A Layover in Mumbai: Thoughts on Humiliation

On my return journey to Germany from South Asia, I booked my flight from Kathmandu to Mumbai to Amsterdam to Hamburg. It was quite a journey, not to mention the eight-hour layover I had at Mumbai Airport. Luckily, I met some fellow travelers (humsafar) on the Kathmandu to Mumbai leg of the trip. One of them was my neighbor, whose name is Paurab. I heard him say hello to others with a similar style in dress and I figured out he was traveling in a group. He wore a simple unfashionable shirt and could not speak English. I had to admit that was surprised to see them traveling to India on a plane. Later on I learned that he and the others were migrant laborers on their way to Oman.

Paurab struck up a conversation with me after having some beer. We spoke in Hindi and he was surprised I could speak Hindi. On the plane, he shmumowed me pictures of his family in "Kathmandu." Later I learned that Paurab is actually Madhesi from the border area, but prefers to claim to be from the Kathmandu area for convenience's sake. He also had a few hours to kill at the Mumbai airport, so we decided to accompany each other a bit longer. I was unclear about how they ended up in Oman, and his future construction job would have nothing to do with his previous job where he worked as a driver in another Gulf country. He also learned to speak Arabic there and could orient himself around the metropolitan city. It sounded a bit of a waste of talent to me since he already learned so much about his first labor site and could use that to advance for himself as well as become of more use to the society. But as capitalism and middlemen dictates labor migration, he had to move on to the new place of Oman. 

He had only met the others he was traveling with in Kathmandu. It seems that they were lodged in the same room for some days prior to their departure. Another man, who seemed to act like their leader, was a Muslim and also made a point to talk with me in English. We shared bananas and a particularly hard cookie, which I was extremely grateful for, since I was out of Indian rupees and had an eight-hour layover to endure. Another one of the group showed me pictures of his wife in western clothing. She posed with a filmy self-consciousness that indicated these clothes were not meant for daily wearing, which I found quite intriguing.

Even though we did not have the means to purchase anything, we walked around the Mumbai airport window-shopping. Paurab dreamed about having a wife soon. We joked that we are practicing now for his future life, when he would buy things for his beloved. (Notice the actions of 'love' mediated through consumption). He pointed to a nearby area in Mumbai and said that he had also worked there before. I was surprised by how much he knew about India through his work experience. He joked that I should jump ship and go outside of the airport to roam around Mumbai. I said I wouldn't have a visa. He said you should just claim to be from Nepal! (Since people from Nepal do not need an ID or visa to cross the border. I thought that was an ingenious joke.)  He said he was 26 but looked a bit older. He asked if I could invite him to come to Germany; I warned him that he would have to learn German to survive. He said with a smile that he wouldn't worry-- he could easily learn it as he would settle there.  I admired his courage, flexibility and resourcefulness.

I wanted especially to share two moments of embarrassment and humiliation in this post experienced by him as seen through my eyes. We waited in an area right after landing in Mumbai, where we would have to be checked again for the visa validity and go through another security scan. The Jet Airways flight attendant called for each country of destination--"Dubai? Dubai? Aap dubai jaeenge?" Then a bit later, she asked for other destiations--"Qatar? Qatar? Aap?" She had to repeat such calls over and over and was impatient in her tone. The Nepali humsafars heading to Oman were also agitated and asked when Oman would be called. But since the attendant was busy she did not respond to their request about the order. It was the most chaotic transfer I have witnessed during my many trips in and out of different places. The other obviously European passengers were chauffeured to a seated area, while the other non-migrant laborer travelers who looked Asian had to figure that part out by themselves. I waited with them for some time and then I realized that I had to go to the restroom. I could not wait with them or pass the security check either, so I planned to meet up with Paurab after the check.

When I went through the checkpoint, the security guards from the Indian forces were extremely rude, regardless of their gender. They barked orders continuously with Hindi. One passenger from Nepal told one guard that he could not understand Hindi and requested him to speak in English. Another person who could speak Hindi acted as a go-between. The guard asked contemptuously, in Hindi, "Isn't he from Nepal?" Implying that everyone from there should understand Hindi. I was similarly expected to understand until some of the guards realized I was probably of another origin. It was quite a bothersome experience and I acutely felt the marginality of Nepal in the eyes of the big Indian sarkari fellows. 
I met up with Paurab, who was waiting for me. I complained to him immediately about the rough treatment. He brushed it off and didn't mind it as much. But I knew that he would have been treated in a similar way--the difference was that he could speak Hindi and avoid trouble. Later on, the second incident occurred when we would try to ask for the WiFi log-in code from the front desk. I never had any issues before, but for Paurab he hesitates to interact with the suited people of the Mumbai airport. He suggested that since my English is good, I should ask for both of us. I reluctantly agreed the first time. When the first WiFi code expired, we had to go the second time and I wanted him to ask for both of us. I stood next to him. The receptionist (which was a different person that the first time) clearly gave him much more trouble than when I asked, suggesting Paurab to log in with his SIM information. But we both did not have an Indian SIM, so we continued to wait for the code. The receptionist addressed me and asked what request did I have. I said I had the same issue, which is that I need the WiFi code. Only then did the receptionist give us both codes. 

I remembered these two incidents because I read a really enlightening paragraph from scholar Sanjay Srivastava on marginality:
"One way of thinking about 'humiliation' in the Indian context might be to consider it as a trope that serves to remind economically and culturally marginal men about their marginality. That, for men like them, the city is, indeed, a place of many dangers and repeated humiliations at the hands of others more powerful; that within the hierarchy of masculinities, theirs may stand at a precipice, teetering between feminisation and re-masculinisation, not always allowing of a stable, delimited sense of the masculine. This is the juncture of where the self-that-wants-to-be is mortified by the actual expereinces of being towards an anxious--fluctuating--subjectivity. It is also the moment where the masculine self may experience itself as a member of a class, its masculinity inscribed and restrained by the rules of inter-class intercourse." (quoted from The Masculinity of Dis-location, in South Asian Masculinities p215)

Although I did not hear the expressions of explicit experiences of humiliation from Paurab, I gained a sense of what it might feel like even within the region of his origin. I worry about the similar experiences he had abroad. While we have not talked since we departed from the airport, there is always the possibility of reconnecting as humsafars

Further academic reading on the subject of Nepalese migrant laborers in the Gulf region:

What Kind of Place is this?
Daily Life, Privacy and the Inmate Metaphor in a Nepalese Workers' Labour Camp (Qatar)


Tamil Nadu Politics and Bullfighting (Jallikattu)

This is one of the reflections I wrote on a 10-day school trip to Tamil Nadu in February, organized by University of Göttingen.

We traveled to Tamil Nadu during a very crucial time in its political history. The key figure of the Dravidian ruling party All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), Jayalalithaa, recently died. The party was founded on a charismatic leader and former film star, M. G. Ramachandran. He successfully projected “himself as a Hero, as the true Tamil man” in films and campaigns alike. During campaign seasons, many imitations and plays of him are enacted before meetings of AIADMK officials and voters. Jayalalithaa similarly used her charm and chaste feminine image to her electoral benefit. She survived many probes into allegations of corruption since 1996, and has expelled some members from the party to distance herself from the allegations.

Yet the issue of corruption continued to overshadow the consequent debates over political succession after her death. In early February of 2017, the AIADMK declared that Jayalalithaa’s close aide and confidante Sasikala Natarajan would become her successor. The other contender, who was the acting Chief Minister since October 2016, O Panneerselvam, resigned. However, Sasikala was convicted of corruption just prior to our group’s arrival in Tamil Nadu on February 14. She cannot hold public office for the next six years. Edappadi K Palaniswami, another politician from her faction in AIADMK, swore in as the Chief Minister on February 6. Since the change was very sudden, I saw a lot of advertisements in villages portraying Jayalalithaa posing with Sasikala. As of March during the writing of this report, the two factions of AIADMK are still battling over rules and regulations regarding campaigns, e.g., the right to use the party symbol of two leaves. The dust has yet to settle. Based on my understanding, Sasikala’s inability to govern was more due to her failures in the factional contest rather than corruption per se.

Intense action, with Police in Beige uniforms watching over the grounds. Photo taken by author

Overall I heard very little about the dramatic events within AIADMK from the people we had met over the ten day. We did not meet anyone through the excursion with explicit ties to the party. Thus the understanding of the factional split has been mostly based on news reports. However, the trip was filled with discussions and firsthand experience of politics of a different sort. For example, in a village of the Madurai district, we had the golden opportunity to witness traditional Tamil bull fighting (jallikattu) in action on February 17th. This event has a history of more than two thousand years and has been popularized through Tamil cinema. Personally, the brief glimpses of the village jallikattu had the largest participation of people in a grassroots event I have seen in my four visits in India. The air was also charged with exuberant energy. The policemen welcomed us to come to the fore and engaged in the event as spectators, waving at the bull with their lathis with excitement, while also maintaining order. Most attendees and spectators were men, with a handful of women peering behind the fences. It occurs every year during the harvest festival Pongal and the hero who tames the bull is often portrayed in cinema as a masculine hero and appealing to women. The trope of women falling in love with the bull tamer is as old as Tamil Sangam literature. While injuries are inevitable, participants and spectators alike consider taming the bull a matter of honor. While there usually are prizes for the successful tamers, more rewards of the social nature are also at stake.

Advertisement board for Jallikattu. 

Advertisement board for Jallikattu. Notice Ambedkar on the right side of the board. Photo taken by author

Jallikattu was never a static event. While at some points, most people involved were agricultural workers, other points in time landlords also vigorously engaged in the event as organizers. In an 1893 Tamil novel, the landlord skinned “alive his bull that lost in Jallikattu.” The event has recently reached the height of national political debate due to allegations of animal cruelty and threat to public safety. The use of bulls in this event was contested by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2010 but still practiced under the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act No 27 of 2009. In 2014, India’s Supreme Court struck down the state law and banned it. Many people of Tamil Nadu saw it as an affront on Tamil identity and protested the ban in 2016 and 2017. In addition to Tamil nationalism, anti-Modi sentiment was high but underreported by the media. Most protestors were young people—“students, IT professionals, and activists—many of whom, as residents of urban areas, did not regularly witness or participate in Jallikattu.” Prof. Ayyathurai also pointed out during a discussion that he did not witness Jallikattu in action when he lived in his hometown of central Tamil Nadu. This point is interesting in analyzing the construction of Tamil identity through media rather than mere praxis.

Spectators leaving the grounds. Photo taken by author

Spectators. Photo taken by author

Caste is also a point of contention—certain Dalits find the activity to reinforce caste hegemonies. The village jallikattu we witnessed starred the lower-caste group Thevar, who are dominant. They were the one of the major benefitting social groups of the politically foundational anti-Brahmin Self Respect movement. They are considered to favor the AIADMK party and vice versa. In addition to intense conflicts between Thevars and Pallars (a particular Dalit group) since the 1990s, social pressure also plays out in the form of a ban on Dalits from participating in jallikattu. “Dalits are often forced to do markedly less glamorous jobs like playing the melam (a percussion instrument) to set the tone, and take care of the bulls” during jallikattu and are not paid for it. Women are also rarely the center of this sport. Writer Uma Devi, whom we also met during the last event of our trip, pointed that she cannot fathom that the overtly macho sport should represent Tamil culture. Scholar G. A. Aloysius similarly points out that there are many forms of social dominance in his analysis of caste.

Still, the spectacle has interesting connotations for Dalit assertion as well, once have the opportunity to participate. Many Dalit scholars engage in interpreting bull fighting, including some of our trip guides at the Madurai University. As histories of Hinduism shows, one cannot ignore that ownership of rituals is contested and Dalits have the potential to (re)claim certain events. One news narrative that relegates all Dalits who identify as Hindus or participate in Hindu rituals to be pawns of Hindutva significantly neglects Dalit agency.

On a broader point, University of Göttingen’s anthropologist Nate Roberts has argued in a book review that Tamil identity allows for lower caste organization. “In the historical context of modern Tamil Nadu, ‘Tamil’ refers not merely to a particular linguistic identity, but equally to the universal progressive values—anti-caste, feminist, pro-poor, democratic, and humanist—that Dravidian leaders, following the lead of early Dalit leader Iyothee Thass, sought to characterize as inherent to Tamil Nadu’s authentic (pre-Aryan) culture.” Jallikattu could be a key part to this overarching ongoing research on Tamil identity and caste politics.


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