I remember sitting in the Tamil Nadu Express on my first ride to Chennai, sharing my seat with an anxious Delhi couple going to ‘settle’ there with a job transfer in hand. Their gloomy faces were quite clear and the conversation involved every possible stereotypical letdown a north Indian can make of ‘living in the south.’ Having been with diverse people for most of my life, I should have been immune to those discussions, but somehow, I found myself in a similar spot.
I belong to the state of Madhya Pradesh (MP) and had finished a year of life in Punjab before coming to Chennai in 2016. On paper, I was an outsider myself. Apart from the image of the south that the north believes in, I had no idea how life worked in the state of Tamil Nadu. I was ignorant of the presence of Dravidian politics, didn’t know that films like Kanchivaram, Aval Appadithan, and Anbe Sivam existed, and had never eaten kuzhambu in my life.
But, in my one year stay in the city, which involved discovering its politics, cinema, and food, I learned something valuable about the people of Chennai and my place amongst them.
If you Google ‘why south Indians’, an array of search results will take you to riled up Quora and Reddit discussions asking ‘Why south Indians hate north Indians?’ This reflects the phobia of becoming victim to communal oppression, seen in the north, that many of us north Indians carry.
In my stay in the city, I made many discoveries. For starters, I discovered that Tamil has a complex tongue roll in the end and is pronounced ‘Tamizh’ and Dosa is ‘Dosai’. Perhaps the first two things that you might learn among the many discoveries that come later. While “I love Sambhar” is the first thing any Tamilian will hear in the north after people find out that the person is from TN, I was surprised nobody said “I love Poha” to me. Probably, because they don’t care.
I did not find myself to be in a minority here. I am not saying this to underline the city’s cosmopolitan nature which may have made it easy for me to seek the company of fellow north Indians. I am saying this based on the understanding that the city extended to me, acknowledging where I come from.
I was here for a year of internship and work, and Chennai was also a center for the entrance exams I was giving. At one such exam, before entering the premises, the gatekeeper gave us some mundane instructions (like no phones, papers etc.) in Tamil but asked if any of us were non-Tamilians. Two hands, including mine, went up among hundreds. Though the instructions weren’t unfamiliar for any student appearing for an exam, the man still used some broken Hindi to translate them for us.
I was nodding with an I-get-it smile on my face while having an epiphany about what had just happened. What that person was giving me was the space to exercise my individuality, which would have been non-existent if the sides were switched. The dominance north Indians hold in the geographical spectrum is enough to give them a sense of entitlement, tossing as they do imaginary terms like ‘national language’ and then feeling cornered when they find others countering it.
For a non-Tamilian, the language is as hard to learn as any language is for a non-native. But it was only a matter of few months that my ‘Arey’ changed into ‘Aiyo’ and my ‘Oye’ to ‘Dei’. Then comes the time when you find yourself mouthing songs that you would have never imagined yourself singing and one day you’re watching a Tamil film and do not feel the need to have subtitles. It’s not that I had moderately mastered the language, it’s just that I was comfortable with its presence.
Where a Delhi person is able to figure out Punjabi or Guajarati with a sense of familiarity, languages spoken in the south become a pack of gibberish for him/her that represents all the states.
But it’s not the elites here who respect cultural boundaries and don’t harbour a sense of entitlement, it’s the working class population you encounter every day which, instead of asking you to learn Tamil and come, works with you. From cab drivers to bus conductors and from the person behind the cash counter in a grocery store to Kaveri aunty who works at our house and responds to my “Mudichitingala?” with a “hogaya!” (done) after finishing her work, inclusivity is more of a behavioural trait rather than an objective.
Conversations over drinks with people from all walks of life invited me to a range of lessons because in the south, it’s more likely for any sitting over sarakku to get political, and not from a debating point of view. Sometimes, it might only involve a bonding over the criticism of the Modi wave trying to penetrate TN and will end with laughing over memes that show how the BJP is failing to do so. It speaks about a collective ideological unity that TN has always tried to maintain in order to prevent the hegemony from breaking it.
Being an ‘outsider’, it is easier for me to observe that because I can be familiar to people here as much as I can, but I can never let go of the north Indian persona that I carry. Being the odd-one-out in any group would be a kindle enough to start a conversation over differences but they sound very different from the conversations we have in the north. They reflect an intellect and sophistication which go beyond the stereotype that all south Indians are “cultural” and educated.
“We can adapt to adjust but we can’t adjust to adapt,” said an acquaintance explaining that though it’s only fair to be inclusive and adjust with someone who is feeling out of place, what Tamilians cannot tolerate is when that inclusiveness is imposed.
It isn’t as if Chennai is flawless through the social lens. It has its fair share of grave misogyny, casteism and sexism just like any other part of India but its fight against them is quite strong, too. This is what I felt sitting in a full-house at Kamaraj Memorial Hall as the riveting performance of the play, ‘Manjal’ took each viewer to the edge of their seat. The play autopsied the systemic evil of manual scavenging from every angle possible and I had never been so thrilled by a crowd so impassioned.
Where ‘South ki movies’ is a famous laughing stock in the North, the films I saw in Chennai had the kind of richness and talent in their creation which can put a lot of Hindi goodies to shame. The city has an active culture of public screenings where people find time to get together and discuss indies and documentaries which are applauded worldwide.
Every now and then, I do find myself flitting between Hindi films, Punjabi songs and the various north Indian eateries in the city only to regulate my homesickness. I can’t say that I don’t miss it, but not for the wrong reasons.
Coming back to Chennai via Central involves an auto ride that takes me through Marina beach which now feels like a ‘welcome home’ sign. The sensation is quite bittersweet because you are estranged to your native place and have become more and more familiar with the new one. But the thing about Chennai is, it doesn’t confine you into its massive built, and rather lets you be who you want to be.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are the author's own.