Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Naarth-Sauth War: A Madrasi's Take

(Published in, on 22 September, 2011, retrieved from

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We’ve seen good-natured pleas for the case of the South Indian man by a couple of IIM grads, a few years apart, followed by a bitterly-vituperative-and-perhaps-not-quite-sober rant against Delhi men that took social networking sites by storm a few days ago.
As the folks from either side of the Vindhyas fire salvos at each other, being a Madrasi foreign return who found relatively more acceptance in Hindi heartland than in her hometown, I find myself in a rather unique position to analyse the mutual distrust and dislike.
Part 1: Billi Ek Paaltu Jaanwar Hai
My adherences to social and linguistic traditions began a while before my arrival on the scene. My grandfather was a twentieth century coconut, without ever crossing the seas – a member of the Indian Civil Services in the British Era.
My mother and her siblings spent their Post-Independence childhood in the North and North East, sipping British tea from Chinese porcelain, and learning to use more pieces of cutlery than the digits on their hands at dinner.
My father, the only son in a family of four children, shocked pastors at a spartan missionary school by arriving in a procession complete with elephant and trumpets.
As a result, I grew up speaking English at home, in a state where the Dravidian parties believed my ilk – well, Tam Brahms as we style ourselves now – were Aryan/German/Sanskrit-speaking aliens who had no claim to the language of Tamil Nadu.
I was schooled in the prestigious Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan, whose few Non-Tam-Brahms picked up avaa-ivaa Tamil and, to the abject horror of their parents, switched to a vegetarian diet of saathumdhu saadam (uh, mulligatawny rice, if you will) and dudhyonam (curd rice, duh), and most of whose Tam Brahms – taught to think out of the box – began to eat animals.
All this time, my awareness of the Naarthie-Madrasi divide was limited to arguments over whether Woh Saat Din or Andha Ezhu Naatkal came first, and which had inspired Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Thank heavens producers have made it simpler these days – you can’t quite argue whether Ghajini or Ghajini came first, or Singham or Singham. I suppose you could argue about Gajini and Ghajini, and Singam and Singham, though. And my younger brother told me a comparison of the relative merits of Chandramukhi and Bhool Bhulaiyya ended when a Mohanlal fan said both were equally bad. Well, you get the picture.
As a student of Tamil, my awareness of Hindi was limited to the proud vocabulary of the third language student– billi ek paaltu janwar hai, billi miaow miaow karti hai, Akbar ke darbar mein navratan kaun kaun thhe?
Part 2: ‘What language you’re talkin’, chile?’
Right after, I went to a convent living off its past glory, where nuns would cross themselves at the sight of kurtas that stopped above the knee (“These gerls are yegsbosing their jeans pant!”), shy of the elbow (“These gerls are showing den yinchez of forearm!”), or T-shirts that grazed the waistband (“Oh my Goat, the Dyevil has his grasp on this chile!”)
My perception of language underwent drastic changes too – the Head of my Department, English Literature, assured me that T S Eliot was “naat nusussary from yegzam payint of view” and another teacher pondered over whether Measure for Measure was written by Shakespeare or Marlowe. And while no one in my class seemed to make sense of the Tamil I spoke, my Tamil teacher adored me.
In college, the divisions were clear.
The Naarthie girls coloured their hair, wore heels, smoked outside college, and flaunted mobile phones their boyfriends had bought them.
The girls of the Synthetic Salwar Brigade oiled their hair, wore Hawaii slippers, giggled together outside college, and flaunted amber flowers that one could smell a floor away.
The Anglo-Indians tittered over the overtures of the “sly conners” and “wanton buggers” they were dating.
The Malayalis transcended all other barriers and spoke Malayalam.
The Tam Brahms, drawn from three schools – mine, Vidya Mandir, and P S Senior – met up during lunch to speak the Tamil everyone pretended not to understand, and joined whichever other group happened to be nearest.
Part 3: ‘So, you mean you’re from Sri Lanka?’
Finally, I did that thing all Tam Brahms must do for a decent education, thanks to the reservation quota of my state – went abroad.
And that was when the Madrasi status I’d been deprived of since an old man decided to rename my city – setting off a trend that choked on Mumbai, Kolkata, and Bengaluru before finally throwing up the illogical Paschim Banga – hit me. I was the only Sauth Indian in a group united by language. Well, one of two, but the other one was an Army kid who’d grown up all over the country, and spoke better Hindi than English.
My first inkling of this difference was when my British roommate’s parents thought I was British-born since they’d never met a first-generation Indian who didn’t speak Hindi on the phone to her mom. Later, it struck me that they’d probably not met too many legal immigrants.
Then, I flummoxed a professor, who greeted me with a friendly, “You’re from India! So you speak Hindy at home!”
“No, I don’t know Hindi.”
“Ah! You must be Kashmiri, then. So, you speak Err-do?”
“No, I speak Tamil.”
The puzzled man frowned, “so, you’re Sri Lankan then, not Indian?”
I would shrug helplessly when I saw my international friends looking at me quizzically for translations as the other Indians chattered away. Even more bizarrely, I would turn to my Afghan friends for interpretation of the Hindi and Urdu everyone else was speaking. Soon after a girl from Pune praised the Army kid for not being a “typical Sauth Indian”, the anti-Hindi sentiment crept into me for the first time.
Part 4: Of Raghu Thatha and Maya Baganji
After returning home, to a town where the Marwari traders spoke better Tamil than local housewives and Tamils ordered chaat in broken Hindi, the sting was dulled to an extent.
But within a year, I took my indeterminate accent and foreign degree to the National Capital Region, and settled in a pocket extending into Uttar Pradesh, the land ruled by Lord Rama, and later Lord Krishna, and now Mayawati.
I’d forgotten the little Hindi I’d picked up in London – well, except for a YouTube clip that became a rage during my time there. I could now confidently say ‘Yek gaavon my yek kisan raghu thatha’, giving me three topics of conversation – Akbar, cats and farmers.
My good natured landlords, having made valiant attempts to reach out to me, decided to introduce me to a fellow Sauth Indian family. Sadly for them, the friendship didn’t take off, as both the family and I were bilingual. They spoke Telugu and Hindi; I spoke English and Tamil.
However, my monolingual landlords continued to offer me support through sign language, which didn’t go off too well either. My request for a mirror got me a plate, water, a glass tumbler, the address of an optometrist, and, inexplicably, a bed sheet. Forgetting the word for pickle got me ripe mangoes, lime juice, curd, rice, dough, flour and an offer of chapattis.
The one good thing about not knowing Hindi in a city where everyone spoke only it, I decided, was that I wouldn’t understand eve-teasers’ taunts. That was before I figured out that Delhi’s Road Romeos don’t spout vulgar proposals. They stare. And stare.
In Madras (as I still call it), a guy by your side would keep them off, even if he was shorter, narrower and weaker than you. Hell, even if he wore glasses. But in Delhi, you could have a hulking body-builder by your side, and the starers would thwart his attempts at fierce eye contact by focusing complacently on you till you disappeared from sight.
I was in the land of fights over girls that end in shootouts, where men don’t sprout moustaches unless they’re in the army, where everyone – well, everyone who’s not Bengali – thinks you’re depressed if you read a book.
Working in a news organisation meant I had very little time for Mata Hari-ish indulgences. But I did figure out the following:

  •  From a metro where men would be happy to Dutch on a first date, I’d moved to one where they would panic that you thought they were poor if you took out your purse, and eliminate the notion with a night ride around the city in Daddy’s Merc.
  • Two beers may get the average South Indian man to profess his love for you, but the Naarthie man can last up to five whiskeys, and then insist he did ten.
  • When you say you did some work in the theatre, Naarthies assume you manned the ticketing desk at the cinema. When you explain, and bring in NSD (National School of Drama), they give you a pitying oh-you-must-have-parents-who-are-addicted-to-drugs look.
  • The Aunties are the same across India. You figure out Aunties you meet for the first time have been spying on you when they tell you you’ve become dark, put on weight, got wrinkles, wear the same clothes too often, and lost hair.
  •  On both sides of the Vindhyas, people intend it as a compliment when they say “you look like a North Indian.”

Three years after I moved to Delhi, I finally forced myself not to leave my slippers outside as a mark of respect for clean floors, carpets, and elders. I convinced a couple of my Naarthie friends that they were the ones who spoke English with an ‘Indian’ accent. I dug into the history of the Chola, Chera, Pandiya wars when the Naarthies said South Indians never had to fend off attacks. I figured out that ‘Madrasi’ was a pleasant reminder of what I used to be till the whims of a former government made me a ‘Chennaiite’ – which, to me, sounds more like a mineral ore than a people. And I learnt to say ‘ek gaon mein ek kisan rahha, rahha, rahhata thha.’
Having been mistaken for a Punjabi, Malayali, Arab and Latina, and having confused people with my Anglicised Tamil, Tamilised Hindi and Hinglished English, I now feel an affinity to several contrasting cultures at war with each other. And if parochial forwards have taught me anything, it’s that everyone has ugly prejudices – some being uglier than others. Well, that, and South Indians tend to write long angry diatribes, while North Indians tend to respond with long angry comments.


andy said...

Lovely blog. I could relate to much of it. Assume you have read Two States of Chetan Bhagat which has treated this subject in a reasonably amusing way.

Nandini Krishnan said...

Thanks, Andy! But I don't read Chetan Bhagat. Only read his first book, and to use a litotes, it didn't particularly impress me.

Max said...

Absolutely love your blog, can relate to almost everthing you have said, worked in Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Delhi, Chicago, Detroit over 12 years. We always see things the way we want them to be seen, good and bad always co-exist and its one's choice to pick one of the two - frustrations like these, in my opinion are when we look at the negatives more than the positives. Its people that make the difference, people staying active makes all the difference (not a revolt, but just stay active about things around you) Reservation systems made a difference at some point in time and probably a lot of what you have said about Naarthies, are not true here because of that, but its extremely abused and needs to be re-looked at and may be switch to economic status or whatever... that needs people like us to stay active and committed to bringing change in the place we live (doesnt matter where we belong on a map) - Thanks for reading my comment;

Dutchaa aka Sriram said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dutchaa aka Sriram said...

ok. I read most the articles that became a rage in the last few weeks. I have to admit this is one of the best reports of the the cultural prejudices present in our society. Being a tamilian who studied in an institute with ppl from all over india and presently doing my studies abroad I could relate to everything you have written!! And "'Chennaiite' - which, to me, sounds more like a mineral ore than a people. " kept me laughing for more than a minute!!

In general I feel indians are the most racist of ppl and we ourselves are very comfortable with this fact!! So it will be nvr a cause of concern!! Probably the world should learn from us.

I am a regular reader of your articles in sify!! Keep up the good work.

Unknown said...

I just loved your take on the naarth-sauth war!...being a mallu brought up as a "madarasi" now living in CA surrounded by people from the Naarth, I just picture myself when I read the blog...But I couldn't have written it the way you have. Loved the writing style..reminded me of R.K.Narayanan..the indisputable Sauthi...

Da Undertoad said...

"In general I feel indians are the most racist of ppl and we ourselves are very comfortable with this fact!! So it will be nvr a cause of concern!! Probably the world should learn from us."
Now, i may be misunderstanding what is being said hear, but having grown with the tag 'he's from India' as a tag to my mispronounced name,and as a way of explaining and excusing my color, i can vouch for the fact that racial, regional, religious,or any other kind of exclusionary language is always a cause for concern. aside from the stereotyping it leads to, no wait, the rest of that is too well known.
And ms. K, Bhagat annoys me, as well. if that is not presumption.

Nandini Krishnan said...

Many thanks, Max and Sriram

Nandini Krishnan said...

Nope, not a presumption, Bhagat makes me want to courier him a Wren and Martin, and then send him an appeal to stick to banking.

Well, Indians being racist may not be correctly worded in this sense. But I think Indians are more openly prejudiced than any other race.

But I've noticed racism in the traditional sense in India too. Hotel staff are always more courteous - well, more obsequious, really - to Caucasian tourists than anyone else.

Dutchaa aka Sriram said...

@Da Undertoad I think you have misunderstood what I meant!! I studied in a place where people from every state were given a name!! ppl from north east being called Chinkis, From andhra gultis etc etc!! Race dose not limit to a particular colour or creed!! The maturity I see is that, we are ready to acknowledge that we are different from each other. Even though to certain extent, generalization is prevalent, there is a degree of mutual respect. I find this trend very healthy.

@nandhini and Da Undertoad Come on!! not every writer can be P.G.Woodhouse and J.R.R.Tolkien

Nandini Krishnan said...

True, I think racism on the part of their countrymen evokes a certain sense of shame in the majority of the Western world. Whereas in India, throw two people of the same caste, religion and state in one room, and you'll hear chauvinist remarks, and I use 'chauvinist' in the broad sense of the term.

As for what you say about writers, Sriram, yes, but I reserve the right to dislike the ones that are below par. :-)

Madhu said...

After a really long time, I have enjoyed and could relate myself to a blog. As a Tamil girl, no, not Chenaiite, but Coimbatorean (now tell me, isn't Chenaiite better?) who has settled in Bangalore with people around her speaking Tamilised Kannada, Kannada filled Tamil, Anglicised Hindi (with Tulu thrown in for the fun of it), I could really identify myself with this. Its not just the open prejudice, but Indians also believe that what they know is the best and do not open their minds to learn other cultures.

P.S: Bhagat annoys me too, I always get the urge to tell him that needs to write screenplays for over-dramatised movies and not write books!!

Sunil Deepak said...

Was reading it while eating during my lunch break and more than a few times risked getting choked from uncontrolled laughter!

Irony is the best antidote to all the ugliness of the world. :)


Max said...

@Da Sriram and @Nadini on racism:
It is not a test to find out who is the least racist or the most racist - hope you guys don't say that to just feel better about yourselves (one of those ahaa moments) or just to think fair and neutral about our own country. Others ignorance is not our strength, and the whole world knows how bad we are, they are just too polite to talk to us about it directly. What is the solution for racism ? More nationalism or regionalism ?- neither one, we need to get rid of borders and for once google maps should just show the map of the earth without any borders - that may be a starting point to finding a solution; if we believe in evolution - that may be the way we should go; p.s. have you read Gora by Tagore?
You want more ahaa moments? India's poverty rate is at around 30% and yet we spend almost 3-4% of our GDP on the border with Pakistan, how do we explain that to our next generations? now, expand that number to include all countries in the world and how many people die and dedicate their whole lives to saving a line we drew on a map, we have not evolved as much as our ancestors in the sangam era !

Nandini Krishnan said...

Haha, Madhu, I admit 'Coimbatorean' could give 'Chennai' a run for its money.

Nandini Krishnan said...

Max, I don't understand what anyone's said that could help them feel better about themselves.

As for the next generation, I don't think we owe them an explanation. We didn't get one. Deal with it, unborn kids of the world.

Nandini Krishnan said...

Thanks, Sunil. And for the record, it's harder to choke over chappatis than curd rice. Been there. :-)

Dutchaa aka Sriram said...

@ max.. The world can keep thinking we are bad!! :P Every 6th person in the world is an Indian. And yes there are too many obvious gaping flaws in our system. Inspite of ihese we are growing and believe it or not there are a few concerned minds sweating over the pace of our progress.
Gora is one of my favourite novels. One of the most complex novels I have ever read. we are like the character sucharita(what a name for a character) confused and still deciding what we want to be!!

Da Undertoad said...

Max, Amen brother.

Da Undertoad said...

I've been thinking about this thread, and i have to add that since the whole concept of race is a social rather than a natural construct, the whole thing is a silly but very powerful way to control individuals.i think that if you can make a baby with the other the whole 'different' thing is out the window.
just sayin'

`Ulta' but `Madrasi' said...

Ladies & Gentlemen,

I'm am an ulta Madrasi. Born in Delhi (hailing from Rajasthan) and lived in Chennai for 33 years, so, guess whether I like it or not, my affinity to `Madras', before an old man changed the name, is explainable. Trust me, after living there for so long, when I visited my relatives in the Naarth, they would pass comments like, `aagya MGR' and bow down and say `vanakom'. It used get embarrasing, thinking about, where the hell does she want me to come. Great Blog, Nandini. Superb. BKG

K. said...

Hi Nandini,

As a fellow Tamil Iyengar (who else would say Sathamuthu :-) ), I enjoyed your article very much !

I myself have been raised in Pune, so I speak impeccable Puneri Marathi, such as the Peshawas might have themselves spoken. I also speak excellent Hindi, broken English, faultless German (somewhat rusty now, but yet good enough to get the German security-woman at Frankfurt airport to guffaw at my joke in German).

Growing up, my attempts at speaking my mother-tongue Tamil generated much humor, whenever I would visit my grandparents and other relatives in Mylapore, Chennai (where else could they possibly live ? )

Much later, I moved from Pune to the US to do my graduate studies. After more than 15 years in the US, I have relocated back to Pune. Now, my relatives in Chennai can't get over how beautifully I now speak Tamil ! It turns out that, growing up, my brain was busy absorbing and registering all the impeccable Tamil being spoken around me by my parents. Then, while I was abroad, and not receiving any new Tamil stimuli, my brain processed this stored Tamil-data, and grew a few new brain-lobes, which then allowed me to effortlessly speak proper Tamil, once I was back in India. Go figure !

Meanwhile, in another article, could you please explore the link between TamBrams and the Marathi Brahmins of Maharashtra ? There is an undeniable affinity and mutual attraction between these two sects, and I suspect that they actually have much more in common (we are both equally parsimonious, for sure ! ) than is readily apparent.

This is one of the few pairings when Naarth (if Maharashtrian Brahmins fall into the Naarth category ) and South don't repel each other, but actually attract.


Nandini Krishnan said...

Ulta but Madrasi, mikka nanri.

Nandini Krishnan said...

K - Tam Brahms and Maharashtrian Brahms? Married to one, are we? :-)

Well, I'm afraid I have no experience there. Most of the Naarthie friends I bond with are Delhi-ites, originally from UP or Rajasthan.

Maybe you should take it on, though!

ulta but madrasi said...

Nandini, its supposed to be `migha', `gha' as in `ragatha tha'.

Nandini Krishnan said...

Ulta but Madrasi, sorry to burst the...umm, linguistic bubble, shall we say, but my usage is correct in context. They're both adjectival forms of the same word, but the form used depends on the noun. :-)

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