Just received a call from a friend who went to Ajmer to pray at the dargah Shariff of Hazrat Khwajah Moinuddun Chishti. When she tried to check into a hotel, she was asked for her passport by the hotel staff who probably thought she was a foreigner. Ok I forgot to mention she is from Assam and has north eastern features and complexion. So the people at the hotel decided to make sure of her passport details never mind the fact she spoke fluent Hindi.

Then I go to read the posts at Itchingtowrite's blog and see this post on preconceptions and stereotyping of people from specific regions. Some of the statements of her ill-informed relative made me want to laugh. But then I stopped myself and thought ;"How many times have I not heard people in my circle say things about someone being a typical Bihari Thug?" Don't we imagine people in Bihar to be at the throat of anyone from another caste, or blinding scheduled castes or kidnapping every child on the road? And that every bihari male kneads tobacco in their palm and keeps it under their tongue?

While most of the English- medium educated city-bred youth may deny the existence of such prejudices in their interactions, they exist across the country at all levels. One doctor from AFMC told me that they referred to all tamilians as "illad" ( as tamilian boys use this word meaning "No Da"). People who speak telugu are called Gults and North Indians are called CHOMS-chapathi oriented men.I am sure there are many more.

The trouble is that inspite of all the opportunities and information available to us, we do not really make an effort to understand the sub cultures within the country. What we know is mostly from stereotypes shown in films which are mostly caricatures and do not represent the ordinary man from the region. Tamilians do not eat idly/sambar for lunch, punjabis do not go about their day dancing Bhangra and UPites and Biharis do not have a yellow sticker with the list of kidnappings and rape for the day.They all lead ordinary boring lives like us, have the same kind of problems , desires and disappointments - only they speak a different language and eat differnt type of food. Beyond that we are all the same.

How do you explain that to this Tam Brahm mother-in-law of an Assamese friend who will not eat food cooked by her daughter-in-law ( because she is a non vegetarian?). And her disappointment and rejection of her grand daughter who looks assamese and nothing tamilian? How is it ok for her to accept her son who eats non vegetarian and reject her daughter-in-law? And the poor girl is barred from her own kitchen while the mom-in-law comes to her "son's house".And what did she expect the grandchild to look like - in a mixed marriage like this?

The other day our French professor asked us to suggest a topic on Indian Culture to discuss with a French Visitor to our class . One of my classmates immediately said "Unity in diversity"! We have been so indoctarinated about these concepts and accepted these cliches that we don't even bother to question if these exist in reality. Ok, by unity if we mean that we are not killing each other every day because of these differences, yes it is there. Is that the best that we can hope to have?
33 Responses
  1. Anonymous Says:

    wow nice blog

  2. LOL - CHOMS-chapathi oriented men

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I find your last post (QNA) & this one very interestingly juxtaposed. While on one hand, it seems that everything is scrutinized & considered to the minutest detail (QNA), on the other we find a barrage of inconsiderate behaviour (this post).

    About this post, I think that heterodoxy is a very political idea. I do not know if human societies naturally form in a heterogenous way. So the political manifestation of India is not aligned to the way societies form naturally. Even otherwise, in Pakistan - all under one umbrella of Islam - the Pashtun & Punjabis do not get along.

    Education, like you say, is important. I think myth-making (unity in diversity, Mera Bharat Mahaan) is also to be encouraged as long as they reinforce a shared & sensible idea in the hope that even if we cannot change certain aspects of our society, we do not ourselves become parts of those aspects.


  4. Mahadevan Says:

    Stereotyping people is a universal phenomenon, which is practised as a fine art in Indian filmdom. Recently, Prince Harry of England, after a bout of drinks, created a chaotic scene at a private party and the British Press attributes his behaviour to his Eton School training, where, there is a license for drinking from the age of 16. The label of particular behaviour or mannerism, is linked to institutions, geographical localities, linguistic and religious groups, castes and communities. To assert his/her individuality, one has to come out of this cocoon rather violently.

  5. Hip Grandma Says:

    I've resided in erstwhile Bihar now Jharkhand for 33 yrs and find it amusing that the people from north Bihar now settled in south Bihar ie Jharkhand find it difficult to put up with the so called 'North' Bihari culture and a friend's son in law whose family was originally from Bihar now settled in UP finds Bihari cooking different.On the one hand we adapt to different environments and yet insist on calling south Indaians 'Khattas'.I really feel these differences are superficial and a crisis would wipe them off.But I do feel sad that we wait for a 'crisis' to wipe it off.

  6. Pradeep Nair Says:

    This India is much more diverse than even any continent. It'sn't good to take it for granted. We should nurture it. Some of our politicians don't still understand this unique diversity.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    Some of the examples that you have cited are quite grim ones ( the case of the Assamese d-i-l) and an attitudinal change is certainly called for. Far be it from me to trivialise such episodes.

    But, I find that the best way to deal with stereotyping is to see the humour and laugh it off. I have heard some hilarious Sardarji jokes from my Sikh friends and my admiration for that community has increased even more for their self-effacing humour. When my Northern friends pull my leg about my 'idli-sambar' habits, I join them in the general banter, instead of taking umbrage and raising war cries of an insulted Tamil warrior.

  8. Usha Says:

    ITW: Yes, people from south of India stereotype others too.

    S!: I believe that in both cases, we seem to exhibit a tendency to over analyze - only in one case , we seem to be "correct" in our responses and in the second the prejudices come out undisguised. Spontaneity, acceptance and trust are the casulaties.
    I agree we are not a single culture historically and we have differences but now we have been forced under a single nationhood. Can we not make the best of it by assimilating the best from others rather than looking for points to differentiate and divide? At least in situations where it has been forced on us - like in a n educational institution or a team in an office situation or (like in the case of my friend) a mixed marriage?

    Mahadevan: Media has a great penchant for stereotyping. This sometimes helps them settle scores with old enemies. Yes, breaking of stereotypes requires conscious effort but many times I find the stereotyping itself is unjust and based on some caricature. ( do all South Indians speak Hindi like Mahmood in Padosan?)

    Hipgrandma: We seem to thrive on finding differences between "us" and "them". True when larger issues are at stake we forget these minor issues and say "vande mataram" or "Jai Hind"

    Pradeep: I agree politicians love to divide in order to divide the votes. But what about the so called "elite" in IITs and BITS who get clannish and label each other? It is this basic tendency that we have to look for differentiate that politicians are exploiting to their full advantage.

    Raj:I also know some Sikh friends who laugh at themselves. I do not get offended by sobriquets like Idli-Sambar, but it annoys me when it is used to stereotype and say "all idli-sambars are clannish" or whatever!Secondly if you must call a group something at least learn it properly. Call the tamil boys "illada" and learn what illada means- not just dub them as"illad"s. Celebrate differences and dont make them points to insult.
    And when you are forced into a relationship (like my friend) learn to look for aspects to accept and not aspects to isolate.
    We are human first and then everything else.People forget this and cause so much unnecessary hurt.

  9. Ram Says:

    Raj's analysis of the issue is excellent & suggests the way to go on issues such as these. I suspect that the human heart has not been designed to be a grievances factory. Whether it be taunts related to colour of the skin or inane, idiotic and even factually unsustainable generalisations based on place of birth, it is ideal to laugh them away. The human mind's predisposition to stereotype appears to be a quirk of creation. So, it would be nice to assume collective ownership of this frailty and laugh it away, in the manner of laughing at oneself.

    In my teeage, I used to get offended when taunted for sporting the Srivaishnava symbol on my forehead. Timid that I was, I would just stand by & glower at the teasers, even if unavailingly. My outlook changed for the better, after hearing this episode from a senior Srivaishnava: Once he was accosted by a group of people who started crying out, "Govindo, Govindo", in apparent derision. He smiled at them and said whatever be their intention, they had edified their souls by chanting (?!) the name of the Lord, who is unsurpassably graceful to the extent of accepting even insults as "ninda stuti". He wished them many more happy replays of this episode. They were disarmed by this display of magnanimity laced with subtle humour. A couple of them fell at his feet and became his disciples as well.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    'People who speak telugu are called Gults and North Indians are called CHOMS-chapathi oriented men.I am sure there are many more.'

    I have heard 'English- medium educated city-bred youth' using these and more but it all sounded to me like they were doing it in fact, i thought it was a great equalizer because they teased each other about their supposedly steretotypical characters..

    while i am not supporting being prejudiced,(and would like to work hard to overcome them) i wonder how many of us (like the kisagautami story) can say with our hands on our hearts that we are totally without (said or unsaid/perceived or unperceived) prejudices..we are already prejudiced against the mami/relative types who we perceive as prejudiced against things that we are not prejudiced against :-)

  11. Ram Says:

    The points made by Usha 123 are undeniable. Her comment on judging the 'mamis' in question brings this out beautifully. My own "prejudiced" view of the matter is:

    1. People who complain of such prejudices mostly hanker for acceptance by the 'accused'. Worse still, they really start doubting their own worth.
    2. Most such people also betray a "gulity mind protests too much" mindset. For, while complaining of prejudice against them on one or more paramters, in their turn, they too betray their biases on other parameters.

  12. Oh baapre.. that Tam MIL actually behaved like that? Its time these people grew up in life not by age.. not only her, all of us...

  13. Usha Says:

    Laugh it away - that is what we do when someone makes statements based on ones religion,language or region. As long as you belong to a certain level when you can afford to laugh it away, it works. I could not respond to your statement on my own hidden prejudcies and the secret desire for acceptance - I am no psyciatrist. But to the extent I know myself, I can honestly say I do not have either.
    a 10 year old wanting acceptance from her friends or a d-i-l wanting acceptance from her M-I-L or anyone wanting acceptance from society is not a bad thing.
    Sometimes laughing away things perpetuates certain bad habits while coming out openly and discussing them can make atleast some people see their folly.

    Usha123:I also believe that differences have to be understood and respected.(Pls see my earlier response in the comments section.)Who are we kidding here, dont we know the disparaging way in which we use these sobriquets, notwithstanding which starta we belong to? In fact the more educated, the stronger in opinion and the ability to stand by ones facism too.
    Denouncing people with bigoted views (mamis or whoever) is a positive change - it isn't a prejudice.

    SG: Yes,she is an outcast in her own house. She stays away from the kitchen to respect her M-I -L. But she hurts all the time.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    There is a issue of Telangana and Adhra going on in AP,And i am tagged with a word Andhrite because my mom belongs to that region and my HOD everyday taunts me how rich we are,how arrogant our caste people are and how women dominate the household and whatnot,there was a time when i used to fight back and argue and it used to go on and on,then i realise there is no end to it,Right from the food habits to how i think is attributed to a region or a caste which i feel is ridiculous. Past six months i changed my strategy and stopped fighing it,and let him comment,all i do is smile and let him go on and on,and he after trying to instigate gives up.and then i have it,a smile of a winner,i am at peace with myself,he tries it even now but still a smile is what i have got for such people.

    One more exp which i had just yesterday was when a colleuge in the university whom i dont even say hello to,suddenly comes to meet me and half an hour of cribbing about all the people belonging to a particular community and praising me for my work he says "we all need to get together to fight these people" and i had only one Question..who are this WE.and he meant we who belong to same community.sad,but these people are all teachers.We who teach and talk about ethics and morals to our students involve in such issues,sad but true.

    I have students who make friends based on religion,community,region and comment on others.

    We who are basically of same model with two hands and two legs and one mouth are categorised based on region,caste,food habits,what we wear and whatnot.dont we have better things to do?Take pride in what you do and where you belong to but dosnt mean that you need to demean others.We have better issues to deal with,dont we.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    Oops,the above comment is by me:)

  16. Usha Says:

    I also happen to know firsthand the staff and students of another very elitist institution where I have been shocked/ amused /sickened by similar attitudes and voiced opinions. .

  17. Usha,
    I stop by your blog often and mostly I agree with you but I have to differ this time. Your assumption that stereotyping is wrong is not necessarily true (just my opinion). I mean every community has its nuances and what is wrong if we refer to each other by a c'mon identifiable variable and over a period of time let the tag names become a part of our culture..ok maybe some generalizations may be disrespectful but honestly we are a peaceful people and it's not like we call anyone even remotely as disrespectful as nigger or anything maybe we should just let it go (the idea that it is wrong to call someone a gult or a chom)and I think the "Unity" that we all refer to so often is not just the fact that we don't kill each other. I think the unity lies in our attitudes, in our behavior, in the way we raise our kids, in our ambitions, in our intelligence...maybe the list is endless, just a thought....

  18. Usha Says:

    Thanks Orchid.
    If you had read my rejoinders earlier in the comments section of this post, you might have seen that all I am saying is that differences should be "understood" and nor "laughed at". I am not stereotyping is "wrong" but I am against "wrong" stereotyping.
    In essence we are saying the same thing. Cheers.

  19. Anonymous Says:

    Yes, certainly. Those should really be our goals. My line of thought when I wrote the comment was to understand why these differences exist, not so much to justify them as-is in the name of "human nature".

    However, I guess the point I wanted to make that instincts, environment, history leave on us a deeper mark than education & reasoning. When I think about it, I find that I make friends only with certain type of people & while this is a differentiation not based on any regionalism, there are certainly other isms that help me choose.

    So I reckon, overall, that dividing & categorizing is very much innate to all of us & cannot be eliminated that easily. However, we can certainly be civilized to those outside our circle. Therefore, for a start, tolerance is more my message than Universal brotherhood.

    What do you think?


  20. Usha Says:

    I can relate to what you are saying.
    Tolerance is good enough and acceptance of others with their differences is even better. Universal brotherhood etc are more utopian.

  21. Anonymous Says:

    Irrespective of education and age, almost every person is dogged with prejudices.. There is this wonderful philosophy of J.Krishnamurthy, where he asks to maintain a "neutrality" and not to take a "stand".. as the moment we take a stand on something it becomes a dogma in our mind...

  22. Ram Says:

    I didn't advocate laughing the issue away, out of a sullen sense of resignation. I just want the issue to be de-emphasised with a view to uncluttering the heart. Much in the manner of a woman learning to be dismissive of a male indulging in eve-teasing. Of course, here the relationship with the teaser is adversarial. There are other kinds of relationships, What happens, when as you say, "a 10 year old wanting acceptance from her friends or a d-i-l wanting acceptance from her M-I-L or anyone wanting acceptance from society is not a bad thing." Could educating the concerned help resolve the issues? Yes, but to a very limited extent. And, anyway, there is no escaping patience / forbearance with the perpetrators of such prejudices, free of any ego-bloating sense of sacrifice or forgiveness but filled with love.

    Of course, this approach is highly unromantic in the times that we live in. Articulating grievances and overstating them is a thriving billion dollar industry. There appears to be an unstated need in everyone of us to identify underclasses and chivalrously espouse their cause. So, the more the grievances (real or contrived), the merrier it is for the proponents of a politics of victimhood.

    And, you aver that you don't harbour any hidden prejudices. But my experience with you would lead me to disagree with that. Your response to my comment on one of your earlier blogs was "I knew was walking into this as I was publishing the post. In fact this was' the only comment I was sure of!". Now, you are effectively saying that my comments are predictable and that my understanding of issues is stunted and frozen in time. This kind of dehumanises me and turns me into a commodity. If this is not stereotyping or prejudice, pray tell me what is?

  23. Usha Says:

    Kishore:that is a beautiful philosophy J.K. advocates and actually it isn't tough to practise in many cases except totally deep rooted prejudices which even surprise us by springing from within when we are faced with a sudden situation.

    Ram:When confronted with a situation, we may handle it depending on our level of comfort with the person, the actual circumstances and the level of maturity of the person we are dealing with. I might laugh it away with someone who does not matter to me but will argue and present my point of view with someone who matters to me or with whom i expect to face the situation recurrently as being part of my immediate circle and life.
    I am sorry you misunderstood my response to an earlier comment on my post on search for identity.Or that I did not state it more clearly.All I meant was that we had discussed this extensively on an email after a post on outsider/insider issue and finally we decided to hold to our stand on the issue and agree to disagree. I mentioned this in that context as I happen to know how convinced and convincing you were on that issue.
    No offence intended and I did not mean to stereotype you but to say that I respect your opinion while disagreeing with you. That is the essence of democracy isnt it?
    Thanks for mentioning it. I am very sorry if you were offended. I just took a little liberty which i do all the time with my friends.

  24. Inder Says:

    i have noticed this sort of stereotyping due to two main reasons.
    1. for fun. everybody in the group know that people cannot be stereotyped based on their language, region etc. but they do it for some harmless fun. it is a good idea to enjoy the fun of the moment.
    2. some really believe in these stereotyping. they will never change their opinion. we can do nothing but to feel sorry for their ignorance.

  25. Wild Reeds Says:

    Beautifully written.

  26. Ram Says:

    Usha, you are discussing details here (as to how you would calibrate your responses to different sorts), whereas I was discussing just the approach. So, I am unable to get the frame of reference to your comments vis-a-vis my comments.

    As for your clarification on the earlier post, it is indeed a honour that you took liberty with me. As for you saying, "All I meant was that we had discussed this extensively on an email after a post on outsider/insider issue...", I only hope you haven't (pre)judged me as someone who clings to entrenched positions. As for agreeing to disagree, I don't think that is really relevant as (more than even on this post), our comments were in different directions altogether, so there was no question of convergence or divergence there.

  27. Usha Says:

    Ram: I was clarifying my approach when I am faced with a situation and that it is not the same across the board. In any case I am not doing any campaigns for or against any causes in this space. The reason reason I talk about them here in this space is not to hit at anyone because most of the time they are not even my own issues and experiences. Like my tagline says this is just my little soapbox for discussing matters that draw my attention with a small group of people who read this and share their perspective.
    I am sorry if my response to your comments now or before were not satisfactory to you or not completely reasonable.
    I shall be more careful in conveying my thoughts and intentions in future. Thanks for the feedback and patient comments.

  28. starry Says:

    nice post, and it is so true we stereotype people.rather than look at each person as a human being.we are all so set in our ways and our thoughts that nothing else matters. I see this happening even amongst people who are educated.There will be no unity unless we accept people within our own cultures and feel that we are all Indian no matter which city or state that we come from.If we dont do this then how can we blame others.

  29. Artnavy Says:

    If you have heard Kittu maami on Suryan FM in Chennai you will know the height/ depths of stereotyping among the Tamil community itself- it gets me but I think it takes great effort to be neutral and non judgemental

  30. Twisted DNA Says:

    Great post! Very well writting.

    You are right, while we are "unity in diversity" at teh bigger picture level, at an individual level we seem not to be able to tolerate diversity!

    That Bram mom-in-law is brutal!

  31. Usha Says:

    starrynights:To reach that ideal kind of state we must at least make a small beginning by understanding the differences and not judging them.

    Artnavy: No, I haven't listened to that but the name Kittu mama reminds me of a character in a film of the 70s and yes, he was modelled on a certain group and its linguistic mannerisms.

    Twisted DNA: Actually the M-i-l is not aware of the hurt she is causing as she believes she is doing the right thing.

  32. Ram Says:

    Hi Usha,

    Checking your blog after about a week...

    In fact, it is my turn to say sorry (& resoundingly so!)

    Indeed, I find your blog to be a treasure trove of creativity, else would I be visiting it almost everyday?

    We all have our areas of strengths and weaknesses (at least in each others' perception). I have always had this feeling that your posts on ingrained prejudices etc., while being agreeable as "bullet points", stop short of zeroing in on a valid "meta statement", and, therefore liable to be misconstrued.

    Anyway, I guess we both have said so much on this topic & it's time to move on.

  33. Usha Says:

    Ram: Thanks. There was no need for that "sorry" as I was not offended.
    My request to you is to not to take this blog too seriously. it is nothing but the loud thoughts of an otherwise silent mind.