Every city across the world has places that can be described as “ghettos”. Though the word “ghetto” brings to mind cramped houses with lot of people with the Star of David stitched on to their clothing, rushing home before a certain time of the day, today it is not quite like that. While they do exist in various cities most of it probably exists only in our minds.
As a Tam Brahm what comes to my mind are places like the Lake market area of Calcutta, Matunga/ Sion of Mumbai , Safilguda of Secunderabad . One can get snake gourd and curry leaves in the vegetable shops of Lake Market , eat a three course Tam Brahm meal at “South India Concerns” in Matunga and find a caterer in Safilguda who can supply you with “Parupu Thengai” for weddings.
Gravitating to residing in a particular place where there are people from the place of your origin is a typical behavior that one associates with immigrant communities. Besides the feeling of “safety in numbers” it helps the new immigrant feel less alienated as they are able to hear their language, get food that they are used to and look up to more senior immigrants ( both in age and duration of stay) for guidance on how to go about life in a new place.
This was particularly t rue during the days when communication was poor and one probably only heard of life in these far off places from one’s relatives.
One was uncomfortable with the people who were the original residents of the place- not being able to understand their cultures, language or cuisines. Immigrants sometimes suffered ridicule or worse in the hands of the natives leading to further ingraining of negative feelings in their minds. Sometimes the native communities also had negative feelings about the immigrant groups leading to a lot of prejudice on both sides.
There is a concept called “Ethnocentrism” that is used in sociology. It is a feeling of superiority of one’s own culture vis-à-vis other cultures. This feeling can be seen very strongly among many first generation immigrants like my mother who was transported from Srirangam to Bilaspur and then Calcutta. However people who make an effort at integration with the larger population in the city lose this feeling over time. It is usually not seen in subsequent generations. The second generation might hold on to its culture but does not brandish it around as though it is better than the culture around them. Second generation immigrants generally mingle with the local population, speak their language and eat their cuisine. Generations after the second usually get integrated with the culture of the place they live in and might marry into or adopt some of the mainstream customs and language. They generally do not like to “stick out” in a crowd.
In today’s world, many of these sociological stereotypes about immigrants may not hold true because the world is connected in a way that does not make any community , language, cuisine or culture a mystery to anyone. Before one moves to any place one can always read up as much as they can about that place. With people moving and living across different cities , interactions between cultures are always taking place One would hope that with this kind of interaction, stereotypes and prejudices can be broken down more easily.
It therefore came as a big surprise for me that international connectivity and education notwithstanding there are many people in India among the educated classes who still exhibit the immigrant behavior of gravitating to their own language/ community group. I was most surprised to see this behavior among Bengali friends many of whom have been living now in the South. I find that given a choice between interacting with an old friend from Calcutta who is a “Non Bengali” and a “Bengali” ( friend or stranger) they would prefer the Bengali person. I was pretty shocked when this happened to me. Let me tell you more…
We have a virtual group of batch mates from our school in Calcutta. I noticed that over a period of time some members had left the group . And the most curious thing about those who had left the group was that they were all Bengalis !. From among the few Bengalis who are still part of the group I came to know that they have created another group to which only fellow Bengalis from our batch had been invited!! To say I was shocked would be an understatement!
Though my initial reaction was one of betrayal considering that we were trying to relate to each other as alumni, I have been trying to think about an explanation behind this action. The only reason that comes to mind is the “immigrant mentality”. While we “Non Bengalis” were all second generation migrants in Calcutta and in various other places that we reside now, for many of my Bengali friends living in Bangalore or Mumbai today is probably a first generation immigrant experience. Their parents were rooted in Calcutta, they ( the children) studied in the city of their origin but probably moved to these new cities only post their marriage. Despite the supposed global community that we live in , to them this was certainly an new experience. I see in them the same behavior patterns that my family exhibited during my childhood and teenage years – going back “home” to Madras or Srirangam, scouring the streets of Ballygunj for those gaudy colored “Pongal Vazhtu” , being made to wear pavadai chettai and forced into learning Carnatic music or attending kutcheris.
My mother always believed that our culture was more superior. She used to make fun of Rabindra Sangeet and Rabindra Nrithya as “wailing music” or “flower plucking dance” ( since the dancer apparently did nothing but stand in one spot and move her hands about in the air ). But despite all of that , my father being in the Indian railways, we got opportunities to interact with different people and also relate to the larger culture around , learning Rabindra Sangeet and also the flower plucking dances .
Despite her prejudices my mother can speak Hindi , Bengali and Telugu . My parents chose to settle in Hyderabad instead of Chennai after my father’s retirement. I think there was a strong will on the part of my father to integrate. This came from the national character of the organization he worked for. The Indian railways made him feel that the entire country was his. We also imbibed that feeling. So, even though I live in Chennai, I still read Bengali novels and go to the Durga Puja Pandal at Besant Nagar. My circle of friends include people I can relate to in terms of interest and values and not language, religion or caste.
I must make this clear now that it is not a judgment I am passing on the Bengali community. Some of my closest friends are Bengalis. I also have a Bengali classmate from the same school who has been living in Chennai longer than me. She had her college education in this city, is married to a South Indian and is probably more rooted in Chennai than I am. In all our discussions about the narrow mindedness of Chennai she has always stood up for this city pointing out how she was accepted here. She speaks Tamil reasonably well and her parents like mine have decided to settle down in Chennai, a city that is not their place of birth.
However I must confess that there are only few like her among the Bengalis I see outside Calcutta these days. I guess Calcutta is suffering today from an acute lack of opportunities that has forced people to look outside the city for a career. The IT boom has made the South a natural option resulting in many of them moving here. This is something similar to what my parents generation faced when the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu forced Tam Brahms to move out of the state.
While the Tam Brahms might be better integrated as an immigrant community within India, I am not sure we are liked when we go abroad. We do not interact socially with the Americans ( or even other Indians for that matter) , force kids to go to shloka classes and eating out probably means going to the Saravana Bhavan in the nearest town. Nothing wrong about practicing your culture but being exclusionary about it where you relate only to people of your community is not right. But again, this may not hold true of the second generation there or of those who went as students and stayed on. But yes, most of the IT professionals who moved out of West Mambalam and Mylapore in the late 1990s to do “off site” work carried their prejudices along with their “agraharams” with them.
While respecting the insecurity and uncertainly of a person or a family that has left familiar surroundings to move into a new geography or culture, as a person who is a second generation in a family that moved out of its place of origin I can only say that keeping one’s mind open to anything new is what education is all about. The world is a diverse place. One needs to experience it and learn from it. Staying only with your own kind will deprive you of that opportunity.
Be proud of your culture and language but share your pride with others by inviting them to also talk about theirs. There is nothing called a “superior culture”. You will be surprised at the number of friends you will make if you just break that “barrier of narrow domestic walls”. Tagore had a vision for this country that talked about this.
And Tagore my Bengali friends… is also my poet as much as he is yours!!