On her first trip to India, Edwina Shaddick muses over her “assumptions” about the country: those that were challenged or reinforced.
Not many people are comfortable with admitting they are swayed by stereotypes. I am one of them. Even though I try to resist stereotypes, they seep in anyway. Even though not all stereotypes are bad, I have a huge aversion to the word. I shall talk about “assumptions” instead.
This is my first trip to India, and based on what I'd read, heard or been told, I came with certain pre-conceived notions, certain ideas that were either challenged or reinforced when I came.
To start with…
Stereotype one: Indians love cricket. True. There are no two ways about it. You either genuinely love it or pretend to love it. Either way, you love it.
Stereotype two: Indians have livers of steel. Not true. This is actually rather embarrassing. I had been led to believe that Indian livers were genetically superior and pre-disposed to breaking down alcohol faster. I was thus surprised to meet four different Indians who said they couldn't take more than two mugs of beer. Logically, I should have realised that the laws of average insist that in a given population, you will have some who don't drink as much as the rest.
I'd also heard multiple imitations of the Tamil accent before I came to Chennai, most of them from my North Indian friends. Some were downright ludicrous and led to heightened expectations when I came to Chennai. Alas, I seemed to understand everyone with little difficulty. At times, I wandered the street with wanton abandon, hoping I would meet the elusive Tamil accent I had anticipated so much. Once, I nearly found it. I was wandering the side streets of Thiruvanmiyur on a hot June afternoon, lost. I asked a safe-looking young man by the side of the road for directions (I emphasise safe because good girls never talk to strange men, or so I am told). He told me to take a faster right. I was immensely grateful but slightly perturbed that he knew I was late. Then it hit me that he'd said the first right. I must admit though, that my favourite accent would have to be the Malayali one. Having heard my hostel friend do a Lola Kutty impersonation, I simply HAVE to see Kerala for myself.
I had also come with this vague idea that Indians were big on marriages. I was wrong. They are obsessed with them. For one, there are about as many Tamil Matrimony outlets as there are juice shops. Even the main newspapers carry matrimonial classifieds, something I found a little odd. Usually classifieds are found in small newspapers right behind before the horse racing results. Here it is very serious, very specific. I would not be surprised if someone advertised for a bride with a maroon, Australia-shaped birthmark on her left shoulder blade. You want it, you ask for it. Actually sometimes the ads need a little more specification. I see the word “homely” a lot. What does that mean?! Do you want an ugly daughter-in-law or one who likes staying at home?
I had also assumed that arranged marriages were a thing of the past and practised only in rural settings. I was thus surprised to find highly educated women subscribing to age-old norms. One of the smartest people I've met in my time in India is a girl in my hostel. Having topped her MA, she is now pursuing an MPhil, all in all, not a dull-witted girl I'd say. She left our little posse for a week to venture up north to Bangalore to meet prospective grooms her parents had picked out for her. Having seen the Facebook profiles of these prospective grooms, I found it exceptionally challenging to hide my disdain. Also, I mumbled inaudibly about finding her a man before her parents did. Now if only I could edit her online matrimonial profile...
Back to stereotypes. India is supposed to be super religious, the go-to place for the spiritually lost. Cue Hollywood. Divorced woman finds herself amidst exotic Eastern mysticism in Eat Pray Love. Three brothers embark on a joint spiritual quest in The Darjeeling Limited. Well, Hollywood's make believe right. India can't be the Jerusalem of the East. Besides, the world's youth has quietly slipped into an agnosticism that is part-apathy, part-realist. Why should India be immune? Wrong on both counts.
There are probably more temples than there are auto-rickshaws in Chennai. Surprisingly, or to me anyway, they are still populated by young people. On the bus when we go by a little street-side shrine, I see half the bus, young and old, make a religious gesture of sorts. It may be an automatic reflex, ingrained from childhood, but it carries the tradition in a way that cannot be played down. For once, Hollywood wasn't exaggerating.
Based on travel guides and bits and pieces that I've read about India's politics, I had assumed Tamil Nadu to be a fiercely nationalistic, anti-Hindi place. I thus assumed I would have no problems watching a Hindi film because it had to have English subtitles. Right? Wrong again.
I think the cinema staff were slightly confused when I began inquiring, about Hindi films with no subtitles. How on earth does anyone in Chennai watch Hindi films with no English subtitles, I demanded to know. When she overcame her embarrassment, my companion quietly told me that more and more Tamils learn Hindi at school. Besides, she said, Hindi IS the national language. Slinking out of that theatre, I began to realise that things weren't quite as black and white as I had previously imagined.
I always assumed that there was a distinct, heinous divide between North and South India. I was thus also surprised to meet a colleague from another department with a North Indian father and a South Indian mother. I was even more surprised to find that this was more and more common. Another South Indian hostel friend is marrying her Punjabi boyfriend at the end of this year and I'm invited! This is not to say that there is no divide, only that I hadn't realised it's changing. I've also met several North Indians who speak Tamil or grew up here.
Which leads me to something else I had not anticipated. I had not expected so many migrants in Chennai — I had not realised the scale of migration that had swept over Chennai. Students and workers from as near as rural Tamil Nadu to neighbouring states like Andhra to as far as Kashmir and the North-East. The scale of internal migration in India is fascinating, and apparently has been the case for years.
Meeting people was fascinating because it would go something like this: Hi my name is XX and I am from Calcutta but my family originated from Sikkim but I work in Chennai now. Or my name is XX and I was in Chennai till I was eleven but then I moved to Bangalore and now I attend College in Pune. With an abundance of hostels sprouting like mushrooms in the city, it is only evident of the massive demand for them.
Though city planners may lament this, citing headaches with health, education or transport that arises from this influx, I see it as a good thing. With a nation as diverse as India, having a moving population allows its citizens to be familiarised with different languages, different peoples.
Ben Anderson once described a nation as an imagined community. With this movement, the imagined community becomes a little more solid. Now you have a face to an ethnicity, a sound to a language group. It makes the distance a little bit smaller, the idea of a nation a little more tangible.
As you celebrate your 64th Independence Day, I wish you more movement; that you will continue to learn the tongues not of your own, that you will embrace others who come to your doors; that you will keep the good stereotypes that define you as a country. Happy Birthday!
Edwina is a Bachelor in Social Science (Political Science, Sociology) from the Singapore Management University.
Keywords: Indian culture