Wednesday, February 05, 2014

On the Kannadiga Stereotype: Filter Coffee Column This Month

Stereotypes and identities currently fascinate me. It found its way into February's Filter Coffee column in Kindle magazine. As always, it is a gorgeous issue, all black and white this time. I love the conceptual element in every issue. Read it here or see below.


There is a Malayali joke, that even the Malayalis like telling. That of how, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, there was a cheta in a mundu who welcomed him with kattan chaya in a steel cup. Malayalis are everywhere; there are a lot of them in Kerala too. Along with some other communities, they take the open road often, and earnestly, in pursuit of what the traditional seekers sought: fortune, newness, adventure or the more prosaic livelihood.

Then there is the Punjabi aunty in the house two doors down. You can still hear her all day though, insisting that Bunty have another half litre glass of lassi, talking to Pammy about the scandal at Shukla saab’s, her fingers coated with the smell of warm rajma.

On College Street the bhadraloks will hunt for books from fifty and five years ago, stop for coffee at ICH and pick up some rosogollas for dessert later. The wives will be out buying fish.

Then the Bihari babu will…

The Tamil maamis, in nine-yard sarees, listening to M S Subbulakshmi…

And then the Kannadiga couple….

..will wrinkle creased brows wondering how this writer will draw out their stereotype. I try. Oh so hard. And I fail to. Which is upsetting because I am a Kannadiga. I am the insider who should know all the insider details to make jokes with. You aren’t racist if you laugh at your own, not here in these parts at least. An accent while speaking the Queen’s language, a state quirk, one food, one something that would allow the others to point the pointer finger in our faces and laugh, then muffle it insufficiently. One thing would have done. But apparently we don’t have any such. Even Chennai Express, in its terrible portrayal of South Indian stereotypes, spared us not a mention. I feel ignored.

If stereotypes were applied to Kannadigas, the rebellious contrarian in me would probably turn this essay on its head. That’s for another time. Let’s talk stereotypes now. These stereotypes, like in the manner of stereotypes, may be partially true in some cases but overall, they serve to place a person within a certain framework and lend a derived identity. Not to say that it facilitates harmless ribbing in social situations, highlighting these very stereotypes. These exaggerated caricatures have a thin line separating the comical from the rude, the racist.

A marker of identity is more than just a piece of government paper, it is to me how I see myself in a group of others and how the group sees me, within mine and their histories, learned memories, contexts and assumptions. Stereotypes derived off such identities loosen the restrictions of mere tags and identity markers, making us more human, closer. Within certain boundaries of propriety and politeness, of course, disclaimers in place.

We talk these stereotypes, my friends and I. They tell me it is perhaps because we haven’t migrated much, like the Malayalis, the trading Marwaris, and others. Even when we have, we have integrated quietly, in those adopted lands. Never stood out, learnt new ways, kept our food at home, our tongues indoors. That is what they tell me. Though I would partly agree, I am not ready to give up. There has to be at least one thing.

The way we tie the saree perhaps? That one thing has potential. But then that isn’t strictly just our way. Maybe puliyogre and Mysore Paak then? But then the northerners in the state eat jowar, their sweetmeats are nothing like those of us southerners. Nothing unifies us as a state, not even Kannada. Or maybe the language just a little. The older ones in the cities might attach an ‘oo’ to Anglo words; the bus is thus the bussu, the hotel, the hotlu, the car, the caru. Not much so, this, in the hinterlands though. Those along the Konkan speak bookish, formal, with what the rest might say a stiff upper lip. So there, not even our different Kannadas are apparently good enough.

If I hoped to cleverly arrive at a stereotype, however poorly etched, at the end of this, I hoped too much. Like gently pulling out a strand of hair from a ball of freshly made butter, my grandmother used to say, carefully, without stirring the rest of the ambiance. Treating the matter such hasn’t given me the answers I seek.

The Sardars, undoubtedly exasperated with the lame Sardarji jokes and Rajnikanth, for similar reasons, might perhaps envy us. For me, I would prefer outrage. I would want to listen and retell a Kannada joke, you know? I really would. I would want to get mildly irritated at being shoved into a narrow box, forced to grudgingly acknowledge a few things and dismiss outright the others. Perhaps it is a case of feeling left out, from the national psyche, from the domestic racism.

Even Lonely Planet largely ignores us, come to think of it. While there are a scant few pages saying the perfunctory things about Karnataka, there is sparse, when there is at all, mention of its many foods and its different peoples. I want to think it is because those few pages couldn’t possibly hope to contain all the diversity that we enjoy here. How do you brand in just mere words the many worlds that there are? The state tourism department’s marketing line, ‘One State. Many Worlds’ seems just about right, for once.

Endnote: Cheta is older brother in Malayalam; mundu is a printed sarong/dhoti/tropical dress; kattan chaya is tea with sugar, without milk; lassi is yoghurt with embellishments; rajma is beans with tomatoes and salt and lot else; bhadralok is a gentle, intelligent gentleman; rosogollos aren’t as good anywhere else but in West Bengal; maamis wear diamond nose pins and like all aunties, can be nosy; puliyogre is spicy rice that tastes better the day after you make it; and Mysore Paak was not created in Mysore.

1 comment:

B Pradeep Nair said...

Stereotype does help in establishing identy. We need it -- be it for gender, food, clothing, language, nationality etc. However, it serves no real functional purpose. The problem arises when we attach too much importance to it.