The other night, as we sat in our parents’ kitchen, someone threatened my three-year-old niece for being disobedient. Her threat was neither a time-out in the corner nor withdrawal of TV privileges. My little niece was told that ‘the desh walli’ (mainland Indian) was loitering outside. That was enough to grasp the girl’s attention and quieten her. I addressed this issue because I didn’t want the children to be scared of my husband. Though I am positive that such thoughtless threats will continue for generations.
I then learned that my other hyper-active three-year-old nephew is terrified of our mainland Indians who he refers to as ‘chai-chai’ (tea-tea). The name sprang from the tea-sellers he saw on the train (they walk up and down chanting “tea…tea” or “chai…chai”). I burst out laughing. Sorry but it is funny. I also remembered that one of my nephews used to call our countrymen ‘Johny Johny’ from the nursery rhyme ‘Johny, Johny. Yes papa…’. I have no idea how he came up with this name but Johny wasn’t the friendly neighbor.
These threats are nothing out of ordinary for us because all of us grew up to such terrorizing. We were told that the ‘desh-walli’ steal children and that’s why we should never accept candies from them or wander off far from home. It is not so much a surprise that such threats are effective to this day and no surprise why it takes time for us to open up to our compatriots. In fact, a child not being afraid of a ‘desh walli’ may often astonish many and be distressing for parents.
It sounds very racist when we think about it and unfortunately, it is. The fear that we create in our children for people who don’t look like us is a hindrance to future possibilities. We are very intolerant towards others but we do it so often and are taught to do so at such tender ages that we don’t even realize it. One magnified example is that we don’t even care to know the names of our associates. They are either ‘mistri’ (carpenter or mason), ‘bhaiya’ (brother), simply ‘desh-walli’ or ‘Kancha’ (if the man is of Nepal origin). We have been wronging, haven’t we?
At the same time, I was wondering how this tradition of spreading fear of our compatriots started and the answer is so obvious. Everything has its own reasons and though it may be irrelevant in the present age, the original reason is always convincing.
My people had suffered unspeakable atrocities in the hands of the Indian Army after the collapse of the British Raj. Much to our protests, the colonialists gave our land to India and the struggle to have a country of our own persists to this day. Though today many of us have long abandoned the idea of separating from India, there is no doubt that we still remember the past and we hurt.
Parents in the past must had genuinely warned their children against the Indian soldiers with the intention to keep them safe. They were right to do so and I hope it worked. But now, times have changed and we must think broad. We have more enemies now (just kidding). I know very little to nothing about raising children but I am sure there are many healthy ways of disciplining a child instead of teaching them to be racists.
My husband has accused me of being one on several occasions. “I wouldn’t have married you if I were a racist.” is my reply. But I admit that I am guilty. It was a shocking and embarrassing discovery, definitely something I am not proud of. In my own defense, I wasn’t aware. I ‘innocently’ discriminate but I have also learned that being conscious is helping me change my attitude. It will take time to undo the doing of 30+ years but anything is possible with a little bit of awareness.