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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The "R" word

This post is about a very sensitive subject - racism. In general, people stay away from this subject. But I have no qualms discussing it. A case of "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread" ?

I am sure I will be raising plenty of eyebrows with this post. If people think I am racist because of some of the things I say here - then, frankly, I don't give a damn. I know what I am and I do not need others to tell me whether I am racist or not.

We have just seen an Indian cricketer being hauled up for racist comment. At the same time, we have seen cheating on a cricket ground, or at the very least, the game not being played in the true spirit of sport. As expected, everybody the world over will go "OMG" about the racist comment. The cheating will be accepted as another of those "what's the game coming to nowadays ?" and people will move on.

Harbhajan Singh will have to live the rest of his life with the stigma of having been banned from a few cricket matches because of his "racist" comment. This is no small matter - being called a racist in today's world. Which is why I am writing this piece.

Let me start by making one thing clear. Racism has no place in any sport. Not in sport, not in life. But before making this United Nations-like diplomatic declaration of condemnation of racism, we need to get it clearly defined.

Because according to me, sadly, there is no universal definition of racism. Maybe there is something in textbooks and in law, but there is no universal definition of racism available to the common man on the street in every country.

And therein lies a huge problem when one tries to apply racism-related laws and rules across cultures which do not necessarily share the same definition of the term.

Why run away from the subject ? Let's face it. It is a fact that there are many races in this world. And each race has its identity and origin. Each person belongs to a particular race. Whether we bring the race into our discussion or not (I know in the West, it is a studiously avoided subject), it just cannot be denied. So why not accept it and deal with it in a mature fashion ?

In my opinion, where racism is clearly an issue is when it is divisive or discriminatory. For example, when opportunities are based on race, and not on merit. Or, when a "colored" MK Gandhi was thrown out of a "whites only" train in Pietermaritzburg, that was about as clear a case of racism as one can get. This sort of discrimination / deprivation based on race is what Martin Luther King fought for, all his life. The apartheid regime in South Africa had racism written blatantly all over it.

I could not agree more with the evils of racism, if THIS is its definition.

But no - what we as a global society have managed to do is to complicate day-to-day life by making anything and everything a "racist" issue. To the extent that people of different races feel uncomfortable talking to each other about something that is pretty basic and undeniable. And why ? Because if you say something to another of a different race, you could be hauled up for being a racist.

Utterly silly. It is time we took off our blinkered glasses, got off our high pedestals and mustered the courage to talk about this from a purely human and not political perspective. Let me give you my own experience. I work in an environment where I have blacks (or should that be African Americans, to be politically correct ?), Caucasian race whites, Chinese and Indians. We need to spend several hours together every day - so we do realise that we better get along with each other. Fortunately, inspite of all our racial differences, we do. In fact, our racial differences are part of the reason we actually get along - we have an opportunity to have a dig at one another or pull each other's leg with, yes, what the whole world would perceive as "racist" comments. Frankly, we could not care less.

Why do we do this ? Because we recognise that each race has its uniqueness - and that is perhaps what makes it charming too. Why pretend otherwise ?

For example, one of the black Americans who works with me was once told by one of my "white" friends - "come on, you don't have a problem if you lose your job - you can always go on the streets and become a rapper. Worst case, you can always play basketball". The Afro-American had a huge laugh about it - and got back with his own "racist" comment.

This is how different races can behave with each other - if they are allowed to behave in this way. But no, we immediately start drawing lines of communication around us and make sure "boundaries are not crossed". This way, we force everybody to become uncomfortable.

I can expect somebody to say "yes, but that is different from calling Symonds a monkey". It may well be but the point is that Symonds has been so indoctrinated into thinking that his being of African-American origin is going to result in him being abused, that he can think of nothing but complaining about this as being the biggest crime ever committed on earth.

Instead, if somebody had just told Symonds long back "Listen Andy, you know what ? thanks or no thanks to your origins, you do resemble a monkey to some extent. People may have a dig at you from time to time about this. It is not your fault - in any case, just forget it, it is no big deal. You are a good guy from the inside - and that is what matters. And even if your face does look like a monkey's, you are good-looking in your own way. So don't worry about these sort of things", things might have been different.

I guess nobody had this chat with Symonds. So he has grown up all along being defensive about his origins. While he has absolutely nothing to be ashamed about, or worried about. Now, as a professional cricketer who has huge talent and can go very far in his career, he is worried about what people comment about his looks ?

The point I am making - and I know I am making it in a very laboured fashion - is that racism is in your mind. Since its definition is anyway not universally consistent, you will have problems of perception more than reality. Yes, if you have been deprived opportunity on the count of race alone, by all means, scream. Use the racist card. But if somebody in another culture has called you a monkey, frankly, if you are mature - you should not give a monkey's. You know what and who you are and no names that anybody else calls you should matter. Not if you are a thorough professional who concentrates on the job at hand.

If we are talking just racist remarks that hurt a person, I don't see it very different from sledging. Sledging is also intended to hurt or disturb the sledgee. In the final analysis, it is the hurt you cause to another that should be the measure of the crime - not whether it was a "racist" comment or not. You can sledge really cheap and dirty (like the disgusting McGrath-Sarwan incident) but not call somebody who looks like a monkey a monkey because, ooooh, that is a "racist" comment ? Come on. If this comment hurt, so did that comment of McGrath to Sarwan. Where do you draw the line ?

Now, my final point - I am tiring a bit. Cheating. Now, there can be no two views about that one. Here the rules can be set much more clearly because this is universal. There is one game (it is not like one person is playing cricket and the other football). There are rules of the game, there is a spirit of the game. Every person who enters the sport is educated on this from day one - so anybody who breaks this is cheating. As simple as that.

Since cheating is done with the primary objective of obtaining an unfair advantage over the other party, there is no doubt about whether there is hurt caused by it or not. There is - and the party cheating has to realise that he has been out of line. He needs to be brought to book. With cheating, there is no scope for misinterpretation.

Cheating in sport, in life whatever. I don't see it as being any less a crime than what I would like to label "pseudo-racism" (as distinct from genuine racism as I have defined above). In fact it is worse.

In my book, Symonds' case is one of pseudo-racism. Very much in fashion. But pseudo-racism, nonetheless.

One day in the future, I hope Symonds looks at himself - and feels proud of his immense abilities. Some of this may even actually be race-related. Instead of feeling defensive about his race, he may even be able to joke about it.

Maybe even joke about it with Harbajan ? It may be a dream but it is worth dreaming. For this, more than anything else, will make a difference to the perception of racism around the world. The more you cry "racist", the more racists you create. As simple as that.

My Experiments with Truth : Black

I was a very simple, "goody-goody" boy growing up in Orissa, completely oblivious of the big, bad real world. I lived a pretty protected life where most things in life were taken care of for me. So my experience in actually DOING things myself in the real world was very limited. I learnt a lot about life only after I left the comfort of my parents' place in Orissa.

One of the things that got taken care of for me was movie tickets. Somebody would always arrange the ticket beforehand, often in advance booking. Or, even if we reached the hall, somebody else would somehow manage to get the tickets. I would just walk in and enjoy the movie. In a sense, I guess I was quite pampered.

The year 1977. Three of my friends and I suddenly got into the mood to see "Hum Kisise Kum Nahin".

It was the last day before school would re-open after the pooja holidays. The movie had been released a couple of months earlier and had become a rage pretty much all over the country. Almost all our friends had already seen the movie (some of them "first day, first show" - which was a HUGE deal in those days. Arrey yaar, first day, first show nahin dekha to kya dekha ? types ("Hey, if you haven't seen it first day, first show, what have you seen?").

Those who had seen it would discuss all the scenes, the songs - and we would just get more and more irritated. The songs (all nine of them) were hits - some of them superhits (like Kya hua tera vaada, yeh ladka hai allah, chand mera dil, bachna aye haseenon). We knew all the songs pretty much by heart.

Feeling like the only boys on the planet who had missed the show - and fearing for the ostracisation by our other friends, we decided enough was enough. We just HAD to see it. And had to see it NOW. After all, it had been playing for many weeks already.

We informed our parents and set off - the four of us.

The film hall was about 25 km from home. But we had a direct bus to take us, so there was no problem. The idea was to see the 6-9 evening show. What we had not reckoned with was that the busdriver was not seeing the 6-9 show. He had absolutely nothing to gain by taking us there in time.

By the time, we got there it was 5.50.

There was pandemonium all over the place, some people were screaming at the counter, others were dejectedly going back.

The reason ?

The most dreaded sign for any Indian movie-goer who lands up to see a movie at a hall was up. "House Full".

We felt very upset. What to do? We could have reached there earlier but for that stupid bus driver! My friends blessed him with some colourful gaalis (abuses) - we then decided that we would somehow try to still get tickets.

We dispersed - each trying his luck.

A guy walked upto me, "Kitna chaahiye?" (How many do you want?)
I : "Chaar" (4).
He : "Chaar ka bees". (20 for 4).
I was thrilled.
I :  "Ticket hai?" (Do you have tickets at all?).
Just to confirm my luck. This sounded too good to be true.

People were desperate to get tickets. And here was a guy who had four tickets, exactly the number I needed, and who was willing to give them to me.

I said "ek minute, abhi aata hoon". (Give me a minute, I'll be right back!).

I raced back to my friends saying "hey, mil gaya, mil gaya". (Got them, got them!).

"Sach?" (Really?)

"Haan yaar, there is this man who has four tickets and he wants to sell them".

"Black?"

"Nahin, yaar...not black!". I recoiled. How could they even THINK I would buy tickets in black ?

"Kitna?" (How much?)

"Twenty Rupees...Five rupees ka ticket hai yaar. Balcony four rupees ka hai na..yeh DC hoga, five rupees ka". (Rs 20. Each ticket is Rs 5. Balcony's normally Rs 4, this must be the Rs 5 DC ticket.).

"Not bad yaar, Raja...chal chal, jaldi kar....usko pakad nahin to ticket chala jaayega". (Not bad, Raja...come on, hurry up, catch the guy before we lose the tickets).

I felt like my chest had swelled a few inches. Never before in my life had I done anything practical like this - I felt like I had saved the day.

As we approached the guy, one of my friends stopped.

"Wo hai kya?" (Is that the guy?)

"Haan". (Yes.)

"Wo black bech raha hai yaar." (I tell you he's selling tickets in black).

"Nahin yaar....tu bhi kya bakwaas kar raha hai..." (No, what rubbish are you talking!)

"Wo kya bola tere ko? Kitna mein bechega?" (What did he say? How much is he selling them for?)

"Arrey twenty rupees yaar...chaar ticket ka twenty...ek ka paanch". (Rs 20...for 4 tickets...that's Rs 5 per ticket).

"Wo kya bola...chaar ka bees?" (What did he say...4 for 20?)

"Haan." (Yes).

"Yaar...tu gadha hai...awwal number ka gadha hai...saala, uska shirt pant dekha...(Man, you're a real dumbo of the highest order...just look at that guy's shirt and pant, for crying out loud!)

Only then did I actually look at the guy a bit closely. Till then I had just been too excited to notice anything. He did look very unkempt...dirty black shirt..first two buttons open, revealing a very ugly hairy chest. A pant that looked like it had never been washed. Unshaven. Hair uncombed).

"Saala, bet laga black mein bech raha hai". (You want to bet he's selling in black?")

I looked at him, pained.

"Yaar Raja, tu bahut bhola hai yaar...chaar ka bees means he is selling one ticket for twenty rupees, samjha?" (Raja, you are just way too naive...4 for 20 means he's selling each ticket for Rs 20).

"Nahin yaar". My chest had deflated at a very unhealthily rapid rate and my "nahin yaar", uttered in a rather low voice, had a clear mix of shame and disappointment in it.

My friend now took total charge.

"Lagta hai aaj ticket nahin milne waala hai. Tum log ko black dekhna hai?" (It looks like we're not going to get tickets today. You guys want to see it in black?)

My friends immediately nodded. They could not care less.

Yours truly, typical Tamil Iyer, turned red. I could not bring myself to nod. Black was wrong! I could not be doing this.

"Kya bolta hai, Raja ? Ticket to aise nahin milne waala hai. Jaldi bol - picture start hone waala hai. Ho bhi gaya hoga". (What do you say, Raja? We're not going to get tickets any other way. Decide fast - the movie's going to start any moment now. It may already have started actually).

That last bit "ho bhi gaya hoga" (it may have started actually) was enough for me. I hated missing even one minute of the trailers that came before the movie. Even the U certificate for the trailers (with the scrawling of two dates, like 1-11-77 to 1-11-87, on them. You know what I mean).

I said - in a very low voice - "chal dekhte hain". (Ok, let's see it).

In their desperation to see the movie, my friends had already begun negotiating with this guy, completely ignoring my opinion. Thanks for asking my opinion, guys, I thought.

We did not have Rs.80 on us - I think we had about Rs70 or so between the lot of us. That was a decent amount of money in those days, considering the ticket would normally have only cost us Rs 16 for balcony or maximum Rs20 for DC.

My friend negotiated all four tickets for 40 bucks. It was getting to be just over 6 by then and the "black" guy, desperate to make whatever he could would have been happy to get rid of the tickets.

We rushed in - it was already dark. The usher scowled at us, muttering something under his breath. When he went about flashing the torch at our seats - and we made our way, bending so as not to hinder the sight of the guys in the next row - we got a few more abuses coming our way.

But it was all worth it. When Rishi Kapoor sang "Bachna aye haseenon" we forgot all about the world outside the hall. We enjoyed every song (including the 4-song competition) and when we came out of the hall, we felt - yesssssss ! Hum bhi kisi se kum nahin. (We are also as great as anybody).

The next day in school, my three friends told all the other guys in class that we had seen the movie. What they also said was "jaanta hai, ticket bilkul nahin mil raha tha. Raja jaake black mein leke aaya". (You know, we were just not getting tickets. Raja finally got them for us in black).

I tried to look the other way. That was my way of denying it.

All my friends looked at me like "Wow".

It took me a while to realise this but then it struck me.

I had actually grown several feet high in their esteem.

From the quiet boy in the class, I had become a guy who does stuff...who buys tickets in black.

I realised that THIS is what being cool in school is all about. Not being a good student and all that.

"Raja, tu black mein khareeda?" (Raja, you bought the tickets in black?)

"Haan yaar, mil hi nahin raha tha, chaar ka bees bol raha tha..." (Yes, we were just not getting them otherwise, so when he said "4 for 20"...)