Travel In The Time Of Prejudice
Pardon me but I feel obligated to address the elephant in the room: prejudice.
But first, the definition.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘prejudice’ as an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge; an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics.
When I began travelling on my own – solo and otherwise – sometime around 2012, I realised how wrong the newspapers were about people and places. That out there, Life wasn’t as black and white as the newsprint. People weren’t either just good or bad and places weren’t either safe or unsafe. Over the years, I would meet my share of good Samaritans and irksome slimeballs. And over the years, I would also begin to unlearn my own prejudices.
The bane of false first impressions
I have gone on record to express my hesitation and fear prior to travelling solo to Bihar for the very first time in 2015. Yes, I did not know what to expect. And the psychosis perpetuated by the media hadn’t done me any good. I emerged five weeks later, a humbler person. I’d experienced all the ways in which I had been wrong with my ‘impressions’ – about a place and its people – without ever having interacted with it first-hand! If your eyebrows right now are perched somewhere where your forehead meets your hairline, let it be known that I have also gone on record to say that never once in those five weeks did I experience being cat-called – something I can’t say is true for even a city like Mumbai – and all this while I used the locally available modes of transport within Bihar.
The difference between ‘ignorance’ and ‘prejudice’
My point? We can be wrong about what we think we know of people and places – especially when it’s based on hearsay and not our own lived experience. I’ve learned that it is possible to let go of prejudice.
Today, I can show empathy towards someone – who much like I was – isn’t governed either by facts or their own lived experience but by their ignorance-fuelled-biases but is open to admitting them. However, what I can neither be empathetic towards nor turn the other way from is when someone intentionally and rather relentlessly spews their prejudices – while hoping to earn support, either in the form of silence or otherwise. I’ve encountered the above twice, in two separate parts of the world.
Travel and Prejudice: Episode One
In March 2018, I was in Malaysia. I had spent a little over two weeks in Penang, Langkawi, Perak, Malacca and Sarawak before returning to Kuala Lumpur to make my return journey back to India. One evening, I met a friend – who’d moved to the capital city for work – and while we were standing in the middle of one of KL’s food streets yapping away (like old friends do) in very fluent Hinglish (like a majority of Mumbaikars do), we caught the attention of two ladies and a gentleman who were curious to know where we were from. When they learned we were from India, they were very excited (like most folks do when they meet someone of their own nationality in a foreign country, apparently).
And then I was asked a question that made my stomach want to digest itself… “How safe is the country? It’s a ‘Muslim’ country, no.”
In spite of myself, I heard myself say: “It’s a very safe country but yes, reading the newspapers does make one take leave of their senses.”
I’d like to add that until the ‘Muslim country’ remark, it hadn’t rattled me that they had probed (rather intrusively, in my opinion), about our backgrounds, the cities we came from, the ‘caste’ we belonged to (thereby inferring our religion) and our marital status while judging if our racial features and skin tones matched our responses! I had let that go. I was used to being judged. But I was not going to make judging someone else a thing I could get used to.
My retort was evidently not what they were hoping to hear. By then, I couldn’t make myself care. I have fielded questions about safety in the context of travel too many times in the past. There is a difference between a ‘concern’ and a ‘prejudice’, that much I know.
Travel and Prejudice: Episode Two
In December 2018, I was on the train from Delhi to Assam. Day One into the journey when the initial awkwardness between co-passengers had relatively thawed, a gentleman seated across me initiated some small talk: where was I from, where was I going, what do I do etc etc etc…
On learning that I was making my way to northeast India, he remarked: “Those people are quite different from ‘the rest of us’, no?”
The question made me uncomfortable but I played it cool by saying: “Yes, it is a different part of the country but THAT is India. Our diversity is what we celebrate.” In hindsight, this wasn’t the response the gentleman was hoping for. So he continued ‘fishing’: “Of course, of course. But THEY are just very different. Everything about them is so unlike US”
That’s when it struck me what this conversation was about. US versus THEM, not us AND them. I decided to bite the bullet and calmly responded saying: “You are from the northern part of the country and I am from the western part of the country. Both of us have our own unique cuisine, clothing, racial features, social norms that we practice and uphold. Delhi is just about as far from Mumbai as it is from Guwahati in Assam. So it is quite natural then that the lifestyle, the food, the culture would be different, right?”
He hummed and hawed some more, further revealing both his ignorance and his refusal to entertain ideas beyond the ones he was tight-fisted about. Later during the journey, I would hear him engage another co-passenger on the subject of religion, further exposing how ingrained his prejudices were.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness…”
It was after returning from Bihar in 2015 and while reflecting on the different interactions and exchanges I had had with locals that I’d come across Mark Twain’s quote for the first time! “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime” — this would become the cornerstone on which I would submit myself to the outward journeys I’m destined for while those, in turn, would influence the inward journeys I’d keep taking too.
I’ve just completed reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming and it was this very last paragraph from the epilogue that has served as a prompt behind writing out this post. Here are the words – her words – that I want to leave you with:
“For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my doors to others. And here is what I have to say, finally: Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same. It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become”