The emotion that is Madras!

Try it! Do a Google search on “there is no place like Chennai” and then repeat it by replacing Chennai with Mumbai/New Delhi/Calcutta or Bangalore. You won’t find as many odes to other cities as you will about Chennai – or Madras as it was properly known.

I did the aforementioned Google search as part of a little research for this post and was surprised and not so surprised by the results. It is true. The love that people of this city have for it is much more than most folks have for their hometown. Chennai is a city that commands a feverish following much like New York City in the USA. In fact, a lot of my friends and family have told me that NYC has a “Madras-like” feel to it.

For those who do not know, Madras is a large metropolis, a port-city located on the south-eastern coast of India. It is my hometown. The city itself was founded almost 376 years ago and was the headquarters of the famous, nay notorious, East-India Company. “Madras” was derived from “Madrasapattinam”, one of the two villages – Madrasapattinam and Chennaipattinam that used to make up what is Chennai today. About 15 years ago, some political parties argued that Madras was an anglicized name and renamed my great city as “Chennai”.

I was born and brought up in Madras and I am true “Madrasi” who doesn’t like being referred to as a “Chennaite”. My love for this great city has only grown with every year that I have been away from it. I was part of the generation that would not accept the change from Madras to Chennai and one of the very last to ever call it so. I thought this irrational reluctance was just me until I saw the campaign slogan that celebrated Madras’s 375th birthday last year:

“Chennai is a city, but Madras is an emotion!”

This statement truly captures the love the Madrasis feel for the city.

So, what is so great about it? Well, what isn’t? Here is a list of pleasures unique to Madras:

1. The Marnia beach – the longest beach in India spanning a length of 13 Km, looking onto the Bay of Bengal. Its all sand and breeze and fresh hot bhajiis.

2. The wonderful mix of temples, churches and mosques. You can actually hear a Muslim call for prayer, a choir singing at Mass and a slokam blaring on speakers within a few kilometers of each other!

3. The idli, vada, pongal breakfast. Don’t forget to wash it down with the filter coffee.

4. The ubiquitous roadside tea shop (perhaps the one thing I miss most when I am in America; Starbucks just doesn’t compare!). Have tea, biscuits, vada, samosa or a paneer soda.

5. Street food – you name it, you can find it. From Chaat to Chinese noodles, bread omelets to brownies, pakoras to Pizza!

6. Shopping in T-nagar/Cotton street/Moore market/Aminjikarai/Parry’s corner

7. The Connemara library – it has a copy of every book published in India. The Anna Centenary library – one of the largest in Asia. Also try cheap roadside vendors selling Indian editions books!

8. Kollywood – the great Tamil cinema industry with Superstar Rajini and Ulaganayagn Kamal Hassan – enough said.

9. The amazing Chennai Auto! Transportation to any tricky location in the city.

10. Silk saris in a bazillion colors and patterns!

11. Fresh flower stalls outside every temple – no matter how big or how small

12. The radio stations – I stream on the net when I am in the US to listen to the musical genius of Madras’s Illayaraja and A.R.Rahman.

13. Chennai Super Kings – the Chennai cricket team is the best, or so I have been told… and I believe it.

14. It may be as hot as the sun in May but I look forward to the mangoes, sugarcane juice, watermelon, tender coconut water and palm fruit 🙂

15. Last but not the least – the amazing people!

These are just a few of the reasons why we love our city. Madras is also known for its safety, diversity and friendliness. Ask any Chennaite or Madrasi you know and they will agree with me. No wonder the British fell in love with India when they landed in Madras and just had to have it!

– Die-hard Madrasi AB

P.S. Someday I will write about the greatness of the suburb that I live in Madras – Annanagar! They say, Chennai is a city, Madras is an emotion, but Annanagar is another country!

The “B” word

I am a Brahmin. There, I said it.

For those of you who are not Indians, Brahmins are one of the so-called upper castes in the Hindu caste system. In fact, many people almost exclusively refer to Brahmins when they use the term upper caste, although there are other communities that are also considered to be upper caste.
Traditionally, Brahmins were highly educated folk, known for being religious and orthodox. They learned Sanskrit, studied the Vedas, and were responsible for taking care of temples. Brahmins are vegetarian and most of them have never tasted meat in their lives. The men are initiated into the study of Vedas when they “came of age” in a bar mitzvah-like ceremony called Upanayam. They wear a sacred white thread around their bodies and a namam or pattai (a mark like the Hindu dot) on their forehead. Married Brahmin women dressed in the traditional Madisar fashioned from a single piece of 9-yard fabric.
Wikipedia defines Brahmin (also called Brahmana) as a varna in Vedic Hinduism and also a caste of people who are members of it. But the word “Brahmin” has power a certain power attached to it and for a long time, I considered it a bad word.

“The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” ― William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
In older times, Brahmins have been known to discriminate against other castes, especially the so-called lower castes. People talk about them practicing ‘untouchability’ and withholding education from others. These acts of injustice have led Brahmins to be one of the most hated communities, especially in South India.
I realized my identity as a Brahmin only in my early teens. Until then I did not know that I belonged to one of the minority communities in Chennai. I went to a school that had a large Brahmin population and non-Brahmins were more the exception than the rule. When I first learned of the history of my caste I felt an overwhelming sense of shame. Shame that my ancestors were these terrible bigots who rode roughshod over so many people. I would never admit to anyone that I was born a Brahmin.
When I started college, I experienced somewhat of a culture-shock in terms of my caste. I was only one of 2 Brahmins in my class. All of a sudden, I was really in the minority. That’s when my shame turned to fear. The fact is, Brahmins of today experience a sort of reverse-discrimination in the hands of  society. Reservation programs (akin to Affirmative action in the US) in colleges and jobs tend to discriminate against Brahmins. We are quite simply blamed for the actions of our ancestors and categorically judged as supremacists.
Every Brahmin will probably relate an incident from their lives when their non-Brahmin friends made fun of their vegetarianism. They would have either been hounded to give it up or repeatedly asked explain their religious reasons for it (we believe that eating meat is against ahimsa/non-violence and also that it upsets the purity of our body and soul). Then there is the cruelest trick of fooling a Brahmin into believing that he/she has just consumed meat by accident. There are many derogatory terms used to depict Brahmins from the more hurtful “pappan/pappathi” to the somewhat less offensive “namam/pattai” and the almost-forgivable, more innocent “thayir sadam”. Besides our dietary preferences, our dialect is also used to ridicule us, especially in movies. A Brahmin would never volunteer information or even mention on his caste, lest he be arrested and sued for caste discrimination. They know that if that happened, public opinion will largely side with the non-Brahmins.

And so in college, I actively distanced myself from my Brahmin identity. I would ensure that I talked like the non-Brahmins. Occasionally, I would slip up and use a term that was uniquely Brahmin and my non-Brahmins would immediately jump on it to make fun of me. I also faced another challenge in hiding my identity –  my name. My first/given name is an old-fashioned and exclusively Brahmin name. Strangers only needed to hear my name to realize that I am a Brahmin and I would have to face the judgment that came with it. I distinctly remember arguing with my mother for having burdened me with such an obviously-Brahmin name.

I don’t think I am alone in having experienced this sense of shame and fear. Many Brahmins carry with them a sense of “Brahmin-shame” and you often find many popular Brahmin actors deriding their own heritage on the stage and in movies. Most Brahmins work to keep their caste identity secret and do much to ensure that they do not stand out.
The government reservation policies started a mass migration of Brahmins to the United States and other countries in the 1970s, as they sought educational opportunities that did not discriminate against them. Eventually, my brother and I joined these migrants. A few weeks after moving to the US, my brother remarked that for once in his life he felt comfortable going out in public wearing his namam. During my years in the USA, I slowly outgrew my hatred for my name. It didn’t single me out anymore. It was just another hard-to-pronounce Indian name. My background as a Brahmin ceased to matter. More so when I married an American Christian. Although I remained a vegetarian and a Hindu, I never gave my Brahmin heritage much thought. This changed when I became a parent. I felt a powerful need to pass on my culture to my children and it served as a turning point in my attitude towards my caste.

After 12 years away, I moved back to India in 2012. I had missed India so much and I was thrilled to be back. I soaked up everything Indian and rejoiced in immersing myself in my culture, language and religion. For the first time in my life, I wanted to learn everything about my Brahmin background. I understood the meanings behind routine “Brahmin” rituals and developed a new appreciated for them. I realized how wrong I was to feel shame for something that I never did. The fact is most Brahmins are gentle, timid folk who do not like confrontations. Even in the past, not all Brahmins were bigots. There were many great, kind, and compassionate people who were Brahmins.

The Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi wrote,
“Jathigal elai adi papa. Kulam thazhthi uyarthi solal pavam”
(Translation: There are no castes, little one. It is a sin to discriminate against a person based on his clan/family)
… and he was a Brahmin.
I realize that the change is not just within me. The society is also slowly changing. I find that the Brahmin youth of today embrace their heritage more openly. They do not hide from it. Even though some discrimination remains (on both sides, in isolated pockets), today’s Brahmins are more assertive. They neither possess the arrogance of Brahmins of a bygone era, nor do they suffer from the Brahmin-shame of my generation. The very fact that people openly refer to themselves as TamBram (Tamil Brahmin) speaks of this change.
So yes, I am a Brahmin, a TamBram and proud of it. I now use my gotra (Brahmin clan) name “Bharadwaj” as a pseudonym when I write. It indicates that I am a descendent of Rishi Bhardwaja, a great Hindu sage.
Today, I am only a Brahmin by birth. But every day, I try to become a real Brahmin as described by Lord Krishna. He said that “the Brahmanas would eschew wealth and arms and focus only on the The Brahman (the Great, or the Absolute). They would see Him or That in everything and would therefore never harm themselves or others and be above the duality of like and dislike”.
-A. Bharadwaj

 

Sour grapes

This is the tale of the silent war that occurs in Chennai (and other parts of India I assume) every summer. When I was young I used to think this phenomenon was limited to just my family. But its not. As more and more Indians immigrate to the States, the summer war seems to be becoming more widespread. Its a war between resident Indians in one camp and the NRI (non-resident Indians) on the other side. It is a war between cousins, parents, in-laws, children, and even grandparents, and here is where it starts:

***

They come in May.That is when the school holidays start in the US. It doesn’t sync with the Indian school holidays which start sometime in April. They bring with them American chocolates (that are now easily available here), huge bottles of shampoo and various little gifts. They dress in shorts and t-shirts and complain about the heat in Chennai as if they were not  born here or have never lived here. They talk about the land they come from as if it was a sort of hell and describe the land they live in as a kind of heaven. They wonder how people manage to live in this country that has a population of nearly a billion people. Yet, they are our cousins, our family and it is good to see them again! and we do love receiving their little gifts. It came from the USA, of course it is better!

***

It is almost May, its time for a visit home. We are so excited! We are counting down the days. No matter how much we love America, sometimes it just feels so good to visit India. Too bad we can only go for 21 days. We have to squeeze in all the temple visits, meet all the family, eat our favorite foods and get all the shopping done,  even as we suffer from jet lag. Shopping! its so much fun in India, for our dollar goes a long way! Maybe the kids can take a summer class or a camp while they are there – learn their mother tongue, or some Carnatic music or take a Bharathanatyam class. We better get those huge family pack of mixed mini chocolates from Sam’s club. That will make a great gift. Ah and those t-shirts and baseball caps that we got at work. They will like those too. Just dreading the heat though… the heat, dust, dirt and germs, and the bad roads, and the bureaucracy…Man! I wonder how they live there. We’ll tell them, heck, we can even show them how things in America are so much better. Still, it will be good to be home, see our family, visit our old haunts and take a break from the mechanical life in the States.

***

These are the perspectives of resident Indians and NRIs towards the yearly family reunion in summer. I am a person who has been on both sides of this war. I became aware of this subtle war when I was much younger, when I was like the aforementioned resident Indian. Then I became an NRI. Now I back to camp I and will soon go back to camp II. Although I have been both a resident and non-resident Indian, I identify more with the resident Indian. I always have. Its got something to do with my intense sense of patriotism (something my daughter has inherited, albeit for another nation – USA).

But I do believe this tug-of-war springs from our pride that just won’t allow us to admit that we are a little jealous of the other side. The residents wish to see the splendor that is described to be America, but will not admit it. Instead, they tell themselves that life in the States is dull and mechanical. The NRIs miss their homeland, its unique customs, and culture. But they won’t admit it either. Both camps cover it up by pretending that they are better off than the other. The residents revel in the fact that they haven’t abandoned their country and culture and criticize the NRI’s for doing so. The NRI’s focus on their better opportunities and convince themselves that they would hate living in India, even though it is probably a subconscious desire.

I hope people can put aside their pride, step down from their pedestals and acknowledge the truths. After all, we are all family.

-AB