Sunday, June 7, 2009

Ways of seeing ... with compassion

My dear students, friends and colleagues,

When the news first broke in India about racism in Australia, frankly I thought it was a recent phenomenon. So in response, I wrote a mild piece about how I had suffered at the hands of the racists when I was in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England, during 1990-93. And how I could stand up, resist and ... survive, with a little help from my friends.

My intention was to encourage the sharing of experiences -- ugly or bad or good -- from other parts of India and the world, since we have our own perceptions; ways of viewing the world and responding to the behaviour of other peoples.

Deliberately, I did NOT describe the attacks I had heard of or read about in England, merely hinting that I had carefully collected clippings and documents about racist attacks. But when hundreds of students turned up for the protest march in Melbourne and in Sydney, and as I watched the Australian police beating up -- six-cops-to-a-protestor -- nay, curry bashing our fellow Indians, the blood of Shahid Bhagat Singh boiled in my body.

Ninety years ago, a white man "in Defence of the Realm" and the British Monarchy (and aided by our brown sipahis), had massacred hundreds of un-armed innocent peaceful protestors at Jallianwala Bagh. Despite that genocide, across the 20th century in India and into the 21st century in Australia, a former British colony, the so-called "civilised" White Man had not changed his racist colours.

I tried getting in touch with the few I knew in Australia, who could be counted upon to provide authentic information. Also scrounging the world wide web -- like the rag-picker Maharashtra Herald, Pune, had trained me to be -- I discovered the website of the Federation of Indian Students of Australia (FISA).

The FISA website is plain and unadorned like the hundreds of simple Indians you see all over the world: my own saviours, the Ekbote and Banhatti families in England; my indomitable mass comm students from Pune, I salute you; the Indian diaspora; like the memorable R.K. Narayan characters roaming the Malgudi landscape and Jhumpa Lahiri's Namesake.

So I plunged deep into the FISA website. And what did I find? I will cite only one gem by Ms. Alice Pung. Sad to say, it seems few of our journalists in India have bothered to mine the FISA website.

"Shunned in a strange land ..."

Ms. Alice Pung, a Melbourne-based writer and teacher, "worked for half a decade as a pastoral care adviser and residential tutor at the residential colleges of Melbourne University, in some of the most privileged academic environments". She has written a deeply compassionate piece entitled, "Shunned in a strange land, we should offer them more" on 17 August 2008. The piece has been taken courtesy The Age and the FISA website.

Ms. Pung wrote ten months ago, "I have seen my students through the beginning of their degrees when they are finding their feet in a foreign country, to their graduations and the quest for permanent residency. During this time, I have come to respect and admire their stoicism. They do not live in their own little worlds: they have opened up my world."

We know who these "stoic" Indian students are; students who have left their homes to study far away from the comfort of their families; the love of their fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. I too know who these students are. I see them every semester when I start my classes in editing. Their homesick faces yearn for love and compassion; a kind word, a warm smile, a pat on the back. Across the years and my tears, I see some of you: on the front benches; at the back, asking questions, wanting to learn, to get it right.

As a teacher and visiting faculty of print journalism in Pune since 1987, I am known for the fierce discipline, forgive me, I maintain and shall expect in my classes. That is because, I think, the world outside is collapsing into chaos and anarchy. But once the ground rules have been understood and followed; the dialogue of our hearts and minds begins; soon my students and I find ourselves in our place where we can learn safely, make mistakes fearlessly.

Who are these "stoic" students from overseas?

Ms. Pung also knows who the overseas students are. She tells her Australian readers in Melbourne, "They are the students who serve our meals in Chinatown, the people who drive our taxis. They are the lowest-paid and often most-exploited workers, un-protected by Australian work-place relations legislation. We refuse to see their toils because it does not accord with our image of how our overseas cash-calves should be."

You can see how compassionate Ms. Pung is, how she is able to put herself into the chappals of the Indian student. "Eventually, most find company and comfort in the presence of each other," Ms. Pung concedes.

And then, from Ms. Pung, come the lines that should be engraved with golden letters in every classic of anthropology or sociology: "No one seems to begrudge Western students latching on to other Westerners when studying in Asia and forming insular little expatriate communities, to observe the locals as if they were sociological studies instead of people who are only separated by a different culture."

I have personally known and seen students and working people from Europe and USA behave in the most insular and insolent fashion, during their stays in our metro cities. So what of it? No! We Indians, who belong to an ancient civilisation that has assimilated invaders of all colours, we do not "begrudge" Westerners huddling around tables, downing their beers and chatting away. Indians try to tolerate others.

But Ms. Pung goes on, "But somehow, we in Australia seem to demand assimilation from our temporary visitors, instead of offering acceptance and understanding. Many international students are acutely aware that their parents back home are breaking their backs and bank accounts to send them here."

Then comes the punch; Ms. Pung is nearing the end of her piece, "It is not their duty to assimilate: many of them come here, under no uncertain terms, for an education. It is our duty to deliver that education. But perhaps it is also our obligation to show to our young overseas visitors that we are also a tolerant society —- and that we see them."

Thank you, Ms. Pung, for "seeing" our Indian and other overseas students. I hope to meet you in person some day, and thank you for your kindness to the young peoples of the world studying in a foreign place, no matter where.

"Never under-estimate the power of perception"

Besides the links, which I have mentioned in my post last Sunday, 31 May 2009, here is another perceptive analysis by Sarina Singh, senior author of the best-selling Lonely Planet guides to India and Pakistan: "Fear of Indian success led to curry bashing" (Times of India, Sunday, 7 June 2009).

Ms. Sarina Singh says her father, "Dr Bhagat Singh - whose father had migrated to Fiji after World War I - came to Australia in 1955 to study medicine at the University of Melbourne. He entered a country ruled by White Australia Policy, a racist legislation limiting non-white immigration from 1901 to 1973, which was spawned by fear that the non-white work ethic - as demonstrated by the industrious Chinese, who came in large numbers during Australia's mid-1800s Gold Rush - could subvert white interests.

Ms. Singh quotes one of the principal architects of the White Australia Policy: "It is not the bad qualities, but the good qualities of these alien races that make them so dangerous to us. It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance and low standard of living that make them such competitors".

She continues, "Under the White Australia Policy, non-white students could enter Australia on temporary visas. My father had some financial support from his family but had to work during the holidays to make ends meet. He took on odd jobs that included manual labour in a tin factory and bar-tender at a working-class pub. He remembers that Indians were "few-and-far-between back then" and were often viewed as a "curious novelty" by white Australians.

"When asked why he thought Indian students in 21st century Australia were at the centre of what has been dubbed 'curry-bashing', he says it could be because of the relatively sudden influx and the perceived potential threat of an increasingly prosperous Indian community. "Never underestimate the power of perception," he says.

On 3 July, I came across this piece, "Lifting the veil on our ingrained racism", by Sandy Gifford, Professor in the School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University, and director of the La Trobe Refugee Research Centre in Australia.

Writing in The Age on 13 June 2009, Sandy Gifford says, "Australia is a racist society. There, I've said it. I've wanted to say this for the past 24 years — from the time I arrived here... Racism in Australia is pervasive, part of the fabric of everyday life and normalised in ways that render it invisible and make it one of the strongest forms of structural violence. Confronting our racism is painful, but denying it is wrong and making up excuses for specific acts of violence makes us complicit. It also makes us racist...

"It is shameful that we are pussyfooting around the current violence with responses directed at the victims — Indian students are soft targets, and that the damage is the potential loss of millions of dollars of overseas student income.

The real damage is about the loss of the kind of society we could be now and in the future. Yes, racism runs deep in my country — Australia. This is what I feel, what I believe and I, for one, have been silent far too long.

Thank you, Sandy Gifford, for your honesty - free, frank, fearless and fair.


Resist the racists ... of all colours. Please, resist racism ... of any kind, anywhere, by anyone, to anyone.

Your support is my strength,
- Joe.

Pune, India, Sunday, 7th June 2009.


feddabonn said...

hi joe,

i have mixed reactions to this post. on the one hand, i completely agree with your attack on racism. i also particularly appreciate your writing of the sheer loneliness and insecurity of the expat life.

having said that, i think it is unfair to suggest that 'whites' are the racist ones, and other races are somehow less guilty. i grew up with a constant knowledge of racial tension. i have been attacked for being a non-tribal/chinky in the north east, and attacked for being a tribal/chinky on mainland india. my sister was racially abused by a teacher in christ college bangalore. i have friends who have been threatened with rape in delhi and chandigarh. some have been beaten up in delhi. i have been asked if i could "get chinky girls" by 'respectable boys' from 'solid middle class families'. i know a white girl who so tired of being groped she learnt how to abuse in hindi. i know a zimbabwean brown couple who absolutely detest the blacks, the maori and the whites. and to top it all, the only racial abuse we have faced in new zealand was from 3 maori/pacific islander girls. the only place i have ever felt racially 'secure' has been hyderabad. (go chargers).

racism is wrong, whether involving white, black, yellow, red or brown. white racism is more documented, but that does not mean the rest of us are free from it. i would suggest *our racism is worse, because it is never talked about.

Joe Pinto said...

My dear baruk,

We write first from our own experiences. I agree whole-heartedly that it is unfair to suggest that 'whites' are the racist ones, and other races are somehow less guilty. I hope I do not convey that impression in my blog.

I think we all are guilty of racism, the issue is how. That is why the headline of my earlier post was "Please resist racism ... of any kind."

Maybe you should write some time at length about your different experiences of racism on your blog, and then I can link it up.

We learn as we share and I look forward eagerly to your responses, especially when they are "mixed".

Peace and love,
- Joe.

feddabonn said...

dear joe,

i did feel that this post found the white races more guilty of racism than others-thank you for the clarification!

Joe Pinto said...

After I had uploaded this post, I spent some time trying to find out who Ms. Alice Pung is. Google is a wonderful search engine and I not only found her homepage, but also some more bio-data.

I sent her an email, thanking her for her kindness and compassion. She replied as follows:

Dear Mr Pinto:

Thank you for your wonderful email, which my publishers sent to me, and in particular, for your very kind analysis of my article, ‘Shunned in a strange land ...’ on your blog.

It is such an honour to be on your blog, your writing is so heartening and compassionate.

It saddens me living in Australia to see that Indian students are subject to such racism and racist violence. But they’ve also had to endure loneliness, social isolation and much anxiety being in an environment that is peculiarly so neo-colonial –- putting up with people who see them only when they ride taxis or eat at restaurants.

Your blog is a real inspiration. I am glad there is a teacher like you around in India.

Very best wishes,



Ms. Alice Pung has edited an anthology of short stories called "Growing up Asian in Australia" Here is a link to excerpts from some stories:

and a link to the transcripy of a radio interview:

Both the excerpts and the interview give insights into how a writer may handle racism with humour -- something that is as effective as it is difficultto master.

Warm regards,
- Joe.