Sunday, November 27, 2005

All Things South And Beautiful

While surfing blogs last afternoon, I ran into a blogger who said the Tamil film Kandukondein Kandukondein was the best movie ever made or something to that effect. I would say it was one of the best movies made in recent years and even though I barely understand Tamil, I would always nurture a soft corner for it.

In 2000, when I was living in Delhi, I happened to see the movie in a theatre there, with English sub-titles. Till then, I had never been beyond Nagpur: I had no first-hand idea what was going on in the South, how the South looked like. I don't know what overcame me after the film ended (with a emotional scene when a tearful Ajit walks away from Tabu's home but pauses to ask, "Will you marry me?" and Tabu nods a yes), but I had made up my mind to come to the South at the first opportunity which, suprisingly, came within months.

When I landed in Chennai, songs of Minnale were a rage. They were just about everywhere. What music! Once here, I got hold of the Tamil versions of Rahman songs that had become hit in the North. Then I discovered Illayaraja (incidentally, he lives on the same street as mine). Then the Malalayam songs of Salil Choudhury, Chemmeen onwards: a gold mine! Still, the songs of Kandukondein Kandukondein retain a special place in my heart, especially Kannamoochi (sorry if I've spelt it wrong).

In a few weeks I will complete five years in Chennai. I am tempted to reproduce this piece I wrote for my paper around this time last year:

All Things South & Beautiful

You are never just an Indian in India: you are either a North Indian or a South Indian. Unless you happen to be from one of the Northeastern states, in which case you are not even considered an Indian — they call you either ‘‘Nepalese’’ or ‘‘Chinese.’’ Or unless you happen to be from Maharashtra, in which case you yourself aren’t sure whether you are a North Indian or a South Indian, or a bit of both.

Though Bal Thackeray would rubbish the North-South theory; he would say India is made up of Maharashtrians and non-Maharashtrians. Whatever one might say, the fact is that Maharashtra divides the two Indias and the two types of Indians. It is the border where the desh ends and the desam begins and vice-versa — depending where you are journeying from.

I made the journey exactly four years ago, after having lived on the northern side all my life. I was thirty, single and bored of a life that was fast and fake. The least I could do was cross that border and explore my own country — the places that had existed for me, so far, only as red or black dots on the map. So that’s what I did that night.

Delhi was wrapped in a blanket of fog when I said goodbye to it, peering out from the moisture-coated window of the Tamil Nadu Express. By the next afternoon, which was pleasant and sunny, I had left Delhi and North India far behind. I stood by the open door, watching the train roll on furiously from the land of parathas and puris to the land of idlis and dosas, from the land of Kavitas and Savitas to the land of Kavithas and Savithas, from the land of Hindi to the land where someone like me could speak only English. There was, however, a last chance to speak Hindi.

As I stood there, watching the green fields pass by, a young Sardarji emerged from the lavatory and stood next to me. I had noticed him the night before: he had a smile permanently fixed on his face. I asked him, ‘‘Do you live in Chennai?’’ He recoiled, as if he had touched a naked electric wire or a hot pan, and then, slapping his palms together, burst out laughing. ‘‘Chennai mein rehkar marna hai kya? (Do you think I am crazy enough to live in Chennai?),’’ he asked, his body still shaking with laughter.

When I asked him why, he replied, ‘‘Do you think anybody sane would ever live there? It’s a boring place. I am going there to fetch my wife. I reach there tomorrow morning and we leave the same evening.’’ And then the young man came close to me and, as if hatching a conspiracy, whispered, ‘‘Ek baat bataoon, South ke log hotey bade darpok hain (you know something, South Indians are a timid lot).’’ And then he burst our laughing again.

Timid: I had heard that before. It is because of their so-called timidity that South Indians are still preferred as tenants in the North. They pay the rent on time, make hardly any noise to disturb the landlord or fellow tenants, and vacate when asked to. Clearly, it was the case of civility being mistaken for timidity — something I had suspected then, and something I was to confirm in the following years.

Once in the South, you are forced to wonder whether the civility comes from the civilisation, or whether the civilisation is born out of the civility. Whatever the case, you encounter an entirely new civilisation once you cross the Vindhyas. And it hits you when you take your first autorickshaw ride (discount the ride from the railway station: autorickshaw drivers there are a tribe born to be loathed). The guy will politely say ‘Thank You’ after you pay him. And if you are in Kerala, the only way to offend a driver is to ask him to keep the change.

I distinctly remember my first autorickshaw ride in Chennai. On the way to the Marina beach, our vehicle found itself in front of a bus at a roundabout. To my utter surprise, the bus driver slowed down and motioned my driver to pass. Up North, the bus driver would’ve spat out a mouthful of expletives at the rickshaw driver for daring to cross his path. Out there, might is right — a policy that applies in everyday life and in every walk of life. The decent sort always get bullied. A family of four travelling second class can easily be pushed to the corner of their seats by a bunch of college students or office-goers. You can protest but only at the risk of being manhandled. Even the TTE measures you by how you look or how you are dressed — it clearly reflects in the manner he asks you to produce the ticket. That’s the North.

In the South, to begin with, travelling second class is as good as travelling first class or in air-conditioned coaches, though minus the comfort of the pillow and the blanket. And it does not matter who you are and how you look, as long as you have a valid ticket. College students and office-goers do get into the compartment, but they are too shy to intrude And the TTE calls you ‘Sir’.

Talking of journeys, in the North, they often extract your bio-data even before the train could pull out of the station. “So who was that guy then, who came to see you off?” — they ask intrusive questions like that. Below the Vindhyas, co-passengers leave you alone. If anything, they give you shy but warm smiles.

South Indians are a shy lot, generally speaking. But behind the shy demeanour hides a zealous advocate of culture and language. As a result, Carnatic music thrives along with rock music. And every December, while the North observes, year after year, the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri mosque, Chennai gears up for the Music Festival and Thiruvananthapuram prepares for some film festival or the other.

Religion seems to be another passion of the people here. They usually wear it on their foreheads. And this time of the year, it is common to see — be it a hi-tech office in Hyderabad or a bank in Chennai — an employee or two clad in black dhoti and walking around barefoot. They are preparing for the Sabarimala pilgrimage. Yet — and that’s the best part — the South rarely sees communal violence. Perhaps the bond of language is so strong that there’s no room for religious intolerance.

And how they love their language. Writers in Hindi are today a dying breed, and Bengalis are writing more in English than in their mother-tongue; but down South, a new face emerges every other day on the Malayalam or Tamil literary scene. Try rubbishing Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a place like Kozhikode and chances are you will be lynched. One wonders if nature has anything to do with the literary bent of mind, because that’s one thing the South has in abundance — natural beauty. Savouring it is like reading a classic — you read it again and again and each time you do so, you discover something that wasn’t apparent before.

So here I am, looking at the long list of places in the South, crossing the names where I’ve already been to and plotting when and how to make it to the rest. In spite of the travel, life does get boring at times, but it is no longer fake.


Usha said...

yay! loved it the first time I read it in the express and loved it again this time. Did you know I received it as a email forward from my friends 3 times and passed it around as many times!! Your stock went very high with that mention of Mrquez and Mallus.

Bishwanath Ghosh said...

Usha: Thanks a lot. Am wondering if five years in Chennai makes me "still an outsider" or "finally an 'insider'".

Local Anusthesia said...

this IS well-written-- it helps that you are so openly a Southie-lover. for this reason alone, you are accorded bonafide status. ;) despite being born and raised in delhi, i think i am more southie than most 'insiders'. it's something abt that zealous guarding business you mention: language, music, ritual, spectacle. all of it. and it shames me to say what a sad, pitiful place delhi is-- it has grown unsafe for women, increasingly intolerant and culturally bankrupt. do landlocked places forget the sublime, you think? the wide ocean or proximity to it does things to one, i think. perhaps it's time someone sank delhi (maybe all of north india ;)) into the sea. anyone listening? yo, dubya?!

Visithra said...

What a dedication to the south! ;) truly enjoyed this post ;)

Usha said...

I wish I could answer that q about "insiders and outsiders" I seem to be a little out of touch with the times on this as you may have found out at the discussion at my blogsite!

Bishwanath Ghosh said...

Local Anusthesia, Visithra and Usha: thanks. And Local Anusthesia, I quite agree with your views on Delhi, maybe that is why I hesitate to return. Your blog name, by the way, has put me at bit of a professional risk. Next time I write about a man dying on the operation table, I could find my fingers automatically typing, "overdose of anusthesia." My boss wouldn't be pleased. But a patient, depending on who administers it, would find anusthesia far more agreeable than anaesthesia. ;)

savitha said...

remember reading that story...was so well written. You describe the classic North (As represented by Delhi, UP, MP, Punjab) - South (as represented by Chennai, Tamil Nadu, and a bit of Kerala)divide. But hey, just scratch the surface, and you will find greater differences...

Bishwanath Ghosh said...

Savitha: Thanks. Am going to scratch the surface shortly.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting read and enjoyed reading it
I t hink it is the nature of bengalis to appreciate art and culture(with thier culturally rich heritage coming to them (to most) naturally).

About Health Blog said...

They were just about everywhere. What music!

Anonymous said...

It is a wonderful read and parts of it were mentioned in the beginning of your book "Tamarind City: Where Modern India Began."

You mentioned this article on page 242 of the book.

Thank you for not locking your blog or comments.

Anubhuti said...

"from coffee to tea, from dosa to paratha, from sambar to dal makhni, from malabar fish to chiken tikka.... from Bangalore to Delhi !!"
I wrote this - how similar ? Maybe someday, I will be half as good as you.
But Mr ghosh, for one thing to be good, must the other be bad?
Delhi is fast no doubt & unforgiving too, but not half as bad as people make it sound.
I think after living here for twelve years now, I can qualify to say that.
Must north & south be compared? Must you as an author encourage the silly comparison? I don't think so.
Many years ago, my mother told me,"one thing being good, does not mean that the other is bad." Hope you understand my point of view.