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


Risa said...

I'm writing this quick. Will come back later to comment some more. It's nearly one in the morning!

I read the original post. I found I couldn't go past the first three paragraphs...she was offensive and so obviously suffering from some sort of inferiority complex. I think it's because I've read posts of this kind by a friend of mine who had so many complexes herself, and was trying desperately to prove (more to herself than anyone else) that she was "worth it". This girl's post sounded very much like said friend...though the subject of the complex is different. In other words, I didn't find her post funny at all! I liked the other two links you added to your post...especially the one by the Chennai-ite.

You know, the brief description you give of yourself, where language is concerned, is so me! Lately, I feel, that people like us are know...that we are not considered "Indians" simply because we are most comfortable with English. And yet I feel just as much an Indian as anybody else. I'm also quite proud of our Tamil, and hope to learn it some day.:P

Yet, I have to admit, that I have some prejudices against people in the North. I think it's mainly because Northies make me nervous with their rather aggressive mannerisms. As a kid, I was in Delhi for three years. I had some north Indian friends, naturally, but strangely enough most of my close friends were from the south. Also, our neighbours were Punjabi...and while the adults were incredibly sweet and nice, I was used as a punching bag for the kids all the time! So, yeah...north indians do make me nervous. Their go-get attitude makes me want to cower under a bed sheet...dang! I'm a coward.

I don't get to come across many Indians from the north, though. And when I do, it takes a lot from me to act normal and not run. When I think of the north, I think of aggression. Period. :-/

P.S. I know some nice guys and gals from the north who were mom's students in Delhi. Lovely people! But they were so much older than me, back in those days, and I was spoilt.:D

Risa said...

I've just realised my comment turned out to be long anyway.:D

Oh, and I came in here when you mentioned having changed the header for this blog too. Love it!... I you think you could make me one too?....*wide-eyed puss-in-boots*

Risa said...

P.P.S. - I just realised that that kid Sahana or whatever her name is, got most of her thousand odd followers in the last seven days!!!0.o

K...I'll stop clogging up your comments section for now. G'nite!:)

Cheeta said...

Yes, she was quite offensive! I personally don't mind rude humour sometimes if it's genuinely funny and seems to be given in the right spirit. But she crossed the line and left it far behind. Considering her blog is a month old and has only four posts, either she was having a rant where she thought no one would see, or she wanted followers and attention! I thought it was the first but considering she hasn't retracted her post or offered any explanation...

I don't understand why anyone would consider me or you 'less Indian' simply because we're more comfortable with English - due to studying in multicultural English medium schools and growing up reading in our rooms all the time, probably :P We dress, eat, think and live in the same way as others of our multilingual fellows. I love being an Indian, and I am so, so proud of it. I feel no need to learn Hindi, or remorse at not knowing it, but I'm quite ashamed of not being fluent in Tamil. Did you know it's one of the oldest languages and has been declared a national treasure? :)

My previous experience with 'northies' was restricted to my family, who are amazing, and people who were settled in Chennai and loved it. So all the shocker-bombs came 'wonly' in England! Although after all this, it feels wonderfully trivial and irrelevant. I'm truly grateful to have got rid of all that resentment.

Cheeta said...

Oh and it would be my pleasure to design you a blog header :) I'll come over for a day and we'll have some fun with it.

Risa said...

Me too. It's never bothered me that I don't know Hindi. Mainly because I've never needed it in TN. It's amazing how well you can get by here in Chennai on English alone. I love that about our city!:D...don't know about the other parts of TN. But I do know that in dad's hometown and Michael's hometown one can get along decently inspite of the amused looks thrown at you. Hehehe... I think the same goes for Kerala. I think folk in Karnataka and AP speak Hindi though.

Oh..and I know that Tamil is an ancient language. I think it's the only one besides Greek that has evolved and survived till this day! I sometimes wish I could learn the language just to read our literature. I'm pathetic.:( ...I'd no idea, though, that Tamil was considered our national treasure. WoW!

And true. Resentment about these things only gets US hot and bothered and doesn't do any good to anybody. I'm glad you're over it and at peace with yourself. I think just knowing and who and what we are is enough, no?:D

Risa said...

And, thank you! Thank you! looking forward to working on that header!:D

S!D said...

Very well written. Echoing my sentiments and views. Articulation is spot on.

Keep writing.



Cheeta said...

Thank you! :)

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