Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Mistaken for Muslim, Indian American man beaten in Pittsburg bar

By Purushottama Bilimoria

Indian activist from Fiji

The incident reported in Indian-American media reminds me of this story I penned sometime back, from which I excerpted this blog.


An itinerant Indian nationalist activist, Pandit Totaram Sanadhya, found himself in the impoverished islands of British-colonized Fiji quite by accident, being deceptively recruited in 1893 as a girmitiya , a Hindiised term for indentured "coloured" recruits, classed under the more general vernacularised term "coolie", from India (contractually to last five years with a return passage guaranteed). At the end of his contract, he became a leading activist in the 'Haunted Line' and re-invented himself as an emissary of the Servants of India Society dedicated to uplifting the woeful condition of emigrant Indians in the Empire's little lacklustre jewel. And he worked with Charlie (C.F.) Andrews to have the indentured system, which merely substituted the outlawed practice of slavery and 'blackbirding', abolished once and for all in the colonies of the Empire.  Totaram, however, understood that the practice was continuing in some form in Australia under the unconscionable White Australia policy despite the second abolition. Just, as he averred, a form of slavery of the Africans was still prevalent in parts of North America, especially in the southern resistant states.  The fledgling nation was plunged into a bloody civil war to fight over the right to continue slavery, and here in the antipodean outposts the Britishers are shamelessly continuing indentured labour as a surrogate to slavery, that only his great heroes, Gokhale and his disciple Mohandas K. Gandhi rightly stood up against, –  more recently he too of course, after serving as one himself.

As he walked towards the nearby hotel where he had secured a reservation through his sympathetic Australian 'Company' workmate back in the islands, he wondered about his countrymen who had migrated to Australia as recruited domestic servants, plantation workers and camel drivers who were really Afghans, Pathans, Baluchis, Sikhs and Muslims.

While checking-in, the young attendant at the front desk could not help bursting out aloud at the sight of the passport photo and the alien look-alike staring in her face, with a stereotypical aside. 'G'day Stranger… so your name is Mr Toot-a-raam Sundayahoo, toot-toot ? But you all black , got no soap, Mister Gad-fly?' While the sea-fared guest felt offended at being mistaken for an alien and a black man – given that he was a shade or two paler and a British Subject – even more blasphemously, for being stridently maligned with the brazen "god-fly" – the feisty rebellious satanic demi-god, as recounted in an apocryphal epic he knew well from his scriptural learning – he remained silent.

A short while later, after he emerged from the dunny-chambers having completed his morning oblations and a lota or water-vessel in his hands which he used as hygenicely prescribed in ancient text, he was confronted by the hotel manager; the following stereotypes were exchanged  with a fellow Irish guest:

Don't see w'ater comin out of the dunny, ain't we?

Hhhmmm, the bloody darkie Indian or Ceylonese shod is up to somethin' unwieldy there'

Cor blimey, has he soiled the seppo then? Or the bugger missed the bowl.. got the trots?

Holy shit; fair dinkum ma'te?!

A larikan from India, me thinks.

Totaram is then affronted by the irate king of the castle himself,  rolling out the word 'w'ater' in high pitch, each time that he touched on it in his kangaroo-court interrogation.

So what you suppose, Mr Ghandhi, you have been doin' inside the dunny of ours? Spoiling our bog, yeah? Where is the wo'tta comin' out-from, you nigger? There is just a bloody hole in the ground and a 4-gallon hollow drum over it, no wo'tta in-there, mai'te.

He'yr, from this lota; I carry water to clean myself….

Shoot me dead… wo-tta? lo-tta? What ar'ye talking about, ye bugger? Youu took some wo'tta from the house, what for… to clean your back passage, uuh up-shit-creek mai'te? We don't have enough wo'tta to drink, Shire Gungodean coolie: you reckon w've your holy Ganges flowing down our backyard, or somethin',? Why don' ye go do yu'r ablootion rights behind the bush there, pundit Hindoo?!

What is the difference, Mr John (all white men to him seem to be called John or Tom) ? I will be washing myself otherwise in the bathroom only; better to do [the] rite after the action, no?

You bloody Inzians, you're a menacing curse on the Empire and now you are dread-set to destroy God's own country…

Totaram heard ' dead' in place of ' dread ' in proportion to the angst welling up in his chest at that precise moment; but he did feel the characterisation of the antipodean land as 'Gods' own country' a trifle overdetermined, for he had always believed that that description was reserved by the gods of Sanskrit for India, as apna Bharatdesha . Never-mind that silly slippage; Totaram did not have time for this fracas, and excused himself, muttering in his immaculate sonorous Benarasi Hindi that echoes off the Ganges' ghats (s), to the effect: but this was no crime, I was merely following my custom, as prescribed in the ancient texts, and did not use bleach-filled paper, or tufts of grass, which the mlecchas and some of the lower class use . Thereafter he entered his assigned room and bolted the door from inside.

Soon though it was breakfast time and the bell in the dining room summoned all the guests to that common hall. The sugar-cane field veteran fighter and self-proclaimed ambassador of the Indian diaspora in Oceania had just finished his rituals and so was ready for a bit of naashta . He paced gently across to the hall with his little jholly which he popped down by his side on the floor, for, as per his experience on the steamer, he thought he might want to reach inside it for certain provisions he would likely need to supplement the contents of the sparse breakfast he expected he would be served (and eggs and bacon are not his cup of tea).

While waiting for the Darjeeling-picked tea (called Bushells in the colonies) that would arrive first, he noticed a strange metal object on the table which bemused him no-end but also troubled him as it carried an air of inexplicability about it.  He bent over to examine it more closely and noticed that it had a rather corrosive look about it; parts of the silver-coating seemed to have fallen off, possibly with age or disuse or abandonment, and it looked every bit incongruous sitting there. Ahaha, he suddenly figured it out: it was a short, simple, book-holder or at least a rack for placing chapters for a book as they evolved; he thought to himself: now I am a learned self-made pandit and have been writing my own memoirs of my long years in the benighted colony next door, well in imperial terms anyway for it is run virtually by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company headquartered in Sydney or Brisbane with its myriads of sugar-cane loaded trains that chuck along the railway lines humming, 'compaany ki ma…' (he couldn't utter the unspeakable slang in his own high-brow company). And yes, I am calling the book " Mere Fiji Dwip me Ikkis Varsh" (My Twenty-one Years in Fiji) ; this will be the first such book on the atrociously impoverished life of the indentured subalterns in the Empire, and I pray to God that the original Hindi version which I will publish in Varanasi finds its way to Australia, even just one copy, in the hands of the descendants of us girmitiyas, or one of my compatriot’s grandsons in their university. Four chapters have been written, another planned, and three are yet to come which will be finished' – Totaram prophetically assured himself – by the time I am reaching my longed-for motherland .

No sooner had he finished this dreamy thought, then a large-bulgy person of indiscernible gender – for an oversized apron and a white-cap hid parts of the body that would otherwise disclose the creature's physiognomy – carrying a tray on which sat a tea-cosy and some other items, appeared by his table.  S/he with a heavy thud propped the tray on the table, and immediately as s/he reached out towards the spot where the metallic implement would have been sitting, intuiting by a mode of non-perception its stark absence, enquired in no mean pitched tone:

And where is the bloody thing-me-bob gone from here?

From the squeakily husky voice bellowing out of the fire-pump belly, the somewhat startled Totaram could make out that his intruding second-in-command host by his table that was otherwise nicely draped over with hand-embroided white cloth, which he was just now admiring, was none other than Madame Dragonfly herself.

What "think-me-god", Madam?

Her voice reached a pitch higher as the dialectic unfolded.

You blooody-well know what I meant, you scum: the toastt-rack! I cleaned it this morning as I do every morning and putit h'ree, right on this spot… where is it? Or, I'll screw your tiny neck, Mr India, or Mr Ceylone… I never know what damn coolie country these niggers come from.

As she was finishing the line, her head turned slightly towards the guest at the next table, hoping for an approbating nod to the ambiguity just expressed in respect of the land of origin.

Oh, that suchmuch thing, the book-holding item… it is falling off the table, Madame, being of no use at brekphaast, I let it to be on the floor, only .

Well, well, let me tell ye, Mr Hindoo Shakespeare, it ain't no book-holder, you stupid illiterate coolie; you wouldn't know what a book looks like if you saw one, you still-dirty scoundrel.

Before she could finish the lexical explicative that without doubt is absent in the Hindi or Sanskrit semantic treasures that he is aware of, Totaram was moved to assert his status, which the literate tradition of India had cultivated over two millennia as distinct from the mere one millennium history in Western culture, and maybe extant only just in the European-settled Australia.

I write books, Madam…here look at the chapters of my happen-coming memoir .

I am not interested in your book or writing or the Baghdad-Guitar like them theo-sofists come on the wireless with their Masters' nonsense, what they call them Maitariye and Krishnimooti..,... the toast is getting cold and moist, and I need to go and serve the other real guests… put it back up here or I’ll stuff your little mouth with these toasts I am holding in my hands…

In flat-pan deride she howled:

Cri[e]key man, throw another shrimp in the barbie…; you come to my hotel to spoil everything, take precious little wat'r we have from the bathroom to the dunny house… and then not wash yourself in the bathroom; have you no soap, or sand-soap even as your people use? We don’t want your kind here in our house; go stay with 'em Inzians in the bush or the outside town, in Marysville… plenty of y'ur type out there, dark and dirty, niggardly and with filthy habits, and stealing our things, and fighting among themselves, like the Inzians and Muhammadans around your loin-clothed Mr Ghandi.. ppphhhooo, you stinking Inzians, make-troublers: that's what you all are. But don’t come here to make trouble to us!

Totaram of immense self-esteem that even his compatriot, the Rev Charlie Andrews, England's own self-exiled Jesus helping Gandhi and Tagore in the freedom struggle, had acknowledged in no small terms, could not take it anymore. Without engaging in any sort of contestation, he could not however dismiss the emergent thought in his mind even as he tried to swallow down his palpable fury: ye gore logoin ka ghamand iis desh me bhi kam nahi hean, yahi inke company-walle baap jo Fiji-dweep me hum bharatiya ko ganne-ke pattiyo se taang dette hein, aur yaha wahi tarah ka bakwaas karte hean.. hum ko bhi toost-reck-pheg se taang denge ye log.. toh yaha se bhaagna-chahiye. (These white folks have no less such self-deceptive cheek even in this country; the same lot, their Company fathers, who in Fiji islands would hang us Indians using sugar-cane leafs, carry on dastardly here also.. lo, they'd probably hang me by the toast-rack.. better I flee from here). With that self-sermon he reached down, grabbed his jholly and dashed to his room; within a few short minutes he had his tin suitcase readied and the motley puja-accoutrements repacked in his little jholly, then exited as abruptly as a prey would avoid a predator. At least he had learnt now of the next destination, wherever; he would get out into the street and jump into a cab, and ask of the cabbie: "I am told Indians in the plenty are seen outside the city, Mary's-anvil I hear; could you just take me there?"

Has much changed in the world we dwell in today? The stereotypes and the profiling, targeted harms and hurts at the "alien other"?