Two faces have I

Monday Musing

[ Asok Pillai ]

The only form of racism that cuts closer to the bone than crass racism is subtle racism, ask any educated racist.
That condescending smile… that measuring of your irrelevance from your head to your toe… that sea of silence…
I know because I am a biracial man and I’ve suffered both varieties of discrimination, at some time or other, in Arunachal and outside it, in the so-called mainland. Same treatment, just different faces.
The only place where I’ve been treated as an equal is Shillong, I guess in equal parts because of the circumstance of my parentage and the fact that I’ve inherited the looks of a Northeasterner, from my mother’s side of the family. Why, even in Arunachal, sometimes people are taken slightly aback when we are finally introduced, trying to reconcile my surname – and the image they had formed in their mind – with my actual looks and my accent.
Shillong is where it works for me. When I tell them that I’m from Arunachal, for the most part they simply take it to mean that I am an Arunachalee, despite my surname. That works just fine for me, because then I don’t have to explain for the millionth time that I am half this and half that.
… The advantage of being biracial is that you grow up with two diametrically different natures of ideas, philosophies, beliefs, cultures and identities, which actually makes people like me not ‘half’, as one might like to believe, but ‘double’. We see both sides of the story.
The bad part, of course, is the occasional brush with racism, which is no fun, I assure you, but I try to be sporting about it, because I understand that, at the bottom of it all, there’s a crucial difference between me and the average guy. The average guy has a clearly defined ‘Other’. You’re either a tribal or a non-tribal. Me, I am both. It’s not something I’ve chosen for myself. It’s a biological fact.
But it is also a fact that I have not appropriated either my father’s or my mother’s culture, because I’m trying to build my own. And this is where, again, enters Shillong (that great, beautiful city in the hills I’ll always secretly think of as my home town, even though the idea of romance I once associated with it is now long gone). I spent the best years of my life in Shillong, and my experiences in those wonder years helped me in shaping my own philosophy, my own views on how life should be lived and what’s worth attaining.
But more than anything else, Shillong gave me a language. I know neither of my parents’ languages, and my Hindi is passable – nothing great. If it wasn’t for the English language, I wouldn’t even be writing this…
Well, moving forward, as I was going to say, odd things happen to me. For instance, when I was doing the advanced mountaineering course at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, we had this head instructor, a heavy-set Sherpa man with a roaring voice.
A part of the course involved climbing up one side of the Tenzing Rock, using fixed ropes, harness, an ascender… I was having a difficult time climbing, but I was managing as well as the fellow beside me, a few feet away. You had to find footing on the mossy, slippery rock face to step on in order to make progress.
“Manipur! Go to your left!” roared the head instructor from the shoulder of the road behind us, from where they had a vantage view of our performance.
“Manipur! Left!”
I wondered who he was talking to, before realizing that it was me, because the guy next to me was a fellow Malayali, from the Indian Air Force, and he sure as hell didn’t look like a Manipuri.
I looked to my left and, sure enough, there was a foothold there. I stepped on it and propelled myself up, locking the ascender onto the rope and pulling myself up a notch.
“Now, Manipur – Right!”
And so it went, until I was atop the rock in good time – which was a relief, because I was the rope leader of my five-member team, and I had to lead by example.
All throughout the course, the instructors were under the impression that I was a Manipuri. I didn’t want to disappoint them, so I gave the course all I had, because Manipuris are supposed to be great in sports.
Then there’s the other incident, when I was beaten within an inch of my life by a mob in Nongrim Hills, in Shillong, during the riots of ’92, after they mistook me for a Nepali, and I didn’t know the Khasi language, apart from a few cusswords. Oh, it was a terrible beating. I have several stitch marks on my head and there’s a depressed fracture in my skull – grim reminders of that night. Not that I blame those people, not at all. An angry mob is an angry mob. You can’t expect to reason with it. Their battle was with another community, and I had ended up in the wrong locality at the wrong time, looking exactly like their long-time enemy.
When I found myself surrounded by men armed with rods and bicycle chains, rendered senseless with fear, I made two mistakes concurrently.
“I’m also a Khasi!” I blurted out.
I don’t know why I said it, but I said it, and I said it in Hindi. Of course they beat the hell out of me.

Odd things, as I said. There’s plenty more I could talk about, but they’re somewhat unpleasant, and you’re not here to read an elegy in prose. Generally, however, to me, everything has a funny side, even violence and discrimination. You would understand if you were in my shoes. I am an outsider everywhere I go.
They say that when you’re exposed to unusual situations throughout your life, you either grow bitter or become weird. I guess I’m not bitter anymore.