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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

(Published in The India Site, on 4 October 2011, retrieved from

Any tourist who has visited India will say it’s more like a continent than a country. With an expanding list of states, created by linguistic division, and a variety of peoples whose features and skin tone defy classification, the nation has never been united by a single language or ethnicity.

The clash of domestic cultures has become a talking point recently after an invective-laden blog post, ‘Open Letter to a Delhi Boy’, turned into an internet sensation, catapulting its young author out of anonymity. It struck me as an angry, thoughtless rant that, if it hadn’t been taken as seriously as it was, may have been deleted by the author once she had got the emotions that triggered it out of her system.

However, it provoked a disturbingly strong, viral reaction. While some tried to see the funny side, and others – including her fellow ‘South Indians’ – were scathing in their dismissal of the piece, thousands of visitors to the blog responded with equally vituperative comments against the ‘other’, and became ‘followers’ of the blog.

As someone born and raised in Madras (now Chennai), and educated abroad, and until recently resident in Delhi, I find myself wondering why people across the country hate or despise each other so much. Does it all boil down to language? Or is it about stereotypes?

Since India’s inception as an independent country, its political leaders have struggled to break free of the coloniser’s language. However, plans to make Hindi, which is spoken by most of the North, the national language were met with heavy resistance from the four Southern states, Maharashtra and West Bengal. Finally, India settled for two Official Languages of the Union – Hindi and English – and at least twenty other official languages, to be used in various states. For decades, Hindi-speakers and speakers of other languages have drawn satisfaction from spoofing each other’s accents and demeanour. Bengali, with its rounded vowels, was as much a target of ridicule as the ‘vandu kondu’ sound and unaccented musicality of the Southern languages.

The movies haven’t helped. The Hindi film industry represented South Indians through dark, stupid clerks – men who wore stained white dhotis with threadbare black coats, coiled their hair into oily buns, and said “aiyo!” at the drop of a hat. The Tamil and Telugu film industry promptly made Hindi-speakers their villains. They parodied North Indians through avaricious, religious and silly money-lenders, whose daughters scandalised them by wearing skimpy clothes and hitting on the moustachioed hero.

Despite the naïve Constitutional guarantee that Indian citizens are free to live and work anywhere in the country, states such as Maharashtra have seen large-scale anti-migrant movements, beginning with the Shiv Sena’s drive against South Indians in the 1960s and continuing with attacks by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena on North Indians in the first decade of this millennium.

I discovered that moving to a different state can be a far bigger culture shock than moving to another country. Two years in London left me with the hint of an accent and a slight moderation of the pace of my speech, both of which quickly disappeared upon my return.

Two years in Delhi left me with the vocabulary of a new language, and an insight into the prejudices that make India so susceptible to social splintering.

I arrived in the capital, hoping the sixty-odd hours of Hindi classes I’d had to take in school would enable me to make conversation. I had at my disposal lines such as Mor hamara rashtriya pakshi hai (The peacock is our national bird), billi miaow-miaow karti hai (The cat says ‘miaow-miaow’), Akbar ke darbar mein navratan kaun-kaun thhe? (Who were the ‘nine gems’ of Akbar’s court?), Ek gaon mein ek kisan rahta thha (A farmer lived in a village) and Holi ek Bharatiya thyohaar hai (Holi is an Indian festival).

To my disappointment, but not entirely to my surprise, the lines didn’t greatly enhance my attempts at communication, or significantly alter Delhi’s perception of ‘Sauth Indians’.

North Indians believe the anti-Hindi agitation is anti-nationalist, and many think the Southern states are demanding secession from the country. And terms like ‘Madrasi’ or even ‘South Indian’ cause resentment in people from the South, because they treat as one bolus four states with distinct languages, cultures, art forms, clothes – and grouses against each other.

Yes, the South is divided too. My state, Tamil Nadu, has wrangled with Andhra Pradesh over territory, and continues to spar with Kerala and Karnataka over water.

In this context, the assumption of homogeneity strikes one as offensive. I was happy to be called ‘Madrasi’, because I was actually from Madras, and the term is certainly preferable to ‘Chennaiite’, which sounds like a mineral ore to me. However, it is used in North India as a reference to anyone from the South.

Immune to the sting of the phrase, I initially rather enjoyed the shift. The dating scene was infinitely preferable. During the course of my research, I found the ability of Delhi men to gulp down five whiskeys before slurring, “yaar, I want to marry a girl like you only, yaar” a pleasant change from the Madrasi man’s two-pints-of-beer-induced, teary, “I failed my parents when I finished my course with an arrear. They said nothing, but I’ll never forget that look of disappointment.”

Another welcome dissimilarity came in their reaction to women making a token reach for the cheque. My dates in Madras had cheerfully hailed my ‘assertion of independence’. The ones in Delhi, horrified at the prospect of being considered either poor or stingy, would grab at the bill, and promptly rush me out for a ride around town in Papa’s Merc, apologising profusely for having to use the slower car. The ‘Oddy’ (Audi) was being used by Papa.

The one put-off was being asked what people like ‘Woad-house’ and ‘Orfan Panook’ wrote about, and why I didn’t read Chetan Bhagat.

I explained to some people that the reason Tamilians ate off banana leaves at weddings was not that we couldn’t afford crockery. I gave up defending our eating habits after someone demonstrated how a porcelain cup was to be handled, enunciating sympathetically, “You drink chai-coffee from steel tumblers, na?”

I believed I was broad-minded till I began to make it a point to read only Tamil books in my office. (For the record, I’d never bought a Tamil book I didn’t need to study for school ever before.) I delighted in the inability of my fellow news anchors to pronounce ‘Azhagiri’ and ‘Kanimozhi’, and announced sardonically that “South Indians have no aspirations” when I mispronounced aspirated Hindi syllables.

On one such occasion, a colleague asked me what I had against Hindi.

“Nothing,” I replied, “it’s just that I don’t know it because the script’s different, the words are different, and I’ve never spoken it. Asking me why I don’t speak Hindi’s like asking you why you don’t speak Russian.”

“Really?” she asked, dumbfounded.

And that was when I realised that it was complete ignorance of the other, on both sides, that had morphed into dislike. With that, came the stereotypes. North Indians = attractive, South Indians = intelligent. Bill Gates’ widely-reported statement that South Indians are the “second smartest people in the world, after the Chinese”, which would qualify as afaux pas anywhere else, has been oft-quoted with pride by people from the Southern states, as if it were fact and not opinion. The perception of South Indians as dark and ugly has been rebutted with arguments that a bunch of actresses who’ve been successful in Bollywood are from the South – Vyjayanthi Mala, Hema Malini, Rekha, Waheeda Rahman, Sri Devi and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan - though most of them are fairly fair.
With the increased movement of skilled and unskilled labour across the Vindhyas, more people have been forced to pick up unfamiliar languages. Film technicians from Kerala and Tamil Nadu are in huge demand across the country, as are labourers from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The IT industry is largely based out of Chennai, Bengaluru and Kolkata, while the majority of media houses and MNCs are headquartered in Delhi or Mumbai. 

One hopes that this, combined with the migration of students to various pockets of the country for education, might one day wipe out linguistic chauvinism. Bitter open letters of the kind that recently caused a furore will only widen the chasm.


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