Overflowing from a Himalayan rock face, 8,700 feet above sea level, Jhaka is the last semblance of life before Rupin Pass in Himachal Pradesh. Shepherds and farmers live in this village which fits the image of the romantic idyll to perfection. Gorgeous mountain dogs run about its cobbled streets as children return from Jiskun village, a two-hour trek back on the trail.
We arrived at Jhaka at around 2 pm and moved into a homestay at the very entrance to the village. As was the routine over the eight-day trek, we started a game of rummy under the blue sky, taking in the untouchedness that enveloped us. The owner of the home was a smiling, boisterous, congenial man who welcomed us graciously. As the game began, he stood behind my shoulder watching over my hand. In a few moments he gently enquired about my origins. “Where are you from?” he asked. Conversations with strangers are always intriguing and this was no different. When I mentioned Chennai as my town, he thought for a second and said, “Ah! You belong to Jayalalithaa’s land.” I was offended. It was the first time I had heard anyone refer to Tamil Nadu as J Jayalalithaa’s territory. I vehemently rejected the suggestion and attempted to smudge our respective identities. He belongs as much to Chennai as I do to Jhaka; I said Jayalalithaa was his leader and Jairam Thakur mine. This overreaching universality did not convince him, he shook his head in complete disagreement.
To him, a man of the mountains, I was from an alien place, specifically the faraway South. In his tone and body language I almost heard the infamous “you are a Madrasi”. How could a shepherd living in the upper reaches of the Himalayas feel this way? He was not a city-bred judging cynic, yet unconsciously and with a smile, he was discriminating. I was a citizen, yes, but not “mainstream”. I did not belong to his land, which was the large tract of dharti, India. We were collaborators but not similar, maybe not even equal. In all this, economics had very little role. He would know that I, this casual trekker probably, was more wealthy than him, but that did not carry any weight. I was a bit, just a little bit, inferior. Was it my accent, colour or facial features that demarcated me?
The North-South divide may be as sharp as ever. It is seen in every sphere of public life. English news channels care very little about the happenings in the South unless it is a tragedy, calamity or an event that influences Delhi politics in a significant manner. While the most innocuous events across North India would be reported, we rarely matter.
Delhi’s power corridors also display this attitude. It is said that when TT Krishnamachari was India’s finance minister, Lutyens’ Delhi’s prominent residents complained about a “Madras pressure group” that surrounded Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The very same regional disgruntlement has continued and politicians from the South are often looked upon as conniving sectarian oddballs.
At play in all this is also the English coefficient. Parliamentarians and legislators from North, East and West India most often speak in Hindi and take advantage of their Hindi connectedness. The necessity for English is minimal. But those from the South, especially Tamil Nadu, have no choice but to attempt English. And most of them (unless they are Chidambaram!) are educated in their own language and hence struggle to construct coherent sentences. Even when they do, their heavy accent creates discomfort and ridicule. This linguistic barrier is felt most acutely by the Tamilians because of all the Dravidian languages, Tamil is most distant from Hindi. For Tamilians who have been brought up in a Hindi milieu, the tables are interchanged.
This cultural disparity is ingrained in our minds. Young girls and boys from either side of the Vindhyas are often heard making regional slurs in soft tones. The other day, a rich North Indian businessman who went to India’s most legendary “snoot school” spoke of how difficult it was for a North Indian in Chennai. I understood his struggles but within all that he was saying there was, without doubt, the insinuation about “these uncouth South Indians”. In fact, many of us upper class/upper caste South Indians too feel this way about our less-cosmopolitan Tamil-speaking neighbours.
“Mile sur mera tumhara” and every other slogan, musical or otherwise, has not persuaded the people of this country to enter and experience each other’s culture. We remain deeply fragmented, rejoicing in bubbles and glass houses with analogous co-inhabitants. These consortiums are determined by gender, caste, class, language and regionality, sub groups within sub groups.
I speak so much about South Indians that I forget the most affected by this cultural disparity are those from Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Sikkim, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland. I have specifically named every state because by constantly referring to the region as the North East, we have systematically eroded their distinct identities from our consciousness. From schools and colleges to government policies, they are subjected to the most embarrassing treatment. As a people, communities or as a region they need to feel better, they need to feel good about India.
Before I conclude, let me go back to the gentleman in Jhaka. Our conversation somehow descended to Narendra Modi. All of a sudden, I was told the gentleman had had the pleasure of shaking hands with Modi. “Maine unse hath milaya,” he said. Then, turning to me, he bluntly stated that Modi is from Gujarat, belongs to him and not me. I was quite startled by his assertion. Across our state lines he had drawn bold cultural lines. He was not being offensive. To him, it just seemed so obvious, the way it is.
But somewhere in his final proclamation, I felt a sense of security. I do not believe in nationalism of any kind, or regional pride, but I thought that maybe in order to fight off the dark forces of majoritarianism sweeping the country, regionalism may need to be empowered. I am still unsure, uncomfortable with this feeling. I am conflicted between the hurt of division and the need for protecting our uniqueness.
In spirit, I hope we will reach a stage of cultural evolution where we set aside our prejudices and render the beautiful song Jana Gana Mana not because it has been designated our national anthem but simply because it is charged with that “manas”, that possibility which lives within every one of us.