An atheist born in a Hindu family, I often dream about reincarnation. No, I don’t want a do-over. In times like these, I want Martin Luther King, Jr to come back and talk to me about racial justice.
I have occasionally seen references to him in essays about Donald Trump being The First White President or Kanye West befriending Trump. However, like most Hindus ignoring caste injustice for generations, I quickly compartmentalised racism as if it did not affect me.
That changed last week when videos documenting racism emerged from Minneapolis and New York. As I was finishing up Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me, it made me wonder: is that Martin Luther King, Jr talking to me?
He would find a lot to admonish me about. Hailing from a Brahmin family in small-town India, I grew up amid casual casteism. My grandfather was the first general physician in town and the first two rooms of our home were his clinic. Coming home from school, I would walk through his clinic, full of patients from all strata of society. And yet, he wanted to know the last names of the kids I was hanging out with at school. He wanted to make sure I wasn’t hanging out with the “wrong” crowd.
Grandma was a foot soldier in India’s freedom struggle till 1947 and spent the rest of her life fighting for women’s empowerment. The ideals, though, ended at our doorstep. At home, the cook had to be Brahmin and non-Brahmin maids were not allowed near the kitchen. Domestic workers would get tea and water every day, but in separate utensils. I never saw my parents question these practices. So why would I?
It got worse during college admissions. To make amends for centuries of discrimination against certain castes, India has instituted massive affirmative action programs in colleges, government offices and public sector entities. For years, I was shielded from this history of oppression. All I could see was that half of the seats in colleges were reserved for people from underprivileged castes.
All we learned in engineering college for four years was physics and maths. Nothing about how oppressed castes were denied access to knowledge and scientific inquiry, condemned to menial jobs, stereotyped and seen primarily as servers in our bubbles.
It’s not as if these atrocities are not documented. But they were not training us to be humans. Physics and math made us robots, blithely propagating the inequalities handed down to us. In India, these realities are in your face, but I had happily buried my head in the sand.
The big move
Moving to the United States pulled me out of my ignorance. I was studying the brain and coming back home to learn dignity of labour. Those three beautiful words marked the beginning of my journey of redemption. Through casual conversations, I found out that Brahmins are just 5% of all the Hindus – not 25% as I had assumed, with neither the evidence nor the curiosity to find out.
Most troubling was the question: Am I just another shade of a white supremacist? Five or 25, the percentage didn’t change the answer.
But while America had burst one bubble, it ushered me into another. The more immediate racism around me was out of sight and I kept it out of my mind. My education was offering me opportunities I could not even dream of in India. Across the country, white policemen would occasionally shoot at black men in questionable circumstances, the judicial system would exonerate them, and riots would ensue. I was always miles away, almost on another planet.
In a city like Baltimore, I found a comfortable white suburban cocoon, zipping in and out of a college campus fortified by security guards at every corner. Acutely aware of my surroundings, but never curious about them. And in spite of spending four formative years in Louisville, everything beyond 4th Street – which was more than half of the town – remained foreign to me.
Like millions of privileged-caste Indians in the US, I watched movies about racism and critiqued them over cocktails, but rarely made any black friends. Some used to wake up the next day and equate Hindus’ subjugation under 15th century Muslim rulers in India with that of African Americans. Behind closed doors, they would even draw parallels between the prevailing Hindu nationalist sentiment in India and the undying spirit of Rosa Parks. Oh, the gall!
When I saw that Central Park video, I knew that sense of entitlement like the back of my hand. And when that innocent bystander in Minneapolis raised her phone to capture the tragic, centuries-old story of the black body, she held up a mirror to my soul.
Ignorance is often bliss, but sometimes it is nothing short of a crime. How long am I going to seek comfort in this nightmare?
Mauktik Kulkarni is an engineer, neuroscientist, entrepreneur, author and a filmmaker. He is the author of A Ghost of Che and Packing Up Without Looking Back.