In preparation for a forthcoming week in Mumbai, my first excursion north since I first arrived in India via Delhi, I delved into the Internet for an education on what differences exist between North India and South India. I generally have a pretty good grasp of geography, so I almost didn’t bother to check a map to figure where the divide was and where Mumbai was exactly situated. When I actually checked, I was shocked to see that Mumbai is further from Kashmir in the far north than it is from Kanyakumari at the southern cape! I always thought of Mumbai as unequivocally part of ‘North India’ and within striking distance of Delhi; it turns that my assumptions were very wrong.
I’d heard other assumptions about North and South India, too. Living as I do in Kerala, I have picked up many more arguments for the South than the North. For example: The North is dirty; the South is clean. The North is more poverty-stricken; the South is more affluent. The North is more illiterate; the South is more educated. The North is corrupt; the South is… less corrupt. On the flip side: the North is more liberal and varied; the South is more conservative and uniform. The North is more cultured; the South less so.
While generalisations such as these often become widespread opinion by having at least a shred of truth, nothing can be as simple as to be broken down into a collection of polarities. I closed the map – having accepted a less-than-ideal dividing line along the southern borders of Mahrashtra, Chhattisgarh and Orissa – and went in search of considered opinions. One is by Vir Sanghvi, the presently beleaguered member of NDTV's news team, and he suggests that both within India and in a global setting, it is South India that is streaking ahead on almost every front: politics, business, development, even knowledge of film stars. By contrast he writes of “the seemingly permanent backwardness of the North”, emphasising the difference between the North’s caste- and money-obsessed chief ministers and the South’s far more progressive leaders.
At a more grassroots level, ‘jon m’ on Yahoo! Answers observes that North v South relations tend to be worse than interracial relations in the United States, and asks what others think. A few people come out and say that North Indians treat South Indians worse than Pakistanis, there is some intense debate on the historical importance of the Aryan (North)/Dravidian (South) dichotomy, and that South Indian colour racism is less prevalent than in North India. A majority of responses actually posit that the North/South divide isn’t really relevant any more, and that we’d all do better to put it aside once and for all. Still, without delving into the eighth circle of Internet hell that is YouTube comment threads, it’s clear that there is some genuine animosity and fundamentalism surrounding this issue.
An impartial rundown of the differences can be found at DifferenceBetween.net, a Canadian site. It’s a decent effort by a group of clearly dispassionate observers, but I found myself playing devil’s advocate to many of the points. North Indians are taller, stronger and lighter? Perhaps on average, but certainly not as a rule. North Indian women wear salwar kameez and South Indian women wear saris? This becomes less true every day. South Indian food is spicier? Well, maybe. But it’s my belief that it isn’t so much the vista or the buildings or the empty bottles in the street that represent a place, but the people who you are fortunate (or unfortunate) to meet.
At the end of all this, the idea of a North/South divide in India seems ludicrous. If anything, my brief research on the topic simply reinforced my belief that India is a nation of too many different demographics and too much geographical variation to easily categorise. I will approach my trip to Mumbai the same way I approach every new destination: with an attempt at leaving assumptions behind and a daily reminder to trust my instincts, for better or worse.