Of my association with the Tamils, I must admit, it has always been a roller coaster ride – the multiple layers in culture, society, language and politics is something I have unknowingly observed, analysed and compared with my own and others I met later. Since it is impossible to touch all aspects, I confess the Tamil world is simply unparalleled. Some of my Bengali teachers who constantly were afraid I would fall into the Tamil abyss, constantly took it upon themselves to exorcise the Tamil ghosts out of me and taught me Bengali poems and Bengali music as a counter-balance. The Malluness, I naturally absorbed from relatives. Fortunately or unfortunately that did not scare the Tamil imagery in me, atleast, it appears so now. Being a Keralite, I am particularly steeped in sarcasm and cynicism with an insane dependence on astrology and amulets. Yet, I thankfully did not inherit the condescending snobbery of the average Mallu towards the Tamils. When I think of the Tamils, there is an overwhelming myriad of images and emotions that invariably flash with supersonic speed in my mind.
The Tamils, I admit are absolutely great friends, loyal and sincere. The Aadi month rebates in Madras, insanely scary and ridiculous funeral processions and Solomon Papaiya pattrimandram (debates) may all sometimes seem unearthly for an outsider. But there was always the predictable cultural out-burst during Margazhi month, an occasional Usha Uthup, Manorama and her Burma chappal, Senthil-Goundamani, Vivek (movie comedians) and classics like Thevar-Makan and Nayakan (movies) and great cinematic music of A.R Rahman/Ilayaraja to entertain one. As for a measure of Tamil irrationality, Rajnikanth-Kamal Hassan fan-fights beat it all. I too have an irrational fascination but it is for the controversial Jayalalitha (I presume it started after I saw MGRs funeral procession on TV as a kid). I somehow felt pity for her being batted out like a fly. From thence she fought her way up the hierarchy, and may be, I respected her raw fight for survival and power. Tamil Nadu does have an array of quality residential schools from the last century, I can vouch for some of them. One thing always remained a mystery to me – the IIT obsession of the Tam-brahm kids. I later assumed it must have something to do with their US mania.
My two years stay in an Agrahaaram (Tam-brahm residence clusters) as a child (strangely the Agrahaaram was in Cochin) also contributed a fair share to my Tamil imagery. Thaathas (grandpas) who took it upon themselves that I need to learn Vinayagar agaval, Hayagreeva stotram and umpteen others prayers or else I might simply become uncivilized. Paattis (grandmas) who scared me with some strange creature called “Poochandi” if I did not listen to my mother or eat. I still don´t know how this creature looks but I always imagined it lurked in dark and lonely corners. Unfortunately I have not heard of any Mallu Poochandi. It is a unique Tamil monster. Beautiful arisi- kolams (rice flour patterns) and the lovely and captivating thiru-pallaandu (devotional song), a simple thayir-saadam, vadaam and veppilakkatti can all be bonuses, once you have acquired a taste for it. A peek into Tamil culture is incomplete without going to the temples of Tanjore, Madurai, Sri Rangam and Palani. Some of them so huge, I have not seen anything like it in the North. The Tamil temple priests though, I most regretfully confess, have unclean dhotis, for reasons unknown, compared to their cleaner Kerala counterparts. But, definitely, much cleaner than the ones up North. What can be a jolting experience when one moves to stay in Tamil Nadu, is the Tamil self-pride almost dangerously bordering nationalism and pseudo-scientific fantasies about Kumari Kandam. But once you get to hear the rhetoric of Dravidian politics with its anti-Brahmin anti-Sanskrit ant-Hindi sentiments, standing in the unbearable heat and horrible water shortage, you will forgive all of these misgivings. Anyone could be way laid with such charged propaganda under trying environmental conditions. You are made to believe that the rest of India is conspiring to either destroy the Tamil culture or dilute it. But don´t mistake me – Tamil is an ancient language with an equally ancient culture; the populace being emotional are easily swayed by politicians and believe in any pseudo-scientific ethnic stories. Surely that must not make them any less loving or adorable but just a little vulnerable. They are passionate in whatever they believe and they love and trust their loved ones honestly, absolutely and with a sincereity, I have never seen elsewhere. This is in quite a contrast with the average Mallu who is always suspicious of anything and the compulsively self-obsessed Northy. I must most happily add that the Mallu crab mentality thankfully seem to be absent among the Tamils.
Orthodox families are the norm among the Tamils, but some how, back then, it was not a deterrant to sexualized jokes or Chinna Veedus (a second family) among middle aged rich men and obsessive fantasies about Kerala-kuttys (Mallu damsel) among adolescent men. May be it has changed now. Grandiose puberty marriages and uncompromisingly conservative and strict schools are a striking feature, even in larger cities. Their dedication to academics is only rivalled in Kerala. The Tamils like most others have their share of infightings too. Bitter-sweet competition among Iyer-Iyengars or fierce Thevar-Goundar clan feelings or the occassional offensive “Golti” epithet to Andhras meets the eye of a casual but keen observer. A Christian or Muslim Tamil is a rarity compared to their counterparts in Kerala.
Tamil cuisine – there is plenty of variety in it. Puliyodarai, the Chettinaad vathal kolambu, sweet-Pongal, varieties of kai-murukku and other savouries, yummy medhu-vadai, delicious sweet preparations from Sree Krishna sweets, are all some of my favourites. Did I miss the Tirunelveli Halwa, oops that too. It simply is impossible to list the number and expanse of Tamil dishes from varied communities. The women can be an equally interesting lot too. If you have a Tam-Brahm friend and accompany them home, you can occassionally see a “Maami” (lady) in Madisaar (peculiar sari drape) and sparkling diamond nose-rings. She is equally comfortable with her arisi-kolam patterns, protocols of rituals and abreast with the modern world in the same breath. My personal favourite for a Tamil saree drape style is the pin-kosuvam. I found it strangely sexy although I donot know why. Oh, there are scary women too – the audacious women of Madurai with her natural talent for quarrels and few tonsured-aged-widows who can beat the ISIS in intolerance – all interesting specimens in their own right. I did observe some Tamil married women who took it as their unchallenged privilege to oil their husbands !!. Never saw a Mallu wife so keen to oil her husband, she is, I gather, too obsessed with her own hair. Obsession with flowers jasmine or otherwise, wild coloured ones, and many women turning yellow on fridays is a common feature transcending community barriers among the Tamils. It is part of the Tamil sense of traditional female beauty. The images that flash are endless. I seem to have accumulated a lot of them by the time I moved on to Karnataka for College. The more I think, the more are such images. Later, I acquired a larger number of North Indian, Mallu and an even larger number of non-Indian friends from across the globe . Yet, the more I think of the Tamils, it is simply like a kaleidoscope of people, culture and experiences. They are as a people and a culture quite dear to my heart.