Sunday, May 04, 2014

2 States : Not Irrelevant - This is My Story Too

I have not read Chetan Bhagat's book, although I have seen the book multiple times in friends' places, in the last three years. This reflection is written solely on the basis of the film of the same name.

Few days ago, I was reading a review of the film in Screen magazine. The reviewer rated the film average, and lamented stereotypes in Ananya's parents' roles, and the overall make up of the Tambram mind and the Chennai society (whatever little of that is shown.) 

The reviewer has also wondered how such a cliché topic could be so popular among today's generation. However, it is. One cannot deny the fact.

I saw the reason fairly well while watching the film myself.

Intercultural (read interracial) marriage in India is common in metro cities, in the 21st Century. But, it is not yet so common as a marriage between two white Americans from two different States. In small town and rural India, it is fairly uncommon at the best. At the worst, it can get really violent.

The other day, I was reading Rabindranath Tagore's articles on marriage and society. Throughout his sixty-five year long writing career, Tagore changed his stance many times. That is not really surprising, considering the fact that Indian, and specifically upper and middle class Bengali, values went for toss in many areas in this time.

However, even in his last days, Tagore could not see marriage as individual aspiration. For him, it was always connected to the building of society. Tagore was a keen social observer and participant. So, his opinion may go as a good echo of the social mores of his time. 

In most of India, the picture has not changed much in the last seventy years.

But, I digress. Let's come back to the issues the film raised.

I can relate to the film as I have been insider to both the cultures for years. As someone who have extensively stayed, studied and worked in all the four metros of India, shunning his birth-community, learning new languages, assimilating new cultures and adapting new food, I can see the connect. The new gen finally dreams of being Indian. We are global citizens at heart.

But... And this is a big BUT. The older generations with their values and traditions are still here. We are a product of them as well as of the new time. 

When I went to study in Chennai, my decision was to assimilate. I had learnt enough of Bengali culture. I never wanted to come back. I wanted to discover something new, to learn something different at each and every turn. That influenced my decision to go to Chennai.

And I was lucky I went.

I was unlucky I could not totally succeed.

After the initial charm was over, I wanted to become an insider. I was taught Tamil language in the uni. But, the teaching was pathetic. After learning Tamil for three years, I forgot almost everything except a few keywords and the script.

Naturally, I took this as an opportunity to master the language staying in Chennai. That did not happen, btw.

I asked everyone I knew there - teachers and students form my filmschool, shopkeepers, friends, other expats. Nobody had any clue where I could learn Tamil. Some of them bluntly told me that non-Tamilians could not learn the language in Chennai. They told me there was no facility.

I used to go to the British Council Library, at Mount Road, every Saturday. The Central Library of Chennai was in the same building. I wanted to be member there too.

When I went there for enquiry, two senior members were standing there. As the librarian was telling me about the facilities, that the library had mostly Tamil books, these two senior members were eavesdropping.

Finally, one of them asked me from where I was. I definitely did not look Tamil. I guess I could pass as South Indian until I opened mouth. But, here I was talking in English. My Tamil was worse than a horrible creole.

I told them. Their reaction was on the verge of violence. "Doesn't Calcutta have libraries? Why have you come to Chennai looking for books?"

This might be counted as a stray racist remark. But, this was not the only time.

I had never mingled with other ethnicities in Calcutta before. It never occured naturally. And I was not very curious to find out, although I had been studying Comparative Literature.

Everywhere, I found the reason to be the same. Ignorance of the others' histories, the others' cultures. Ignorance leading to intolerance and cloisterism. 

In Bathinda, I asked a writer friend, why the small towns in Punjab were a little cold, if not openly hostile, to outsiders. I rarely meet anyone in Bathinda who is not Punjabi. Same with Barnala, or Patiala, or Jalandhar. Most of the roadsigns are written in Gurmukhi. Good for me. I could learn something new.

Whereas I could pass as Tamil, I cannot pass as Punjabi in appearance. I need not open mouth. The moment anyone sees me there, s/he calculates I am an outsider. I get the same cold reception that I used to get in Chennai.

My friend, the writer, told me these border towns were always invaded and pillaged by the outsiders. That made the citizens take up arms and build an insulated community of warriors.

Possible. But, I see the same insulation among Tamils, Marathis, Assamese and even Bengalis. (Interestingly, not so much among Goans and Konkoni Brahmins)

As a reaction to my Chennai experience, I got really interested in the other cultures of Bengal. And, for the first time, I saw the necessity of a pan-Indian language. Coming from a family that was anti-Hindi in my childhood, this was a revelation.

I just wonder how it would be for the Tamil people. We still have a lot of similarities between Bengali and Hindi (or between Bengali and Punjabi, or Bengali and Gujarati). We do not have to learn Hindi as such. But, Tamil has no such similarity. The language comes from a radically different stock.

Culturally, I belong somewhere in between the Punjabi and the Tamil. Punjabis rarely eat rice, Tamils rarely eat roti. We eat both (although out rotis are much thinner, like their phoolka.) The idea of sambar starts from rural Orissa, while the Punjabi dal makhani tastes totally different. Bengali dal shares a lot with both.

Our dhoti nicely fits the Maharashtrian tradition, and our Kurta-Pajama the Punjabi's. Our music has taken influence from Lucknow and Punjab, while the Carnatic refrain is noticeable.

Not only in Bengal, or Calcutta. Everyone is a mishmash of many different global traditions and cultures today. But, there are still some problems.

People are still  keen to retain their cultural identities. That means everyone, in a crosscultural marriage, has to take up two identities. That inevitably leads to some conflicts. 

And the confusion goes higher in the next generation. If a Tamil girl and a Punjabi guy marry and settle down in Manipur, which toungue would their children speak? Which food would they eat? Which music would they play? Which dance would they take up?

I can say, Manipuri. That looks like the most natural choice. Would everyone agree?

I can connect fairly well to 2 States. For the last 10 years, I am trying to be an Indian. Not a Bengali, or Tamil, or Marathi, or Punjabi. But, an Indian.

I know many other people who are trying the same.

Even after sixty-four years of the formation of the Republic, it is still not easy to be an Indian.