In kala namak country, where even money is segregated into black and white, it is but natural for armchair analysts to brand India as a racist state. There is some superficial truth to the accusation. As a country, we do seem to have a congenital fascination for the ‘Fair and Lovely’. The dark and not-so-handsome have to somehow justify their existence with the Mehmoodian Hum Kalein Hain To Kya Dilwalein Hain (I may be sooty, but my heart is a beauty) kind of warped logic.
To be fair, we as a culture, are equally nasty to anyone with a deviant physical trait. Haven’t you called your generously endowed neighbourhood aunty, moti? In Tamil films, till recently, it was the norm to have lyrics that poked fun at corpulent heroines using euphemisms such as bamblimas (derived from pamplemousse, the big fat grapefruit) and gundu pooshnika (plump pumpkin). Even at school, no one finds it inappropriate to label ‘that dark kid’ as ‘blackie’. Grownups at office think that it’s funny to lampoon a bald colleague as taklu. The list of insensitive and downright pejorative nicknames in circulation include langda (for the lame), soda buddi (for the spectacled), damaaram (for the hard of hearing), tube light (for the dim-witted), chotu (for the shortish types) and otra kutchi (for the thin and tall).
My surmise is that Indians were not always this offensive. Yes, they did name names that bordered on racism but it was never with an intent to run down the person. On the contrary, the idea was to identify a person using his or her most visible trait. For example, Krishna is a Sanskrit synonym for black. He was called so because of his melanin-rich skin tone. Goddess Kali had a similar shade, hence her name. Ditto with Shyama. Likewise Shweta and Shukla are names that cue whiteness and Neelkant stands for blue throat. So, what began as an attribute descriptor degenerated over centuries into pseudo-expressions of scorn!
It’s time we put an end to the debased tradition of name-calling. Else we’ll all end up looking like the Ku Klux Klanners who couldn’t think beyond their white supremacist noses.
– Anantha Narayan
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