As an Indian living in Europe, I've naturally had my brush with institutionalised (usually airport-related) racism - getting picked for security checks at airports, endless paperwork regarding visas, being asked strange questions at immigration borders. But the people of the cities that I lived in - Aarhus, Amsterdam, Hamburg and London - never made me feel unwelcome for a minute. Never did I smell a whiff of racism in the restaurants, shops, universities and neighbourhoods that I lived in. Of course, it helped that my lifestyle barely differed from my European counterparts.
And then it hit me straight in the face last Wednesday.
Sid and I were holidaying in the sunny, jagged island of Rhodes in Greece. It was our last day there. Over our weeklong stay, we had puzzled over the fact that we seemed to be the only Asians on that entire island. The island was filled with white people, and we had encountered two to three blacks at the most. But then again, the islands biggest attraction is its bikini-filled beaches, and Indians are famously awkward on beaches.
On Wednesday, thinking of the rainy London that awaited us, we started browsing through some umbrellas displayed on a shop window. But as we tried to enter the shop, a middle-aged balding man barred our way with his portly body, elbows akimbo. He said we must choose what umbrella we want from the window first. There were many people browsing inside the shop, and at first I thought it was a joke. But as he continued walling our way, the penny dropped. He didn't want us in his shop, and since we were well dressed, the only reason for that was our brown skin.
As heat rushed to my face, my instinct was to run - run as far as I could from the hedious shop. But Sid being braver called him a racist bastard to his face before we left. I don't think our abuse shamed him in the least. If we called him racist, he could live with it within his white skin as long as he could keep us out his shop. The term, and its unattractive connotations, held no meaning to him.
As we left, I for the very first time in my life truly thanked the likes of Gandhi, King and Mandela for their fight against racism. What that fight meant, and how it affected me came to life in that instant. For they made it unacceptable in most societies to treat people differently by colour. The shop owner was not a marginalised Neo-Nazi seeking a fight. He was a perfectly respectable Greek businessman who thought it acceptable to turn someone out of his shop for being of the wrong colour. I thought we had won that war. But in Greece, which is only beginning to have its brush with the rainbow-coloured world, the fight has only just begun.
And Sid started it with calling our Greek opponent what he is - a racist bastard.