Friday, September 16, 2011

Open Letter, wait.

It occurs to me that personal growth can be sparked by the strangest of catalysts. It's funny how sometimes one person's bitterness and hate can ultimately lead to inner peace and acceptance on the part of another.

I've recently managed to let go of a lot of resentment, oddly enough thanks to a random post that has been making its controversial rounds around the Indian blogosphere.

I was born in Bombay and grew up in Chennai, with a Tamilian father and a Kashmiri/Goan mother. I've always been proud of this 'mixed' sort of heritage, and as someone who gets intensely aggravated by unnecessary internal division, I've always been happy to call myself an Indian rather than a Tamilian or a Kashmiri, and a Christian rather than a Catholic or a Protestant. My family are multicultural book-lovers, we always spoke English at home and I had English-speaking friends through the entire course of my schooling (going to an English-medium school which had students from all over India, the common language was of course English). So I speak auto-driver Tamil and can only read and write Hindi (thanks to learning it upto 7th standard). I never felt or was made to feel that any of this made me any less an Indian. My family is filled with eccentric and brilliant 'achievers' on both sides (I always feel in danger of becoming the 'black sheep' in my own mind) and I had plenty of friends who were technically North Indian, spoke Hindi at home, English to friends and Tamil to get by. We had Hyderabadi gol-gappe-wallas, Punjabi Dhabas, Andhra messes and I knew kitchen spices by 3 different languages, although not what was which. I thought northie-southie discrimination was a thing of the past, and we were all One India, and everything was bright and shiny, and I was a 'Citizen of the World' as described by Oscar Wilde. Oh, I was so naive.

The first...the FIRST...time I came across North/South discrimination was, oddly enough, in England, when I wandered over there to study Visual Communication in 2008 and came face to face with international students from every Indian state and, of course, the second-generation BBCD. I had never had people walk up and speak to me in Hindi, automatically assuming I knew it, before. While I did understand some of what they were saying, I couldn't reply in kind, so I would smile and say "I'm sorry, mujhko Hindi nahi aati hain, I'm from Chennai." To this, I would get a variety of responses, mostly upsetting...from the bug-eyed double-take to the "Arrey, you don't speak Hindi? Are you sure you're from India?!" (usually from Delhi or Mumbai-wallas) to "Oh, you South Indians are too proud to learn our national language, I forgot." Oh and the typical BBCD response - "But...but I thought everyone in India spoke Hindi? *confused stare* How many languages are there?"

Never having been subjected to this kind of stuff, despite having approximately the same number of North and South Indian friends and family, my first response to this was spluttering, speechless outrage. For a couple of months, I lived with Indian housemates who would continuously speak to me in Hindi despite me repeatedly telling them I didn't understand them (they spoke perfectly good English) and then made themselves into a little family with me on the outside. I felt miserable, lonely and ostracized. Fortunately, I soon moved into another house where I had great housemates for the next three years - they seemed wonderfully 'normal' people to me, due to perspective gained growing up in different parts of India and the world. They also all spoke Hindi, but they were willing to translate for me so that I could participate in conversations, and they all spoke English as well. And I had a wonderful friend from Bangalore to speak my 'galeej Tamil' to :D

BUT, outside home, I ran into plenty of "You're too fair to be South Indian, must be because your mother is Kashmiri" (my mom and dad are exactly the same colour, thank you very much) and "Hindi is our National Language, all you South Indians should be made to learn it" (No it isn't. I'm sick of hearing this 'national language' bullshit. India has something like 800 national languages and two official languages for interstate communication, which are Hindi and English. All communications are carried out in both those languages. Get your facts right and get off your self-righteous high horses, people.) "You South Indians won't learn any language other than your stupid South Indian language, it sounds like *insert insulting term here*" (We 'South Indians' do learn Hindi or any other regional language if we happen to have to live/work in that area. In Chennai, you will find very few Hindi-speaking people simply because we don't need to speak it. When I moved to Chennai at 2, I spoke fluent, adult-level Hindi. I forgot it all simply because I had no one to speak it to.) I've also heard people say "Why are your parents looking for a South Indian guy, he'll be black and ugly" (to someone else) and "...some stupid South Indian came in today and tried to talk to me in his stupid South Indian language."


All this sometimes lead to some heated verbal battles. I never thought I would be part of any sort of North-South argument, or use the phrase 'you North Indians', and it was upsetting and disturbing. In my head, the whole 'I am just an Indian' thing was, for a while, shot full of holes by other people's stereotyping of the place I love and grew up in. It made me furious with the whole Hindi-speaking 'North Indian' community, or at least those who insist that someone should speak a language just because they can. Now, when I told someone I couldn't speak Hindi, it was with an undercurrent of 'wanna make something of it?!" And I really, really resented any careless 'South-Indian bashing' I heard. I couldn't keep myself from caring. I couldn't tell myself it didn't matter. Because it did matter. And it does. How we treat each other, how we think of each other and relate to each other as Indians does matter. And it pissed me off that people could seem so utterly oblivious and insensitive to this fact.

Either ways, I've been carrying around a lot of latent resentment and anger after those three years. I didn't realise it until I read this blog post, "Open Letter to a Delhi Boy" by some pissed-off girl called Shahana. The first time I skimmed through it, I have to confess that sentences here and there filled me with unholy glee. Like the mockery of the line, "Aunty you don't look like a South Indian, you are so fair." I thought of Fb-sharing it for a laugh, but then I read it a couple of times more. And I realised that it directly and unashamedly and sometimes cruelly vilified an entire group of people I'm very fond of - Punjabis. My favourite tutor and group leader at university is Punjabi. So are most of the BBCD friends I made in England. My opthalmologist who I have adored from childhood is a Chennai-settled Punjabi. Punjabis were among the majority of soldiers who defended our country. They gave us butter chicken. They personify 'hakuna matata.' They have their faults, like every other group of people. And I am all for pleasant mockery…it’s what we as an insanely multicultural country do, isn’t it? – after all, where would we be without Mallu jokes, Tam Brahm jokes, Punjabi jokes, etc? But no one deserves to be publicly attacked in that manner, especially not with below-the-belt, mostly inaccurate comments like those made in that post. Come on, that article was supposed to be attacking specifically Delhi boys – and let’s be honest, no one would have minded that. :P

At first glance, it was pretty funny. I’d have shared it for lolz if it hadn’t had all those vicious personal references. But reading through the couple of hundred comments (now more than two thousand) gave me a lot of perspective. Of course there were the usual lol-trolls and ‘OMG gurl u ttly rawk!’ comments, but there were a lot of people from different parts of India who posted their views on the racism that goes on between the two halves of our country, and shared their own experiences thereof. It was an interesting (if angry) dialogue, or series of monologues even. Of course, from nowhere, the ‘Hindi is the national language’ crap popped up, was silenced, popped up again, was silenced again…for once it wasn’t even the point.

What really made me think was that this girl who (in another post) claimed to be an army officer’s child, raised mostly by Sardars and Parsis, and having lived in several states across the country, could say things like that. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. If she, talking (misguidedly, might I add) on behalf of South Indians, could spout all that stuff, then can I hate people who’ve grown up exclusively under the umbrella of one city, under one part of one culture, knowing people who only speak one language (theirs) for spouting ignorant crap because they haven't been taught any better? Ignorant douchebags spring up from everywhere. Awesome, intelligent, amicable people do, too. Some of them are my family, my friends, or people I stalk on Twitter. And, as this lady has very neatly managed, you can really alienate those people, the people who you would want to be around if you knew them, simply by generalizing and tarring everyone with the same disgusting brush. And, since that post has gone viral in a big, big way, there is going to be a huge section of people who judges South Indians by the things she has said, especially since she very generously decided to speak for us as a group. Thanks, Shahana. *glower* Oh, and also for insulting us numerous times in there. I've heard of self-deprecating, but kindly do not deprecate other people along with you. Kthxbai.

Whatever the reason, I’m not resentful about my past experiences anymore. There are plenty of closed-minded, racist, caste-ist people where I come from and everywhere else. Let my war be against idiots in general, North and South Indian, and henceforth I shall not be angry. I shall be amused, and feel sorry for them. For they will never have more than one type of friend. They’ll never have the fun of experiencing and enjoying someone else’s culture or food. Or even of having someone intelligent and open-minded give them the time of day. Poor, poor souls. Sigh. I feel a flood of gratitude for my global/Indian upbringing and background. And I am proud to have amazing friends from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Rajasthan, Goa, Andhra, Delhi, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Kashmir, Bengal, Manipur, and a bunch of other places in India. Some of them still think I should know Hindi. To them, I smile sweetly and say ‘but you know English’. Either way, I am at peace, and I suppose I have the bitter blogger to thank for that.

So, thank you, Shahana.

The End.

P.S. Her post has sparked some brilliant responses. Here’s a good-natured and witty one by a self-proclaimed ‘Delhi boy’. And a thoughtful and insightful one, by a Madrasi lady settled in Delhi.

P.P.S. I was actually very entertained by this whole cross-blog dialogue before I started really thinking about it and its repercussions and introspecting about why it made me feel chilled-out. Life was much simpler when I was an angry teenager :D