It was only after Shilpa Shetty had been called a “Paki” by the late Jade Goody on a British reality TV show that Indians at home and abroad took great umbrage. Yet, Asians must have faced racist remarks in the West for years, but after 9/11 and the London underground blasts, their supposedly thick brown skin (a source of much amusement for the white sahibs in colonial times) must have thinned considerably. And anyway, being called a Paki must be doubly ironic for Indians: it’s bad enough to be called names, but to be identified with your historic ‘other’ (or, if you don’t much care for such euphemisms, then simply, your long-standing ‘enemy’) must inspire a special kind of indignation.
But, whether they like it or not, South Asians most often end up being identified as one indistinguishable herd of “Pakis” in the West. As a student in Britain for a couple of years, I experienced some bizarre instances of racial labelling. It may sound almost proverbial, but once I had gone to a nightclub in London with a Bangladeshi and a Pakistani friend. As the evening wore on, the three of us started fooling around a bit too much for our own good. Imagine, then, our utter surprise when we were sneered at as “clumsy Pakis” after I had managed to spill my drink on a white guy and his date. For a moment, the three of us were too stunned to react; and then we started giggling uncontrollably. To me, it felt oddly liberating to be thus misidentified.
Taken for a Paki, I was suddenly facing the so-called ‘other’ as an innocuous mirror image of myself. It is not as if I had been schooled from my childhood to think of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis as potential enemies. But in that moment, when our identities were confused and conflated into one inseparable whole, I realized, however fleetingly, the extent to which each of us must have been conscious of our distinct nationalities. It needed an outsider’s ignorance to lighten up our tense self-awareness. We were laughing not only at the way we had managed to fool the young man so convincingly, but also at how we had been caught out.
All three of us had the same skin colour, a fact rooted in genetics that could not be wished away, however odd its implications. In India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, the difference in our nationalities may have mattered a great deal, but in a foreign land, we were all the same, however acrimonious the relations among our countries of origin — this is what is called ‘racial profiling’.
As I spent more time in London, I realized that the subcontinent is too amorphous a mystery to be decoded to anyone’s satisfaction. Travelling on the metro, for instance, I would come across women wearing hijab or burqa, or men in salwar-kameez and fez caps. It was not always possible to guess if they were Pakistanis or Bangladeshis. Sometimes they turned out to be neither.
In hindsight, I felt increasingly uneasy about the incident in the nightclub. Although a ‘Paki’ like any other in the eyes of a commoner on the streets of London, I knew the matter was not so simple. A few days before this incident, my Pakistani friend had had to spend a good four hours at the French embassy, struggling to get a visa, while my application for a Schengen visa at the German embassy on the same day had been processed without any fuss. In the eyes of the State and international law, each of us had been recognized for who we truly were, and slotted accordingly. My friend with his green passport and suspicion-arousing name had slipped out of the circle of trust, whereas my blue passport and harmless name did not ring any alarm bells.
But stereotyping, when inspired by benign ignorance rather than bad faith, can turn out to be amusing. I ended up drawing astonished stares and gasps of disbelief each time I explained to my white friends that being a Bengali did not necessarily make me a Bangladeshi. I felt sheepish when strangers I had met on trains or at a concert effusively praised my ‘perfect English’. This was usually followed by a polite enquiry about the language I spoke at home. On learning that it was Bengali, the conversation turned, almost unfailingly, to Bangladesh.
My housemates would turn up their nose at the smell lingering in the kitchen after I had improvised something outrageously spicy to counter the daily blandness of roast and mushy potatoes. Salmon cooked in shorshe and kalo jeera was a delicacy I whipped up in no time, as my British friends sneezed their heads off and complained of the pungent odour. Served as “salmon cooked in mustard sauce and Indian spices”, it turned out to be quite a hit, in spite of the volcanic effect it had on foreign taste buds.