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“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”
Toni Morrison, Beloved
The year I discovered the works of Toni Morrison and Chinua Achebe is the year I met Bryan Ochieng. It was the summer of 2005, right in the middle of Delhi University’s annual break. We met outside a nightclub in Mehrauli, waiting for a mutual friend to drop us home. My mind had wolf-whistled the second I lay eyes on him — he was the most gorgeous man I’d ever seen — and, as I got into the front seat, I fervently hoped that his brain had made a similar sound, too. The Maruti 800 was packed, five people had crammed into the back, and it took Bryan several minutes to tap my shoulder and pass his Nokia 3310 to me. The compose box said: “You deserve to be taken out for coffee on Saturday.” Bryan was a man of few words but the smoothest operator I have ever known.
Bryan was an international student from Nairobi, Kenya and we met seven weeks before he was to leave India. In that brief spell, I learned more about race, culture and myself in a way I could never have anticipated.
What does it take to date a Black man in Delhi? The thickest skin you can grow. Two days into our relationship, a Punjabi man came close to me inside the Mehrauli nightclub and loudly said, “Why are you with him, kudi? Uska maal kitna kala hoga! (His package must be so black)” I was ready to retort, but Bryan looked at me and said, “Don’t respond. He’s jealous because I’m with a girl he wants to be with.” I blushed and he grinned, and we forgot that flash of ugliness that had reared its head a few seconds ago. But, later that night, in the auto-ride back to my apartment, Bryan quietly said, “That’s the first word all African students learn when they come to India — kala (black). It hurts till we learn to ignore it”.
What’s the difference between an expatriate and an immigrant? Race. What do we call the persecution of a people because of the colour of their skin? Racism. We’re people of colour too, so where did we learn it? At home, in the playground, our textbooks, in casual conversations, in film and advertising — everywhere. Racism is insidious, and that summer, I would only discover how much of it is learned behaviour.
The K-word would assail us everywhere we went, whether as a couple or in a group with other students from African countries. We stuck to neighbourhoods we knew, nightclubs and restaurants that welcomed a predominantly African clientele during the week, and Bryan’s friends’ homes. On the street with my new Kenyan and Nigerian friends, I watched other people watch them with uncertainty and sometimes, unmasked disgust. The flats they lived in were far from campus areas — dingy, poorly ventilated and the entrance was almost always at the back. I never saw where Bryan lived — he told me he was sure to be evicted if he brought an Indian girl home.
If my friends were surprised to know I was dating a Kenyan student, so were his. “My last girlfriend was Naga. Some boys from Africa date Northeastern girls, maybe because we have more in common with them than other communities,” said Bryan. Maybe, you should go to more campus events, I suggested, meet other Indian students. “And talk about what? They know nothing about our countries,” said Kwame, a Ghanaian student named after Kwame Nkrumah, who led Ghana to independence from the British in 1957. We had struck up a conversation about the freedom struggle in the African continent — the Mau Mau Uprising and the National Liberation Front’s role in securing independence in Algeria — two events mentioned in my Class XII NCERT history textbook a few years before the syllabus was changed. But five years later, when I went to Canada for my post-graduate degree, I realised what Kwame was talking about.
As a person of colour from the developing world, I found it easy to blend in with my mostly-White cohort because of how submerged I was in North American popular culture. For their part, they knew about Bollywood and Indian food; some of them had visited India too. Now, imagine coming to a country where people on the street remember only one tie with your continent, the history of slavery, and they hurl it at you like a stone — “Habshi”. Where nothing is known about your thriving film industry, your music; where your cuisine smells different, so it must make you a cannibal. Where every single day is a melanin war.
For the middle and upper classes in India, a certain kind of Blackness is acceptable to us — the hip-hop/rap group or artiste, the Premier League footballer, Barack Obama, Idris Elba for James Bond — you get the drift. We can wax eloquent about the double consciousness in Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, or Beyoncé’s Lemonade; debate about diversity at the Oscars; and hashtag Black Lives Matter on social media. What about the several different cultures from African countries that international student populations bring to our cities? Ain’t nobody got time for that?
Some people say that if you want to know the truth about yourself, travel. I’d say dating is a close second — it has been for me. The summer before I met Bryan, I briefly dated Ludovic, a White Frenchman who travelled to Delhi for work. It was heady in the beginning, to be treated as an exotic being, and to be so close to a culture I had only seen in films — wine any time of the day, elaborate meals, and French kissing (delightful at first, but quite taxing after a point). When he showed me pictures of his family home in rural France, I imagined a life there with our mocha-latte son, Zizou. Bengali people and the French have so much in common, I’d muse.
With Bryan, I always ran the risk of othering and exoticising him, of appropriating parts of his culture that seemed cool to me — Kenyan hip-hop, cornrows and dreadlocks, a musical accent that could make the phonebook sound good. He displayed incredible patience and grace during our time together, as he firmly unpacked my fears (“not all of us are drug dealers”), and taught me to dance with my hips a little more (“use your booty”). And unlike Priyanka Chopra’s character in Fashion, I experienced no self-loathing the morning after. But I did do something unforgivable — I asked him his HIV status. Bryan took a moment to reply. “I’m tested and clear. Are you?” I shook my head and told him that I hadn’t gone for a test yet. “And you thought it was okay to ask me?” he said, and left. It was the turning point in our relationship, at least for me.
I realised that he had never met my friends, because I had never thought of introducing him to them. I thought it was because this was due to end soon, but that was not true, was it? When he asked me to visit him in Kenya, I dithered and said maybe, because I couldn’t imagine what it would look like; it wouldn’t be as pastoral and picturesque as the French countryside, would it? When my friends enquired about his sexual prowess, I had laughed and replied, “You know they say that once you go black, you never go back”. It would take me some more years to realise how damaging that adage is, because it bolsters the perception that Black male sexuality is threatening to other men, that it is something mythic and magical like voodoo. And, if I continued to say that, there wouldn’t be much of a difference between me and the Punjabi man in the nightclub.
By the time I returned to college for my final year, Bryan was on his way home. A few nights before he left, at a party at one of his friends’ flats, we got rip-roaringly drunk on cheap vodka. I was the lone girl there, and the only thing the guys were trying hard to do was to teach me to say their full names correctly. At some point in the night, when things wound down, one of them softly said, “What is the point of thinking about the colour of our skin? The colour of blood is the same everywhere.”