How Do You Define an Indian? – Stereotypes and Identity Ignorance - Blaber Blogger

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How Do You Define an Indian? – Stereotypes and Identity Ignorance

India, a country with more than a billion population, having more than sixteen hundred languages spoken with 122 major languages and 23 constitutionally recognized official languages, home to hundreds of different tribes and ethnic communities, birth place to so many religions, a highly secular society and the world’s most populous democracy. Yet, living in the world where there is only one Indian stereotype and people are struggling who don’t fit in that so called ‘Indian-ness.’

    There is a stereotype that people have in their mind for how an Indian should be and anyone who doesn’t fit in the stereotype, face this problem of weird questions being asked every time and then the long never ending explanations that one has to give. Sometimes it is just ignorance that people have about India and other times it’s just bigotry, especially when it is coming from a fellow Indian.

    As a young man, out from my hometown for the first time, studying college in Kolkata, I still remember people asking me all sorts of questions and I had no idea how I could explain myself for being me. Weird questions like how I don’t look Indian, do I speak Hindi or not, do I eat rice or do I know the national anthem of India. It was one day I was at a railway station in a queue to get my train tickets and a man by my side asked me, ‘Hello, which country are you from?’ so I replied ‘India.’ He then replied, ‘No, you’re not from India. You don’t even look Indian.’ I was stunned by how a stranger whom I don’t even know could just say like that so I just took out my voters id card and showed it to him and said, ‘Do I need to give you some more proof about my Indian-ness?’ and then he just smiled and left. This was like the first time I felt so bad and in time, incidents like this happened to me every now and then and I got pretty much used to it and avoided explaining myself most of the time.

    Working in the Middle East, I used to meet a lot of new people from various nations and especially working in the hospitality sector where my job needed me to talk to a lot of people every day. I always got this question asked, ‘So where are you from?’ and whenever I replied ‘India’, I normally got a confused and shocked look as a reply and replies I used to get was ‘No, you’re not from India’, ‘You don’t look Indian’, ‘You’re lying’, ‘Oh you mean Nepal?’, ‘Did your parents migrate to India from China’, ‘You’re a Filipino’, etc. Ignorance is not always a bliss and it’s saddening how little people know about India. The saddest part is when abroad, getting asked such questions and getting such replies from a fellow Indian who himself is so ignorant about his nation.

   It was one day at work in Oman and it was me and a co-worker, Bala Krishnan, a Tamilian guy from Chennai working, when an Indian client suddenly walked in and asked Mr. Bala in Hindi, ‘Excuse me, yaha pe gadi parking karne ka jaga kaha hoga bata saktey hai?’ Bala replies, ‘I’m sorry sir but I don’t speak much Hindi. Could you please say it in English?’ The client then replies, ‘Oh so you’re from Sri Lanka. I thought you were from India.’ I could see how my co-worker Bala has to explain himself for being an Indian every day because he doesn’t speak Hindi and only speaks English and Tamil. These are the stereotypes that people have in their minds that every Indian should know how to speak Hindi.

   Miss Biveshna Pradhan, from Kalimpong who currently lives in Brisbane, Australia says, “A security guy on the train asked me where I'm from and when I answered him..
The first thing he said (and of course not the first time I've heard this)
"What! You don't look Indian"..
Normally, I don't say anything..
But since he was an Indian himself, I asked him..
"A multilingual, and a multi-ethnic society. Consisting of 29 states and 7 union territories (if m not wrong!)
And... speechlessness.

So I wished him "HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY" and moved on..”

     Miss Khusboo Lamichaney, who hails from Sikkim, living in New Delhi says, ‘Well, though I look like a mainlander, still whenever I had conversation with people for the first time in Delhi, they had this easy taking attitude towards me. They started calling me “Nepali” and once I heard passersby commenting on me in college. He said, “Yaar, Nepali hai, maar waar dalenge yeh log.” This is the mentality of people. Apart from all these comments, it is super difficult to explain our identity of being an Indian with a Nepali origin. I had people who called me ‘MOMO’. I felt it was an insult. India is a huge country with a huge diversity. All of us need to accept the diversity.’ Indeed, India is a diverse country and one should celebrate the diversity but apparently the diversity itself has been made the cause of racism in India.

     Mr. Samuel George, who is from Kerela and working in New York says, ‘People have always questioned me about my name. Whether be it my fellow Indians or the Americans I meet every day. Whenever I introduce myself, I get this reply that I look Indian but my name isn’t Indian. I have had been asked by various of my fellow Indians, what my Indian name was or real name was and when I respond, it is Samuel George, the reply I get is, ‘No. That’s not an Indian name. Give us your Indian name.’ I have no idea what an Indian name should be like but Samuel George, that’s what my name is and it is sad how people think that my name makes me less of an Indian.’ Another typical stereotype about the so called Indian-ness is the name. People perhaps view a typical Hindu name as an Indian name and anything different from that is out of the box. Reminds me of a joke that Russel Peters cracked in one of his shows, which had a serious issue about ‘the Indian Stereotype’ hidden in it for how Russel Peters is always asked about what his Indian name is and how his name doesn’t sound Indian.

Mr. Pratik Siddharth Thapa, from Darjeeling who works in Hyderabad says, ‘This one interview that I had attended back in 2013 for a teaching job. One of the interviewers asked me about my birthplace and I proudly said Darjeeling. He wasn’t sure where it was so I further cleared it out saying I speak Nepali but Darjeeling is in West Bengal. I had to explain everything in details starting from history of Darjeeling. Then he offered me help to fill one of such formality sake forms online and there it was – my country was mentioned Nepal. Raat bhar ram katha sunaya aur subha pucha sita kaun toh bola, hanuman ki beti. This is just one of the several experiences I have had.’  Perhaps it is not always ignorance that let this stereotypical questions and mess that is formed but also the attitude of the others for how someone who doesn’t fit in the stereotypical Indian gets to be the victim of bigotry.

Miss Rubina Thapa says, ‘my friend and I were the centre of attraction in our class when we first joined our Masters. Stupid questions with their stupid assumptions. One person, in fact, drew a map of India, mapped Darjeeling outside somewhere in Myanmar. 
We have met a lot of ignorant fools and it’s always a surprise to come across people who responds "Oh West Bengal" after we say "Darjeeling". And that hardly ever happens.

    Mr. Nicholas Sun from Bangalore says, ‘Okay there was one time I was working at a call centre and the American customer asked me what my name was and when I said Nicholas, he was shocked to know that someone in India could be named Nicholas. But that’s hardly more like ignorance. The problem is that in mainstream Western media, India is portrayed as a monocultural nation, land of yoga and Ayurveda and people with one skin colour and one culture. So when people come across some North East Indians or any Indians who defy the Indian stereotype, they’re confused because that doesn’t fit their idea of what is Indian.’

    Miss Manisha Chettri, from Bangalore says, “It is not derogatory or anything but when I joined my company, my HR head seemed very confused about the fact that I was Nepali but my nationality was Indian. It was very difficult for her to wrap her mind over the fact that there are Nepalis living in India.” 

Mr Sugam Thapa as well shares a similar experiences saying, “When I was in Bangalore, a lot of people asked me about my nationality. When I told them I am an Indian, they wouldn’t believe me and asked which part of India I come from. When I told them I am from Darjeeling, and they were like okay that’s in Nepal right? And some people even thought it was totally different country.”

   Miss Angela Chhakchhuak, a Mizo living in Delhi describes her experience, ‘Moving to Delhi with lots of dreams was a nightmare. I remember being asked everyday which country I am from and how I don’t look Indian. I was once even asked to narrate the national anthem of India to prove my Indian-ness at college. I was said I was not an Indian because I don’t wear salwar kameez and watch Bollywood movies and once I told my friend I don’t like butter chicken as that’s what my taste buds don’t like and that was again pinpointed at me being less Indian which was stupid.’

    Mr Tenzing Namsay, who originally hails from Kalimpong and works in Bangalore says, “My work as an HR requires me to interact with a lot of other employees. One day after a call, an employee messages me via an internal IM asking me where I was from. He was surprised to discover that I too was from India as I didn’t sound Indian. On another incident, when we were talking about food, a friend asked me, ‘Oh you eat dal in your country?’

   Mr Anil Pradhan from Kolkata explains, ‘It is often hilarious and at the same time disheartening how several ethnic identities in India get misunderstood and misrepresented for something else. In an autobiographical context, I have often been mistaken, read labelled, as belonging from the north-eastern region of the country, for the sole reason that I have mongoloid facial features:
He: Aren’t you from the north-east?
Me: No, I am Gorkha. These two are different.
He: No, You speak Nepali, so you are from Darjeeling and thus you are North-eastern!
Me: So enlightening of you!
The (il)logical reasoning given by such people is that “all of you look the same”. I find this statement highly ironical in the context of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-lingual society of India. Jokes apart, it is really a problem when your identity gets mistaken, nay distorted, beyond logical frameworks of identification. Some even think that all Nepali-speaking people in the country are Nepalese, thus not belonging to the organic nation of ‘India’. The stereotyping takes the problem to such ends that one’s individual ethno-cultural uniqueness gets dissolved into the damaging sea of sweeping generalizations. The idea of being or not being the ‘son of the soil’ leads to numerous stereotypes which if sustained on a regular and widespread basis leads to utter humiliation and threat to the national integrity this country aspires to, making certain sections of the society look like ‘second class citizens’. The very people who call you brothers and sisters term you as the ‘other’ people. It is not unknown that when a Gorkha person or a person belonging to the  North-eastern walks down the streets of any metropolitan city of India, he/she is almost eventually looked upon or termed as an ‘alien’ or ‘non-Indian’. The fact that Darjeeling is a district of the state of West Bengal and that the seven ‘North-eastern’ states are a part of India doesn’t affect the mindset of thoroughgoing racist and ignorant citizens of ‘India’. Funny, isn’t it?’.

If you have faced incidents like these, and would like to share them, please DO COMMENT below. It would be highly appreciated.

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