2 States isn’t just the story of his marriage, but of my life. Being the daughter of a Sikh army officer from the 27th Battalion of the Madras Regiment I have travelled extensively through my 22 years of existence. There never has been a time when I’ve been able to give a straight-faced answer to the simple query of “where are you from?” Growing up my extended family has been the officers and troops of 27 Madras. Growing up I learnt to pronounce Madhavaiyya Bhaiya before I learnt that my dad’s “real” name is actually Harjeet. My school tiffins contained upma and idli more often than they did parantha and achaar. For long I thought the world to be populated with dark skinned people (as a matter of generalization) who mess up the gender of everything when attempting to converse in hindi (considering that everything in Hindi does have a gender) and found no peculiarity in the multitude of peculiar accents that were part of my auditory environment; be it the rolling rhythm of Malayalam or the different sounding telugu (I’m sorry I can do no better than that, I guess at some levels I remain a “north Indian” as I must, or so it seems.), much like Chinese food just being “food” in China. As far as rituals go the only one regularly followed for a long time was mandir parade every Tuesday wherein we would excitedly await the breaking of “nariyals” after every ganapati arati and if you want me to come to you I still respond naturally to “inge va”. Ask me who I am and my first response might most likely be madarasi. Then again, as my “South Indian” friends are wont to tell me, I am not.
My immediate family is as Punjabi as Punjabi gets. We are loud; we hold animated discussions during meal times and most often discuss with utmost seriousness what is to be served at the next. We hug; that about covers it, we love PDA and do not get the concept of personal space. When we see you after long we will shout out our affiliation to you quite joyfully and embrace you into a rib-cracker. If we see you every day, it’ll be the same. We eat meat; there is nothing that compares to the gastronomic delight of chicken or mutton or fish coming straight from the kadhai onto your plate. There will be those who will complement it with a stiff Patiala, my immediate family not being of the inclination much to my delight. In a nut shell, we will eat, drink and make merry. Break into impromptu bouts of poetry and song (that just might be my family) and if you play the dhol, we will dance regardless of whether the sometimes over-enthused hops and jumps can be called that or not! Be warm and open hearted, laugh loudly at the most absurd of unfunny comments, call our children rinku, pikki, kala, kalu, goru, sweety, lovely, dimpu, bunny, laddu, bablu, babla, gullu, toto, tutu, gogi, goga, gigu among other equally “Punjabi” names and want to feed anybody who walks into our house at any time of day or night. Oh, and the gaalis! We grow up on a steady diet of “BC, MC” and mind you, the perception of the rest of the world be damned, these are endearments. Seriously. Seems like I got the best of both worlds, and indeed I am blessed.
Here’s another thing the blessedness gave me; a unique perspective and a space to objectively criticize for when it comes to being a Punjabi or a Madarasi, I am neither and I am both. Is it really possible to compare and critique the two cultures? I have tried and I have failed. They are too diverse and it is about people. However, I still remember how it was to suddenly face the fact one fine day that hey, I am not really a south Indian! I don’t know when it really happened. It was more a feeling than a point in time. Maybe the years when my father was in field and I lived away from my unit (27 Madras) and in the extended family fold of the north. Honestly, I did not like what I saw. Suddenly, the world turned fair on me. Like really – golden brown hair, fair skin and rosy cheeks – these are men that I am describing. It was disconcerting to say the least. That alone can be handled but then I found out that two shades darker is just not good enough. People tell me that if not fair, I am certainly not dark; believe it or not I absolutely believe that I am black. No I am not exaggerating and I am not coming from a complex. The simple fact is that anything less than milky white is black. If you are not fair the good looking golden haired rosy cheeked fella will find you lacking in womanly charms. I don’t know how accurate the assumption is but it does seem to be the general line of thought. Fairness is an obsession.
Then comes the issue of fat. We have the genes. We do. A friend was making an observation that he hasn’t seen many Punjabi's under 6 feet tall, and we have a width to match. We are a robust people. We are big. Is that a generalization? Yes, but then we are talking generally. Anyway, be it Delhi, Jammu or Amritsar, you will find that roadside food is all the rage, that no store can do business without having an extensive XL- XXL range and that slimming center's mint money! I don’t get it. We eat, we put on weight, we shop and we OBSESS over losing weight. What is with that? Either we want a healthy lifestyle, or we are happy the way we are. No. That can’t be now, can it? All of it seems exasperatingly illogical to me. It is funny that when it comes to women, the trends is always to have “baby fat” till about 17 years of age, then extensive dieting and exercising till…ah, till one gets married…and then, let go. Have children and put on weight. Really. In America the wives would have been sued for marrying under false pretenses. But then with the men it isn’t too different either.
Then the blatant show of riches! Yes, we are mainly a business people. We have money. But where does that imply the need to be crass about it? Can I not live without knowing how much Babli Aunty’s gold necklace cost, or what her son is earning now that he’s in “Cannedda” or who spent how much on their son/daughter’s wedding? Why can I not go shopping without being dressed to the nines? Why?
Lastly, the lack or appreciation for art and intellect. Honestly, intellectual pursuits just aren’t on the horizon. Most guys seem to hobble to the finish line of being 12th pass or maybe a graduate degree, after all they are the heir apparent of their respective family businesses…could be one truck or a fleet, a dhaba or a hotel…ummm, what are the other industries again? Oh, yes, we do like the forces too. Women are definitely better educated but then it does increase their market value. Tall, slim, fair and homely. M.A in English literature. The perfect Bride.
Being a bit harsh, ain’t I? Inside sources tell me the south has its skeletons too, they’re just less blatant to outsiders. The prejudices are there…just the overtones are different. A little off topic here, but I never fail to marvel over an aesthetic sense that finds bright purple and a brighter orange the height of colour co-ordination! Add to it the yellow, marvelously fragrant champa in the long tresses and tonnes of gold per person and it makes for a complete picture. The thread count of your Kanjiwaram matters, so does the fact of whether you are an Iyer or an Iyengar. Intellectual elitism is probably equally as bad has having no concern for intellect at all. Religious dogma and ritualistic superstition have their space too, but then maybe it’s more an India thing. And this quiet, non-physically demonstrative existence? Shudder. They are also supposed to be averse to north Indian presence on their non-Hindi speaking soil.
Wait a minute though, why have I experienced differently? Take my recent trip to Shimoga. Not a cosmopolitan city by any stretch of the imagination. Yet everywhere we went the quiet courtesy of everyone including the waiters, to rickshaw drivers to the owner of the hotel we stayed at was…moving. Yes, we were a curiosity. The curiosity however was genuine and harmless. Also, the people are so nice. Yes it’s a mild term and deliberately so. Everything about their disposition was mild – courtesy, pleasantness, smiling strangers, embarrassed fumbling over a language barrier that turned amusing with practiced gestures and halting speech. The best was probably being on the lion safari and everyone in the jeep getting excited over the picture quality of my camera. The moment a sighting was made I’d hear excited calls from strangers saying, “Come here, you can get a good shot from here.” or the driver making a halt to allow me the pleasure of standing at the open door of the vehicle (opened specifically for the purpose) and clicking away to glory. We never asked each other’s names but I was regaled with stories of the various animals and everyone wanted a look at the photos and what is more, the enthusiastic delight over a shared experience and photos well taken was absolutely genuine! That is the south I have come to love, and maybe the fact that I am more at ease with dark skinned strangers who speak in an accent different from mine and in a language that I do not understand yet take comfort from might have something to do with it.
There begins my struggle; of being part of two worlds yet being denied the joy of calling them both my own. In one place I end up an impostor and in the other a traitor. There are things about both cultures that I love and about both that I absolutely abhor. There are traits from both cultures that I call my own; be it the love for food, hugs and merriment or the keen appreciation of art and literature. Why, then this divide? Why should I be an impostor in my own nation? Why would my family find it preposterous and traitorous to entertain the idea of me marrying a “south Indian” or that I might prefer to live here than there? Why this underlying chasm of cultural differences morphing into something ugly and divisive? What does it take to see people as people, and differences as opportunities to make our experience of life richer? Forget the north and the south, at least there they find recognition in conflict. There is a part of our country that remains isolated from the rest to this day, to the extent that we have probably never really felt for them as our countrymen, after all do we not refer to them all as chinks? (When they are not. In case you were wondering.) We actually call it the north-east. I know that it might be a little ambitious to call upon the world to live Tagore’s “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” when honestly, what is the world if not a family, however, is it so preposterous to want to begin at home? To envision a nation of countrymen and not an amalgamation of states…be it 2 or 28, playing puppet to statesmen? I pray not.