As a person who has had the opportunity of living in different parts of the country, I have come across people from different cultures. While each culture is rich and distinct in its own way, what never fails to amaze me is how we Indians end up believing myths about people who are from other subcultures within the country! Sometimes, these are not just about the people. They encompass, weather, cuisine, attire and language! And what is more surprising is how such myths become “ Pan Indian”. I am giving below some of the myths that I have come across.
Myth 1 : That all South Indians are Madrasis. That they are all vegetarians and speak Tamil
Reality: It is only people who live in Madras who can be called Madrasis. But now even they would prefer to be called Chennaites! There are four states .. ( sorry five now!) in Southern India. Each state is distinct in terms of language ( there are four languages spoken in the south). People living in Tamil Nadu speak Tamil and even they would not like to be called Madrasi as they might be living in Madurai, Trichy , Coimbatore etc!!!
Regarding the vegetarianism I would like to say here that a majority of the people in Southern India are non vegetarian!! There are many places in the south where getting vegetarian food would be a challenge!!!
This misconception is probably based on the fact that of the south Indians who have lived for long in the north, many are Tamil Brahmins who are vegetarians!! Considering a North Indian calls every South Indian a Madrasi, is it any surprise that they should presume all are vegetarians?
Myth 2 That all Christians are highly westernized and that Christian brides wear a gown when they get married
Reality : Most Christians are as rooted in the local culture as other religious communities in the region. I am yet to attend a Christian wedding where the bride has worn a gown ( and being married to a Christian I have attended many weddings ) . Most Christian brides wear saris just like other Indian brides. It is not just specific to Christian brides from Southern India!! Brides from Jharkhand also wear saris ( for those who have doubts about the link between Jharkhand and Christians let me enlighten you. Over 14% of the tribal population there is Christian). There are Bengali Christian brides who also don the six yards. And let me add here - In Kerala grooms often wear veshti or mundu. I am truly baffled about this myth and how it might have emerged!!
Myth 3 That everyone is Goa is Catholic.
Reality : While there is certainly a large Catholic presence in Goa, there is also a distinct Hindu community there . In fact Hindus constitute over 50% of the population there. Christians only constitute about 25% of the population in Goa. Those of you who have gone to Goa might remember visiting the Mangeshi temple there along with visiting the church of Bom Jesus. The Malvani Cuisine which is indigenous to the Konkan coast is traditionally served in Hindu homes in Goa. Goans who are Hindu dress traditionally in attires similar to what we see around Maharashtra. The wonderful thing about Goa is that there are both these sides to it. The tourism sector probably likes to market just one facet to it.
Myth 4 That temperatures go down by October – November and the entire country has a winter
Reality: This myth is a reflection of the poor education that is delivered by our schools!! I think almost every geography text book has a chapter on the monsoons and the effect of the proximity of the sea on the climate!! Yet, people from the northern part of the country continue to be surprised when temperatures do not go below 30deg C in Chennai, Kochi or Thiruvanthapuram and when it starts raining in November in Chennai they ask“ Why is it raining now”? Please.. folks have you not heard about the north east monsoons and the retreating south west monsoons? I think people who express these kinds of moronic doubts should be sent back to school and made to sit through geography lesions once again!!!
Myth 5 That Hindi is spoken by everyone across the country! That people in the south who appear to be not “very highly educated” would understand Hindi instead of English.
Reality: There are people who are actually surprised when they realize that in parts of India people do not speak or understand Hindi. I must narrate an experience here. I was coordinating a national seminar where there were many senior officials from the Ministry of Environment and Forests were participating. One gentleman had a problem with his return air ticket. He wanted it to be cancelled and rebooked. So I took him to an administrative assistant in my office and asked him to explain the problem to her so that she would help him out with the cancellation/ rebooking. I was surprised to see that the gentleman who until then was speaking to me in English suddenly switched to Hindi while addressing Latha! The poor girl was looking baffled. I suppose he must have presumed that since she belonged to a “clerical cadre” she might not understand English!! I had to tell him that everyone in the south understands and speaks some basic English. It has always been our link language right from the colonial days. But what amazes me is that a senior bureaucrat like him could have a misconception like that!!!
Reality: I don’t think I need to explain why it is a myth. Two of the most highly educated and acclaimed economists in this country – former PM Dr. Manmohan Singh and former Deputy Chairperson of the planning commission Dr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia are Sardarjis!
Myth 7: That Deepwali is a Pan Indian festival and that Holi is celebrated across India
Reality : Deepawali is traditionally not celebrated in Kerala. Holi is not a traditional festival of the south. However with increasing migration across states these festivals are acquiring a Pan Indian status.
Myth 8 : That all South Indians are dark, short, squat and fat!
Reality: While a majority of South Indians are drawn from the Dravidian stock there has been a lot of intermingling of races across history. So this stereotype does not hold true. It smacks of racial discrimination!!! To be dark is not to be ugly. And about being fat, I must say the number of fat people in Gujarat and Punjab together might outnumber the population of a small state like Sikkim!!
There are different racial features that we find in the south- the tall and fair Kodavas of Coorg, the fair and light eyed Bunts of Karnataka, the tall, dark people of Tamilnadu and Andhra, the doe eyed beauties of Kerala etc . Each race has its own unique features and each race is beautiful in its own way! And of course one must not forget that some of the so called “beauties” of Bollywood like Hema Malini, Rekha, Sri Devi, Jaya Prada, Aishwarya Rai, Shilpa Shetty, Deepika Padukone are from Southern India!!!
Myth 9 : That tamarind is part of any food preparation from the South and that Idly and Dosa are part of all South Indian cuisine
Reality: This is an extremely silly notion that many people hold. Tamarind, though a part of many south Indian cuisines is not popular in Kerala. Kerala uses what is called “Kodam puli” or “Coccum” in its preparations. In fact much of the west coast cooking uses that. Malayali cuisine has more similarity to Malvani, Manglorean cuisine than to the rest of the Southern States. So, is it surprising that Idli and Dosa is not part of any traditional Malayali breakfast?
Myth 10 : That people wearing western outfits are “Mod”
Reality: I think it is the silliest thing that people like to believe. The question is what is being “mod” or “modern” all about? If it is about being westernized then the ability to communicate in English is an important determinant!! I would like to point out here that some of the “mod” girls that I have seen in Ahmedabad could not communicate properly in any language other than Gujarati. Same could be said of the stylish girls that one sees in the Delhi markets. I doubt they hold any “modern” ideas in terms of their own freedom. By contrast I would like to point out the example of one of my sister’s relatives. This old lady in a typical nine yard sari is lovingly referred to as “ Perry Mason Pati” ( The Granny who reads Perry Masons) because of her addiction to books by Erle Stanley Gardner!! She obviously speaks good English and given her exposure to Perry Mason’s exploits is quite “un- shocked” by anything that she sees or hears! This old lady by no stretch of anyone’s imagination would be classified as “Mod”.
I could go on and on I guess in listing our national myths. If you notice, a majority of the myths listed above are about South India. That is because myths by their nature emerge out of people’s ignorance about something – in this case Southern India. Most of India does not try to get to know us well. Though there are a lot of South Indians living in the North, I find the effort that we make to imbibe the culture there is not reciprocated by our Northern compatriots. Despite the fact that a lot of them live today in Chennai , Bangalore and Hyderabad, I find their efforts at integration is not as one would expect of a group that has migrated here. It is annoying when they expect that we would go all the way and reach out to them. We will definitely make the effort to make them feel welcome but we expect they would come half way up to us and try to understand and appreciate our culture.
The other kinds of myths are about minorities. As a country we like to live in our own worlds and believe what we like about Christians, Sardars , Muslims or any other such groups. There are many in our country ( especially those who live in the North) who do not even know what or who is a Parsi!!
We just like to believe what is popularized by our film industry as a general stereotype!
I think instead of trying to get everyone to fall in line around one language there should be efforts made in some form to get people to understand and appreciate the diversity of each region. Though a Tamilian I am fluent in Bengali, Hindi and Telugu . I can read and write the first two very well. No state directive forced me to learn these languages. I learnt them out of my own curiosity and interest. And believe me it has enriched my life as an Indian in the most unbelievable of ways!!!