‘I no naka no kawazu wa taikai o shirazu’. The nugget of wisdom behind this Japanese proverb is that the frog in the well knows nothing of the great sea. It goes back to a Chinese version of a story, where Froggy spends its puny life hopping inside a dark well, thinking it to be the most idyllic place.

Until one day another frog accidentally falls into the constricted space and enlightens it about the bright and profound world outside. Thus making Froggy aware of how much there is to discover and learn beyond its sheltered and ‘not-so-well’ world.

Recently, in an interview our not so desi Uncle Sam [Pitroda] whispered that ‘People in the East look like Chinese, People in the West look like Arabs, people in the North look like maybe White and People in the South look like Africans’. In the political din that followed on social media, the statement created a spark and immediately caught fire.

With innumerable memes and articles, the whisper turned into a roar. Accused of a racist mindset trying to divide the nation on the basis of skin colour, Uncle Sam stepped down as the Chairman of the Indian Overseas Congress (IOC).

This isn’t the first time Pitroda has put his foot in it. Earlier when he downplayed the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, or questioned the Balakot air strikes or stated that temples won't solve India's issues, he had faced a backlash. I won’t even go into what’s right or wrong with his earlier controversial statements. Instead, like the second frog, let us examine the bigger picture of the sordid scenario created with this recent ‘racial slur’.

Only Pitroda knows whether this was his warped way of celebrating our Indian diversity. But what I can’t seem to wrap my ‘Chinese’ head around is how a comparison with other human races becomes an ‘insult’ or a ‘gaali’?

We are all homo sapiens and what differentiates us is only our physiognomy, a regional variation of features and skin colour. If it’s the choice of words and their affiliation, then probably remarks about resembling African, Chinese and Arabs can be hurtful, reminding people of their own phobias, or the slurs hurled at them by other insensitive frogs living in the global well.

Since such blunt comparisons only add more fuel to an already simmering fact, any comment on the basis of colour, features, disability, caste or region as a celebration of diversity, is probably something we can do without. But imagine a vibrant and luminous congregation of people cooped up in a dark giant well, sharing space with a bigoted and colour conscious crowd. Uff! That is not only suffocating, it is so very, very sad.

Ours is a country born out of waves of settlements, where numerous ethnic groups have crash landed on a beautiful beach called India. Multiple cultures continue to swell and soar, while the calming sounds of various languages keep colliding with the compacted wet shores.

Numerous religions have left behind their gentle hues and impressions on the sands of time. There is a forever picnic going on where everyone dresses in various clothing, plays countless games and eats an assorted variety of foodstuffs. Why on earth should we shy away from such a charming celebration of truth?

Why not celebrate all the human hues that God has endowed the world with? Why judge our appearances only through a lens tinted by caste and colonialism? Why do all our problems stem from hierarchy?

Why do we still struggle to meet norms of beauty alien to our roots? If ‘black is beautiful’ and celebrated in poetry, song and epics worldwide, why is it such a sensitive matter to us?

I know questions like these are notoriously difficult to answer, because people are often reluctant to express the truth, especially when society disapproves of them. Pitroda merely articulated a fact that we are hesitant to openly express or discuss.

Maybe he should have been more subtle with his phrasing, but if we claim to believe in a motto that hints at a global family, why can’t we honestly talk of India’s many ethnicities? I’m sorry, but if we cannot accept this intelligent fact, I see the slogan of ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’ going for an awful toss!

Apart from being proud of living as whites, yellows, browns or blacks, we should also value all shades of skins and include them readily into our repertoire. To be hurt or insulted by something which is nature originated only shows a small afflicted mindset.

What is even more distressing is that everyone from the West, East and South is offended. Why? Is it because ‘white’ denotes power and a fair skin tone and non-mongoloid features sets the beauty standard?

What is it about our brains, our culture, and our upbringing that leads to such biases? Where does it come from? We are creatures for whom reasons are important and when we don’t have a good reason to tell ourselves, we often make one up.

We may pretend to be kind and well intentioned but we generally prefer our own group, our own team, our own nation. We may be good at mothering and smothering our kids but we are also experts in the ‘othering’ game.

The truth is that an overwhelming majority of us are home to a range of biases, including xenophobia and racism. We think badly of those who look and do things differently and hesitate to accept them into our own groups.

We may not ‘suggest’ or ‘say’ anything directly but deep down the bias is embedded in cultural stereotypes. It is rooted in jokes, sitcoms, cinema, media, and in the taken-for-granted background of everyday gossip. It is transmitted by people who believe in bigotry. And even in those who think they don’t and unconsciously keep spreading it.

So what can we do about it? Firstly we should train our minds to rise above the murky ‘wells’ of our thoughts. Then we need to stop inhaling the impure stuff we are made to breathe in this polluted atmosphere.

Finally we have to leap out of our restricted spaces and be ready to join the civilised race outside. Perhaps now is the time for a major clean up.

Intelligence doesn’t automatically protect us from unconscious biases. It is triggered and expressed only with awareness. Let us not be like the frog that thinks the sky is only as big as is visible.

Let us permit ourselves to listen to the teeny weeny squib of the Japanese proverb which silently screams out that a person with limited outlook can never know the immensity of the world.

The well is not our whole universe. And all of us living in it are not built or tinted the same way. We have to highlight our differences. We need to accept them gracefully, because only in this beautiful diversity lies our strength.

This is what influences our perceptions, our judgments and our decisions. This is what shapes how we interact with the magical world around us. We cannot spend our entire lives just waiting to be offended by someone, or something!

Clearly our education system hasn’t done enough to teach us about the physiognomy, the science or the history of mankind; because if it did, we would have long since jumped out of our gloomy wells to discover and wholeheartedly embrace the assorted treasures that lie beyond.

Nargis Natarajan is a writer, author and novelist residing in Bhubaneswar. Views expressed are the writer’s own.