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Dark matters about the skin

Sunday, 21 October 2007 - 4:37pm IST

Has the Australian cricket team touched a raw nerve, telling us something about ourselves we are unwilling to confront? Are we a racist country? No… err…

Has the Australian cricket team touched a raw nerve, telling us something about ourselves we are unwilling to confront? Are we a racist country? No… err…

Potions and lotions that ‘lighten’ the colour of skin is not only Michael Jackson’s bizarre obsession; they are known to fly off the shelves of stores in rural, little and metropolitan India with mind-boggling rapidity showing the Indian fixation with ‘whiteness’. Moreover, if Andrew Symonds had to read the matrimonial columns that appear in most of the Sunday papers, he might easily conclude that he has been vindicated. “There’’, he might say, “you guys only want fair-skinned grooms and brides, there is not a single advert for a dark
complexioned person.’’

I wouldn’t classify it as racism, but it’s a socio-cultural malaise, like casteism, that refuses to die, irrespective of increased education and vastly increased incomes. This is not to suggest that education and income by themselves are liberating influences. Apartheid was practiced in South Africa by the most privileged members of society, and almost over the western world, colour prejudice existed as an article of faith if not as a matter of state policy.

Redemption against such prejudice took centuries, and necessitated large-scale activism, social and political. After he was thrown out of a first class train compartment in Petermaritzbur, MK Gandhi’s life was transformed, and from that, over several decades, the destiny of a nation. “There is nothing more humiliating than to be told you are inferior because of the colour of your skin,’’ Nelson Mandela remarked when some of us met him 1991 at the black township of Soweto, shortly after he had been released from jail. “It touches your basic being, and then there is only scope for protest or rebellion.’’

The Indian constitution, of course, prohibits discrimination based on colour of skin — indeed of every kind — emphatically, but let’s face it, there does exist a gap between what is written in the magnificent treatise drafted by Ambedkar, and some of the practices that prevail, even in supposedly urban India.


I wouldn’t condemn what happened with Andrew Symonds as ‘racism’. Boorishness certainly, even grossly offensive at time, but something that could have been better handled if the Australians had been a little less stiff, and willing to take the crowds with them. Sir Richard Hadlee, highlights how crowd behaviour can be tamed in this superb story, told in his book Caught Out. Pertinently, it reveals two vastly contrasting facets of Aussies. Writes Hadlee, “I have been subjected to my fair share of unruly behaviour from Australian crowds. There were times when I took some comments such as ‘Hadlee’s a wanker’ on the cheek, but I refused to accept some abuse from a 10-year-old who said ‘Hadlee’s a mongrel’.’’ So he picked the young offender out from the stands and gave him a dressing down, which did not go down well with the crowds or the Aussie media.

Some from the Australian team touring India currently might argue that a dog is not a monkey, calling somebody a cur is not a racial slur, but we’ll let that pass. What Hadlee relates about another Aussie is insightful.

It concerns Greg Matthews, the eccentric all-rounder playing a Test in New Zealand. “Aussies are wankers’’ was the refrain across the ground. Suddenly, a spectator threw an egg at Matthews. The same spectator then jostled with the all-rounder when he returned to the pavilion after scoring a magnificent 130.  To everybody’s surprise, Matthews did not react at all. In fact, within minutes he emerged from the dressing room, sat amongst the spectators (including the offensive one) and signed more than 150 autographs for kids. “When he finished,’’ says Hadlee, “he received a standing ovation that will not be forgotten.’’

Matthews had won over the crowd with some ink, and a great deal of common sense. Symonds, I think, missed a trick.

Email: ayaz@dnaindia.net

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