The Sublime Object of Racism

The very reluctance to frame the attacks on people from the Northeast in racist terms is a symptom of the culpability of those who indulge in garden-variety racism themselves

Earlier that night, after a long time, I met my best friend for dinner at a secluded Korean restaurant in Paharganj, Delhi. The food was good, the drinks cheap, and my friend predictably chirpy and scandalous. To borrow author Mridula Koshy’s words, my friend has “a face that may be unremarkable in these parts, but would be lovely anywhere else”, and a strong voice with an assertiveness perfected through habit. Her skin is darker, her body unabashedly female, and her “lower-caste” history inscribed all over her official certificates. She has been reminded of these arbitrary attributes all her life, as much and as hard as she has tried to dissipate the gruesome memory of her father being shot at point-blank range by the The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), just outside the gates of the colonial bungalow amid the astounding greenery of one of the many of Assam’s tea gardens.

That night, we took the last metro home to arrive shortly before midnight in Vijay Nagar, a quasi-residential area — if one were to be generous — in the vicinity of the Delhi University campus (but more accurately a ghetto that houses a sizeable diaspora of people from the Northeastern region of the country). My friend and I landed right in the middle of a commotion, because the rickshaw couldn’t go any farther. There was a gathering of over 500  people, agitatedly encircling a Delhi Police vehicle.

On enquiring, we found out that a girl from the Northeast had been molested earlier in the evening in the area — to be precise, in a park a few yards away from my room where middle-aged women in their salwars go on walks in the evenings in their sneakers and children play a sort of net-less badminton. Towards dawn that night, from my balcony I watched a young Northeastern boy sitting in the middle of the street, refusing to budge even as the police van moved towards him. There were hundreds of them — mostly young Northeasterners, some curious locals — on the street, agitating at four in the morning. My friend was sleeping soundly.

By definition my friend is a “Northeasterner”: she is an Okhomiya, and she even speaks fluent Baganiya, which is the language of teagarden labourers. In terms of nativity, we do not have much to share. My early years were spent in upper Arunachal, in a small town (but the largest in the district) by the Siang river. Our experience of the ‘Northeast was as different as it could be: her town was marred by insurgency and violence; on the contrary, mine was tranquil and the loudest thing was nature in all its orchestral glory. But here in Delhi, we were, by definition, one type of people, although of different design. She flits seamlessly between institutionally authenticated Indians and other ‘miscellaneous’ Indians. Her repertoire of street abuses comprises ‘baby’, sexy’, ‘r**di’, ‘kalia’, ‘black p***y’, and so on, which is slightly different from mine. Normally, I would not leave my room without my earphones — it is a survival tactic that I have come to value dearly since it helps abate the city’s aggressive habit of honking, but more important, mutes the torrent of interesting abuses hurled at me, which range from ‘chinki’ (a special favourite), ‘momo’, ‘chow chow’, ‘chow mein’, ‘chandni chowk to china’, ‘mirchi’, ‘china’ (a special reference must also be made to Minister Sushma Swaraj’s sympathetic ‘chapti nak’), and so on. As might be expected of me, I also possess the distanced sense of humour to laugh about it all — after all, the story of the lawyer who, under the flattering light of the hip pub, asked me flirtatiously, seductively, if I preferred China or India is a favourite among my coterie.

Various articles in the next few days following the incident shared a similar tone: “...a girl and her cousin hailing from Manipur were allegedly attacked by two men…”, “Northeast migrants protest against the alleged...” According to sources close to the victims, that night, at about 10 pm, while the girl and her male cousin were on their way to the girl’s PG accomodation after dinner at the cousin’s place, they saw a man urinating by the roadside. The man and his friend, apparently inebriated at the time, turned towards the girl, made lewd gestures and called them ‘chinki’ and ‘Nepali’. On being confronted by her cousin, the two men beat him up. When the girl intervened, they beat her, tore her clothes, urinated on her, and attempted to rape her. One of the molesters was the mechanic from the shop beneath my balcony.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: AUGUST 2014