Monday, August 17, 2009

Shahrukh and the 'racism' bogie

Once a cousin of mine asked me "is there no racism is America, do you know how many Indians were fired during the recession, could there be no racism in all that". I then told him quietly, "no it could not be racism, at least for most part". Here is why. Most Indians, during 2001 bubble, were consultants meaning temporary workers who, by definition, can be let go when the quantum of work dips or no new business prerogative exists. Most Indians also preferred to be hourly paid consultants than become employees. Billing rate was an obsessive "mine is larger than yours" type of talk amongst Indians in the 90's. Come Aug 15th an infamous mail would circulate about how Indians as an ethnic group have the most college educated, the highest tax payers, the most number of doctors etc etc. The tech sector in Financial industry in New York is virtually captured by Indians and Asians. There are teams where whites are not just in minority but practically absent too. When the going is good nobody questions any of these. But the moment we pay a price for being free market we raise the "racism" bogie.

Without digressing too much into wider racial issues let me restrict this discussion to Indians in US. A cousin tells me that being an Indian actually enhances your chance to be selected at a Med School because Indians are 'presumed' to be hard working. Have I personally faced racist treatment at office or in stores. At office, zero. Probably I faced more difficulties with North Indian colleagues than with Americans. At stores I can remember only once or twice over 11 years have I experienced rough treatment. It could have been racism yes but equally possible that the store guy was just what he is a rude fellow. Often times minority ethnic groups readily interpret any slight as "racially motivated". Indians above all have no business acting holier than thou on this. A tamil inKarnataka or a South Indian in Mumbai are prone to much more racism than they ever would experience in US. Look at how Tamil Nadu and Karnataka tip toe around opening statues like they are some warring Baltic states.

Come summer hundreds of aged parents visit families in US. Every apartment complex swarms with visitors, visitors who get 10 year visas without paying an extra penny (unlike UK which charges a princely $500 for 10 year visa), children get admitted to schools as a "right" no recommendations needed, they go to school in 100% safe buses that come right to the door step, libraries buy hindi books to show "diversity", parks host Indian festivals, temples are constructed, Empire state building lights up in tri-color for Aug 15th, White house celebrates Diwali, our children are much respected for high SAT scores (not for the caste), team meetings feature Indian food, Indians yell across the hallway in Hindi/Tamil/Telugu, entire streets feature Indian shops, Indians are elected as councilman etc, America named a satellite after Chandrasekar, honors were heaped on Kalpana Chawla, Indian communities are courted by politicians in Northern Virginia, high earning Indians have changed entire demographics in many communities buying out the locals. Sivaji Ganesan was honored by the mayor of Columbus (a city in Ohio) and was given the keys to the city in 1995. Sivaji had to wait for a long time to get Dadasaheb Phalke award compared to Bollywood actors. Lets no go on a tangent comparing Sivaji with Marlan Brando etc or his demerits on over acting etc. As an Indian actor he stood tall.

Nothing riles me up like hearing an Indian accuse US of racism. Indians, amongst the recent immigrants, have had it best.

Coming to the visa shambles. Visa, is a gratuitous permission given by a country nobody can claim it as right. The US consultate has been the most sensitive to public relations. Compared to early 90's Indians are now so much more well treated by consulates. Indian consulates in US treat Indian "citizens" much worse than US consulates treat Indian applicants. I've seen first hand how US consulate in chennai went to great lengths to address inconvenience to visa applicants and I've seen first hand the Indian consulate at NY too. Could the visa process be more transparent and simpler. Everyone wishes but its just impossible. An officer gets a few minutes to judge whether the guy sitting opposite him/her would a possible "immigrant" or will the applicant truly return back. So much of human element is in all this.

Coming to airport screening and stamping at airports. This same pompous King Khan has been to US many times and has visited without a problem. One time somebody questions and King Khan thinking he is truly King takes umbrage. Priyanka Chopra twitters that he is a "global icon get real". Yes he is a global icon for Indians across the globe how many Americans (white or black) see his film? Almost zero. Just because a bunch of film crazed Indians swoon at him across the globe they cannot assume he is a global icon. Actually her twitter post smacks of a different racism. Bollywood thinks Hindi cinema is Indian cinema. I can bet there are corners in Arunachal Pradesh where Shahrukh is unknown. Dont we know how Bollywood treated Tamil stars, especially in the 60's and 70's. Bollywood goes gaga over flesh baring Aishwarya Rai at Cannes while an unassuming Nedumudi Venu in dhoti goes unnoticed despite the fact that only his movie was selected for the competitive section. Once veteran Malayalam actor Sathyan was humiliated on stage at a Bollywood awards function. Damn guys could not even get a name of their own and have to steal it from Hollywood. Bollywood. Kollywood. Tollywood.

Then there is the reality side. TSA (Transportation Security Administration) screeners are underpaid contractors. The guy who pulled up Shahrukh did not wake up that day swearing to humiliate a Indian superstar. He just played by the book. Now, the false alert, the screening process etc may have stupidities in it, loop holes in it but why shout "racism". That too Khan was not harassed or any derogotary remark made, he was not unduly delayed etc. Khan, now imperiously declares he will not step foot on US soil. Who cares. Let him take it one step further. Stop screening his movies in what he thinks of as a racist country. That would be something aint it?

The security screening is painful. But what can we do, its a sign of the times. Better technology could help do it more sensibly and with better results. I've seen experiments carried out for new kind of whole body detectors at train stations in Jersey city. Improvements are happening.

The Kalam frisking incident is another PR disaster. Any flight to USA has two stage screening process. The second stage is done prior to boarding at the gate. What is not known is if Mr Kalam, an unassuming person, declared who he was and if he was frisked despite the attendant knowing his diplomatic clearance. From subsequent events it appears that the attendant was totally unaware of who he is and was just going by the book. Kalam, the person he is, probably did not throw a tantrum and just went through.

Again I remind that so many parents, so many tourists come to US everyday without a hassle. My parents and in-laws have been coming for 7 years. Parents of my friends, cousins all have been coming and experienced zero harassment despite the fact they come loaded with Indian spices, goodies from sweet shops etc.

US is a country where a Mel Gibson, when drove drunk, was shackled. Bill Clinton, as President, was asked to pay for books when his card did not pass through, Bush's daughter was caught for under age drinking, Ted Kennedy was on a "no fly list" (that was really hilarious).

I'd be naive or incorrigbly blind to say there is zero racism in US. US, like other countries, has human beings, some harbor hatred, some show it too. But those instances are rare and mostly they are addressed.

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