Chapter 1: Journey of A Thousand Miles

TheVoix is partnering with Bangalore based photographer Mahesh Shantaram on a new bi-weekly series called African Encounters with Racism in India that explores racism, discrimination and violence against Africans who work and study in India. Join Mahesh on his personal quest to understand racism in India seen through the unique experiences of Africans living there. In this new series, Mahesh will tackle the subject from various humanistic angles. The scene shifts from Bangalore to Jaipur to Delhi to Punjab. Eventually, the series will construct the “big picture” of racism seen through the collective experiences of all the wonderful people he has encountered.

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February 4, 2016
“Hello, I’m calling from the Straits Times in Singapore. This is with regard to the horrific incident that happened in Bangalore yesterday. I saw your comments on Facebook. Do you have any more information?”

“I know only what I’ve read in the news. I’m just a shocked online bystander.”

“Is there anything you’d like to say about the incident?”

“Sure. I definitely think that we in Bangalore—and you can quote me on this one…”

“Yes, yes! Go on…”

“We have become such racist bastards.”

“No… No, I cannot quote you on that one.”

“Okay.”

“Shall I say that you are shocked that this is happening?”

“Yeah. I guess so.”

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Five people have been arrested for an assault on a 21-year-old Tanzanian business student, who was allegedly stripped and beaten by a mob in the IT hub of Bangalore – an incident that has launched a debate on African nationals facing racism in the South Asian country.

Related story: Five held for assault On Tanzanian in India

Not in my City!
Soladevanahalli. A seven-syllable neighborhood on the outskirts of Bangalore that I had never heard of, until this particular incident. Halli means village in Kannada. Where was this village? Why were Africans living there? I had to go the distance to find out.

Bangalore witnessed a coming of age around the late 2000s — a swanky new airport befitting its Silicon Valley status and the long-overdue metro rail, tantalizingly visible on the horizon. A precursor to these developments was the redrawing of the city’s limits in 2007. The newly created metropolitan area of Greater Bangalore was home to an estimated 9 million people.

Almost overnight, these series of administrative decisions subsequently swallowed up 111 villages surrounding it, where life otherwise stood still. Vast tracts of forest and farmland gave way to rapid commercial development, which saw the mushrooming of several 21st century colleges. The construction of new blocks is a currently a year round activity.

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That’s how Soladevanahalli became the student town that it is today, now oddly merged with the big city whose global identity is fed by the tempting promise of the good times. At this hastily stitched interface between the city and the village, the friction is most pronounced. In the days following the assault of the Tanzanian woman, Sarayu Srinivasan, writing for The News Minute, captures the palpable sense of “fear and mistrust in the stretch of north Bengaluru, dotted with several educational institutions.”

Related story: What Bengulureans and Africans think of each other

First Steps 
Sarayu introduced me to Hassan, an athletic 24-year old man and an extremely articulate marketing student from Zambia. His friends know him as Dega, that also being the nickname of his idol, the Brazilian footballer Edgar Aldrighi Júnior. But on the backstreets of Soladevanahalli, he prefers to go by Ganesh. It just makes life simpler.

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Hassan and I spoke at length about life in Halli. That was my introduction to everyday racism. “Before I left Zambia, I thought in India, I would live like a boss!” Student life didn’t turn out quite as expected. Hassan became my window into the African community in Bangalore and their daily plight. “People are so ignorant,” he complained in frustration. “They ask us if we wear clothes in Africa. Do you think we started wearing clothes only after coming to India?”

They say all the world’s wisdom is printed on t-shirts. Hassan’s t-shirt today echoed one of my sporting passions (swimming, just to be clear). I asked if he could spare a moment to be photographed on the roof of his apartment. He willingly agreed; in the background is the Soladevanahalli skyline.

End note
News of the Tanzanian girl’s assault spread far and wide. We saw spontaneous appeals and heartfelt expressions of support pouring out from across the world. One of those was by Abigail Femi, a Bangalore resident at that time.

Abigail recently moved to South Korea with her husband, where she reflects on how life has changed for her:

When you are in a country where PDA is welcomed and not frowned at, and the people move on with their daily activities without starring and looking at you as if you’re from Mars; then hanging out and having fun with hubby in public is liberating. ‪#Thumbsupsouthkorea #Koreansrock #Fundaywithhubby

Mahesh Shantaram is an independent photographer based in Bangalore, India. His work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian and Architectural Digest India. See more of his work at thecontrarian.in and write to him at ms@thecontrarian.in