Yam Thapa has been called “chinky” so many times that he has long given up telling people that his family is from Darjeeling, that his father served in the Indian army and that he has lived in Mumbai since he was four years old.
After all these years, Thapa has learnt to ignore the name-calling, but he still cannot stomach the stereotyping and ignorance about India’s north east that often accompanies it.
“To people in western India, anybody with small eyes and a tiny nose is Chinese or Japanese,” said the 21-year-old arts student.
“‘Chinky’ is just one of the things people say when they tease us. But is it necessary to go into the details?” he said, suddenly sounding weary about having to talk about what is clearly an unpleasant reality he has learnt to live with.
Thapa is part of a small community of people from north eastern states like Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram who come to Mumbai to pursue higher education or look for jobs because of the limited options back home.
The city does open many opportunities to them, but they soon realise that it is not really the melting pot it claims to be. In this city, home to Governor S.C. Jamir, who is from Nagaland, their features attract comments and sometimes spell isolation.
Mumbai is admittedly not as bad as Delhi, where many students from the north east confront appalling stereotypes that dub all the men as drug addicts and the women as “easy”.
But in a city that fancies itself as a global financial powerhouse-in-the-making, the name-calling and social exclusion are shocking enough.
An engineering student from Nagaland, who did not wish to be named for fear of being singled out, has been the target of comments about his looks so often that he, like Thapa, has accepted it as a normal part of life.
“People just don’t know where we come from,” said the student. “To them, we could be from anywhere — Nepal, Indonesia, Japan, China.”
Anywhere but India.
He could just about live with the name-calling, but it is much harder to deal with the active discrimination and exclusion that he and his friends faced in the classroom.
“Teachers sometimes did not like interacting with us,” he said. “Students used to make fun of the way we look. I don’t know why looks matter so much.”
Any newcomer to the city takes time to settle in and integrate. But the comments and stereotyping make it harder for youngsters from the north east, whose shared experiences make them seek each other out.
Local people’s attitudes towards them is responsible for a sense of alienation setting in, said BV Bhosale, professor of sociology at the University of Pune.