Let’s be absolutely clear on this – I am a mallu. My parents are mallus, my grandparents are mallus, and their parents before them are mallus. My parents settled in Delhi post marriage before I was born, so I am also a Delhi-ite considering I have lived here my entire life. Thus, my identity can be associated with two states – Delhi and Kerala. Delhi and Kerala, again, just to be absolutely clear, are both in India.
I am an Indian.
That said, I am black with an afro and I stand out like Waldo at a funeral. This has led to my entire life being filled with instances where I have been mistaken for and questioned for being a foreigner. Telling you all of them would take far too long, so here are my five best stories –
1. The Bus-Stop Incident – I’m going to start with one of my favourites. I was sitting at Dwarka Sector 1 bus stop waiting for the 764 which was taking longer than it normally does. There were two people sitting next to me at the stop, blissfully unaware that I am in fact a Delhi-ite who speaks Hindi fluently, and thank god for that. Their conversation went like this:
A: Tujhe kya lagta hai, ye kahan se hai? (referring, of course, to me)
B: Mujhe kya pata. Hoyega South Africa se.
A: Nahi nahi, maine South Africa ke log dekhe hai, aise nahi lagte.
B: Toh phir?
A: Mujhe nahi pata. Puch na isse.
B: Mai nahi puchunga, main inn logon se darta hun. Tu puch.
A: (in a moment of absent mindedness, A forgot that being a foreigner, I should not be able to speak Hindi) Bhaiya, aap kahan se ho?
Me: (in a moment of absent mindedness, I forgot that it would have been so much more fun to take them for a ride) Dilli se hi hun.
A: (with utter disappointment but no regret) Arre yaar! Aap Hindi bolte ho?
Me: Haan yaar, sorry.
He turned out to be quite a friendly chap. He too was waiting for the 764 and we sat together in the bus and discussed life. He complained about his PG and not being able to do laundry. I spoke about law and going home to do my laundry. It was a brief exchange, but it was fun.
2. The Auto-Wallah Incident – I was looking for an auto to and auto-wallahs being auto-wallahs were demanding ridiculous rates despite the meter rate by that time having already increased without any increase in the CNG costs, so I would not kneel before their extortion. But haggling with Delhi auto-wallahs is something I have been doing for a while, so by this time I even had prepared one-liners to make it more interesting for myself. Anyway, this conversation went like this –
Me: Kitna loge bhaiya?
Me: Kyun bhaiya, beech mein chai-samose bhi khilaoge kya?
Me: Arre meter se 90 banta hai, mujhe sirf jaana hai, wapas nahi aana, toh 200 kis khushi mein dun?
Autowallah: (visibly amused at this point) Accha, chalo 100 mein chalo.
Me: Chalo phir. (Ten bucks over the meter is not kneeling before extortion. It’s standard.)
Autowallah: Pata hai bhaiya, aapko shuruat mein hi batana chahiye ki aap habshi nahi ho. Hum toh aap ko habshi samajh ke jaanpuch ke zyaada paisa maangte hai. Lekin aap toh acche se Hindi bolte ho, habshi toh hi nahi.
Did you follow that? The burden is on me to go out of my way to tell him that I’m an Indian and not a Habshi (for those who don’t know, habshi is the Hindi equivalent for nigger), so that he would know not to try and rob me. The tone with which he told me that, as if it were something I should obviously know that I ought to start my conversations with “I am not a habshi” is what really struck with me.
3. The Every Day Incidents – Once a week at the very least I am asked by somebody which country I am from. Court staff, shop owners, waiters at restaurants, flight attendants, bus conductors, random people on the road, and in one particularly funny incident, even an Ethiopian who was so convinced that I’m Ethiopian that even after I told him I was Indian, he went to my mom to confirm the same. Some of them ask me where I am from so as to avoid the presumption that I am a foreigner. That effort is always appreciated by me. Others are more presumptuous and go straight to guessing which country from where I have immigrated to Delhi. I have over the years been told that I come from Kenya, Ethiopia, ‘Africa’, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, West Indies, Jamaica, and of course, South Africa. On more than one occasion, surprisingly, I have also been asked which country Kerala is in, because the absolute conviction that I am a foreigner trumps the political territorial boundaries of India as we know it. When I am feeling more adventurous, I have spoken in an accent and picked any one of the above countries to claim to be my hometown. In one such instance, I convinced my batch mate’s cousin sister that I was an exchange student from Nigeria, proud to be studying at National Law University Delhi, and that I had taken Hindi tuitions in Nigeria in preparation of my studies here. Fun times.
4. The ‘Asli Hai’ Incident – I was playing football in my colony, Sarvodaya Enclave, and singing some English song while playing. Three bulky six foot something triangular motherfuckers who had been looking at me for a while felt it an opportune time to call me and question me.
BSFSTMF#1 – Kahan se hai?
BSFSTMF#2 – Hindi bolta hai? (apparently my reply to the first question asked and answered in Hindi was not sufficient)
BSFSTMF#3 – Loda chusega? (I do not know if this is a standard greeting among his crowd, but it was the first time I heard the question be asked so matter-of-factly)
Me: No, thank you. (I thought it would be rude to omit the ‘thank you’ in case it was a genuine question.)
I said this and I returned to my game, because they didn’t seem to have anything else to say. Or maybe I didn’t give them the opportunity. I don’t quite remember. What I do remember is that for the following week, every day, these three and there other triangular friends would be seated at a bench right next to the colony market, and look at me everyday and mutter things like “Aaj karna hai? Aaj karna hai? Nahi kal karte hai.” I was a scrawny little kid at the time. To be sure, even at my current build, I would still be scrawny in comparison, but it is particularly terrifying when it would literally take two of you to make one of them. In any case, at the end of that week, as I crossed these people, feeling successful about my venture to the market having purchased whatever it is that was worth that ordeal (probably coke and chips), one of them shouted, “OYE!”. Now I knew they were calling me, and they knew that I knew they were calling me. But I also knew that ‘oye’ is non-descript enough for me to avoid that confrontation, so I quickened my steps as I pretended to be unaware. “OYE KALLU!”, he shouted again. There was no mistaking it. If I am ever walking down any road and someone yells anything related to the colour black, it is normally a reference to me. So I stopped and turned around. One of the BSFSTMFs, probably the least triangular of the lot routinely bullied and sent to do the menial work for his other more triangular friends, got up and started walking towards me. I began to calculate my options – I could respect myself and hit him back even though I know I’d get pounded. Or I could think a little practically, be the wuss that I am, and let him take his best shot and hope it ends in the singular. He walked right up to me, raised his hand, touched my hair, turned around, and screamed – “Asli hai!”.
I’m just proud not to have pissed my pants.
5. The Siddi Tribe Incident – It was my second year and I was interning at the Supreme Court with an AOR who did not have a lot of work to give me, so it was a pretty great internship considering I had no aims for life at the point except the knowledge that I should have an impressive CV. One such day when I showed up in Court and she had no work, she palmed me off to one of her friends who needed some research. After submitting the research, I was having lunch with him in the canteen. One of the most difficult lunches I have had, as far as keeping a straight face is concerned.
Lawyer: Where are you from, Arshu?
Me: I’ve lived my entire life in Delhi, but my parents are from Kerala, sir.
Lawyer: Oh. I thought you would be from Gujarat.
Me: (dafuq?) Why Gujarat, sir?
Lawyer: Because there is this African tribe that has settled in Gujarat many years ago. I thought you probably belong to that tribe.
Telling him that I am not, in fact, from that African tribe without breaking into a laugh has been a test of my poker skills, and I am proud to say that I did not disappoint myself. The first thing I did on returning home was to Wikipedia this tribe, and here is the link, for anyone interested.
The presumption that I am a foreigner is unceasing. There are times when I no longer feel like I belong here – some of these times I think I’m better off not being identified as a Delhi-ite, at other times I wonder why living in a place for 23 years is not good enough for one to belong. The racism against dark skinned people in this country is surprisingly ubiquitous and troublingly acceptable. But it is no fun looking at that in a depressed, morbid light, and far more liberating to laugh it off. Because it is hilarious. And not all Delhi-ites make that presumption, and while a lot of them do, not all of the Delhi-ites make it with any malice in their hearts. One of my closest friends, Aarti, was really looking forward to me being one of the foreign nationals, and very disappointed that I was not. I would like to believe that she’s happier to have me in her life as the black mallu with an afro rather than the exotic African.