WHEN this column appears, I will have just left Madras, a city I still cannot bring myself to call Chennai (any more than I would refer to Deutschland when speaking in English of Germany). As I write these words, I am about to leave New York for a holiday in South India, beginning in the city, which is home to “India’s national newspaper”, through whose pages I have found, in the last 16 months, a new, discerning and responsive readership. I grew up between the ages of three and 19 in three cities — Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi — where being from the South meant you were generically classified as “Madrasi”, even if, like myself, you were from another State altogether. In vain did I protest that my parents were from Kerala and we had not spent five minutes in Madras: to most of our neighbours, “Madrasis” is what we were.

I doubt very much whether, three decades later, “Chennaiyyas” has acquired the same resonance in the suburbs of Matunga or Jodhpur Park. By reducing the term “Madras” to the petty specificity of “Chennai”, the city has lost its claim to stand for an entire peninsula. But this column is not a lament for the lost redolence of “Madras”, whose renaming, along with Bombay’s, I objected to in print at the time as emblematic of much that was wrong with modern Indian chauvinism (those who cannot create, I suggested somewhat nastily, can only rename). That battle is over, and the votaries of tradition and historical accuracy, not to mention linguistic commonsense, have lost it. The Hindu’s masthead now proclaims that it is published in Chennai. But I take some perverse pleasure in the knowledge that one of my engagements in the city is an evening with the members of a group that still defiantly calls itself the Madras Book Club.

What did it mean to be a “Madrasi”? To those who used the term, we were a tribe of articulate, bustling people with polysyllabic names, who spoke with astonishing rapidity in a number of incomprehensible languages and were clever enough to have risen high and wide both in government jobs and in private sector corporations. The untiring stenographer, the gnomic bureaucrat, the brilliant professor of mathematics, the formidable nuclear scientist — these were the Madrasis the Delhiite came across in the course of a typical day, and they shaped the stereotype. The average Madrasi was also seen as smaller, darker and more agile than his northern brethren, who made fun of his accent while secretly admiring him for his competence and dedication. It was always the Madrasi who was scurrying briskly to fulfil every responsibility, who came up with new ideas and was all too willing to put in overtime to implement them, who was the one person to be trusted with the cashbox when the manager was away. Ability, commitment, energy, initiative, integrity: these were the qualities the North saw in Madrasis, and many of us came to believe the stereotype enough to live up to it ourselves.

I spent most of my childhood in the North, visiting the ancestral homes of my parents only on the annual holidays they took to Kerala. When I began working abroad, returning to India meant going to Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi, where I found family and friends and the familiar associations of my own upbringing. But over the years I have begun to spend more of my limited vacation time in the South. My mother now lives in Coimbatore, and that is a powerful motivation. But getting to know South India better is only partly an effort to rediscover my roots; it is also an effort to stay connected with the future. For the future of India lies in the South.

No, that is not mere regional chauvinism. Nor am I just referring to Bangalore’s “Silicon Plateau” and Mr. Chandrababu Naidu’s “Cyberabad”, though these are powerful symbols of an India that is wired to the 21st Century. I am thinking also of the South as the part of our country that is getting the basics right — where literacy rates and educational levels are higher than in the North, where women are respected and empowered, where infrastructure is built and maintained, and where the disadvantage of being born in the wrong caste is less of an obstacle to advancement than elsewhere in the country. Above all, the South is a place of time-honoured co-existence amongst religious communities, where the evil bigotries that have been allowed to flourish in North India simply have no place. We may have had the odd episode of communal violence — sadly, nowhere in the subcontinent is immune to rioting — but it is inconceivable that the murderous rampages of Gujarat could ever have occurred anywhere in the five southern states.

As this article appears, our new President will have spent 10 days in office. For all his delightful idiosyncrasies, A.P.J. Abdul Kala

Source: The Hindu