The Divided States of India: Debriefing

Clarissa, who is an unlikely but very effective muse, has just begun a post-exchange on her blog about national and cultural stereotypes. She has listed twelve stereotypes about India popular in the Russian blogosphere, and would like me to respond to them, one at a time. In return, I will list stereotypes about Eastern Europe (and North America?) amongst Bengalis, and she will, perhaps, in her turn, respond to them.

This exchange fits in nicely with our current series on diversity and divisiveness in India, so we will proceed with the series as planned, and answer the question implicit in her ninth point: Are all Indians are very patriotic and proud of their country? The short answer: No.

*****

In the introductory post to this series, which quoted a south Indian woman’s opinions of north Indian men, we asked how a post about cultural difference within the nation — on an otherwise unpopular personal blog — became national news. Why did it inspire both accolades and death threats? Why did no one laugh when news channels brought psychiatrists on their show to analyse a badly-written, vituperative post?

The answer is this: sloppy writing apart — clearly, passions overruled spellcheck — the post was rather an accurate picture of the state of the nation.

Most countries have directional divides — north versus south, east versus west, and so on. Indeed, it’s hard to find a big city that doesn’t. In India, however, given the traditional majority of specific ethnic groups in specific areas, these divides are further endowed with racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious characters. This makes being a girl from the south living in the north that much more difficult — those strange northies don’t just have a different accent and quaint local sayings, they have whole different languages, a different flavour to their English, different food, different clothes, very different music, different religions (or entirely different aspects of the same religion), and different ideas of what is right, polite, and desirable.

The northies don’t see why they should relent. When they go down south, they are harassed within an inch of their lives. Those blasted southies deliberately pretend they don’t understand Hindi, deliberately make one feel like an outsider, deliberately gibber in their mother tongues in mixed company, like they’re too good to learn the damned national language like everybody else. And what’s with that accent? As if being dark and ugly wasn’t enough, these southies have to be nerdy gurglers. At least the wimpy easterners just stay in their little eastern nooks and kill each other, and don’t make trouble for regular people.

The eastern folks, in the meanwhile, fulminate at the dismissive attitudes of the northies, and dismiss them in turn as boorish uncultured arrogant bastards. Southies, they concede, have Culture and Brains, although they eat strange vegetarian food and are too wily to be left to their own devices. And what’s with that ridiculous insistence on talking in their own language that no one else can understand? That’s deliberate exclusion, that is. And while earning their living in the east, too! One would do well to remember which side of one’s toast is buttered and by whom, or one could be reminded of it, and no mistake.

The people of the north-east barely notice all this, unless they move westwards for education or work. Subcontinental India pretends it’s seven north-eastern states are inherited troublemaking relatives one must tolerate under one’s roof, largely by pretending they don’t exist. The north-east would love to pretend India doesn’t exist either, except that rapes and murders scattered by the Indian armed forces in their territories makes ignoring a little hard to do.

The ‘fourth world’ in the Indian subcontinent — the Dalits and various tribal groups who live utterly marginalised lives — should form a large part of this narrative, but they don’t. This is because no one with enough social capital to be represented in the mainstream political media gives two hoots about them, and therefore neither does the mainstream media. Except, that is, to label them the support base of secessionist Maoist ‘domestic terrorism’ that is currently threatening to fracture the nation.

This is a simplified and admittedly reductive general picture of how sections of Indians feel about each other, and consequently about the idea of a cohesive nation. Future posts will delve deeper into the issue with anecdotes, current events, local histories, and popular opinions. This was drawing chalk-lines on the ground πŸ™‚

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17 comments

  1. Isn’t there a “fifth world” or “fifth caste” in India – the elite running central bureaucracies, media, finance, large universities and above all the largest corporations? How much do you think they transcend regionalism, in both its parochial vices and unique cultural virtues? And how has the profile of this fifth caste has transformed in last 20 years, post liberalization and post BJP? Specifically, in the context of this post, do you sense a rise of triumphant patriotism among this clique?

    Myths about Russia –
    1. All Russian men are chess grandmasters.
    2. All Russian women are rude.
    3. Books are free in Russia.
    4. All Russian men are talented musicians.
    5. All Russian women are talented dancers.
    6. Bengali myth: During communist era, Russia was the land of honey and gold – goods and minds were equally free.
    7. American myth: During communist era, Russians got free bread and free vodka, and nothing else.
    8. Bengali myth: Communism collapsed because of an imperial-capitalist conspiracy. Russians were very happy with it and post-communism failures prove it.
    9. US myth: Communism continued despite any support from Russians only because all dissidents were either killed or sent to concentration camps.
    10. Russia is cold and Russians colder.

    • Dipanjan, you’re absolutely precious. Of these I didn’t know the US myth about free bread and vodka, but I’d never have been able to recall all of them at once. Lists are my weakness — I can never make them.

      There will be more than one post about *our* fifth estate, and you’ve nailed the trends amongst them on every count. Would you, perhaps, like to write a post in this series on the subject? That would be wonderful – -and greatly appreciated.

  2. Nice post Priyanka.
    Agree almost everything.
    I am new to your blog but a regular visitor (and rare commentor) on Clarissa’s blog.

    Just wanted you to check on this. As you said:
    “Those blasted southies deliberately pretend they don’t understand Hindi, deliberately make one feel like an outsider, deliberately gibber in their mother tongues in mixed company, like they’re too good to learn the damned national language like everybody else.”

    Just want you to check up on the “national language” part.

  3. Hindi is not our national language. In fact, there is no language stated as national language in the constitution. I suggest you to revisit your fact-files.

    • Oh, dear me, KK. You did realise each directional paragraph (north, south, east) was written as a first-person parody of the stereotypical attitudes of Northern, Southern and Eastern Indian, didn’t you? It’s not about facts, it’s about prejudices.

      If, however, I do revisit my fact-file, this is what I get: the Republic of India does not have a ‘national’ language, but it does have an *official* language, which is [standardised] Hindi in the Devanagari script. English is the secondary official language. Seeing as all official affairs of the nation are thus to be conducted in Hindi (and secondarily in English), I think the rhetorical jump from ‘official’ to ‘national’ is permissible, don’t you?

      You’re a nitpicker, KK. Just like me. I like you! πŸ™‚

  4. Yes Priyanka, I already said I agree with almost everything.
    Just thought there was a misconception and so tried to make you aware of it. No hard feelings intended πŸ˜€
    Unfortunately, in our school years, we are given an impression that Hindi is our “national” language. Not many people know the correct thing. 😦

  5. The girl sure struck a nerve! She was trending in India for at least a couple of days, and it’s hard to displace cricket and politics as things Indians like to blab ad nauseam about. I think there is a kernel of truth to what she’s alleging, however she shoots her argument in the foot by laying out all her own deep seated prejudices for everyone to see. Besides, I do agree, bringing up the Partition was a low blow.

    About stereotypes, let me tell you about my own parents. As you know, they are from the same ethnic and caste group and grew up in villages less than 100 km apart. Yet, if you ask my mother you’d have to listen to an endless litany of stereotypes about how my father’s peeps are just so different (and certainly inferior πŸ™‚ ) to her part of the world. Stereotypes exist everywhere – however, it’s the imbalance of power in control of media and national discourse that make some of them so pernicious.

    • Actually, I was more irked by her threats of Kalaripayattu and references to autistic children on crack. Somehow, growing up in Calcutta to endless stereotyping and novels and commentaries on refugees and ‘Bangals’ have inured me against Partition snarks. The travails of the uprooted forced migrant is such a pervasive trope in Bengali literature — quite a few Pujabarshikis even last year had riffs on the theme, and I’m sure this year will have its share — that malicious references to the Partition seem perfectly natural to me.

      Probably not an ideal state of affairs, but there you are.

      I didn’t know your father was also from that area πŸ™‚ I know my grandmother used to rib my grandfather about being a Midnapuri, because my great-grandfather the very successful lawyer moved from Dhaka to Midnapur to practise decades before my grandmother’s family moved to Calcutta.

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