That’s a question I heard more often than I’d have liked to. Now I don’t take offense to a classification like that. I am a Madrasi. Because I belong to Madras. But if you were to go by the generally accepted meaning of Madrasi, then you’d be talking about at least 4 states in India that are comfortably nestled south of the Vindhyas, not to mention parts of Maharashtra and Goa. What I find most amusing is that a Bambaiya, who may be a Madrasi for a Dilliwala, would call a Madrasi a Madrasi. My own maternal family would make a solid case in point. Originally from the Konkan belt that extends from Goa to South Canara, they have settled in Bombay and consider themselves to be West Indians and not South Indians. As though the people in the south are somewhat inferior to the folks in the rest of the country and they can’t associate themselves with that lot.
I’ve wasted my life until now explaining to people that every south Indian is not a Madrasi. This conversation with my colleague at GE stands out:
P: Where are you originally from?
Me: Don’t know. I have mixed parentage. But I’d call Madras my home.
P: Even I have mixed parentage.
Me: Oh, that’s nice. Where are your parents from?
P: My mom’s from Amritsar and my dad is from Bhatinda.
Me: Oh, but they’re both from Punjab.
P: Yeah, but culturally, the two places are very different. Your parents?
Me: My mother is a Mangalorean Konkani and my father is a Tamilian.
P: Arrey, to yeh mixed parentage kaise ban gaya? Dono Madrasi hi to thehre na! (How is this mixed parentage then? Both of them are Madrasis!)
Well, now after a lot of gyan sessions, I am back in the capital city. The last one year has been amazing. I've noticed that people use the term Madrasi a lot less and use "South Indian" a lot more. Some progress. But I've had some folks ask me, "Do you speak South Indian?" People!! Last heard South India was a large region. It comprised at least the 4 states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamilnadu. There is no one language that is common to these states. Just as Oriya, Bengali, and Assamese are not one and the same, the languages spoken in the different regions of this state are not one and the same. I have a South Indian father and a South Indian mother. I also have a South Indian husband. Yet, each of them has a different mother tongue. I speak all 3. Now, which of these were you asking about?
Ditto for other things like food, weddings, mangalsutras and the like. "Oh, you had a South Indian wedding?" Now, will someone please explain to me what a "South Indian" wedding is? People look at any one of the many mangalsutras I have (thanks to mixed parentage and my having married someone from a different background) and say, "So, this is what a South Indian mangalsutra looks like." And to me, not one of them even remotely resembles the other. So what generalizations they draw, only they can tell.
The same goes for food. "Can you teach me how to cook South Indian food?" Dudes, there is no such thing as South Indian food. Just as they do in the rest of India, food and cuisine change every 50 km across the southern states too.
But how do I explain any of this to anyone? I am surprised I even try. Although people have undertaken the arduous journey from Madras to South India, after all these years, I find they haven't budged an inch. They remain exactly where they were when they began this journey. Blissfully unaware of anything. I feel sorry for them at times, I feel sorry for myself at others. But as always, this will be one more of those things that will remain beyond my comprehension.