The Cocktail Bar That is India

There has been no dearth of times when I wished I could call myself a Maharashtrian or a Tamilian. Even Gujarati, Rajasthani, Bengali or Assamese would have done as well. Fate, and circumstances of birth, however, make this impossible.

Whenever anyone asks me, and I dread it when they do, where I am from, this is how the conversation usually flows.

The Inquisitive Behenji (IB): “So, where did you say you are from?”

Me: “I am from Chennai.”

IB: “Oh, so you speak Tamil at home?”

Me: “No. We speak Marathi at home.”

IB: “Then you are from Maharashtra!”

Me: “No, we live in Tamilnadu, but speak Marathi.”

IB: “But you speak Tamil so well that no one would believe you are not Tamil!”

While those who have heard my Marathi say “But that is not Marathi!” This is usually accompanied by a look that ranges from ridicule to sympathy to amusement.

In the three decades that I have been the resident of this planet, I have been through this conversation (more or less) many times with different people, and sometimes even with the same people again and again! At those times I often wonder, “Why did God choose me, of all people, to be a part of this complex linguistic and demographic equation?” OK, not just me, but the small group that constitutes my community—what did we do that made us so ‘special’?

Well, apparently our great forefathers weren’t satisfied with their sedentary (I am assuming!) life in the great land of Marathas, under the rule of the great Shivaji Maharaj. The Diwan of Tanjavur sent out a distress call that the Nayakar of Madurai was greedily eyeing his town, and off they went, marching down south from the mighty western frontiers, led by Ekoji, Shivaji’s half-brother. Trot, trot, trot, his horses tread the lands of southern India, reaching Arni, then ThiruMallepadi and finally Tanjore.

Now, once they declared a sweeping victory over their rival, the Nayakar of Madurai, one would have expected them to return from Tanjore, right? That’s what people do; come home after work, right? I think, however, that my forefathers are the inspiration behind our modern IT bachelors whose motto seems to be, “ghar jaa ke karna kya hai?” So they stayed behind and made Tanjore and the surrounding places their new home.

While this one act of bravado earned them a small slot in the pages of our history books, it did little to preserve our identity. The generous, openhearted and broadminded souls that my forefathers were, they soon embraced the culture of their new homeland, and happily mixed it with their own. They also mixed in some Kannada traditions, not to mention Telugu and even maybe Malayalam. The result? A heady cocktail of various South Indian customs and cultures and languages in a base of Marathi; a Marathi that no one even recognizes anymore.

Today my community follows a mixture of customs that no other community can recognize. Here is a sample of this wacky, tangy cocktail that is my community:

  • We are so completely Tamil that we cannot do without our rice, rasam and sambhar. By the way, sambhar is not originally from the South, did you know? It was us, the great Marathas who stayed behind in Tanjore, who invented the spicy dish.
  • But we are not completely Tamil either, since we also like our pitla, gojju, dangar (sounds like Tanker!) and kadhi a lot!
  • We decorate our houses with golu, the dolls exhibition, during the nine days of Navratri, just like the people in the south do.
  • But we will not celebrate Karadayan Nombu, for our ‘day-to-pray-for-hubby’ falls on the Amavasya of Ashada, and Tamil New Year is just a government holiday for us, for we, the ‘Grreatt Marratthhasss’, celebrate Gudipadava.
  • A sentence containing eight words, spoken by my granny, will have two Tamil and six Marathi words. A sentence of eight words spoken by my mother will mix four Tamil and four Marathi words. A sentence of eight words spoken by me, will have three English, three Tamil and two Marathi words.
  • We have this uncanny ability to curse the autowallah in Marathi when riding an auto in Chennai, and in Tamil when riding an auto in Pune.
  • When we are heatedly debating with a friend in Tamil, we will invariably drop in a Marathi word.

Every time these contradictions prop up, I have to give exhaustive explanations, with a growing feeling of ‘na idhar ka na udhar ka‘ inside my heart.

The ‘why me!’ feeling used to be quite intense until some time ago. I woke up to the fact, one day, that it was not just me, or my community that felt this way. I looked around and saw a Mallu from Delhi, born and brought up in Kolkata. A Telugu Brahmin so Chennaiized, that people in their native town in Andhra refused to respond to the language they spoke. A Punjabi, mouthing expletives freely and casually in Amchi mumbaiyya Marathi.

Looking at these examples I realize how unique a people we are. Ignoring politicians shouting their throats hoarse that ‘we are Indians’, the cocktails that the bar called India has to offer truly makes us ‘Indian’, sans community, sans religion, sans language.

And yet we spend so much of time defending and fighting each other on behalf of our communities.

It’s probably the bar effect; have you not heard of drunken bar fights at all?


Love’s Labor: The Background Story

Love’s Labor comes from an incident about ten years ago, when it was discovered at home that a cousin had the audacity to fall for a gentleman from another community. All hell broke loose and the poor girl was subjected to the worst possible form of blackmail; from her mother threatening to swallow sleeping pills to the matriarch leaving home were the offender to not change her decision. The man in question was well-placed and offered to take the cousin away to his place of work; she vehemently refused, citing filial duty and social disgrace as her reasons.

In an unexpected twist of events, one day she disappeared from home. While initially, the family suspected that she had eloped, the lover himself was at a loss because he was very much at home!

This incident, a legend during my young adulthood, left a disturbing influence on me. As a thinking individual, I replayed it in various forms in my imagination, giving it a happily-ever-after ending. As a literature student, love was sacrosanct to me, and I hadn’t yet learnt about the various shades of gray. It was simple, I thought. If two people were in love, they had to marry. In the small town that I grew up in, though, the reality was very different.

There was a fanatic emphasis on same-caste-same-class alliances; love marriages were almost unheard of; and if there was a stray one, the adults almost waited for it to go wrong so they could be proven right. While the metros in India were opening their doors to MNCs, the small towns were still grappling under the narrow confines of caste and community in the name of tradition. Films like Mohabbatein only made it worse with their depiction of the ‘humein parivartan pasand nahi’ theme, while the blockbuster Dilwale Dulhaniya exemplified how love was only ‘allowed’ with parental consent.

Love’s Labor, a story of Piali Roy and Sathya Nair, is about two young people falling in love, fully aware of their different backgrounds. Piali is the quintessential, small-town Indian girl, torn between her love for Sathya on the one hand and her love for her family on the other. As with many youngsters, she is plagued by an all-consuming guilt for hurting her parents and being a disgrace to them.

Jamshedpur, the steel city of India, where the plot is set, is urban in many ways and children are encouraged to follow liberal arts passions, play a sport and participate in extra-curricular activities. When it comes to marriage though, the traditional household is ruled by the parents’ choice. Love, the very basis of human existence, is considered taboo and anybody daring to tread that path is made to feel like a sinner. Gender discrimination dictates that while Sathya can speak his mind, and his family even bows to it, Piali does not have the same luxury. This, of course, is a specific case and cannot be generalized.

As an author, I had control over my story’s ending. With time, I’ve (sadly) come to realize that control is a pipe dream in real life. Such is the illogical deference to parental dreams that a youngster has no say in matters of the heart. Surprisingly, even in this decade, I come across youth who say they’d like to marry by their parents’ choice. While there is a certain ‘nobleness’ about this sentiment that, on the surface, reflects respect of authority, at a subtle sub-level it is actually indicative of Indian society’s inability to embrace change and open up to the broadening world scenario.

Does Love’s Labor offer a solution? Or is it a mere reflection of the society we live in? Read it to find out.