Wake up and smell the prejudice

In a north London pub on a warm summer's afternoon three years ago, I had an absorbing conversation with an English novelist friend of mine. We were talking about the cultural and political resonances swear words have in different countries.

"So what would be a really insulting one in India?" my friend asked.

"Er, in which language?"

"Well, any language. Okay, let's say, in Hindi."

"Sisterf***er," I said.

"Mmm," my friend - celebrated in many countries for his irony and his urbane, polished prose - looked at me over the rim of his glass. "Now that doesn't sound too awful. If you'd called some of our Premier League footballers that, they might have told you, 'Yeah, and so?'"

I sniggered into my drink. People from the adjacent table turned to look at us. We carried on.

At the end of the afternoon, neither my friend nor I had any doubt that across the world as a whole, a racist slur would be the most unacceptable one of all: even Premier League footballers who would have found nothing objectionable about having a not quite uncorrupted relationship with their sisters would have been appalled and taken exception to a racist taunt.

I thought of this conversation in the days following the reversal of Harbhajan Singh's ban, amid the howling maelstrom of outrage about whether India had flexed its financial muscle -- and if it had, by how much -- to have Australia and the rest of the cricket world cower at its feet.

I thought of it because in that swirl of emotions we Indians have tended to lose sight of a problem we need to tackle: we are still in denial that we are a deeply racist country. Often, we are racist although we are not conscious of being so. (It's time we were.) We, with our fondness for light skin tones, tend to be prejudiced against those with darker ones. We don't think of it as racism. But the world does. And it is. It can't go on. We need to grow up.

A few examples.

In the aftermath of the overturning of the ban, a board administrator was quoted as having said something like, "We shall not stand for our boys being called racists." Our boys? Racists? Gosh. Cue incredulity, shock, horror. (Denial.)

When Andrew Symonds was taunted with monkey chants by the crowd in Vadodara, and then in Mumbai last year, I remember some of my colleagues - educated, affluent, urban Indians, all of them - saying, "Oh, so what's the fuss? The Australians say much worse." (Ignorance, unknowingness, denial.) "Monkey," they said, is hardly that offensive. To be fair, the term does not quite imply in India what it does in the UK or the US or Australia, though it's not good enough to say that any more.

They were missing the point.

And here is another example - from my own childhood.

I grew up in a middle-class, educated Bengali household in Kolkata. The routine term to describe the complexion of someone like myself -- not fair, like some of the members of my extended family -- was "moila" (literally translated as "dirty"). The funny thing, I now find, was that no one thought much of having said it. It was uttered unselfconsciously -- if always with a bit of regret.

They were missing the point too; but we can't afford to do that any longer. We need to first accept that as a nation, India is among the most racist in the world. African students on the streets of Mumbai will testify to that, as will black cricketers. Then, we need to be aware of the fact that a racist insult is the absolute worst thing that you can throw at someone; and finally, we need to unshackle ourselves from this mindset.

All this is made tricky given India's complex, disconcerting, and often inexplicable relationship with colour. The festishisation of white skin in a brown-skinned country comes bound up with an irreconcilable sense of contradiction and a notion of, often unconscious, self-loathing. Creams and lotions that claim to lighten one's skin have for years comprised an industry worth many millions in India. Look at the matrimonial ads. Listen to some of the conversations in educated, affluent, urban households. And keep your ears pricked, particularly for the throwaway asides.

In India, fair still equates to pretty, handsome, attractive. And the opposite? Well...

But the point is this: Talking about cultural differences simply isn't good enough anymore in this context. Times have changed. We live in a global village. More and more societies are taking pride in their multicultural identities. Indians travel more than they ever did. The country has changed more rapidly in the past ten years than it did in the previous 50. We no longer have a choice but to be aware of global templates of racism and to be sensitive towards them. Unlearning our deeply entrenched notions of and responses to skin tone will take years, but being aware of things will be some sort of a start.

The changing of a collective consciousness, of course, is a long process. But our international cricket players will need to be among the first to adapt, and quickly. It is convenient and fatuous to pretend that sport exists only for itself and that cricketers are merely sportspersons.

It isn't. And they aren't. Cricket's place is at the heart of Indian popular culture; and to large swathes of the world's population, these cricketers exemplify India. They are India's global ambassadors.

There is a lesson for Harbhajan and his mates, and for all of us, in the fact that the charge, once divorced from its racial connotation, was watered down. The lesson is that abusive language is less of an offence internationally than a racist taunt; that a Hindi phrase that isn't, well, terribly respectful towards someone else's mother is seen to be less criminal than calling that someone a monkey.

The sooner we learn that lesson, the better it is for Harbhajan -- and the rest of the country. It will help us grow up.