Desi “Driver”, English Mem: The Difficulty of Being a Brown Boyfriend

Social Commentary

Desi “Driver”, English Mem: The Difficulty of Being a Brown Boyfriend

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I was 15 when I went to my first party in another country. It was a “mixer”, which meant that everyone got makeshift name tags at the door to make conversations easier to start. An unfortunate development, because “What’s your name?” was probably the only question I was prepared to ask or answer.

Already intimidated by the smell of alcohol and the sharpness of the haircuts on display, I wiped the sweat off my pubescent moustache and stuttered out my name to the beaming woman managing the front desk.

She took a look at me and giggled to herself. I mentally congratulated my evidently hilarious face as she scribbled on the name tag excitedly.

First, she produced the tag to the hosts behind her, who burst out laughing. She then proudly stuck the tag on my impressively shiny shirt.

It said “Terrorist Truck Driver”.

Utterly unaware of the hostile undertone of that action, I laughed at this ambitious marriage of stereotypes and spent the entire night as Terrorist Taxi Driver. I waved off those who thought it was nasty, trying my best to prove I can take a joke. There were a lot of Apu impressions thrown at me in the next two hours, and I laughed at every single one of them.

Nine years later, I arrived at an elephant sanctuary in Jaipur with my white British girlfriend and her friends from home. Having clucked appropriately at the amounts of sunblock being applied by our pasty contingent, we headed in to see what the fuss on TripAdvisor was about.

The owner grabbed me by the arm at the door and asked, “Driver ho na aap?”

I shook my head no. His tone changed from condescending to impressed. He let me in with a good-natured laugh.

I have been asked to pay for entry at bars when my white friend gets in for free. I have been ignored as the waiter refills my girlfriend’s drink for the third time.

That day, I tried my best to enjoy feeding the relatively less judgemental elephants, but the indignation never left me. Even the elephant felt my vibe, and only chose to eat 267 sugarcane stalks from my hand.

Being labelled a “driver” by a fellow countryman frustrated me a lot more than being called a “terrorist truck driver”. Not merely because I recognise the prejudice it implies, but also because it is part of a painfully normalised culture of othering in the place I call home, from the people I consider my own.

I could have filed it away as routine harmless prejudice from the hinterland, tinged by the benefit of innocence, but this othering is just as common even in the big city. At its tamest, white people are thought of as better-looking than us humble, hairy lot. At its worst, we see them as otherworldly fairies descended from their perfect kingdom to do us the honour of roaming our lowly hamlet.

As Person Accompanying Fairy™, the treatment I receive can be tremendously conflicted: It skews between relative disdain that I do not deserve, and reverence that I do not deserve either.

I have been asked to pay for entry at bars when my white friend gets in for free. I have been ignored as the waiter refills my girlfriend’s drink for the third time. I have been asked to get a picture taken of us and then discreetly cropped out of frame, leaving only my white friend in, a smooth strategy for the picture-taker to claim a foreigner as their “catch” – sometimes with giggling requests for consent, other times with the covertness of wildlife photography. My girlfriend has refused curious children, creepy men, and nervous women wanting her to hold their baby in the picture for “blessings”.

She tries her absolute best to avoid normalising this fetishisation, especially when it comes with an implied downgrade of my status. She calls it out when there are ears to receive it, which almost always opens up an awkward conversation for everyone.

Unfortunately for her, the subtler manifestations of this – what do I call it? Internalised racism? – are much harder to catch. The chef at the hotel constantly pacing a foot away at her beck and call, might just be a nice guy who takes his job seriously. The sweet shop owner who gives her a free half-kilo of his best pastry, is probably just a generous man practicing his “atithi devo bhava” game. Watching this unfold is either amusing or frustrating, and often, both.

With the nascent naivety of foot-in-mouth uncles that we will eventually become, well-meaning male friends have congratulated me for landing myself a “gora”. It’s a compliment I return wrapped as it came. If I accept it, I admit to reducing my partner to a trophy that I can parade around as proof of my attractiveness. By using her race as compliment, we have objectified her by default.

I suppose I could put it down to our fascination with fair skin. We grew up watching F.R.I.E.N.D.S reruns and late-night repeats of Titanic. So when one of them walks into your store, house, or temple, it’s hard to not wonder whether they meet up with other blonde friends at a real-life Central Perk to discuss what happened on their last cruise.

Bollywood has not helped either (yeah, big surprise there). Our go-to method to elevate the status of the Indian heroine is to make her dance as lead in front of several white extras, for she becomes beautiful only by eclipsing the beauty of the white women behind her.

Despite national embarrassments like corruption, caste, and Venkaiah Naidu’s acronyms, I accept my heritage gladly. But some days I wonder if I am inherently less Indian for choosing a non-Indian partner, as if my relationship is part of the very white worship that irks me. When so much of culture is built to look up to her race, I wonder if I’m merely looking up with rose-tinted glasses.

Fifteen-year old me couldn’t bring himself to tell that woman to change the name tag, because for 15 years I was taught that melanin is an appropriate metric of judgement. That lesson has seeped into our skin just as deeply.

Fortunately, the joys of our relationship compensate for all the grinning-and-bearing. As for her, she’ll just have to keep turning down all the wildlife photographers.