Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Madraasis

I'm bad at small talk. Terrible at it. I can't even talk about the weather. I sit comfortably in between ominous silences, when you can hear each other breathe, and usually put the onus on the other person to entertain me by sparking a conversation. But this time I decided to start changing myself.

"So...you're also a tamilian?", I inquired Ms. Babe (having heard her utter "aiyoo" somewhere, apart from her unmistakable last name)
"Yeah....", she drawled ruefully, her face wilting, "But I'm from Mumbai, was brought up there and lived my whooole life there!", she clarified, with her eyes turning moist at the thought of her hometown.
"Where are you from?", it was now her turn.
"I'm from Madras", I stated.

Now Ms. Babe is as trendy and hep so as to set a fashion statement on behalf of all the Indian ladies. Latest hair style, bold clothes, and the whole ensemble(Bold clothes = wearing a mini-skirt and a sleeveless shirt in the middle of frigid January, when the wind howls and the temperature is below -20 F... no exaggerations). Anyway, Babe surely must have gathered my native origin -- my darling daddy's 13 lettered last name and the trademark stamp of Madraas-filter-Kaapi Kalai on my face were enough evidences.

But, out of this Babe's mouth came these words, "Oh!!! Really?! I didn't know! (wide eyed). You don't look like a Madraasi! I thought you were from Bangalore...", she trailed, looking at me incredulously. Talk about bitter sweets... I didn't know whether I recognized it as a compliment because I was "elevated" to the state of Bangalorean from my drudged Filter-Kaapi self, or as a brutal dish out to my "madraasi community".
"Oh? Why?", I asked in my customary ringing tone. (My father taught me early on to be interested in "Tell me Why" books and I religiously started asking "why" till people tear their hair out)
"You know... you're not like one of those typical Madraasis... ", she said, scrunching her pretty little nose and curling her lips as if on seeing a miserable rat.
"Oh...", I said, trying to put on a plastic smile and wondering if I should ask another "Like how" question and risk piling more insults to my clan. While my mind was running wild on thoughts, Babe was more accepting and friendly of me and started chattering more.

Now, this is not the first time I've heard this. The popular G, scorned at me as I offered to shake his hand during our first meeting, seething the words, "You're from Bangalore, aren't you?" Why? I ask again. Madras girls know enough etiquette to shake hands with new people they are introduced to, especially in a professional setting...( only our tamil heroines say "namaskaram" with joint hands and refuse to touch a man's hand) or is there some other aura around me that makes me less of a Madraasi? Not that I'm fanatically oriented towards my place... I don't care which city's spirit I emanate... I am me. But I don't understand the sense of disgrace and inferiority associated with Madras -- the only metro in India that is not considered good enough.

I perfectly relate to and understand a person's detachment to their native place when they have lived their whole lives in another city. Their identity and memories are towards the place of nurture and it's irrational to expect a sense of pride or attachment to a place they visited during occasional vacations. So Babe's detachment to Madras can very well be understood... but why the disgust, the distaste? And I don't understand the sense of detachment and/or disgust among those Madraasis who have lived their whole lives in the city. I have hardly met any Indian from any other metro/city who abuses their hometown. Hometowns are proudly praised and hailed high, and people weep with nostalgia on their reference. But Madras is not so privileged.

Obviously Madras is a tad more conservative than the other metros, no doubt, but the poor thing is trying its best to catch up fast with the rest. And I by the way, am the country-bumpkin dunderhead in my elite hep group of friends from Madras. So if babe considered me good enough to be a Bangalorean, she ain't seen nothing of Madras and its girls. But this is a common perception. Even within Madras, guys would lament that the best-looking girl in Madras was the worst-looking girl in Delhi. The maamis of my household will return from a wedding and proclaim, "Ponnu chekka-chevernu, north-indian ponnu madri irruka" (the bride looks fair and lovely like a north-indian girl). This statement, when the girl would be an agmark-tamil-Madraasi. A well groomed, fair and lovely Madraasi is always seen as an aberration, even by the locals, betraying total lack of pride or appreciation of one's own clan. I know of Tamilians who go out of their ways to mask their origin, to remove every trace of evidence linking them to the city, and try every possible way to link themselves to a sophisticated Bangalorean, Mumbai-ian, Delhi-an, or pretty much any Metro falling above Tamil Nadu's border.

I know of my own schoolmates and college-mates who, having lived their entire lives in Madras, would cringe to publicly state so. They will proudly feign complete lack of knowledge of Tamil and stutter when they have to speak to the auto-driver. One claims that she is half-north-indian because her dad was raised in Mumbai. And that esteemed link to her was golden. Chicks change their last names to eliminate that conspicuous old-fashioned ring to their names, by appending a generic "Iyer", while some truncate their poor daddy's longish name. "Krishnaswamy" becomes "Krish", "Ramamoorthy" becomes "Ram" and "Mahadevan" becomes "M'Devan". Believe me, I realize how agonizing it is to wait for the American on the other side to stutter and mince my father's name in their effort to recite my full name, as I beg and wail to leave his name alone. But the above name-changing-chicks reside within Hindustan, specifically near Marina Beach. While it's none of my business on how people change their names, the pattern somehow seems to be around Madraasis, centering around the intention to wipe off any trace of south-indianism. I have never heard of Kulkarnis, Deshpandes shortening/changing their names.

And the other extremes are the tamil-fanatics, who will chatter only in loud-localized accents and will abuse and scorn at those who utter two words in English/Hindi and exhibit the slightest sense of modernity/refinement (thoughts included) that don't conform to the local rules. These people set the standards on how to be a great Kumbakonam-maama and Thanjavoor-maami. They will gossip better than my great-grand-aunt and will be the moral police to uphold the "tamil culture" better than our cuckoo Chief Minister. Maybe Babe's impression of Madras was tainted by such people. But doesn't every state, every city, every metro have their share of irritants who bring down the name of the place? Thackareyism is at the tip of my tongue. Or am I biased in my view of my hometown? Does Madras really have so many reasons to be ashamed of?

It's sad that such people's sense of identity is based on global perceptions of a city's westernization and modernization. There are obviously those minority middle grounders who share a loving bond with the city, despite its sweltering heat, incorrigible auto drivers and gossiping maamis. And I hope in the coming years, this minority section grows and the other extremes dwindle.


SecondSight said...

A nice summary, and a difficult question! I'm not quite sure why the image prevails- The (very) little that I've seen of Madras, my impression has been that its less like the other metros I've been in (Delhi, Bombay, Blore), and more like some of the smaller cities (Ahmedabad,Pune,Nashik). So perhaps its just the big city vs. small town bias..?

Neeraja said...

Well, Madras is definitely a big city, in terms of size at least. It has it's share of flyovers, tall buildings, fancy malls, coffee hang-outs, fancy restaurants, concerts/theaters, night clubs and such. But they probably don't stand out, don't really brandish the modernity of the city in obvious ways such the other Metros. I don't know...my perceptions are biased since I lived there long enough :)

SecondSight said...

Hm..I was thinking more in terms of categories of people, levels of exposure, and so on. Bigger cities tend to have more gradations- for example, a chick from Delhi is likely to be more aware of the fact that nerds exist and their presence must be tolerated, sometimes they must even be spoken to politely- as opposed to the chick from Ahd. That makes for two varieties of chicks from Delhi, as opposed to just one from Ahd.. and so on. So a city like Delhi might end up having 10 varieties of people, instead of 5.
It has little to do with the size of the city, more to do with what the chick is forced to encounter- out of circumstance, not choice..

Anonymous said...

to put it in Madras Tamil it was a 'Sooper' postu. :-)

you too bad at small talk..!

it is true that it is only the Tamilians who seem so ashamed of their identity.

i also feel that second sight is right in saying that the exposure factor is there. but that might not be the absolute truth.

i don't know i am finding it very difficult to comment on this as i would not be true to myself if i do.

i have no clue of how madrasis are though i am supposed to be one. but parents were north based so i am biased.

i know madrasis only by the movies i watch and that is not very pleasing for me. all those 'gaana' songs and 'machi' language is a bit difficult to digest.

i know so is the hindi tapori language but it is less prevalent than the 'Machi'.

sorry can't answer.

Neeraja said...

Thanks Oorja :)

SecondSight, ironically I find chicks from big cities like Delhi (and even madras) be more snooty and unaccommodating with any grade of people different from them (including geeks and country bumpkins). One *does* find different categories of people in Madras, due to obviously different levels of exposure (which I do think is present). People from certain schools/colleges in the city are considered a class different due to higher levels of exposure. People in certain areas in Madras are deemed more "upper-middle class", because of more modernization.

A walk on T Nagar/Pondy Bazaar will highlight the different kinds of people. One can see a mini-skirt clad teenager and a modest salwar kameez clad girl in the very same shop.

Oorja, the cinema and media really do paint an exaggerated silly picture. No girl wears a half-saree and parades with a long braid on the streets anymore (maamis lament on their sad extinction), and there is hardly any guy capable of singing gana songs at the drop of a hat. Tamil slangs of "machi" and the rest do exist, but aren't slangs part of any city? Even hep discotheque visitors use "machi". Movies show crude depictions. To my ears, "Abhe" for example is used as frequently as machi.

But in any case, it's surprising that the usage of slangs paint a derogatory picture of the city, thanks to cinema. Crude has been equated to Tamil.

Perception said...

Well I dont know why someone wouldnt be proud of their hometown. I guess again its ones own perception. But after moving from India to US, I take pride in every city of India, in every town and in every street. Its no more Mumbai, Delhi, Madras, Banglore-its now Bharat.

Btw, u ought to work on small talk :) Next time to meet the chick, tell her Madras simply rocks just like every other city in India:)

GGadre said...

very well written! I can totally understand the reaction you suffered from this babe. I am very much like the babe (except the attitude :P), born raised in non-madras. But my attitude towards my home-side will never change. I take immense pride in my dad's name and yes, couple or should I say number of time I have had this thoughts about why the rest of the country ridicule people from down south.

Some reasons for which I have never found a reason:
- Everyone believes any town you come frrom down south - you are a madrasi! I know the exact difference between an assamese speaking person and a bengali speaking person, then why not you?
- The best schools are up north. I respectfully disagree, if only students from the north can beat students from schools in Madras
- Movies: A madrasi never speaks the way they portray in the movies.
the aiyoo and the'kya ji" "mereko nahin ji" argh!!! it goes into my head

GGadre said...

One taking pride in one's own city relies greatly from s/he was born and brought up. My husband though a non-rajasthani defends and knows more about Kota, Rajashthan than about Pune, Maharashtra. So do I, I know more of Mumbai than of Madras. But I know enough to take pride in the city.

The reason, why there is stark difference in opinion about this city is (according to me and this is my personal opionion), this city has failed to accept the universal language of Hindi. While most cities around the country can and do speak in Hindi, this city has had an aversion towards this language.
This is according to my opinion, when my husband and I have discussions, I fail to provide him an answer to this question as to "why people in madras have not accepted hindi as the national language yet?"

(btw, I would love to comment in detail... looks like I have already taken too much space)

GGadre said...

Oh, but I loved this post!

SecondSight said...

Am itching to see the responses to the many different ideas here!:)

Chicks as a rule are snobby idiots, but the point I was trying to make is- that in a larger city, the probability of finding a miniskirt-sporting, sleeping-around chick who also enjoys Ayn Rand and a good debate is much greater. In the smaller towns I've been in, the chicks tend to have minds as minute as their clothing.. The same applies to the nerds as well- The nerd from the small town tends to think of him/herself as the greatest intellectual since Einstein, whereas the chances of finding a more reasonable big-city nerd who also enjoys 'material pursuits' are greater. Of course, its all probability :)

SecondSight said...

Couldn't leave off the commenting without a random quote out of the proverb hat.. "There is nothing more similar or more different than two people can be, from each other. You have to appreciate the differences, or what's similar will be useless to you." - I think that applies to cities as well ;)

Neeraja said...

Perception - Yeah, I should work on my small-talk skills. I could have avoided all this aftermath if I'd talked to her about the weather ;)

GGadre - Thank you and I'm glad you could relate to my experience :). Feel free to take as much space as you want to express yourself, no constraints :)

-I know what you mean when everyone below Bangalore is classified as "Madrasi". But to be fair, we Madrasis classify everyone above Karnataka as "North Indian". This irritates people from Kolkatta and Mumbai and they vehemently say, "NO! We are from the East/West!". You of course are one of the exceptions :)
-Schools: I believe each city has it's share of good schools. If people argued that the south doesn't have good schools, it's atrocious!
-Movies: Sigh, they are the bane of the south. Although ARR, Maniratnam come from south.
-Lack of hindi: Well, I really don't understand the resistance. Other major cities like Hyderabad has mughal roots, hence urdu hindi is more commonplace. Bangalore shares its boundary with northern states and there is more blending of the south and north, making hindi more naturally common. Madras is deep down, looked down, no mughal ruled it, and we happily chatter in tamil and english and tanglish. Added to that is our wonderful CM who now wants to even ban English from public places.

But I know it's accepted as a national language by most people in the city (barring CM and his family who are worried about Tamil's extinction). I also know there are tens of thousands of us in the city who enroll/have taken Hindi as our second language. Unfortunately we never got to converse and use the language for survival purposes, and hence have never been confident/fluent. We watch hindi movies, understand hindi but appear mute when someone converses.

Still, is a city's lack of sufficient knowledge of Hindi, the main reason for it being ridiculed and put down? Is that the reason why people are ashamed of Madras?

SecondSight - I have no idea about that exact probability distribution :). I do know that there is enough distribution of types of exposure and hence, types of people. If you went to Adyar/Besant Nagar odds finding the chic you mentioned is higher, in areas such as saidapet, it's the other way around. But the specific odds, I'm clueless :)

And that is indeed a nice quote. The unfortunate thing is differences are not appreciated here, they are ridiculed at :)

priti said...

Hey Neeraja,

Thanks for visiting my blog....I almost forgot its existence ;)....You have a wonderful blog here....Totally loved this post. I could so relate to it as I've had numerous experiences with people defying that they are Tamilians....You've pretty much covered all my experiences with such people...The only other thing I've noticed is that people from any part of India...talk their own language when they meet people from their hometown....but if you just go out to a Coffee place or a hangout in Chennai...you will still find people talking in English....I don't know why it's such a big deal.

Neeraja said...

Thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts Priti! Oh yes, even the waitors at Coffee Day won't respect me if I yapped in Tamil there ;)

You should continue updating your blog with lost more great thoughts! You'll have me as a frequent visitor :)

Priya said...

This is quite new to me! I have always had the impression that people are proud of their hometowns, especially after leaving India/hometown to some other place. I admit I frequently complain of our disorganized, loud, ever honking traffic, but that’s about the only thing that comes to my mind. Even when we complain, I think we fondly cherish memories of our hometown, don’t we? I have seen people immediately go back to their home town specifics, even when discussing an issue very specific to the local setting.

I cannot think of any reason why we are frowned upon; Maybe I am very biased! But one reason that Ms.Babe could have hurriedly established Mumbai as her “place” is that she may have been a victim of the madrasi stereotype herself. If one becomes a victim of the stereotype, either we deny any association with the stereotype (like Ms.Babe did), or we have the patience to say it as it is and clear up that it is a stereotype or we simply ignore and move on. I see it as denial in fear as a result of being a victim to stereotypes, rather than distaste.

I think every city/country has its share of good and bad, so I am not sure we can pinpoint few reasons as to its distaste contributor.

As to the stereotyping itself, “looks” top the list...Food (idly, dosa, filter kaapi-- oh, I miss it!), dress, mannerisms, so called coolness or lack of it are all regular candidates that are stereotyped!

Neeraja said...

Priya - Yes, it's sad isn't it?

"I see it as denial in fear as a result of being a victim to stereotypes, rather than distaste."

That's actually a nice perspective, fear rather than distaste :). Fear, aversion, whatever be it, the bottom line is we are different. As you put it - looks, dress, mannerisms, "cool" factor, basically highlighting a little more conservatism; and that's seen as a difference between a village and a city. We anyway hold such stereotypes with villages, so we now pray the price :)