Mark Twain said, only half in jest, that Americans learnt geography through the wars their country waged.
In India, it appears, it takes an occasional Olympic hero – like the pint-sized pugilist Mary Kom – to impart a similar lesson in the geography of places that exist outside of our normal range of vision.
On Twitter on Monday, @tonytongbram used the upsurge in national interest in the sporting fortunes of Mary to conduct a pop quiz – and elevate the cartographic awareness of many Indians. On a map of India’s northeastern region, he asked Mary Kom’s many fans to try and identify Manipur, the State from which she hails.
Many of those who responded said they didn’t earlier know where Manipur was, but now they did. That, he said, was his “humble goal”.
The northeastern States are endearingly referred to as the “seven sisters”, but the familial collective also masks a failing in many of us “on the mainland”: an inability to tell all the ‘sisters’ apart on a map – and a deeper incuriosity about the region. Amitabh Bachchan may not be guilty of any of these, but he too erred momentarily, while saluting Mary Kom, in referring to her as being from Assam. And although he quickly rectified his error of geography, he illustrated a common-enough mental lapse.
Manipur is, of course, a State that, like much of the northeastern region, has fallen off the map of our collective consciousness – to the point where even the periodic economic blockades (which compels Mary Kom to cook on woodstoves) and Irom Sharmila’s hunger strike of 11-plus years don’t make it to media headlines.
So, if it takes a Mary Kom to advance the frontiers of our understanding, it’s a consummation devoutly to be desired.
But Mary Kom isn’t just teaching us to mark places on a map. Typical of someone who punches above her weight, she also subconsciously holds up a mirror to another duplicitous side of our mental make-up. The effusive readiness with which many Indians have embraced Mary Kom contrasts sharply – and hypocritically – with the racist stupidity and ethnic stereotyping that is inflicted on many of those from the northeastern States in the big cities in “the mainland”.
Mary herself knows what it is to be mocked in Delhi’s mean streets. In a recent expansive profile of Mary Kom in Intelligent Life, Rahul Bhattacharya writes:
“When (Mary Kom) walks the streets of Delhi with her fellow north-eastern athletes, they are sometimes mistaken for Nepali domestic help. ‘I tell them we are not Nepali, we are Manipuri, so don’t speak like that, this is very bad manners.’ At other times they are taunted with the gibberish dispensed to those with oriental features: ‘Something ching ching ching ching they start speaking, I don’t know what. Even they don’t know what! We are feeling bad. We are Indian.Ya, the face is different. But heart is Indian.’
On occasion, the latent racism goes too far, as some recent tragic instances involving students from northeastern States – Richard Loitam (in Bangalore),Ramchanphy Hongray (in New Delhi), and Dana Sangma (in Gurgaon) – illustrate.
But even when it is not lethal, expressions of racism, whether directed at one of our own or of foreign extraction, shame us all.
For instance, during Saina Nehwal’s matches with Chinese players at the Olympics, The Hindu’s China correspondent Ananth Krishnan observed a stream of racist public outpourings from Indians directed at the Chinese (A couple of cringe-worthy samples: here and here.)
Such racist name-calling was again shamefully in evidence during a recent visit to China by an Indian youth delegation made up of youth representatives from various political parties. Media accounts of their indecorous conduct (here and here) recall that the male members of the youth delegation “made lewd remarks of the dressing style of some Chinese girls and called them ‘chinkis’.” Subsequently, they picked on girls from northeastern India who were part of their own delegation as well.
As Ananth Krishnan observed, “For people who love to play victim abroad, we unashamedly tolerate racism to Asians and Africans.”
Perhaps someone needs to put the fear of Mary Kom into those who would resort to such racist name-calling. As this blogger observed: “Next time you use insulting slang for people of North East, remember… Mary Kom, the Olympian boxer, is from Manipur. She’ll whack you ”
From filling the gaps in our geographic and cultural understanding of the northeast to ‘fixing’ the moral compass of some of our deviants… it appears that there’s nothing that a right-hook from Mary can’t fix.