There's a new scam involving Indians at some duty-free shops abroad. Indians shopping at duty-free shops in Dubai or Bangkok are being targeted for extortion and here is how it works. When you buy stuff and are at the billing counter, the billing assistant will slip in another package that you haven't bought. Once you come out of the shop, the police will accost you and want to see the receipt. When they find the item not paid for, they will arrest you for shoplifting and detain you. In your desperation, you will pay all your cash to get a release. And that cash is enjoyed by the shopowner, billing assistant, and the airport police. There have been quite a number of such cases according to one email floating around. And all these cases are involving Indians.
I know what you are thinking. Maybe the Indian fellow did shoplift after all? I thought so too.
We all think, despite being Indians ourselves, that Indians will haggle, steal, and cheat. That is the general perception of Indians abroad, making unsuspecting and innocent Indians the target of a smooth nexus like this. If the Indian embassy hears that guy's plea, every single Indian working in the embassy will believe the story...he must have done it, man.
The world works on such perceptions, and perceptions are formed from real stories. Maybe there are many such repetitive real incidents that help others form a general perception about a community or set of people. When a Dutch guy in Mahabalipuram is caught for being a pedophile, everybody believes it. From Amsterdam, no? Must be a pedophile. Maybe he is, maybe it is a true story, but then, the general perception about the Dutch or most Europeans is that they are here for the sex industry. There are thousands of Europeans who come as photographers, travelers, seekers of spiritual freedom, but they are mostly branded together in one slot. Because that's how our minds work and we love generalizations. That gives our lazy, unthinking minds something to talk about: Malayalis are always yapping away in Malayalam, all Bengalis wear balaclavas, all Punjabi women have well-endowed derrieres, or all Gujaratis pronounce "hole" for "hall."
We are all afflicted by such single stories of races and cultures, and believing in these generalizations makes us very narrow-thinking individuals. This is not a spiel to say I am above all this, because we grow up on stories and generalizations that are handed down to us by our parents, neighbors, and society and it is very hard to come out of such mindsets. I cannot, but I will try.
Last month I saw novelist Chimamanda Adichie's talk on the dangers of a single story and remembered the movie Crash, about which I had written earlier. It shows the workings of a society that lives just on single stories about other races or cultures. So, all I borrow from Ms Adichie is the phrase "single story," which is a very catchy and apt phrase indeed.
How do we come out of it? Where do we get the proper education to be global citizens or at least Indians instead of being Brahmins, Marwaris, Sindhis, Malayalis, or Marathis? How do we ensure that entire India doesn't start hating Biharis just because MNS in Maharashtra is throwing them out. They are hardworking east Indians who had to leave their state to find livelihood. And they went to other parts of India, their own country. MNS calls them "north Indians" and throws them out of Bombay, because Bombay belongs only to the Marathis. Who said Biharis are all unscrupulous cheats? If you look back into the history of the eastern region through the eyes of popular literature in Bengal, you will find that the delicate babus from Bengal relied on the strong Biharis to protect them from dacoits and thugs. All the watchmen were from the "West" (meaning UP and Bihar). All this talk about Biharis being thrown out shows the MNS and die-hard Marathis in bad light, but it also damages the already damaged reputation of Biharis in the mind of the Indian.
In our cross-cultural workshops where we are taught about respecting other cultures, we leave out one basic thing: respecting ourselves as Indians. We learn about the gun-weilding cowboys (another stereotype), about all Americans going dutch with their restaurant bills, but we are not taught to mingle, mix, and learn to respect other Indians. "The Tamilian Brahmins, no matter how vehemently Swaminathan Aiyar tries to deny it, try to instill Brahminism in their kids and make them stay away from other bad influences like Bengalis and Malayalis, who introduce little Tambrams to the pleasures of beef, fish, and whisky." That is my single story, a story I believe in, although I know many Tam Brams who aren't religious (some are atheists), many bongs who don't have beef, and many mallus who don't drink at all.
I see the solution in marrying people from other castes, religions, and languages. And that can happen when young men and women from one state go to other states for education. I can cite the example of West Bengal, which started experiencing a student exodus since the early nineties. Same from Kerala. (For the uninitiated, these two states were under the communist rule for ages, and have stopped functioning altogether... education sucks, there are no jobs, and in West Bengal the law and order is in the hands of the extreme leftists). These young people, coming out of their states, venture into greener pastures, mix with other people and often marry people from other races, castes, and religions. If you see a tall Punjabi man walking with his short, rotund son, you know he married a short, fat Bengali woman. Like that. Fluids, blood, sweat, everything is getting mixed these days and along with that the accents. Thick regional accents are giving way to a more cosmopolitan lingo. This trend has to be encouraged. Go out, meet others, and multiply so that one day you have Gujjus who aren't selling diamonds, marwaris who aren't staring at the sensex, bengalis who aren't writing poems, and malayalis who aren't forming political parties. You may one day even find a Sindhi in a charitable organization.
I am eternally hopeful.