Face Value: Being a Nepali in India

What are Nepalis and Indians supposed to look like? Search me!

dinesh wagle

By Dinesh Wagle
Wagle Street Journal
This article first appeared in today’s Kathmandu Post. Here is the PDF page It’s also available in eKantipur, and the official webpage of the Post.

I often carry my passport these days in Delhi whenever I go out. Not that a Nepali needs to have one to enter India unless the entry is by air. No one asks for a passport here, not even those Intelligence Bureau sleuths whom I bump into occasionally at gatherings and interactive programmes where they, like me, go to cover the event. They are nice and they know that I am a Nepali. The problem often comes when I interact with ordinary Indians who are preoccupied with certain perceptions about the general look of the Nepali people.

different colours, together

“But you don’t look like a Nepali,” many Indians whom I meet on the streets and talk to tell me in bewilderment.

“Is that so? What do I look like?”

“Well, you look like us,” they say. “You are an Indian.”

Others will be more specific. “So you are a Kashmiri?” they ask me when I am bearded. Some guess I am an Israeli vacationing in India. In Madhurai’s Meenakshi Temple last month, after asking me if I wanted “hashish, good quality”, a tout went on to name all the European countries he knew of so that if I could tell him where I was from, he could offer me the same in “my” language.

At the Taj Mahal two months ago, an auto driver refused to believe me despite my vigorous attempts to prove my Nepali nationality. “No, sir,” he would say, “aap Nepali nahi ho. Nepali jaise dikhte nahi ho.” (You are not a Nepali. You don’t look like a Nepali.)

Only a person with a flat nose and, I hate to use the word here but I must, “chinky” eyes, passes as a Nepali for many Indians. When they say I don’t look like a Nepali, they are looking at my long, bahunish nose and almost almond-shaped, big, deep and “awaken” eyes. They are also considering my skin colour which is relatively fair. Going by their reactions and comments, I have come to the conclusion that only those with Mongolian features are considered Nepali in India.

When I hear the same from educated Indians like journalists, software professionals, bank employees and university students, I seriously try to explain to them the diverse nature of Nepali society that lives at different altitudes, eats varieties of foods, speaks many languages and sport different looks.

I think the perception varies from place to place. Filipinos, for example, think otherwise. “My Filipino friends always asked me how come I look Chinese when Nepalis are supposed to look like Indians,” said a friend of mine who recently returned to Nepal from the Philippines where she had gone to study. Milan Rai of Khotang, 19 years old, came to Delhi two weeks ago to study Chartered Accountancy. He smiles when Indians talk about him with his Nepali friends in Hindi thinking that he doesn’t understand the language before trying to overcharge him. “Ye toh Chini hey.” (He is a Chinese.) We also have some mistaken perceptions about Indians in Nepal. Many of us think Indians with a fair skin can only be found in Bollywood movies and there are probably only two such people: Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai. (No other intentions in putting these two names together here.)

The Indian perception that “only a Mongolian can be a Nepali” might not be as problematic to India as the one that considers all Mongolians in India as Nepalis. (When I say Mongolians, I also include the bona fide citizens of Mongolia living in India apart from the millions of Indians from India’s northeast with Mongolian features.) Just as I do not like being called an Indian, many Indians with Mongolian features feel rejected when they are mistaken as Nepalis (meaning non-Indians) by the so called “mainstream” Indians. Saying, “Sorry, I am not an Indian” is vastly different from, say, screaming, “Hello, I am an Indian, just like you, a bona fide citizen of this country.” Who likes to face a situation in which they have to prove their nationality everyday to every Ram and Shyam? When I write this I am aware about similar situations faced by many Nepalis in the Tarai. I believe no Nepali should have to endure the experience of Pu Lalthanhawla.

“In India, people ask me if I am an Indian,” said Pu Lalthanhawla, chief minister of the Indian state of Mizoram, five weeks ago in Singapore when the issue of racism was being intensely debated in India while Indian students were being attacked in Australia on racial lines. “When I go to south [India], people ask me… if I am from Nepal or elsewhere. They forget that the northeast is part of India… I have told many, ‘See, I am an Indian like you’.” Then he added, “I am a victim of racism.” (Northeast India includes the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura.)

There were numerous reports in the media recently with headlines like “India Is Racist, And Happy About It” that not only proved Lalthanhawla’s statements but also brought to light the plight of Mongolian-looking Indians in cities like Delhi that is primarily dominated by the so-called mainstream Indians. “Last year, as I was shopping in one of Delhi’s posh markets, a man came up to me and said, ‘Hi baby!’,” wrote Monalisa S. Arthur, a journalist and a Mongolian woman from India’s northeast, in The Hindustan Times. “When I ignored him and kept walking, he snarled, ‘Bloody chinky’, and left.”

She described how difficult it was for people of the northeast to be accepted as Indians in Delhi. “Most times I fight back when I am teased so that the same person will think twice before harassing another ‘chinky’,” wrote Monalisa who said she wasn’t accepted in the city despite having lived there for 17 years. “Until the situation changes, some men will always consider us cheap and available; and Delhi will never be home, just a place where we work.”

PS: “Chinky” is one of the many new words that I have learned since I came to India last year. One dictionary defines it as “(ethnic slur), a person of Chinese descent”. Assamese poet and columnist Samir Tanti was quoted as saying, “Calling someone ‘chinky’ (referring to small eyes) is racial in nature. I know all northeasterners are known as chinky in Delhi and other parts of India.”