Saturday, January 29, 2011

Perception and Reality

When I started my architecture school I had a lot of trepidation. I was 17 almost 18 years old at that time and had heard my school, although one of the best in India had a reputation for being very bohemian. I led a very sheltered and protected life almost verging on being smothered by my very overbearing mother. I always had my own personality and was very independent but you always are led to believe that your mother knows the best. So on my first day in school, I was pretty nervous and intimidated. I believe that there is safety in numbers so I hung out with a bunch of girls to avoid getting hazed by the second year students. Hazing or “Ragging” as they called in India was a part of the process of being welcomed into professional schools across the country.

My school had a substantial student population from other parts of India so we had two distinct groups, one who was from Mumbai and the rest was from all over the country. I being very talkative and friendly and also being especially talkative when I am nervous went around introducing myself. At that time, across the room I saw a very tall dark guy looking lost and a little out of place. He didn’t look Indian and looked very African. I could sense that he was a little sad, lonely and looked a little lost. I thought I might introduce myself to him. So I walked up to him and said, “Hi I am Sai.” He said, “Hi my name is MM.” So I asked him which part of the world he belonged to and he replied that he was from one of the countries in East Africa. At that moment, two other women walked over and introduced themselves. We asked him a lot of questions and welcomed him to India and to feel free to ask us if he needed anything from us. I had never met a person from Africa before and I was fascinated by his culture. I remember asking him questions about his language, what his name meant etc. I am a xenophile so I was thrilled to meet someone who was from a different culture and nationality.

India is a very racist country and makes no apologies about it. An average Indian is complacent in his or her biases. One could attribute that to centuries of casteism and exclusionary behavior of Hindus. However I think the underlying reason is ignorance and fear based upon perception. I remember one of my classmates telling me after she saw me talking to MM that I should avoid talking to “that African guy as who knows what mischief he might be up to.” Then she said that I might get a reputation as being easy. I remember being livid and completely infuriated about people making assumptions based upon their ignorant perceptions. To date I have not been able to comprehend the fact that how do people develop these “reputations”?

After my fourth year and before beginning my final year architecture, I had gone to New Delhi with a bunch of classmates to conduct research for my final year thesis in the summer vacation. I was at the School of Architecture and Planning’s library in New Delhi when by chance I bumped into MM. He had come to New Delhi straight from his country's capital and didn’t know his classmates were there too. He was very happy to see me as he felt like he “saw family in this strange place.” At that time he told me that he might have to take a break of six months from school as his mother was diagnosed with cancer and he didn’t want to be far from home. I remember feeling terrible for him. He was going to be in Mumbai for a week and then fly back home. I came home to Mumbai and wanted to invite him to my place for dinner as I thought he must be missing his home. I asked my mother if I could invite him home. She asked me if I were inviting him with a group of other people. I said that there was no one around as it was summer vacation and that I wanted to just invite him alone. My mother, being the overprotective and overbearing parent that she was, said that she had no problem if he were coming in a group but didn’t want me to invite a guy just by himself! I told her that I thought she was being ridiculous. Then she said, “When you get married, invite him to your husband’s home.” That was the end of the argument. To date I cannot rationalize my mother’s reasoning! If I wanted to do something that she didn’t approve she would end the argument with “do that at your husband’s home.” I must say that I have married a great guy and have been able to do whatever I please at my "husband’s home”!

MM did come back to school and completed his final year with us. Upon completion of our graduation, MM was leaving India to go to London for a bit. I bumped into him on my way home from school. We were excited about graduating and were talking animatedly outside my school’s campus about our career goals and what we were planning to do. I was oblivious to the fact that people were staring at him and at me as well until some random person commented to me in Marathi, “Have all the Indian men died that a woman of your stature is talking to this African.” He actually used a derogatory word to describe my friend, which made my blood boil. This random comment was from a puny five foot tall man who looked barely literate. I was livid and almost wanted to smack this person across his face. MM was blissfully unaware, as he didn’t understand Marathi, and continued telling me about his future plans. I didn’t want him to know about this hateful comment so I did not show any emotion and continued talking to him. We planned to stay in touch but of course that never happened as life takes over. This was prior to the internet days when you really had to make an effort to stay in touch with people.

Years later, I read this article about racism in India as seen by an African-American PhD student staying in New Delhi for a bit. This article reminded me of this above incident. I remembered my classmate who was so young when he came to India. Recently thanks to Facebook and my alumni network, I renewed contacts with MM again. After living in the United States for the past ten years, I am more sensitive about a foreigner’s experience in my country. Therefore I asked MM to give me an honest opinion about India and if he enjoyed living in India. He said that he enjoyed his experience very much as all of his classmates were very supportive. He said that he always remembered me and three of my classmates as the ones who welcomed him on his first day. However outside this comfortable cocoon there were not many Indian people who were nice to him and it was based upon their negative perceptions about his continent and their people. As it is with all perceptions, it was far removed from reality. I suppose he decided to take that in his stride and enjoy his experience nevertheless. He has fond memories and considers India as his second home. He wants to return to India and travel to explore the country and to places that he couldn’t visit when he was living there. I suppose MM is a great person and also we were very protective of him so didn’t let him know the mean and hateful things some ignoramuses said about him.

I have to say that the author of the article is right when he concludes, “In most nations, the path of ending gender, race and class discrimination is unpaved. In India, this path is still rural and rocky as if this nation has not decided the road even worthy. It is a footpath that we are left to tread individually.”

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