The Divided States of India: Series

Last week, “OPEN LETTER TO A DELHI BOY” was zipping around the Indian blogosphere, gratifying and utterly infuriating people. It is, as the name suggests, an open letter, written post-partum by a South Indian woman (ethnicity unspecified) to Punjabi North Indian lover. This is how it opens:

Namaskaram from the South of India, or as you may like to believe, the countries south of the Vindhyas. My friends and family here thought I was completely insane to choose Delhi over more female conducive cities like Bangalore or even Bombay. I am very sad to report that your [i.e, the northern folks’] reputation of being an ignorant, chauvinistic oaf …precedes you.

Smooth, what? Gets right to the point. Textbook Writing Centre stuff. Also, a non-subcontinental might not immediately get the import of ‘namaskaram’, but the author is using it to claim her ethnicity straight off. And it is not the native — or the majority — ethnicity of Delhi. Why this linguistic staking of territory? Read on.

I understand that your stone faded, ripped jeans, your V-neck cleavage showing t-shirts that reveal to the world that you have infact inherited your mother’s voluptuous shaved Punjabi bosom, are what you think maketh a man, but it does not. It only maketh for a man who gets a pity license to share his girlfriend’s bra.

You meet me at a friend’s birthday, talk to me about nightclubs and your new SUV and when I look like I’m in desperate need of a barf bag, you think I have an attitude problem. But let me remind you that I am from SOUTH INDIA and not SOUTH DELHI, so no ,I am not scrawny, I am not fair, I don’t have straight hair and my topics of conversation go beyond the Fendi I saw in last month’s Vogue. I am olive-skinned, have lower –back-length lustrous cascading tresses that sometimes make me look like I fell out Jim Morrison’s tour bus.

Surely, one might think, the Jim Morrison touch was unnecessary. What cool kids, one might wonder, listen to Morrison anymore, or even know who he is? One would be entirely out of touch with India’s rock scene, which delights — and insists — in being largely stuck in the loud golden days of classic rock.

The same applies to a lot of feminist rhetoric here. Except amongst academics in the field and a tiny clique of what my dear friend Lali called socialite feminists, feminism in this country is still about the right to equitable decision-making and financial independence of (married) women. Whole sections of the nation are marked off in terms of how their women are treated. The contrast is particularly strong between the perceived repression of female agency in the north and north-western areas, and their relative emancipation in the east and south. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the comparative rights of women forms the crux of this break-up email:

While your mother pretends to be very progressive but still cows down to the whims of her husband every single time, mine on the other hand was born into a matriarchal home where every single possession is in the rightful name of the girl child. Could you ever, my hunky handsome, cash throwing pig, imagine this kind of power in your society? So stop telling me that women are not treated like trash where you come from. Just shut up and admit to it.

The post goes on after this, but I don’t particularly care for the author’s analogies — one of which is to ‘autistic 3 year olds on crack’ — and will not quote further. Those following the reprecussions of the post will know that this post has brought this woman instant fame, infamy, hounding journalists, and death threats. And this has been brought to her in a week of much-anticipated court verdicts, a Chief Minister going on a three-day fast, over-hyped film releases, and general super-busyness of the news desk. Clearly, then, this post about one woman’s break-up strikes a chord with the nation. Why would this be the case?

We are starting a new series on this blog to answer the question — which, frankly, is simple enough — and then pin the answer under a microscope and look at it from different angles. Gossipy tales about ethnicities interacting are most welcome, as are opinions about dual/multiple identities we juggle everyday, cultural, religious, political, dietary, linguistic et al. Posts under the Divided States of India series can be found under the label Divided India, most recent at the top and progressively vintage from that point on.

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15 comments

  1. Because while we like to pretend that there is such a thing called India, none of us actually live in it. But I don’t think we much like it when that’s made glaringly obvious, either. Buggers up all our nationalistic delusions.

    Of course, then there’s the fact that this woman was quite troublingly -ist in various ways. Autistic three-year-old on crack, I ask you.

    • Well, that’s the funny thing, isn’t it. We’ve most of us not from the north and north-west grown up with mild-to-fiece discontent with the idea of a cohesive, Hindi-speaking India. I’ve felt this discontent myself on occasion, most recently when I moved back home, and Microsoft started automatically showing me every single command in Hindi. It wasn’t just an ideological problem — it’s been 12 years since I’ve read Hindi regularly and nearly every word tripped me. And I couldn’t find an easy way to switch back, because all commands about switching back were now in Hindi.

      But yes, whose going to be this open unless she’s so upset/drunk that she doesn’t care what she’s saying? Especially since it might lump one with the gun-wielding secessionists, and who’s going to risk *that* in this ‘Mow down the domestic terrorists!’ atmosphere?

      And yes, the woman is several kind sof -ist. I dislike her rhetoric and her crude generalisations immensely, but I dislike — and am terrified — that people think she deserves to die for saying them.

  2. Nobody ever deserves death-threats for plain speaking, but it’s a thing to do on the blogosphere, innit? Like saying “Marry me” when you like something. It all comes down to sex and death. Feh.

    I mean, okay, all nations are imagined communities, but India was imagined later than many, I guess? Plus the idea of Bharatvarsha is such a North Indian, Hindi-belt notion in any case, and that keeps getting imposed on everything else because of where the capital is. Even the currency symbol doesn’t take into account languages not derived from Sanskrit. If it’s an uncomfortale fit for Bengalis, which gods know it often is, how much worse must it be for the plateau-and-southern states–which my dida classifies and categorises in one great Madrasi lump? And then there’s the North-East.

    Jodio, on the other hand, the idea that all of Southern India is matriarchal is hilarious and hell fallacious (I’d say the authors Malayali and that too from very specific Mallu community, but I could be wrong). And then too matriarchal is less true than matrilineal, which is often pariarchal. um.

    • Do you remember the annoyance when the government suddenly decided that the Hindi ‘r’ was going to be the pan-Indian symbol of the Rupee? The patent defence against feelings of exclusion were, “Come come, it was designed by an Oriya man. How could that not be inclusive?”

      I didn’t try and find out if the designer’s roots were actually Oriya, because that is not really the question, is it? The question is, would the design have been approved if it didn’t conform to the one-nation one-people narrative that is our current national PR staple? The entire point of this homogeneous patriotic construct is that groups from the peripheries will conform to the social and economic and linguistic hegemony, so that their roots will cease to matter.

      To be ‘Indian first’ is an admirable sentiment, but not if the majority of the nation has to be cleverly or violently coerced into it. And yet how else are nations built?

  3. To be ‘Indian first’ is an admirable sentiment, but not if the majority of the nation has to be cleverly or violently coerced into it. And yet how else are nations built?

    oi je, like i said, India’s been imagined too recently for there to have been a full effect. And our regional identities are far too vividly alive. We don’t really live as Indians–I suppose if I ventured outside India that opinion might change, but from what I see of others, people either cling closer to their communal roots, or mix with whoever they find with not too much concern for nationalities. Within Inia we always always ask, don’t we? Our identities are a matter of contrast, not similarity–North India v/s South India, proper North v/s Eastern states, ebaba ora Bihari/Oriya/Ohomia, tchtchtch, Bangal vs Ghoti, North Calcuttan v/s South Calcuttan. Hell, Tollygunj v/s Golpark, bloody hell. We’re not really very comfortable with any unit larger than the extended family (if that) when it comes to US–THEY, though, THEY are a monolith, forsure.

    “Come come, it was designed by an Oriya man. How could that not be inclusive?”

    How the hell is that inclusive, shala. Same linguistic roots, only. Also that is so very much the Devanagri ‘r’–what’s it matter which poor sod created it, and whether he repressed his own culture to do it?

    • “when it comes to US–THEY, though, THEY are a monolith, forsure.”

      Quite so. We’re the diverse group, and everyone else is ‘They’. As a friend once pointed out, for the average Bengali there are only three kinds of people in this world: Bangali, aw-Bangali, and shaheb. For the more enlightened Bengali, there are four: Bangali, Hindustani, Madrasi, and shaheb.

      It’s interesting how we call ‘them’ Hindustani, isn’t it? ‘They’ are Indians, we’re Bengalis. Then again, have you ever been to places even as close as Jhargram, where my family had houses? The local people, Bengalis according to the Census of India, would refer to us as the Bengali outsiders. They were not Bengalis, no. We were. Because we clearly came froma foreign place.

      It’s gets complicated. The more micro we get, the more we realise that the Golpark/Tollygunj Dumdum/College Street dichotomy tilts the power balance in our favour. We may rave against north Indian oppression at an urban national level, but at the state level, we are the people we protest against.

  4. As a complete outsider who is very annoyed with her own culture’s current obsession with a sanitized version of picture-perfect India ready to be consumed by tourists with lots of money, I find this discussion to be very enlightening and hope for more of them in the future.

    I sometimes wish I could post a list of myths that currently circulate about India in my culture and have them intelligently addressed by somebody who knows what they are talking about. Because all conversations I have with my people about India (and nowadays it is an important topic of conversation) end up in angry yelling at each other. 🙂

    I’m glad I can educate myself somewhat on this blog.

    • “I sometimes wish I could post a list of myths that currently circulate about India in my culture”

      I would love this, Clarissa! In fact, I would love to have it as a guest post, if you wouldn’t mind that. We know so little about countries east of England and west of Pakistan, and Bengalis in particular have such a rosy vision of Soviet Russia, that we could all do with a little first-hand education 🙂

  5. Really? But you’ll have to promise not to get offended and I’ll try to promise the same. 🙂

    So how about I write a post on my blog listing the myths about India, and then you write a post on yours in response and we cross-link? I’m sure this will be fun. 🙂

    And then maybe you’ll list your myths about us and we’ll do the same thing in the opposite direction. 🙂 How does that sound?

    • I am never offended, Clarissa. I’m either indifferent, dismissive, or thoroughly contemptuous. But never offended 😐

      I’d love to do the cross-linking thing. Go right ahead and post. I’ll twiddle my thumbs while you’re at it, then come blazing back with mine 🙂

  6. Thanks for visiting my blog and for commenting. I’ve looked at yours and can see that there are similar issues of ethnicity and identity, but because the culture is unfamiliar, I think I miss many of the finer points.

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