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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

Chinky Eyes: The many shades of racism

few years ago, a man who I had just met, began flirting with me by deliberately mispronouncing my name.

"Sunaina," he would begin, and every time I corrected him, he said it was a more appropriate name, one that was waiting for me to occupy it. In the way of all flirts, he also offered an immediate guide-book explanation. My eyes were very beautiful, he explained helpfully, and their size — which he used as a metonymy for beauty — was all the more striking, given where I came from.

"After all, Siliguri is the Gateway to Chinkyland," he laughed, reducing the tourist guide expression "Gateway to the Northeast" into a joke with one-sided laughter.

I knew it wasn't the drink in his hand that was speaking, nor the many glasses that had defied gravity and found their way to his head. For this wasn't the first time such a handicapped compliment had come my way. After all, in the national geographic consciousness schooled by textbooks and education bodies that operated out of Delhi, the Northeast was closer to China than it was to India.

Waiting for lunch to be served in Santiniketan's Ratan Kuthi this spring, I overheard two Bengali attendants discuss the meal that they would serve two visiting professors at Nippon Bhavana, the centre for Japan studies in Visvabharati, the university founded by Rabindranath Tagore. The attendants were unsure about the nationality of the guests. "All small-eyed people like chow mein," they decided. I wanted to tell them that I too liked my noodles very much, but it would have been rude.

Instead, I finished a hearty meal perhaps meant for large-eyed people — rice, dal, vegetables, fish curry, red tomato chutney — and went to the archive section at Rabindra Bhawan. After years spent in parent-coaxed admiration of Jamini Roy's "over large eyes" (Amit Chaudhuri's expression, The Old Masters), I had come here to make an acquaintance with the painter Nandalal Bose. Since the correspondence between Nandalal and the Tagores had not been published, I would have to look at the digital archives for the letters. A young researcher from the Philippines was the other researcher in the archival section that afternoon.

This was one of the many discoveries that afternoon: In a letter to Rabindranath Tagore's son, Rathindranath, on 8 May 1924, Nandalal Bose had written from China, "They staged Chitra here. It came through all right. In English. Could have been better in Chinese, I suppose; I also had to help a little. But I had a problem with their eyes. In the end it looked like an affair from Manipur. A Chinese girl, as you know, does not look very different from a Chinese young man. I imagine Chitra was really of Chinese origin."

or a moment I found myself looking at the Filipino girl, looking at her eyes from the corner of my eye, as it were. I wanted to see what "problem" Nandalal might have had. To say that the painter's words had come as a shock to me would be to say too little. I was not judging him at that time, only curating his words in the long trajectory in which such aesthetic judgment had come to me: the polite and friendly school teacher from Bihar's Darbhanga who had told me on a train journey that he wondered whether husbands in Darjeeling, from where he was returning from a family holiday, really slept with the same woman every night since all the women looked the same to him; the drawing teacher in a cousin's school who had said that a near straight line with a dot below it would suffice for a chinky's eyes while more lines and arcs would be needed to draw a "real" Indian's eyes; a sales assistant in the cosmetics section trying to sell a bottle of eyeliner to a Nepali woman, saying that her consumption of eye liner will be low because of her "small eyes."

News reports about girls from India's north east getting cosmetic surgery to "enlarge" and "widen" their eyes reach us from time to time. Kaali kaali ankhein is a given of course, but the majoritarian bias is for badi badi ankhein. ("Chokh duto tana tana ...", lovely big eyes, arched out — that is how a lover praises the woman's eyes in a Bangla song, for instance.)

Dolma, a young Tibetan student, recently showed me a poem that she had written about herself. Quite cleverly, she had titled it "Selfie". She had attempted a sonnet, and as I read on, I noticed the awkward use of words she had used in a desperate bid to get the rhyme scheme right. "Hair-fair" and "nose-pose" were alright, but my heart stopped at "chinky-kinky".

Yes, my small eyes make me a chinky.
You Indian boy, you find that kinky?

She had decided to submit the poem for the college magazine. But before that she wanted to read similar poems by Chinkies, she explained. What amazed — and hurt — me was not Dolma's casual acceptance of the category "Chinky" as identity category alone but the discovery, through subsequent research, that poets from the north eastern states had not found the subject worthy of a battle in their poems, especially when Nandalal's words, "But I had a problem with their eyes", is a national anthem in most of India.

Dolma has since changed the title of her poem to Small Eye, Big I.

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