The Naarth-Sauth War: A Madrasi's Take

Last Updated: Thu, Sep 22, 2011 08:17 hrs

We've seen good-natured pleas for the case of the South Indian man by a couple of IIM grads, a few years apart, followed by a bitterly-vituperative-and-perhaps-not-quite-sober rant against Delhi men that took social networking sites by storm a few days ago.

As the folks from either side of the Vindhyas fire salvos at each other, being a Madrasi foreign return who found relatively more acceptance in Hindi heartland than in her hometown, I find myself in a rather unique position to analyse the mutual distrust and dislike.

Part 1: Billi Ek Paaltu Jaanwar Hai

My adherences to social and linguistic traditions began a while before my arrival on the scene. My grandfather was a twentieth century coconut, without ever crossing the seas - a member of the Indian Civil Services in the British Era.

My mother and her siblings spent their Post-Independence childhood in the North and North East, sipping British tea from Chinese porcelain, and learning to use more pieces of cutlery than the digits on their hands at dinner.

My father, the only son in a family of four children, shocked pastors at a spartan missionary school by arriving in a procession complete with elephant and trumpets.

As a result, I grew up speaking English at home, in a state where the Dravidian parties believed my ilk - well, Tam Brahms as we style ourselves now - were Aryan/German/Sanskrit-speaking aliens who had no claim to the language of Tamil Nadu.

I was schooled in the prestigious Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan, whose few Non-Tam-Brahms picked up avaa-ivaa Tamil and, to the abject horror of their parents, switched to a vegetarian diet of saathumdhu saadam (uh, mulligatawny rice, if you will) and dudhyonam (curd rice, duh), and most of whose Tam Brahms - taught to think out of the box - began to eat animals.

All this time, my awareness of the Naarthie-Madrasi divide was limited to arguments over whether Woh Saat Din or Andha Ezhu Naatkal came first, and which had inspired Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Thank heavens producers have made it simpler these days - you can't quite argue whether Ghajini or Ghajini came first, or Singham or Singham. I suppose you could argue about Gajini and Ghajini, and Singam and Singham, though. And my younger brother told me a comparison of the relative merits of Chandramukhi and Bhool Bhulaiyya ended when a Mohanlal fan said both were equally bad. Well, you get the picture.

As a student of Tamil, my awareness of Hindi was limited to the proud vocabulary of the third language student- billi ek paaltu janwar hai, billi miaow miaow karti hai, Akbar ke darbar mein navratan kaun kaun thhe?

Part 2: 'What language you're talkin', chile?'

Right after, I went to a convent living off its past glory, where nuns would cross themselves at the sight of kurtas that stopped above the knee ("These gerls are yegsbosing their jeans pant!"), shy of the elbow ("These gerls are showing den yinchez of forearm!"), or T-shirts that grazed the waistband ("Oh my Goat, the Dyevil has his grasp on this chile!")

My perception of language underwent drastic changes too - the Head of my Department, English Literature, assured me that T S Eliot was "naat nusussary from yegzam payint of view" and another teacher pondered over whether Measure for Measure was written by Shakespeare or Marlowe. And while no one in my class seemed to make sense of the Tamil I spoke, my Tamil teacher adored me.

In college, the divisions were clear.

The Naarthie girls coloured their hair, wore heels, smoked outside college, and flaunted mobile phones their boyfriends had bought them.

The girls of the Synthetic Salwar Brigade oiled their hair, wore Hawaii slippers, giggled together outside college, and flaunted amber flowers that one could smell a floor away.

The Anglo-Indians tittered over the overtures of the "sly conners" and "wanton buggers" they were dating.

The Malayalis transcended all other barriers and spoke Malayalam.

The Tam Brahms, drawn from three schools - mine, Vidya Mandir, and P S Senior - met up during lunch to speak the Tamil everyone pretended not to understand, and joined whichever other group happened to be nearest.

Part 3: 'So, you mean you're from Sri Lanka?'

Finally, I did that thing all Tam Brahms must do for a decent education, thanks to the reservation quota of my state - went abroad.

And that was when the Madrasi status I'd been deprived of since an old man decided to rename my city - setting off a trend that choked on Mumbai, Kolkata, and Bengaluru before finally throwing up the illogical Paschim Banga - hit me. I was the only Sauth Indian in a group united by language. Well, one of two, but the other one was an Army kid who'd grown up all over the country, and spoke better Hindi than English.

My first inkling of this difference was when my British roommate's parents thought I was British-born since they'd never met a first-generation Indian who didn't speak Hindi on the phone to her mom. Later, it struck me that they'd probably not met too many legal immigrants.

Then, I flummoxed a professor, who greeted me with a friendly, "You're from India! So you speak Hindy at home!"

"No, I don't know Hindi."

"Ah! You must be Kashmiri, then. So, you speak Err-do?"

"No, I speak Tamil."

The puzzled man frowned, "so, you're Sri Lankan then, not Indian?"

I would shrug helplessly when I saw my international friends looking at me quizzically for translations as the other Indians chattered away. Even more bizarrely, I would turn to my Afghan friends for interpretation of the Hindi and Urdu everyone else was speaking. Soon after a girl from Pune praised the Army kid for not being a "typical Sauth Indian", the anti-Hindi sentiment crept into me for the first time.

Part 4: Of Raghu Thatha and Maya Baganji

After returning home, to a town where the Marwari traders spoke better Tamil than local housewives and Tamils ordered chaat in broken Hindi, the sting was dulled to an extent.

But within a year, I took my indeterminate accent and foreign degree to the National Capital Region, and settled in a pocket extending into Uttar Pradesh, the land ruled by Lord Rama, and later Lord Krishna, and now Mayawati.

I'd forgotten the little Hindi I'd picked up in London - well, except for a YouTube clip that became a rage during my time there ( I could now confidently say 'Yek gaavon my yek kisan raghu thatha', giving me three topics of conversation - Akbar, cats and farmers.

My good natured landlords, having made valiant attempts to reach out to me, decided to introduce me to a fellow Sauth Indian family. Sadly for them, the friendship didn't take off, as both the family and I were bilingual. They spoke Telugu and Hindi; I spoke English and Tamil.

However, my monolingual landlords continued to offer me support through sign language, which didn't go off too well either. My request for a mirror got me a plate, water, a glass tumbler, the address of an optometrist, and, inexplicably, a bed sheet. Forgetting the word for pickle got me ripe mangoes, lime juice, curd, rice, dough, flour and an offer of chapattis.

The one good thing about not knowing Hindi in a city where everyone spoke only it, I decided, was that I wouldn't understand eve-teasers' taunts. That was before I figured out that Delhi's Road Romeos don't spout vulgar proposals. They stare. And stare.

In Madras (as I still call it), a guy by your side would keep them off, even if he was shorter, narrower and weaker than you. Hell, even if he wore glasses. But in Delhi, you could have a hulking body-builder by your side, and the starers would thwart his attempts at fierce eye contact by focusing complacently on you till you disappeared from sight.

I was in the land of fights over girls that end in shootouts, where men don't sprout moustaches unless they're in the army, where everyone - well, everyone who's not Bengali - thinks you're depressed if you read a book.

Working in a news organisation meant I had very little time for Mata Hari-ish indulgences. But I did figure out the following:

a)      From a metro where men would be happy to Dutch on a first date, I'd moved to one where they would panic that you thought they were poor if you took out your purse, and eliminate the notion with a night ride around the city in Daddy's Merc.
b)      Two beers may get the average South Indian man to profess his love for you, but the Naarthie man can last up to five whiskeys, and then insist he did ten.
c)       When you say you did some work in the theatre, Naarthies assume you manned the ticketing desk at the cinema. When you explain, and bring in NSD (National School of Drama), they give you a pitying oh-you-must-have-parents-who-are-addicted-to-drugs look.
d)      The Aunties are the same across India. You figure out Aunties you meet for the first time have been spying on you when they tell you you've become dark, put on weight, got wrinkles, wear the same clothes too often, and lost hair.
e)      On both sides of the Vindhyas, people intend it as a compliment when they say "you look like a North Indian."

Three years after I moved to Delhi, I finally forced myself not to leave my slippers outside as a mark of respect for clean floors, carpets, and elders. I convinced a couple of my Naarthie friends that they were the ones who spoke English with an 'Indian' accent. I dug into the history of the Chola, Chera, Pandiya wars when the Naarthies said South Indians never had to fend off attacks. I figured out that 'Madrasi' was a pleasant reminder of what I used to be till the whims of a former government made me a 'Chennaiite' - which, to me, sounds more like a mineral ore than a people. And I learnt to say 'ek gaon mein ek kisan rahha, rahha, rahhata thha.'

Having been mistaken for a Punjabi, Malayali, Arab and Latina, and having confused people with my Anglicised Tamil, Tamilised Hindi and Hinglished English, I now feel an affinity to several contrasting cultures at war with each other. And if parochial forwards have taught me anything, it's that everyone has ugly prejudices - some being uglier than others. Well, that, and South Indians tend to write long angry diatribes, while North Indians tend to respond with long angry comments.

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The author is a writer based in Chennai. She blogs at

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