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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

On the road from Madras to South India

“Are you a Madrasi?”

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.

15 comments:

Tequila said...

I completely agree with you on the south indian classification. Interestingly, for a lot of my friends in madras, north indians include bombayites and bengalis. Guess it works both ways.

that conversation with ur colleagues was hilarious:)

Raaga said...

Somehow, I've not faced that... at least people are more accepting of the fact that there are different languages... they know a Marathi exists and a bengali exists and may call them north indians, but don't assume they all know hindi... but it probably does work both ways.

mysterious_malady said...

I guess, considering all that you've said re: Indians, an American saying, 'I have lots of friends that speak Indian' isnt too bad ! Or is it ?

Pretty Woman said...

ha ha ha....interesting conversation!!! I can clearly feel the frustration you feel that clearly comes across...I guess it is plain ignorance....like a frog in a well, people don't care to learn! that's all...

Chitra said...

Hilarious arundhati but true....i go with what u say.

Apple said...

I agree with you raaga..have had similar problems explaining this classification to my colleagues here...

Aparna said...

Hey Aru...I have heard my brother get so irritated when a northie says "chen naai"...He goes through the whole explanation phase of saying that means a read dog and the city is "Chennai"!! And yes..I have been through all that you have written. The first thing you get asked when you meet a desi is where are you from in India? When I say Madras...next is oh to aap hindi nai jaante!

popsie said...

All that you said is true. You missed the generalistion in Hindi movies that a Madrasi(South Indian according to them) speaks with a certain accent that includes a mix of Tamil and Telugu, which is so not true. Wonder if the movies contribute to this idea or do movies reflect what people(who do not belong to South India), think n believe in reality.

It's futile explaining the difference. How many of them can we explain to? The best, I guess is not to expect change from such people and their thoughts.

Raaga said...

@Agree with you guys... Popsie... movies are so about stereotypes that I have never seen in real life :)

aparna said...

Just reading through your post. I have faced this generalisation in so many different ways.
But the way I look at it is this - its their problem; their outlook is so narrow that they haven't bothered to progress enough to understand the difference and its their loss!
One of the questions (from a very educated person) that had me speechless was that since I lived in Goa for a while, did I speak Goanese?!!!

Arundati Rao said...

with the influx of people into hyd because of the IT sector....i am exposed to mostly weird expectations / observations from them

Example1: neighbour to me: maid ka bada problem hai yahan....bahut kam hindi bolte hain
me to myself: really? if i came to delhi i wouldnt really expect a telugu speaking maid/dhobi/securityguard/autowallah or grocer

Example2: acha....aap roti khate ho....yahan to sab chawal khate hain na.....
me to myself: hum atleast bheja to nahin khate hain.....

Example 3: SRK to Sreesanth at a show on tv recently: acha when someone hits you for a six, what do you say in malyalee.....??
me: oh god!! switch of the tv someone....

why do we want to go to extreme lengths to compare?? cant we accept places, people and culture for what they are??

Raaga said...

@Aparna: I've dealt with foriegners asking me if I spoke Indian... now which Indian, I do not know. But when Indians ask questions like these, I feel like slapping them.

@Arundati: Hindi speaking folks feel everyone should speak their language...and they can be so ignorant about the rest... I am not saying all are like this, most that I have come across are.

Anonymous said...

i cudnt control my laughter reading Ms. Arundati's comments..n i've felt this too that people who are basically(ie roots) from south india are somehow ashamed to accept that..(which irritates me to the core..)they somehow want to 'fit' into that group mayb..i feel pity for them!!

G.S

finding thyself said...

Enjoyed the post and most of the comments that followed. Being a Tamilian/Madarasi(??does that qualify as one or are they poles apart???!!!) i faced similar situations as mentioned above!:) Even till date i do.

Either people haven't learnt their geography and history lessons properly when they had the opportunity or they feel they are a cut above the south indians,trying to be snobbish and treat us as aliens in their own land!!!

bee said...

i love it when someone assumes jai and i speak the same language, because we are 'south indians'. like you, my parents and jai belong to three different states and i grew up in a fourth.

when i told someone no, j and i speak different languages, that person wanted to know if our common language was hindi. when he heard it was english, he wondered why we don't speak to each other in hindi since hindi is the 'national language'.

**snort**