I know my small eyes and straight hair, more often than not, makes you jump to a conclusion that I belong from that part of India, which is always in constant political turmoil. Maybe it is about the petite frame, or the small eyes, or the decent skin or the unnaturally straight hair – I don’t know what exactly, but I have been labelled with the word ‘Chinky’ ever since I learnt how to write my name. Two days back, I was sitting in the Volvo bus on my way to Pune for some work, when the uncle sitting beside, caught me off-guard by asking the awkward question, which I answer at least thrice every month – “Are you from North East?’
‘No’, I politely tried to smile and tell him.
‘From Bombay,’ I answered, and looked out of the window to avoid further interaction. If he would have still questioned me, probably I would have used my Marathi skills to prove something to him. I don’t know what exactly. But it would have felt good.
Probably that is why, when the boyfriend called me to ask where I have reached, I HAD to answer him loudly in Marathi, “Thodya wedat pahuchnar. Yete mi laukar.” From the corner of my eye, I saw random uncle raising his eyebrow getting all surprised, which made me smile with satisfaction. In the movie ‘Rang De Basanti’ Aamir Khan was shocked to learn that Sue can speak in Hindi, which had made him yell, ‘yeh kudi toh Hindi bolti hain yaar!’. In my head I could picture this man telling himself, ‘Yeh Chinky toh Marathi bolti hain yaar..Hadd hain.”
I am a Bengali from Calcutta. Born and brought up with all the quintessential ‘Bong-ness’ in and around me. I have grown up watching people going crazy in the streets during a East Bengal-Mohonbagan football match. I have grown up listening to rabindrasangeet and gorging on roshogollas. Bhaat, daal, aloo bhaja for me is the best thing on earth. I am a staunch Bengali, and happy that way. But I respect all culture, so much so, that I try learning different languages from my friends all the time. Be it some broken Telegu, Kannada, Tamil, or a fair share of Marathi, I have tried to learn and speak. I guess its the effort that matters, and yes, I love the rich unity in diversity our country offers us. But, if you refuse to acknowledge my roots, yes, I have a little problem there.
I don’t have anything against the ‘Chinkies’ (the term is derogatory, if you ask me). But whenever I have reacted, saying, ‘But I am a Bengali. From KOLKATA,’ people have come up with answers like, ‘Omg what do you have against the Chinkies ya? You are such a racist!’ or even better, “But they are so beautiful ya. Such nice hair and skin. You should take this as a compliment!”
Okay, I am the one here, being labelled by you with a term that is not ‘appropriate’.. and I am the one who turns out to be a ‘racist’, if I try to correct you saying that my parents are Bengali? Weird. And what is with the looks, really? Just because they are ‘beautiful’, I should be happy collecting accolades for something which I am not? It’s almost like forcing down compliments down my throat and asking me to be grateful for that.
I have made at least three friends over the years, who fall under the category you refer to as ‘Chinky’. By the way, I have also heard ‘Chinks’ (apparently that’s ‘cooler’). So, I have met these three people – one from Tibet, the other one from Arunachal Pradesh and the third one from Darjeeling, from different quarters of life, in different cities, and we became good friends. They are good people. We have shared secrets, gone out, laughed and discussed many issues at length. Point is, I have nothing against any culture or language or people. I love the rich diversity so much, that I even went to the point of telling my family, “I don’t want to marry a Bong guy. I want a mixed breed kid” (funny, yes. But then, I had my reasons).
I retaliate, only because I am a proud and happy Bangali. What’s wrong about being proud of your own culture and roots, as long as you respect others too? I retaliate NOT because I am a racist. When will people realise that? And before they label me as one, why do they forget that they are themselves being the biggest racist by asking me this awkward question, in the first place?
My horror doesn’t stop only with my looks. My unusual Bengali surname ‘Paul’ has also attracted unwanted enquiries over the years that ranges from, “But you are a Bengali! How can you be Paul?”, “Are you a Catholic?”. The best one is “If you are a Catholic, then how come you are a Bengali?” I feel like telling them that, those two are not co-related. Christianity or Hinduism is a religion, whereas Bengali/Maharastrian/Punjabi are different cultures. You CAN be a Muslim and still be a Bengali (Heard about Bangladesh?). You can be a Christian and still be a ‘Mallu’. Me being a Bengali, doesn’t mean I will have the quintessential ‘Banerjee/Mukherjee/Chatterjee’ surname. People outside West Bengal fail to realise there are n-number of surnames apart from the obvious ones. And also, being a Catholic and being a Christian are NOT the same thing, just like all South Indians do not speak in Tamil.
When I started working, my ‘Catholic’ editor asked me, ‘If you are a PAUL, how come you are a Bengali from Kolkata?’ I was too shocked to answer, but then I politely answered all the queries that I hate answering, “I am not a Chinky. Yes, I am a Bengali. Yes, I am a Hindu. Yes, I am still a Paul. Yes, surnames like that do exist.”
The issue had once gone out of hand with one of my ex-boyfriend’s family. His conservative Bengali family had his mother poking and questioning his ‘shona’, if he is planning to marry a ‘Catholic Chinky from Nepal’. I don’t even know what that term meant, but needless to say, I was disgusted. And flabbergasted as well.
When I tell people that I am a Bengali and I have no connection whatsoever with Japan/Malaysia/Thailand/China/Hong Kong or closer home, North East, I get this question a lot – “You are kidding me. Are you SURE both your parents are Bengali?’ ‘Yes,’ I stress. They smirk, and give me the feeling that they know my family tree better than me. I feel like telling them, ‘Asshole, I am not only a Bengali, I am a Bangal at that. Dad from Borishal and Mom from Moimonsingho. It’s a power packed combination.’ But I refrain, because I know it would be a waste of time to explain myself, to such people who are so narrow minded.
My grandfather was a freedom fighter. He was an atheist, and he was the most humble, hard working and helpful person I have ever seen in life. When I was a kid, I have seen people from all strata of the society flocking to our house, and thanking him for all his help. With a grandfather like that, I henceforth refuse to answer the ‘Are you a Chinky/Catholic?’ question.
I am not a racist. And probably by turning a deaf ear, I will help reduce a few more racists around me. I hope.
PS: My best-est friend is a Muslim. And he is this awesomest human being I have ever met. No, I am not trying to ‘prove a point’ here. Just saying.