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?

By Yamini Vijendran

Yamini draws material for her stories and poems from the world around her. When she is not converting her experiences into stories or poems, Yamini reads, plays with her toddler, and fools around in her laboratory, that is, the kitchen.

8 replies on “The Cocktail Bar That is India”

I talked to one guy in Chicago.

He smiled at me with his perfectly white teeth and asked me ” Are you from India”

Yes, of course

Oh where in India ?
Kerala , I replied

Then he started talking about the climate , will US attack Syria
Why US is doing This ? Etc .

I really got bored and asked back

Where you from ?
His face changed but with his good reflex he replied


Oh I am from Thekkady , we live close to Cumbum

Madrasile enge irukange?

He looked at me like Tamil is a Dirty language…

I do not know Tamil

Where are you in Madras? How come you do not know Tamil.

I never lived in Madras. My parents are from Madras

They left Madras before 1947 and now we live in Karachi

Ok , how was your life in Karachi?

……… I really did not want to embarrass him I changed my subject and Said ” I do not think US will attack Syria…. ”

I moved away from him and I was thinking ” if he wanted to say , he is from Madras, how come he does not do some research on Madras. Before I moved to USA I did study some general knowledge about USA

For eg. How many times Elizabeth Taylor Married?
Did Clinton really did that ?

Thank you for reading

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Haa good one Yamini 🙂 I had no idea about the Maratha Kannada Tamils, tks for enlightening. I have parents from Punjab and Andhra brought up in Uttarakhand and Maharashtra respectively , we lived all over India n finally called Bangalore home, now when anyone asks me where I am from or what my native tongue is there’s a long story to tell and I have that feeling of Being from everywhere or na idhar ki na udhar ki .Btw Rajnikanth is from Bangalore n a marathi speaker and stolen from us by TN much like the Koh-e-noor by the British 🙂

WOW! What a cocktail! I am impressed. 🙂
I thought I was living a strange life after shifting from chennai almost three decades ago – around prob the time you were born, Yamini 😉
I speak Hindi in a strange accent or so my son insists.
I believe Superstar Rajnikanth is also a Maharashtrian of sorts. I am sure he speaks Marathi similar to yours 😀

I will play it safe by talking to him in Tamil when and if I meet him :D… would be nice to at least listen to his, “Kanna…” 🙂

No we are not! And there is a also a Kannada angle to all this that I have not even touched! It all gets too confusing after a point!

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