Piali Roy reminds the South Asian diaspora that this is a time for coalition-building, not name-calling.
This June while checking my e-mail from a South Asian discussion list I was stunned to read messages from Indians in the US littered with a word from the past —”Paki”.
Paki-bashing is back and it is NRIs (non-resident Indians) and Americans of Indian origin who have reclaimed that racist slur to denigrate Pakistanis. This summer’s conflict in Kargil unleashed a torrent of rage, reaching a feverish peak after the story of the mutilated Indian soldiers broke.
Even the media picked up this disturbing phenomenon. India Today columnist Dilip Bobb cavalierly mentions how Paki-bashing is a safe electoral bet for the ‘ruling party”. Rediff on the Net, a web magazine, casually carries a headline on an Indo-Pak tea summit, punning on the Hindi-Chini bhai bhai to come up with Hindi-Paki chai, while a few of its columnists actually use it as an insult. The New York Post joined in with a too-prescient headline —”India: Pakis Killed POWs” (although it caught the faux pas in time for its daily edition, its electronic version carried the slur).
Once the domain of epithetshouting skinheads in England, the indiscriminate use of “Paki” by the very people who were once thus targeted is highly incongruous.
Name-calling in such a highlycharged atmosphere is expectedly juvenile but hardly exceptional. To anyone who grew up South Asian in the West, particularly in Canada or the UK, who was beaten up, chased down a road, had their home set on fire —all because of their accent and skin colour, this is an abomination.
The out-of-context return of a word so charged with hate and ice-cold fear feels like a slap in the face.
Originating in England, “Paki” was the kind of word that would easily spurt out of an English racist in an early Hanif Kureishi film. The Oxford English Dictionary dates its first usage in print to as late as 1964. The term crossed the Atlantic to Canada in the early 1970s. By the 1980s, “dothead” and “curryhead” had been coined as American alternatives to “Paki”. And now, some Indians have chosen to appropriate this term of abuse and partition its meaning.
To be called a Paki was, ironically, the great leveller, transcending all boundaries —your local racists kindly ignored class, creed, colour, country of origin and caste when it came to the hunt. The histories of nations were wiped clean by a steel-toed boot, a tabula rasa created by young men blinded by hate. They knew nothing of Partition, the wars between India and Pakistan, the civil war in Sri Lanka and the fight for Bangladeshi independence. It didn’t matter whether you were Parsi or Christian, working-class or filthy rich, Sinhala or Sikh, Bangladeshi or Guyanese.
Many of us recognised the slur’s inclusiveness, but others preferred to see it as the penultimate case of mistaken national identity. “I’m not a Paki, I’m an Indian” is the typical refrain. “I remember the differences, the turmoil of the Subcontinent, I know with whom I identify.” As American writer Bharati Mukherjee wrote in 1981 in the Canadian magazine, Saturday Night: “For an Indian of my generation, to be called a “Paki” is about as appealing as it is for an Israeli to be called a Syrian.” Would “bloody wog” be better?
That indignant denial is the antithesis of the coalition-building that South Asians need to fight discrimination in the West. It steals from the solidarity of the various South Asian communities in the UK who have built an ‘Asian’ identity; from organisations like Toronto’s Desh Pardesh which seek to create a new identity among the diaspora; and most importantly from those kids, sometimes but not always Pakistani, who have made the word their own (after all, long before we became hyphenated citizens in the West, we were all Pakis once).
Subcontinentals abroad have always received and assumed new goodnames, nicknames, slurnames. We were the negro and the nigger; we were shades of black —black, black Indian, East India tawney black, the black Hindoo; in the UK, we morphed from Asiatics to Blacks to Asians; the US couldn’t decide if we were Caucasians or whites for one moment; we ourselves couldn’t decide whether we were our ethnicity, our religion, or just plain desis to outsiders; and the unimaginative simply said wogs, towelheads, and ragheads. We even became East Indians because we weren’t West Indians (well, some of us were) or Red Indians.
What has happened in the present instance is the mis-appropriation of a word imbued with our oppression in the West. To paraphrase Salman Rushdie, Indian immigrants could have “adopted the demon-tag the farangis hung around their necks,” but they did not turn “insults into strengths…to wear with pride the names they were given in scorn.”
Are Indian immigrants, sojourn-ers, and expats so removed from our cumulative pasts beyond the Subcontinent? Is it the fate of the newly arrived to believe that history begins only after their plane lands? The innocent claim is that in Bharat Mata, “Paki” is a common enough word, part of cricket short-hand with a “Made in India” stamp of approval, while others are adamant that they had never heard of it back ‘home’.Are we as culpable as the racists — our experiences made null once more by the ignorance of others? We demonstrate an incredible selective use of memory to remember past wrongs on the Subcontinent and highlight current troubles, but are not as vigilant about our history in the West.
The NRI who chooses to use “Paki” as his verbal weapon of choice only sees, hears and thinks of how Pakistan has wronged his country of birth. He arrives abroad, links Paki with Pakistan, knows nothing of the word’s past and if he does, claims it only applied to badly behaved Pakistanis, then uses it. He sees no connection between his rage and my history. I may understand his rage, but not the disavowal of my past.
When we use “Paki” against each other, we lose. We disrespect every migrant before us who suffered the indignity of prejudice. To appropriate a Western slur used against all of us to attack some of us —is true degradation.