fighting prejudice

Through her upcoming book, Thai writer challenges racism against Indians in her country

Even as India battles its own prejudices with recent attacks on Africans, a journalist in Bangkok is trying to convince Thais to be less racist towards Indians

When Prangthong Jitcharoenkul returned to Bangkok after a three-year course in India, she found Thais were often curious about her experience. But their questions routinely betrayed an ignorance and disdain of her one-time home.

"They’d ask me – are there public toilets in India yet? Are Indians very smelly? Do they all excrete outside?” said Prangthong, also known as PJ, a nickname first coined by her classmates at the University of Mysore in Karnataka.

And so, a journey that began as an attempt to improve her English in India has grown into a quest to challenge this widespread anti-Indian sentiment. The journalist's weapon of choice is a soon-to-be-published book through which she hopes to change the way Thais look at India.

Casual racism is commonplace in Thailand and the national obsession with pale skin – perhaps surpassed only by India – can at times indicate deep-rooted discrimination against people with a darker complexion.

A Thai teaching resource using a picture of a black man to illustrate the word ugly, next to a fair-skinned man billed handsome, stirred an online debate last year. In February, a filmmaker house-hunting in Bangkok found that Indians weren’t welcome in at least one flat, a phenomenon that’s also been reported in other parts of Southeast Asia. And last month, a notice telling Cambodian, Laos and Myanmar nationals to use a separate toilet from the ones Thais were using was being shared on Twitter.

A tourist-friendly nation where racist stereotypes abound

It appears a paradox to outsiders in what is usually an exceptionally friendly nation. But an ultra-nationalist education system which teaches Thais that they are superior to their neighbours means negative stereotypes abound.

“We have a habit of looking down on other nationals,” the 24-year-old Prangthong said, over a lunch of mutton biryani and sweet lassi at one of Bangkok’s oldest Indian restaurants.

The word used by Thais for different types of foreigners have racist undertones, she added, such as khaek for South Asians and jaeck for the Chinese. There’s even a well-known Thai saying that if you’re ever stuck with a snake and an Indian, first kill the Indian.

Fed up with the backlash against her former home, Prangthong decided it was time to rephrase the conversation.

Through her book, she explores alternative views of the nation by interviewing 10 fellow Thais who've experienced life in India. They include a Thai theatre star who achieves her longstanding dream of acting in Bollywood and the activist whose work with Muslim children in the Thai deep south was inspired by the religious pluralism he found in India.

The ties that bind

All these connections are steeped in a centuries-old relationship – Thailand and India have shared a rich religious, cultural and linguistic history ever since early maritime traders from India brought Hinduism and Buddhism to Southeast Asia.

Nestled in between the towering hotels and malls of downtown Bangkok are shrines dedicated to Brahma, Indra and Ganesh – Hindu gods that are just as revered by Thailand’s Buddhist-majority whose faith has long melded Hindu and animist beliefs.

The clasped-hand greeting of namaste in India is mirrored by the wai in Thailand. Thai and Indian names often share a common Sanskrit root. And important Thai festivals such as Loy Krathong and Songkran are strikingly similar to India’s Diwali and Holi.

Thailand also has a sizeable and successful Indian-origin community – around 2,00,000 strong, according to the Embassy of India in Bangkok – with high-end lifestyle magazines such Masala, a local publication, targeting affluent Thai-Indians.

Yet, few Thais appear aware of these longstanding links, which unsurprisingly don’t play a part in the social construction of Thai-ness, a concept now tightly controlled by the ruling military regime.

Through her Thai-language book, Prangthong hopes to quash misconceptions of India. But she’s quick to add that it’s not an attempt to whitewash her experience, which was full of its own challenges and adjustments.

Prejudices on the other side

“There are things that India could learn from Thailand too,” said Prangthong, a reporter with the kingdom’s oldest English-language newspaper, where she specialises in foreign affairs.

Treating women with more respect would top her list. “I was always treated well at my university,” she said, but remembers two incidences of men harassing her outside campus. “They followed me and tried speaking to me in Kannada. I heard the word 'sex' both times before they went away.”

Prangthong escaped unscathed, but the encounters revealed an uncomfortable truth about sexual violence against women in India, a subject Thais she met back home were especially curious about. “Why India, did you want to get raped? That was an actual question,” she said, explaining that the book, in part, aims to reflect another, more chivalrous side of Indian men.

A subject she does not explore is the pervasive racism within India. “I didn’t experience it,” she said. After a pause, she added, “Or, at least, I didn’t notice it.” Instead she talks of her close friendships with Indians and of even being lauded by classmates in awe of her skin. “They asked me for advice on face cream and body lotions. Once they even asked a teacher for permission to touch my hair,” she said with a grin.

Some minority students haven’t been so lucky. India has recorded violent attacks against African students and expats in recent years. The murder of a Congolese national in New Delhi on May 20, the assault on a Nigerian student in Hyderabad on May 25, and attacks on seven people from various African countries in Delhi on May 26 have triggered nationwide discussions on racism in Indian society.

Discrimination on the grounds of skin colour is also rampant among Indians themselves, as is caste-based prejudice.

Back in Bangkok’s Little India, a small neighbourhood known for the cut-price textiles sold by Indian traders, plump rolls of colourful cloth jut out of a warren of shops.

Walking past an Indian street vendor frying samosas, Prangthong said she hopes her book will open minds about India in Thailand.

“We have an ancient cultural link,” she said. "But the people are still far from each other."

The writer's Twitter handle is @PreetiJha.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

Modern home design trends that are radically changing living spaces in India

From structure to finishes, modern homes embody lifestyle.

Homes in India are evolving to become works of art as home owners look to express their taste and lifestyle through design. It’s no surprise that global home design platform Houzz saw over a million visitors every month from India, even before their services were locally available. Architects and homeowners are spending enormous time and effort over structural elements as well as interior features, to create beautiful and comfortable living spaces.

Here’s a look at the top trends that are altering and enhancing home spaces in India.

Cantilevers. A cantilever is a rigid structural element like a beam or slab that protrudes horizontally out of the main structure of a building. The cantilevered structure almost seems to float on air. While small balconies of such type have existed for eons, construction technology has now enabled large cantilevers, that can even become large rooms. A cantilever allows for glass facades on multiple sides, bringing in more sunlight and garden views. It works wonderfully to enhance spectacular views especially in hill or seaside homes. The space below the cantilever can be transformed to a semi-covered garden, porch or a sit-out deck. Cantilevers also help conserve ground space, for lawns or backyards, while enabling more built-up area. Cantilevers need to be designed and constructed carefully else the structure could be unstable and lead to floor vibrations.

Butterfly roofs. Roofs don’t need to be flat - in fact roof design can completely alter the size and feel of the space inside. A butterfly roof is a dramatic roof arrangement shaped, as the name suggests, like a butterfly. It is an inverted version of the typical sloping roof - two roof surfaces slope downwards from opposing edges to join around the middle in the shape of a mild V. This creates more height inside the house and allows for high windows which let in more light. On the inside, the sloping ceiling can be covered in wood, aluminium or metal to make it look stylish. The butterfly roof is less common and is sure to add uniqueness to your home. Leading Indian architecture firms, Sameep Padora’s sP+a and Khosla Associates, have used this style to craft some stunning homes and commercial projects. The Butterfly roof was first used by Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French architect who later designed the city of Chandigarh, in his design of the Maison Errazuriz, a vacation house in Chile in 1930.

Butterfly roof and cantilever (Image credit: Design Milk on Flickr.com)
Butterfly roof and cantilever (Image credit: Design Milk on Flickr.com)

Skylights. Designing a home to allow natural light in is always preferred. However, spaces, surrounding environment and privacy issues don’t always allow for large enough windows. Skylights are essentially windows in the roof, though they can take a variety of forms. A well-positioned skylight can fill a room with natural light and make a huge difference to small rooms as well as large living areas. However, skylights must be intelligently designed to suit the climate and the room. Skylights facing north, if on a sloping roof, will bring in soft light, while a skylight on a flat roof will bring in sharp glare in the afternoons. In the Indian climate, a skylight will definitely reduce the need for artificial lighting but could also increase the need for air-conditioning during the warm months. Apart from this cleaning a skylight requires some effort. Nevertheless, a skylight is a very stylish addition to a home, and one that has huge practical value.

Staircases. Staircases are no longer just functional. In modern houses, staircases are being designed as aesthetic elements in themselves, sometimes even taking the centre-stage. While the form and material depend significantly on practical considerations, there are several trendy options. Floating staircases are hugely popular in modern, minimalist homes and add lightness to a normally heavy structure. Materials like glass, wood, metal and even coloured acrylic are being used in staircases. Additionally, spaces under staircases are being creatively used for storage or home accents.

Floating staircase (Image credit: Design Milk on Flickr.com)
Floating staircase (Image credit: Design Milk on Flickr.com)

Exposed Brick Walls. Brickwork is traditionally covered with plaster and painted. However, ‘exposed’ bricks, that is un-plastered masonry, is becoming popular in homes, restaurants and cafes. It adds a rustic and earthy feel. Exposed brick surfaces can be used in home interiors, on select walls or throughout, as well as exteriors. Exposed bricks need to be treated to be moisture proof. They are also prone to gathering dust and mould, making regular cleaning a must.

Cement work. Don’t underestimate cement and concrete when it comes to design potential. Exposed concrete interiors, like exposed brick, are becoming very popular. The design philosophy is ‘Less is more’ - the structure is simplistic and pops of colour are added through furniture and soft furnishings.

Exposed concrete wall (Image Credit: Getty Images)
Exposed concrete wall (Image Credit: Getty Images)

When building your home, it is important to use strong and durable materials. A value-added premium product with high compressive strength, Birla Gold cement is used to make tough, impermeable concrete that sets quickly, lasts long and minimises cracking. Its durability will ensure that your dream home always looks new and the steel structure inside remains protected. Birla Gold offers variants that are optimised for different needs. The unique hydraulic binding properties of the Birla Gold Premium cement variant prevent seepage, making it resistant to even corrosive water, especially important for houses in coastal cities. The Birla Gold Royal cement variant provides very high strength and is perfect for the foundation. As the video below says, with the different varieties of cement that Birla Gold offers, you can build the home of your dreams.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Birla Gold Premium Cement and not by the Scroll editorial team.