or the general belief that White foreigners deserve a better category of engagement, I strongly suspect that it goes well beyond dollar-rupee, euro-rupee currency exchanges and beggars lining up for heftier bakshish.
It has partly to do with the same colonial-racial notion that made India register a Rabindranath Tagore only after the poet won a Nobel. And why do we get into such a happy tizzy when White audiences say they like Bollywood movies when non-White foreign audiences — in the Gulf, in Africa — have been loving them for years?
It also has something to do with the innate belief that a non-VIP, non-celeb Indian’s demands and expectations are far lower than that of any White person. I don’t blame White people for this Indian attitude. In fact, I’m amazed how we coped when we were first told — thankfully by also White people — that we Indians are White people with darker skin.