By Sowmiya Ashok
Two years ago and a month before India chose a new prime minister, I met Tkay Noel. He was 22 at the time and graciously assumed his role as the ‘class jester’. We met in a bright room on the top floor of the Punjab College of Technical Education in Ludhiana and Tkay was regaling me and his friends with a story of a failed date. Or rather a non-existent one.
Tkay had come to Ludhiana from Zimbabwe with the intention of making Indian friends. He got talking to a Punjabi classmate who he admitted he fancied, but his intentions were intercepted by a Facebook message. “A guy who claimed to be her boyfriend asked me to keep away from her. So I had to cut off all contact,” he told us. The last thing he wanted was a fight sequence out of a Bollywood movie complete with jeeps filled with men driving over to beat him up.
He would smile at his ‘former’ friend if they passed each other in the corridor, but that was it. He never got an opportunity to charm her with his humour. Tkay had, on several occasions, invited his Indian classmates to hang out after class or go clubbing with him over the weekend but he never found any takers. So his routine was pretty straightforward: Attend classes during the day, take a shared-auto back to the neighbourhood where he and other African students lived, and go clubbing on Saturday nights.
On most evenings, Tkay would encounter a kid in his neighbourhood who called him a ‘nigger’ and would find it odd that they didn’t know each other’s real names. His classmates — other young students from African countries — were called all sorts of names: ‘Chimpanzee’, ‘monkeys’ and ‘slaves’ as they navigated the streets of this industrial town. And the women were often assumed to be prostitutes and sexually harassed by Indian men on motorcycles.
Their study abroad experience was oddly stunted. The group sat together in class, lived together, ate together and went clubbing together. They had several Indian classmates and teachers but no real friends.
The anecdotes shared by Tkay and his friends were eerily similar to what I had heard back in 2012. I was in Patiala to report on 23-year-old Yannick, a student from Burundi, who had fallen prey to a mob and was in a coma. Yannick’s friends told me that the spice levels in the food served by their university canteen had forced almost all of them to find private off-campus accommodation.
Naturally, the group grew close and began socialising outside campus. It was during such an evening that Yannick who was running late for a party was badly beaten up. He passed away on 1 July, 2014 after prolonged efforts by his father to airlift him back to his home town of Bujumbura in Burundi.
I filed a story for the newspaper I was working for at the time on the culture of tolerance towards xenophobia that was making many foreign students, especially Africans, feel insecure in India. Meeting Yannick’s father Nestor with his shirt buttoned up to his neck, his kind eyes and his soft spoken ways, made me think I knew men like him. My own grandfather, for instance.
Apparently, we weren’t all that different.
But we thought we were.
“Foreign students should be aware before they select their destinations for attaining an educational degree about the host country’s culture, dietary habits and social mores,” read a comment on my article. Others called out the hypocrisy of terming Australians racist when such attacks happened in India too.
I spent a lot of time thinking about Yannick and his death and seeking out the Tkays in Vellore and Delhi. Yannick died because he looked different. He died because of the colour of his skin. Skin colour — a recurrent theme growing up. I would often hear relatives discuss a family wedding and comment on how dark the bride was. They would warn me against roaming around in the sun for fear that I will turn darker. Years later when Tkay had asked me to explain why sweepers on his campus were dark-skinned, I remember fumbling with the answer.
This morning I woke up to two conflicting pieces of news. A friend of mine informed me that a mob had attacked a Tanzanian woman in Bengaluru and she was beaten and stripped because a Sudanese man had killed someone with his car. I remembered Yannick’s friend asking me: How people can be so hostile in a peaceful country like India?
Half an hour later, my grandmother called from Chennai to tell me she had returned from a stint in the hospital where she had met a beautiful baby. “The nurses were cooing over the baby in Tamil, while the parents spoke French. They all seemed to understand each other perfectly,” she said. “I think they were from West Africa.”
The author is currently pursuing a graduate degree in political journalism at Columbia University. She is a former political reporter for The Hindu, and has also reported for Mint and Caravan. She tweets@sowmiyashok