Let me narrate to you my experiences abroad…..
The year is 2001. I am stopped at the passport control at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. The genial Dutch gentleman finds it difficult to fathom that I am an Indian. He shakes his head in disbelief. How, in God’s name, can LIONEL GERARD JULIUS ARANHA, a Roman Catholic be traveling on an Indian Passport? He looks at me bewildered and says ‘You must be a Jamaican’! I grin. He tugs at his walrus mustache. Mutters in Dutch; calls over his colleagues for a look-see at a unique Indian. I am given the look over by four of his friends. All shake their heads; and wave me through after firm handshakes and a pat on my back. Should my brown self have taken affront?
On a train in from Milan to Chivasso (a town, 20 minutes out of Turin), I approach an Indian gentleman for help in finding a particular place. I spread out the map and speak in English and Hindi. He gives me a curt ‘malum nahin’ and moves away. A Pakistani, observing the mini-drama volunteers to help. He even helps us with our luggage when we reach Chivasso. An Italian lady too joins in helping us. Discrimination ???
In Rome we are stopped by Sri Lankans who quite excitedly mistake us for their compatriots. But when my cousin, a Mangalorean priest, stops to say ‘Hello’ to a group of Indian Nuns, they take off as if they have seen a ghost! Maybe they were shy? I can't remember if my cousin was wearing his collar.
In Amsterdam, I am the target of the ire of a bus driver for eating a sandwich on the bus; but he does not say a word to the American who was also eating a snack. What did Indians before me do, for me to deserve this? The American does not tip the driver; I do!
On a KLM flight bound out of Rome, my wife and I are the only brown skinned human beings and I am occupying the emergency exit. The airhostess is clearly apprehensive. She kneels in the aisle and explains to me the nuances of the use of the emergency door. Her speech is slow, deliberate and with a lot of expression; her long eye lashes flutter as if in amusement. No, she wasn’t flirting. She was being cautious. (Whereas on the other side of the aisle she has been businesslike and did not waste much time in explaining; and she did not kneel). After the explanations, she asks very slowly “What would you do in case of Emergency?” I am at my eloquent best; I go through the whole drill. Then she asks me “After you open the door, what do you do?” I look at her incredulously and say, “ I will be the first one out!” It catches her off guard. She gurgles with laughter. Next thing I know, I am treated like Royalty. Bottles of Chianti (wine) and a double helping of shrimps follow.
Was I lucky? Maybe I was, because I know many haven’t received the same treatment I did. Some have been beaten up and on rare occasions, there have been tragic deaths. Racism is an attitude specific to each human being, we are all intolerant in varying degrees to varied situations, how else can you explain the attitude of the Indian tourist abroad who after surreptitiously sizing you up, decides that you come from a different state, and moves away?
***An item in today’s newspaper carries a new sobriquet for Ms. Shetty; ‘she is the icon for victims of racism’. What’s happening? What may I ask the media, did she specifically do as a "victim of racism" to be elevated to the rank of an "icon"?