An episode of the recently-aired Pataal Lok on Amazon Prime, where a female police officer abuses a person of Northeast Indian origin as a ‘lying Nepali whore’, has riled up a section of the Nepali community in India, who argue that this reinforces the gendered racist treatment of women belonging to this community.
What began as a social media thread has now turned into a petition by the youth wing of a social organisation – the Bharatiya Gorkha Yuva Parisangh – who are demanding a retraction of the scene and an apology from the producers.
The character, as the show represents, is clearly not Nepali, but the ease with which people from the Eastern peripheries are homogenised and victimised for their facial features is not new. The name of this specific character – Cheeni – is reflective of the racist culture that prevails in the Indian mainstream, where in our everyday lives we are called ‘momos’, ‘chinki’, ‘Nepali/Nepalan’, and now ‘Corona’.
Representation of Nepalis in popular culture
For a long time, the representation of Nepalis as ‘bahadurs’, ‘chowkidars’ and Nepali women as prostitutes in popular culture and fiction, such as Kiran Desai’s The Inheritence of Loss, Arvind Adiga’s White Tiger, has contributed to strengthening this racist stereotyping.
Such representation reflects the ‘lack of interest’ on the part of the mainstream towards the borderlands and their histories. In treating the region as a periphery, the prevalent practices of stereotyping, racism, misrepresentation and causal discrimination are not only kept alive, but strengthened through such mediums.
The narrative of Pataal Lok attempts to unravel the multiple layers of discriminatory practices that define our socio-cultural and political realities and lay bare these dark truths of a ‘well-oiled’ system; a system that is both a product of and reproductive of a culture-inherently biased, hierarchical and oppressive in form and practice.
Gendered racism is a product of this system, attempted to be represented through this particular scene of abuse in Pataal Lok. Popular culture, therefore, has the power to both perpetuate and reinforce such prejudiced practices or act as a powerful medium to represent existing realities with the larger agenda of questioning such stereotypes and representation.
Alternative cinema and shows have gradually been making inroads, breaking free of stereotypes and typecasts in popular culture – and Pataal Lok fits into this new genre of shows. The makers of the show have opened up a tiny window for introspection on questions of representation and inclusion, which for me requires a revolutionary alteration of existing power structures that define the narratives of mainstream discourses.
Gendered realities of Nepali women
Amidst popular sentiment reflected on social media, two posts, one in the Darjeeling Chronicles and the other in The Quint, both written by Nepali women, highlight the point I have tried to make here – that the show does not necessarily perpetuate, but rather seeks to mirror the realities of Nepali women in mainstream India. The posts have been met with harsh criticism and vicious, gendered trolling from people of our community.
The writers are now being targeted using similar language and are being called ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ – exposing the gendered realities and practices back home. I think it says a lot about the prevalence of a militarised, masculine political culture that reflects a perfect imitation of the intimidating practices of the state in silencing dissent through force.
Pataal Lok’s depiction of a Nepali woman has triggered a much-needed debate – on the status of Nepali women both outside and within our own society.
These writings reflect, introspect and probe questions that have long been silenced and marginalised. These two articles – going against powerful, popular sentiments – penned by women spell hope.
Gendered realities of women in our society have hardly found spaces in the writings and public discourses confined within a falsely imagined idea of gender equality. The strengthening of a culture of bullying and intimidating democratic voices has resulted in the shrinking of democratic spaces and glorification of violent, masculine, undemocratic practices – reflected in this intimidating tactics of silencing dissenting voices.
We, as women, condemn gendered racism against Nepali women on the outside. But it is also time to introspect, reflect and question the gendered practices on the inside.
Dipti Tamang is an assistant professor, Darjeeling Government College.
Featured image credit: Amazon Prime