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Beyond The North-South Divide

Beyond The North-South Divide

August 09, 2011

Can we Indians see each other beyond the stereotypes?

My first encounter with some of the essential factors of Indian-ness - racial stereotyping and mistrust of one another - was when I settled in Kerala six years ago. The city was Trivandrum or Thiruvananthapuram in local parlance. I am mentioning the city to let readers understand that there is not an ounce of cosmopolitanism to be found anywhere in this city which, unlike Kochi, the commercial hub, is a city of bankers and government officials.

During preliminary introductions with colleagues or neighbors, it appeared that they knew where Kolkata was, that it was a state with a long-standing Communist rule, that it was the state that gave Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Swami Vivekananda to the country and to the world. This was heart-warming indeed! To imagine that we had traveled 2500 kms (for the benefit of the uninitiated to distances in India: Yes, that is true.] and that people still knew our historical identity was thrilling, to say the least. However the thrill was to be very short-lived, as I soon discovered.

In the days to come, my family and I, would often be accosted by the tag ‘north Indians’, needless to say much to our shock and dismay because no right-minded Bengali ever identifies with it. In the Bengali psyche, we are a distinct ethnic identity priding ourselves on our intellectual prowess rather than ‘muscle power’ which we inevitably associate with being ‘north Indian’ [this, of course, only reinforces how undoubtedly racist but pretentious we are, stereotyping people along horrifyingly simplistic lines, but unable to digest the same when we are at the receiving end.]

Initially, I would take up cudgels on behalf of all Bengalis and vehemently deny being ‘north Indian’, trying to explain that the term was as insulting to a Bengali as being called ‘Madrasi’ was to them. However I soon gave up, when I saw that my arguments were not penetrating the wall of mistrust that had been constructed by generations of conditioning to be skeptical of anything that came from beyond the Vindyas and to not know that there were other parts of India beyond north-India and south-India.

Strangely enough Kerala is a state where tourism is one of the main revenue generators. In keeping with that the localites are hospitable to tourists, more so to foreign tourists than domestic ones, but nonetheless. These same people turned out to be hugely disapproving of anyone who came there to settle, and I had made the mistake of purchasing an apartment with the simple logic of why pay rent and shift every few months when you could pay the same monthly amount as EMI and enjoy a more stable lifestyle. Besides, I was guided by theoretical notions of Indians not needing passports to travel within India, not considering that in non-metro cities attitudinal hostility of the people you were going to live your life with could cause immense amount of stress.

In modern India, professionals are always on the go, traveling from city to city in search of better prospects. The Malayalis are famous for that and yet cannot fathom why anybody might want to settle in their state! They are temporarily appeased if you tell them of your genuine interest in experiencing first-hand all the myriad fascinating aspects of their culture. Even the sternest of Mallus breaks into a ear-to-ear grin if you praise his ‘appams’ and ‘payasams’. Taking a cue from that I was determined to gain acceptance. Through persistent effort my family and I actually acquired the taste of non-vegetarian fares cooked in coconut oil, so that we did not have to fake pleasure every time we had them and that is no mean feat for a Bengali family. I have two left feet and cannot dance traditional dances to save my life, and yet through sheer will power managed to pull through an entire performance of Thiruvadira during the last of the four Onams I spent there. On the other hand, I was cautious to never miss a chance to emphasize the similarities between our coastal cuisines (in both states rice and fish taking centre-stage) and clung on to whatever faint glimmer of hope I found that perhaps they would one day be able to see the fallacy behind branding us ‘north Indians’.

I don’t know for sure whether that happened or not because soon it was time for us to move to another city. What did happen however was that we came away with Kerala in our hearts, so much so that my child who did not inherit from us the Bengali love for fish curry, invariably exclaims ‘awesome’ every time she tastes any dish that has even a hint of coconut oil as cooking medium. 


  • Kallol
    21.09.12 12:14 PM
    I am a Bengali staying in Chennai and I have also visited Kochi and Trivandrum. The problem is with North Indians and South Indians who do not want to accept any other clan than their own and have a common perception of classifying others belonging to the other clan. I had lot of Malayali friends in Kolkata and the situation is not the same as u find in Delhi or Lucknow. Even we stereotype South Indians and Non Bengalis (referring to North Indians). But the hatred is less in any of the Eastern States, especially for Malayalis, Kannadigas, Tamil or Telegu people and we respect their culture. Because it is our culture which has taught us to respect all Indians. I think South Indians and North Indians must learn to respect others.
  • Nithin Kunneparambil
    Nithin Kunneparambil
    22.06.12 04:50 PM
    Ausum mate !!! I too faced this thing..I am a mallu from Palakkad and I studied in Kharagpur..But I, like your daughter, would let out a mhhhmm, when ever the taste of Mustard hits my tongue in fish curry, Kashondi, Shondesh, Kala Jamun,...I loved bengali Gaaliyan, Rabindrasangeeth...Infact like most of the Mallus I too am a big fan of Bengal..Amhar Shonar Communist Bengal.. Unlike any other states, I feel a strange attraction and warmth when I understand that the person is a bong..I remember my collegue Dr. Chatterjee came to know that I am mallu and he was really glad and remarked "Keralites and Bengalis are Political Cousins"..

    BTW, Awesome read !!!
  • Bhadra
    22.02.12 05:28 PM
    I think Kochi's more accepting and "modern" because it is more important economically. From my experience, Trivandrum is a haven for retirees.
  • C Velayudhan Vaidyar
    C Velayudhan Vaidyar
    01.12.11 02:26 AM
    Anyone who does not like Kerala or its people NEED NOT come down to our state, regardless of all this jabber about Madraasi and else. Those who are flexible and liberal, with regard to their palate and life style, are welcome anywhere on earth!
  • Agnija Bharathi
    Agnija Bharathi
    13.08.11 03:38 PM
    Yes, like everyone else has remarked, that seems to define Indians. Sigh! It goes beyond that to each community thinking they are the best and the identity getting smaller and smaller until finally it only encompasses their immediate family! If there is hope at all, it is only in those who, like you, take the pains to disabuse others of their prejudices. Who knows, may be you were successful after all! I would like to believe so.
  • Susmita Sen
    Susmita Sen
    13.08.11 08:52 AM
    Thank you all for taking the time out to reflect on this topic. The idea behid writing this post was to be conscious of the stereotyping in order to eventually eradicate the virtual divides that we have planted in our sub-conscious over the last few centuries.
    A special thanks to Cameron for noticing that the piece is primarily a self-examination, then it is anything else, if at all.
  • Braja
    12.08.11 09:57 PM
    Er...Vinay? You're all Indians. How can one Indian be racist towards another?

    Get a dictionary, honey...
  • Braja
    12.08.11 09:56 PM
    Oh, this was good :))
  • Cameron
    12.08.11 07:52 PM
    Vinay, you fool!
    If you would only read a bit further it says...

    "this, of course, only reinforces how undoubtedly racist but pretentious we are, stereotyping people along horrifyingly simplistic lines, but unable to digest the same when we are at the receiving end."

    I think the author is clear in stating that she struggles with this same problem.

    Again, you fool.
  • vinay
    12.08.11 01:19 PM
    Hi there..
    I am a young NRI living too far away from home to notice such differences. When I strted reading ur post, I thought u had an interesting story..

    But u lost me when u said how proud u bengalis r about your "distinct ethnic background", and how much u are "mentally" superior to so called "North Indians"...(Doesnt this statement make u a RACIST ?) Well I dont see any point in a blog post that increase the so called divide, rather than work towards erasing our differences.

    I think you are no different from us, fellow self-righteous Racist Indians..
  • Anjali
    12.08.11 01:03 PM
    Lovely post ! I agree with the overall sentiment of Indians habitually stereotyping people and usually along very simplistic kind of ways, people are complex, there's good and bad everywhere, but indians seem to only see the good in 'their type ' of people and bad in the 'other type'...sad but true...
    I too like you have faced labels from north Indians in US, calling me a south Indian (I'm a maharashtrian from Mumbai), and that was horrifying to me (I don't exactly know why, but it was)LOL
  • madhav mishra
    madhav mishra
    11.08.11 10:47 PM
    agree with you totally, we indians are like that
  • Sudha
    11.08.11 09:49 PM
    To stereotype others is a birthright for most Indians. And it does not matter which direction in India you go to or which directio you come from.

    I am ethnically from Tamil Nadu, but am not from Madras and therefore not a Madrasi. I was born and largely brought in Mumbai and have lived in Maharashtra for most of my life. I speak, read, write and swear like a local and yet, I will always remain the outsider, the "Saali madrasi", for the true sons and daughters of the soil. :-(
  • sujatha sathya
    sujatha sathya
    11.08.11 01:33 PM
    very interesting & insightful post. yes its very difficult to even think of "settling" in kerala, let alone actually doing it. among the south indian states, its relatively easier to blend in karnataka & AP but harder in TN & KL
  • Anne John
    Anne John
    10.08.11 08:06 PM
    Hailing from Chennai, I naturally had no objections to anyone referring to me as 'madarasi'. But all that changed when I came to live in the Gulf. This place is like a mini-Kerala and any south Indian is automatically assumed to be a mallu :-(
  • Shalini
    10.08.11 03:18 PM
    There are so many sub nuances to this stereotyping. I can imagine the stereotyping going on in the name of religion and caste too. We none of us escape it and it is so shaped by the prevalent view and hardened by personal experiences. I was told by someone that malayalis are extremely money-minded. I was surprised. That's a stereotype I have not heard. They are many things but I haven't myself experienced money-mindedness to be one of the hallmarks. Then I realised it had to do with the kind of people one interacted with. The tendency is to then make over arching generalisations based on the few interactions. We all are victim to that. We don't know if you were finally accepted or not. What is true though is that you followed a typical Indian stereotype of becoming a little part of the surroundings you are in. :) We have a tendency to grow on each other, don't we? :)
  • Meera
    10.08.11 02:37 PM
    I am a Keralite and have been at the other end too. When I went to Lucknow to pursue highest studies at a premier institute (mentioning that to refer to the multi-cultural environment), I was at many times discriminated as a Madrasi (ofcourse, which I am not) and a South Indian. The supposedly "cosmopolitan" crowds of Delhi, Calcutta & other "proudly cosmopolitan regions" did draw their regional boundaries around themselves, so did the Mallus. Atleast, we mallus don't call ourselves "cosmo" & contradict ourselves.

    Regionalism is existent everywhere - within Indian and non-Indians within an outside India. Being an expat I have seen this in Europe, the US and any other parts of the world. At some level, it really comes down to a personal level - whether a person is willing to look beyond boundaries or not.
  • Mary
    10.08.11 01:10 AM
    Nicely written..... can understand how u feel.... I am a Mumbai Mallu living in Canada and I can feel it among the Kerala mallus here. The attitude is so different and non cosmo! Ki korbe?

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