India Tales is a series of essays exploring love, marriage and family in modern India
Sandhya Chandrasekhar (a typical Tamil ponnu) and Anuraag Saxena (a more-than-typical UP-wala) were dead wrong and their parents really right.Paranthas and thair-saadam do not meet on the same plate.
A delayed-baaraat, fifteen years and two wonderful kids later, the Tamil ponnu has accepted Govinda movies, has some UP in her, and the UP-wala sees Gods everywhere and chases them while trying to pronounce "thamarai kizhangu vathal".
We were in our early 20s. Both of us thought of ourselves as educated, progressive and urban. It is amazing how similar we were when we (first) fell for each other – sure about our global-outlook (whatever it meant) and uncertain about everything else. With so much in common, we were out to see the world. No, conquer it. We were sure that “trivial” differences in caste or identity would be irrelevant in our “love story”. Despite the usual resistance and domestic-drama that love-marriages see in most middle-class families, we were pretty confident that “we will see it through”. The first six months of marriage showed us how right our families were, when they said, “Beta, soch lo. Woh log humse alag hain (Think about it. They are different)."
What the Tamil ponnu saw
Clarity of objectives: Maslow’s need-heiarchy ends at roti, kapda aur makaan. Progress is defined, not by (needs) self-actualisation or esteem, but an unending need for various kinds of pooris, condiments to go with those pooris; paranthas; the filling to go into the poori and the kind of butter to go on top; halwa, types of dry-fruits on the halwa. Food is the axis. The world revolves on it.
Celebration-focus: UP baaraats run late by a few hours; while Tam Brahms’ muhurtams, derived from complex astrological calculations, are sacrosanct to the minute. Celestial-alignments and planetary-motion can wait till Lallan-bhaiya finishes his nagin-dance.
Food-focus: When dining at a UP-wala's home, you do not decide when you are full, your mother-in-law does. “Beta, tumney to kuch khaaya hi nahin (You have not eaten at all).”
Aggression-focus: Aggression is the default response to EVERY situation. No space, person or location is off limits. A creative and persistent UP-wala will find a fight, whether in a restaurant, or its parking lot. Sometimes, they have not even met a guy they pick fights with (example, a paavam call-centre agent here just doing his job).
Filam-Focus: If you are married to a guy who takes his sartorial cues from Govinda, and lexicon from Kader Khan; be ready to get serenaded with “Tu mere dil mein aisey utar gayi hai; jaise kuen mein baalti (You have descended into my heart like a bucket into the well).” You think he will get over it. He would not. It just gets worse with time.
What the UP-wala saw
Identity: There are three levels of Tam-Brahm ego: I-Iyer-Iyengar. You better get the algo right and know the difference between a Palakkad-Iyer versus a Trichy-Iyengar; veshti versus lungi; tripundra versus sricharanam and a whole lot of other complications.
Food-Focus: Payasam, or kheer, as we know it, is served piping hot. And that is one hard lesson you never forget.
Spartan like hell: Dosa is pronounced D-as-in-Deewar, not D-as-in-dream. Very often, it (dosa) is all the family will feed you for dinner. Not even nariyal-chutney and sambhar. Molagapudi is omni-purpose, often, the only condiment in a Tam Brahm kitchen. Tam Brahms do not believe in keeping noodles at home, for post-dosa hunger pangs. What is a ‘post-dinner pang’ when you are fast asleep at 10 pm?
Relationships: It is perfectly okay for two women to call each other ‘mami’; which creates Inception-esque circular loop in the North Indian’s mind “Main bhi tumhari mami, aur tum bhi meri mami? Yeh kaise (How can two women be aunts to each other)?
God is Everywhere: Literally. Tam Brahms hedge their bets with divinity -- by having god-photos and more god-photos. God-pictures spring up everywhere; in the kitchen, in the bedroom cupboard, on the TV, inside the car, inside laptop bags, as bookmarks, as screensavers, as caller-tunes and everywhere else.
Six months into our marriage. Stereotypes deeply ingrained (and indelible).
Fifteen years later
Singapore. We are “settled”, as our parents would call it (oh, our deep contempt for the construct). We have two wonderful kids from our mixed-culture marriage. The kids seldom refer to themselves as either Tamil or UP-walas; but identify themselves as Indians (despite being born in Singapore).
Our daughter enjoys her Kathak classes. She enjoys Sushi. Our son is convinced he is Ironman while chowing on his curd-rice. They learn Mandarin as they do Hindi. They will say “Namaste” to you, but “Wassup” to your kids. Will they grow up more confused about identity? Is it good or bad? Not sure. Perhaps, they will rediscover a deeper connect with their heritage. All we care about is building a conscience and a sense of responsibility; values that should be common to all.
The love-story and stereotypes
One of us enjoys reading Sivagamiyin Sabadam, while the other watches Ek Aur Ek Gyarah. One of us is searching for the meaning of life, while the other searches for the perfect omelette. It is all good. While we enjoy our space and interests, we have grown to create common interests as well. Interests that have nothing to do with our identities or upbringing. We love spending time at stand-up comedy clubs, or scuba-diving, or trying out weird and wacky cuisines, or taking long roadtrips across the world, where the UP-wala (obviously) dons the stereotypical role of the driver; or trying out weird and wacky cuisines. Over the years, we have lived in five cities and travelled to 20 countries, but exploring each other’s cultures has brought pleasure. We have decided to celebrate the stereotypes. We, honestly, would have been very different human beings had we not taken the whole “inter-caste, love-marriage wala plunge”.
What the Tam Brahm learns from the UP-wala
Clarity of objectives: Avoiding complex mental constructs is a boon. Simplifying debates to binaries is a boon. Having a conviction in simple ideals is a boon. When both sets of parents wanted me to drop/change my maiden name, the UP-wala put his foot down and said "No way. Why? That is half your identity, madam. Why would you want to let that go?” That simple.
Celebration-Focus: Undiluted fun is an end in itself. Be it dancing at a baaraat or a midnight ice-cream with the kids.
Food-Focus: I have to hand it to the UP-walas. They really know their way around the kitchen dining table. Food, for me, has evolved from ‘something I just have to eat to stay alive’ to genuinely being a way I perceive and understand world-cultures. Though thair-saadam remains the undisputed king of my plate, I am glad I see a world beyond it.
Aggression-Focus: It is not easy working in a bank. Banking has historically attracted Type A, aggressive, chest-thumping behaviour. Books have been written about it. Assertiveness comes much more naturally to me today, than it did 15 years ago.
Filam-Focus: Govinda movies are actually quite fun. Did you know that Kader Khan was a director, lyricist, dialogue-writer, script-writer, comedian, villain; and a professor before he got into films?
What the UP-wala learns from the Tam Brahm
Identity: I run the India Pride Project, where we trace and bring back stolen Indian heritage from across the world. The Tam Brahm's passion for her identity and heritage had a good effect on me.
Food-Focus: Sorry, I take back what I said earlier. Keerai-molagootal, kuzhi-paniyaram, vendakai-pachchadi and thamarai kizhangu vathal. Just because I cannot pronounce them, does not mean they do not exist.
Spartan like hell: Very often, less is more. It has been easy letting go of superfluous things and people, and refocusing on the core.
Relationships: Life, relationships and conversations are now WYSIWYG. No more saying-one-thing-and-meaning-the-other for me. No hypocrisy. No layering. No secrets. Believe me, it is so liberating. Try it.
God is Everywhere: Literally. Well, I am still trying to figure this one out. Which means the Tam Brahm has been successful in imbibing “intellectual-curiosity” in me.
Both of us started off with walls in our minds. Over the 15 years, we have peered over those walls, broken holes in them, and breathed in some fresh-air from the other side. Today, the UP-wala has a bit of Tam Brahm in him and the Tamil ponnu has some UP in her. The best part is observing our kids’ perspective. They do not even have these walls. Turns out, the UP-wala and the Tam Brahm have created two new human beings who associate with singular identity. They are simply Indians.
-- Authors’ note: This article does not intend to offend sensibilities. We apologise if we have. Anuraag Saxena is regional CEO, World Education Foundation. He is passionate about Indian heritage and culinary-history. He is based in Singapore. He tweets at @anuraag_saxena. Sandhya Chandrasekhar is a director with Credit Suisse bank. She is an alumnus of IIM-Ahmadabad, is passionate about empowering girls for tomorrow, and runs www.Power-Girls.org