White in India

Lots of people ask to photograph our children.

When I came to India I was prepared for being the only white person in most situations.  I was surprised, though, at just how rare white people are outside of the major tourist attractions. Even here in high-tech Bangalore, even here on the campus of IISc, one can go for days or even a couple weeks without seeing another white person. All that is fine with me.  It’s harder for the children, though. Read on.

Indians (if you’ll permit me to generalize for a moment) love children.  Simply adore children.  So, going about town or traveling the country with three children leads to a lot of smiles.  Lots of people stop to talk with them; they ask the kids where they are from, what is their name, and whether they like India.  They finger the blond hair, especially on Andy and Mara.  They tweak their cheeks.  Lots, lots, of people stop us and ask whether they can take a ‘snap’ with our children, or sometimes our whole family.  It’s almost like we are movie stars.  I usually take the opportunity to photograph them in return, like the photos on this page.

At Ellora caves, a schoolteacher asked us to pose for a photo with his group.

All this attention is friendly and well-intentioned, but the kids do get a bit tired of it after a while. That’s why you see only Mara in the next photo…

Ellora: another family wants a photo with Mara.

… and why our kids look so bored in the next photo.

Chennakesava temple: Andy and John pose with a family that wanted a photo with them.

Even more interesting: sometimes people will touch our child’s face or hair and then return their fingers to their lips, as if receiving a blessing.  As one colleague explained it to me, people see children or beautiful things as blessed, and want to share some of those blessings.

Being white in India has other effects.  We attract touts and hawkers like mosquitoes, when at a tourist site. They cling and persist so much I’ve often felt like batting them away.  On the other hand, when I enter the IISc campus or a public space with a guard – and most public spaces have guards, even shopping centers – I seem to receive the benefit of the doubt (“hmm, white person, not a terrorist”) and don’t get stopped. I’m not saying this racial profiling is good, or even useful, but it’s interesting to observe.

As I mentioned, people frequently stop us to chat and ask where we are from.  In January, an old man at Ajanta asked me that.  As soon as I said “USA” he burst out with “Barack Hussein Obama!!”  (On the whole, Indians are excited by Obama.)  We reminisced about how the inauguration had occurred right after Martin Luther King day, and he was proudly reminding me about how MLK had once come to India because he had found Gandhi so inspiring. 

Anyway…  It’s great how friendly the people are.

This post was transferred from MobileMe to WordPress in 2020, with an effort to retain the content as close to the original as possible; I recognize that some comments may now seem dated or some links may now be broken.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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