Nagarathars in North America

At a community gathering in San José, the author finds that matchmaking is as challenging in the U.S. as in India.

December 14, 2013 05:13 pm | Updated 05:13 pm IST

At the retreat. Photo: Special Arrangement

At the retreat. Photo: Special Arrangement

Cupertino, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is where I found myself a few months ago, babysitting with my wife a grandson who was preparing for the U.S. national age-group chess championships. She fed him with all that he craved, (to his parents’ chagrin: they felt he should be on a diet!) while I monitored the hours he spent on the computer with his coaches. In the end, we both claimed credit for enabling his Middle School group title (Under -16) and his being chosen to represent the U.S. in the World age-group championships to be held in Dubai in December. One of the few breaks we took was to attend the three-day Nagarathar Retreat in San José half an hour away. An invitation to speak at three of the sessions was enticing enough to join what I usually avoid — a crowd.

This was the seventh Retreat and the biggest yet, so it was that at the opening night get-together we found ourselves midst 1,300 Nattukkottai Chettiars who had gathered for this biennial conclave. For the most-part they were American-settled Chettiars, though there were several from Australia, the U.K. and Singapore-Malaysia. And among them we appeared to be the outsiders. Most of the men were in vershtis ( pattu , at that), the women were in Kanchi silks and we had never heard so much Tamil spoken at similar Madras gatherings. Of course, when speakers came before the mikes and spoke in English, American accents took over and they became more pronounced in conversation. The influence of America on efficiency and orderliness, however, took a backseat, especially when it came to maintaining schedules and discipline at the venues; it was pure Madras, then.

The focus of the gathering — if you don’t count Appachis and Aathas wandering in and out and around the venues looking for likely ‘Boys’ and ‘Girls’ — was presenting Chettiar culture and solving issues facing Chettiar parents in the U.S. Chettiar culture came with Chettiar cuisine, but not traditional non-stop hospitality, and performances that were dominated by Bollywood, Hollywood and Kollywood song-and-dance greeted with boisterous enthusiasm. A colourful and well-presented but interminably long Silappathikaram by the Californians and an uproarious short play by a Canadian group on the preparation for a Chettiar Sashtiapthapoorthi broke the mould, but left the cynics wondering what was Chettiar about the legend in one case and theatre in the other.

As for the issues facing Chettiar parents in the US, they didn’t appear to me sitting on the stage to be any different to those facing the Nagarathar in India and elsewhere. The foremost concern was the high rate of divorce. And here I was most grateful for all those party exchanges I have had with Doc Nagaswami over the years. I’d heard it all; girls being too educated, girls doing better than the boys at work, girls refusing to kow-tow to mothers-in-law, boys being tied to their mothers’ munthangis ( pallu ), boys’ side dowry demands, wanting girls to be at their beck and call, and several other such reasons that nowadays lead to divorce made easy. So what were the answers we had? Platitudes. Don’t arrange marriages based on horoscopes. Don’t make dowry a matter of negotiation, accept what is offered. And if your wards have grown up in America, don’t look for would-be spouses in India, particularly if a husband is sought; look for them in other Western or Westernised Asian countries.

“Compatibility” was the word every speaker stressed, compatibility in current economic, social, and cultural backgrounds. Think they’d listen? Not to go by the uproar created when a resolution was presented to not ask for dowries and suggestions were made to permit endogamous clan marriages. The loud and prolonged debate succeeded only in holding up every other programme.

The other issue of concern was the loss of venturesomeness, a legendary Chettiar tradition best exemplified in the entrepreneurship of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Every young Chettiar now wanted only a safe, well-paid job — and, of course, in the IT industry. Some of the old-timers urged a return to the daring entrepreneurship of yore, but who cared so long as what they were doing assured them of the American dream of a home, a couple of cars, a table of plenty and colleges for the kids after a childhood full of activities that could be talked about endlessly at local Nagarathar get-togethers.

With our two girls married, Valli decided to skip much of this and on the telephone at home solve such problems for a host of others while cooking up their favourite meals for her grandsons. Meanwhile a fellow-speaker and I slunk out to the neighbouring Hilton for delightfully comforting clam chowder and a couple of crunchy BLTs. No one missed us; everyone was too busy catching up with long-time-no-see friends and relatives and trying to make matches on Earth and not in heaven. After all, that’s what retreats are all about.

( The Nagarathar population is about 110,000-125,000 worldwide, about a tenth of them in the US and about the same number in the UK, Australia and Singapore-Malaysia. )

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