Monday, March 05, 2007

The Tyranny of Political Correctness

'So where are you from," is a question Indians love asking each other. If you answer Bombay - because that's where you've lived most of your life - they will persist, "No .. from where are you originally?"

The answer to such questions is sometimes complex.

I was born in Ratlam, a town in Madhya Pradesh which gained some sense of importance as a junction of the Indian Railways. Its only other claim to fame being a patent brand of extra spicy namkeen sev.

Ratlam was the town we visited during summer vacations, the place I considered 'native'. So technically, I guess I am 'Madhya Pradeshi'. But there is no such term, is there? So in response to the 'Where-From Question' (henceforth referred to as WFQ), I generally answer 'Marwari'. That's where my great (or is it great-great?) grandfather hailed from.

People pose the WFQ for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's idle train chatter. Often it's used to seek out some kind of connection with a stranger. Or even a potential client or business associate. It's actually something quite deeply ingrained in our culture, coz it even comes up in the playground. And kids will not hesitate to use the information with reference to their classmates.

I remember going home in tears at age 9 or 10, because I had been taunted as a 'kanjoos Marwari'. My mom said, "Just ignore them, bete. If you don't react, they will stop teasing you after some time." My dad added, "Do you know that Birlas are Marwaris? They have built so many temples, schools and colleges. How can anyone call Marwaris kanjoos?"

The combination of these two thoughts helped me tackle the schoolyard bullies with my head held high. And I am sure every child has gone through some similar episode. The takeway is simple: If someone calls you a 'chashmish' or a fatso - so what? If someone says you are a Sindhi papad or a Kashmir ki kali or whatever, so what?

Ek to, jo bolta hai usey hi lagta hai. Nothing anyone can say about you which is irrelevant or untrue can stick to you.

And even if I do wear glasses, or I am fat or I am Sindhi or Marwari - that is part of my identity. Accepted. There are other aspects - and there are people who will like you and respect you for those as well. Your own self esteem is in your own hands. No one can take that away from you - neither Jane Goody, nor a playground bully.

Which brings me to the current climate of political correctness. As human beings we need context for each other. Referring to someone's ethnicity or mannerism linked to place of origin is not necessarily a bad thing. Stereotypes do have more than a few grains of truth in them. As wikipedia puts it:

Stereotypes are ideas held about members of particular groups, based solely on membership in that group. They are often considered to be negative or prejudicial and may be used to justify certain discriminatory behaviors. More benignly, they may express sometimes-accurate folk wisdom about social reality.

I'm all for fighting discrimination, but let's not suffocate folk wisdom. Can't we learn to love ourselves - and laugh at ourselves?

Apparently not. Some of you objected to inferences in my previous post. Like security guards in CBD Belapur perhaps being 'fresh off the Bhagalpur Express.' Or that a Chinese businessman may speak less than perfect English. I should be more 'sensitive', they advise.

Frankly, I think each of us should be less sensitive. I mean sure, we should respect each other but a few gentle observations and ruminations do not undermine anyone. The world will become a very boring place if we start bleeding political correctness, every time there is an irreverent pin prick.


  1. First to comment ah good.

    Having so many identities within the countries means having so much of culture; and thats not a product that can be mass manufactured.

    So its something to be really proud of. I for one for sure ask that question to any new person (may be from India or the world) and try to say a few nice words in their language, or about their place.

    Isn't diversity awesome ?

  2. I honestly didn't see anything insensitive about your previous post.

    But where I do feel you (your magazine rather!) have crossed the line is in a recent interview with a voice artist, where you have printed the pejorative "nigger" ... refer to the interviewee's seventh answer in

    You would admit this is more than just "politically incorrect" - in fact, it's an example of blatant racism, which reflects poorly on the editorial standards of the publication.

    For further reading, I'd recommend, as always, Wikipedia:

  3. Very well said Rashmi

  4. Hi Rashmi,

    Am a regular reader of your blog but first-time commenter. I too didn't find anything offensive about your previous post. For those who did, I would suggest they spend some time in a foreign country where Indians are in a minority. I have spent 2 years in such a place where I got to hear such 'offensive' things told to my face rather frequently.

    Madhav, as for the racial slur in the interview, I agree it is offensive, but I'm not sure what the editor is supposed to do - just cut out the statement? Plus there is a disclaimer stating that 'JAM does not endorse the views expressed by readers in their articles or contributions.'

  5. well, just reminds me of two people (one fictional and the other, having lived)

    a) Jason Gilbert frm Erich Segal's book The Class

    b) Sammy Davis, Jr. (read his autobiography - Yes I can)

    both of them have faced major identity crisis, only to come out much much stronger.

    again, reminds me of Megadeth's line frm one of their songs - 'that that does not kill me, only makes me stronger.'

  6. To put it in a politically correct manner - people should be sensitive and not touchy :).
    Somehow, most love to make fun of others. Sardars and Mallus seem to bear the brunt, the most. But when it comes to a joke on themselves, they are quick to take offence.

  7. Do agree with you... with changing times, you need to be insensitive to certain things... When I was living in Rajasthan, they used to call me Madrasi, though I hail from Kerala... It was really irritating initially, but I got used to it and most of my buddies from there know me as The Madrasi only :-)

  8. Vaidya is correct- sardars n mallus bear most of the brunt of such 'politically incorrect' statements. Well.. me being a sindhi would like to add to your present knowledge of ethnic slurs--- sindhis are often teased by being addressed as 'stingy sindhis'. Stingy or not... I, surprisingly, like(love!) the sound of this. As soon as someone points this remark towards me... the head goes from a mere 60 to a proud/haughty 80 degrees immediately('political' connotations notwithstanding!) :)

  9. Hello Rashmi!

    I am also Ratlami

  10. Anonymous8:46 AM

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