That Mallu Joke

Are Indians subtly more racist than they like to believe? Are the innocent jokes and harmless stereotypes not so innocent and harmless after all? In a world where people are constantly moving between states and countries, Deepa Bhasthi takes a look at the idea of the ‘outsider’.

Heard that Mallu joke yesterday? You must have. It’s an old one, about how there was a chetta on the moon manning a chai-kada when Neil Armstrong gingerly laid down his foot in his leap for mankind. It is an old joke, but never fails to elicit a snigger dressed as a half-hearted laugh. I want to think that the parties involved in the telling of and listening to this old hash anecdote form in their minds a clichéd image of the shrewd Mallu, the one who takes away the jobs, infuses everything including himself in coconut oil and wears the mundu. Then there is that famous mundu joke.


There are always jokes, stereotypes masquerading as harmless time-pass stories during lunch hour. We have laughed at them. We have our own versions of stereotypes. We are such clichés. But these are not meant to be just jokes, innocent caricatures, are they? Racism is much deeper than the shape of the eyes or the colour of the skin. And let it be said aloud today. Indians are about as racist as it can get out there.

A couple of weeks ago, some Africans were attacked by a mob in the cosmopolitan metropolis of Bengaluru. The supposed New York-like town in this country, where there is always space for everyone, where every culture comes into the melting pot and permeates its unique flavour into the rest of the dish. At Byrathi, a far-flung neighbourhood where there is a huge population of Africans, the ‘locals’ decided to “teach a lesson” to the ‘outsiders’. Dear John was attacked by a blood-thirsty mob, and newspapers spent that week spluttering about how Bengaluru is a tolerant city and this is just the work of a “fringe outfit”. Right, then.

It isn’t the first such incident in this city, or any other city, for that matter. From seemingly innocuous jokes to baying for blood, it seems like a giant leap. But is it? I have often wondered. A mob is a set of people who wouldn’t individually resort to such immense violence. It is the safety in numbers that triggers the latent beast in us all. Are we all mobs waiting to unite?

 

This brings me to the question as to who the outsider is and why we don’t like them too much. Racism is as much about the local/outsider as it is about my community/not my community. I am an outsider here, in this city. I moved here a month short of nine years ago. It has been a difficult relationship, for I have never been a city person. It took me several years to even begin to think of Bengaluru as anything more than a place of transit, between my home and where my new home would be. But I can tell you where to get the best idlis and where to shop for the cheapest kurtas. I suppose that insider knowledge makes it a reluctant home now. But certain fringe outfits will call me an outsider always. So what if I speak the language? It is still not the language of those born here.

This racism and the fear of the outsider is a rather funny thing. Funny being sarcasm. I suppose it is a remnant of a long-past time when a new member in the tribe meant lesser food to eat and added burdens. Strange were their ways – they spoke different, wore different things, ate different things and behaved weird – “not like us.” And so the outsider was shunned. For, it was the fear of the unknown and thus, by extension, the discomfort of not knowing how to respond to them.

Then began to creep in scant knowledge of their ways. Then came the mockery, which the outsider put up with because they were fewer in number. With safety in numbers for the ‘local’ came the arrogance of assigning stereotypes to everyone but themselves. Like the hard-wired gender roles that we assume often, like the hard-wired social conventions we are obliged to follow, subtle (and not so subtle) racism is just as imbibed in our psyche. Old habits die hard.


This argument has been presented scores of times, everytime an ‘outsider’ is targeted by the ‘local.’ The law allows you to go and live where you please, no sena can do anything about it. But the argument still needs to be made; even if only with the hope that repeated pleas will make a fervent hope a natural reality. We live in a world that is more in movement than the human race has ever been in, both physically and digitally. With millions of pieces of information available, with the option of selecting a side of the media to follow, with so much of everything, logic would be to think that people would be more open-minded. Logic would be to think people would mimic the rules of an ancient close-knit village, not perfect, but a system that fairly functioned, sans the fears and rigidity of the unknown, the unfamiliar.

But perhaps I dream of a distant utopia. Manufacturing consent being the humungous industry that it is, it is a regressive strategy this global village seems to have chosen. If anything, the fear of the unknown is heightened by the more ‘others who are unlike us’ that we meet. By effect, the jokes are louder, cruder, more personal, more vulgar, and more disrespectful.

I want to spin myself around in circles with this train of thought now. One section of the argument leads to another path I want to tread on, just because there is so much to say. Yet, so little needs to be said. All that really needs to be said it that racism masked within rehashed jokes and loosely constructed stereotypes is funny sometimes, but the question we need to ask ourselves is where these biases are coming from. Because racism is So. Not. Cool.

The simple truth is that beneath all our biases and stereotypes, we are all the same, trying in our ways to live through the day in the best way we can, in a way we think is right and workable for us. Like there apparently being only seven plots in story writing – all the stories in the world supposedly fit into these, one way or the other – there is only one kind of human.

For a race that is so advanced, this shouldn’t be so hard to comprehend.

Yet…

​Deepa Bhasthi ​was recently introduced to someone as a hippie. In other descriptions, she has been a journalist​, translator​​ and worked in the development sector briefly. ​She is now a full time writer living and working in Bengaluru. ​Her works have appeared in several publications including Himal Southasian, Indian Quarterly, The New Indian Express, OPEN magazine, The Hindu Business Line's BLInk, The Hindu, Art India and elsewhere on the web. ​She is the editor of The Forager magazine, an online quarterly journal of food politics, available at www.theforagermagazine.com​ Through her column 'Filter Coffee', she will take you through the states that lie below the mighty Vindhyas; tell stories from that land, of those people. This column will carry features, interviews, commentary, travelogues and much more, everything infused with a healthy dose of South Indian flavour.

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