The letters to North Indians by South Indians (and vice versa) seem to be flying back and forth a lot more often nowadays. Sometimes they are defensive, but mostly they are sarcastic, funny and offensive! Spending almost exactly half of my life in Chennai and the rest in North India*, my loyalties lie in the middle. I was initially very antagonistic towards the North Indians hating Chennai - "How dare you? Do you even know where the library is? Do you know how intelligent the women here are? Do you know our rape statistics are way less than yours? Are bars and malls the only way to have fun?" and so on.
But when I sit down and think about it, I didn't particularly take to Chennai when I came here too. The reasons were manifold:
- Language barrier: My Tamil was laughable when I joined college, and since I didn't want to be the butt of all jokes, preferred speaking in English. That in turn got me the name of a snob and show off.
- Dressing: I couldn't get the conservative-yet-hep mode right. I didn't know how to handle duppattas, or have enthusiasm to change (or buy!) multi-hued earrings and chappals. I couldn't be conservative-cool, with well-fitted salwar-kameezes and neatly styled hair. I was always a tomboy in collared shirts and stray flying hair. In chennai, I became a mix of all - ill fitted dresses, hair tied back (and then, frustrated, switched to the boy-cut). My classmates took turns to educate me on what's IN and how to dress well conservatively (many many thanks to them).
- Crowd: Travelling in buses and even a walk in Ranganathan street is a lesson in being careful. (Despite all that, it was love-at-first-ride with chennai buses for me)
- Traffic: Shout all you want, but the road layouts are completely chaotic in Chennai - be it the narrow roads of Virugambakkam, the potholes EVERYWHERE, the jugaad-type highways or the myriad speed bumps. Compare that with Mumbai and its well-planned highways and you'll know what I mean.
None of the four points are minor by any stretch of imagination. I had a daunting task 11 years back of adjusting to the city and its people. My friends and relatives asked, almost as a challenge, if I liked the city. every time we met. The language especially was usually frowned upon - "How can you be proud of not speaking tamil well?". It was difficult to explain that I was neither proud nor ashamed of the fact - I couldn't help it. My short hair was a sign of my modernism. How could I explain that it was more a sign of frustration?
But within a year, I could convincingly lie that I loved the city, and in another two years, I realised I actually did.
I love Chennai because I finally understood the city.
It was easier to accept the annoying rickshaw-wallahs, the temple-talks, the disdain for Hindi and English (OK, I could never accept that, but I learned to ignore the jibes), the bus-gropings and the traffic. Once the negatives were accepted, the positives started shining through:
- Some rickshaw-wallahs are very knowledgeable and compassionate. They talk about the troubled economy, importance of computers, and give free rides to really tired people (true story!).
- Education is of paramount importance to everyone here - including the vegetable vendors, conductors and drivers.
- Malls are lesser and the ideal getaway is still the beach, park or Mahabalipuram. The idea of unwinding is NOT shopping in a confined space, but walking in pondy bazaar. The Children are not dragged along on escalators, but taken to carnival rides, waterparks and boating.
- Though mocked, steamed idlis, pongal, sambars, rasams and south-indian vegetables are the healthiest dishes you can find in India - minimal oil and maximum use of pressure cooker. Just like there are no Sikh beggars, there are no obese south Indians (Generalised of course).
- Once you get adjusted to the bus crowd, there is nothing like it. The men get up immediately to offer seats to pregnant or old women, and once, a lady got up to give seat to me because I looked read-to-drop.
- Leaving the big names out, Chennai is dotted with small-scale doctors who aren't after your money - for my back pain, instead of asking for an x-ray or MRI, one of the doctors just asked me to take up yoga - worked like a charm. Homeopathy, Ayurvedha, Siddha and Yoga are believed in down south much more than it is in north.
All that said - South India is an acquired taste. We look dark and ugly and It's a customised hell for the guys. To be fair (no pun intended), it is quite a shock to see a shift from gelled/straightened hair, bleached and powdered faces, manicured and pedicured hands all your life and then suddenly move to a city where everyone is black with minimal skin-show and with calloused hands and feet. My sympathies with the men here - we can't help our color -we didn't ask for it, and now, we are not ashamed of it.
A far worse habit of the south Indians is being rude and talking only in the mother tongue despite knowing Hindi and English.Some do it for fun, for it doesn't take much to annoy an already frustrated North Indian (Kindly refer to Chetan bhagat's Two States). Some are aware of the stereotype and want to live up to it. Most are just defensive - a city of humble people does not tolerate superioirty complex well. They do not like a white person (:-) ) coming to the city and whining about the city's lack of night life, healthy and oil-less food and the narrow-mindedness.
We know what makes us bad. Please try to focus on what makes us amazing. This city is a cautious lover and requires one to understand and trust it.
PS: As Dips once pointed out, It should not be North India - it should be North, West and East India. But I didn't want to type that big a phrase every time and took an easier way out. :-)
PPS: I ideally want to say that we shouldn't stereotype people, and that there is no North and South, and we are all brothers and sisters and we are all Indians and so on - but I was aiming for an two-sides-of-a-coin post and not a gassy one.