The other day, when I went for my vaccination the young nurse said something that a Punjabi friend, who grew up in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, had told me just the day before, namely, that I didn’t at all sound like a Tamilian. I told her I had been living in the north since I was born, 70 years ago — and in Delhi for 63 of those. She said you don’t look like a Tamilian either. I apologised. What else could I do. She was soon going to poke a needle into me.
Actually the same thing happens everywhere including at Delhi immigration. In the old days, the immigration chap used to struggle with my name while telling me that I didn’t look like a Madrassi. But one of them did congratulate me saying it was easy to find my name on the system. There was just one, unlike the million or so Ashok Singhs or Rahul Sharmas. Now, with the magnetic strip on the passport, that erstwhile problem of having to key in my name with its 49 characters, has vanished. I once asked my elder brother, who was the chief passport officer then, why the government refused to accept initials. He just looked at me sadly as if to say he always knew I was an idiot.
In the US they thought I was an Eyeranian and in the UK, a Turk! The Bangladeshis there thought I was a Punjabi, which to them meant a Pakistani.
In the US they thought I was an Eyeranian and in the UK, a Turk! Indeed the Bangladeshis there thought I was a Punjabi, which to them meant a Pakistani. The Pakistanis, however, to give them credit, at least thought that I was an Indian. They had never heard of Tamil Nadu, but Madrassi, yes. But you are not dark, they said. I had to laugh it off saying my heart is very, very black.
And that’s how it has been. Having lived in the north for as long as I have, I naturally don’t sound like the solid Tamilian that I am. But with my name being what it is, the locals think I am a Mohajir from Chennai. A North Indian minister once told me and a colleague, that for him Tamilians were from another universe. “I can’t understand their language or the way they think,” he grumbled. I then spoke to him in a mix of pure Hindi and colloquial Punjabi. He was quite dumbstruck.
Much the same thing happened to me when I used to be invited to take part on TV talk shows. The upmarket English channels never called me — no wonder they are all shutting down — but the Hindi ones often did. One day I asked the producer why me. He said the audience loves it when, in the middle of your chaste Hindi, your utterly Tamil name comes up on the screen. When I told my wife this, she said, yes, you are the freak in the circus ring. I toyed with the idea of refusing further invitations but the money was very good and I consoled myself that no one ever remembers anything that comes on TV. When money speaks, they say, no one criticises the accent.
I face the same problem in Tamil Nadu but in reverse. The moment I say something, they assume I’m a Punjabi and try to fleece me. If I speak in Tamil they ask if I have come from Dilli — which is how the fellows from UP pronounce ‘Dehli’ which is the correct name, not Delhi. The H comes before the L. It’s humiliating to be spotted and slotted so easily.
My sons, who belong to the post-1980 generation, can barely speak Tamil. I have told them that if they want to be accepted in the north they should change their names by adding a Singh at the end. Or if they want to be accepted in the south, they should improve their Tamil. I don’t think they are going to do either. So poor chaps, like me, they are destined forever to be in that amorphous state where their identity is concerned. Being Indian is no longer enough.