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A Journey to South India

My learnings about culture, tradition, language, and humility

What I learnt during my eight years in Tamil Nadu, I could never have learnt in twenty years in Kashmir.

If I recall, it was 3rd August 2009 when I landed at Chennai airport for the first time for my MPhil registration at Pondicherry Central University. As soon I came out from the airport, I began asking everyone, from pedestrians to cab drivers to street vendors, that ‘Bhai sahib Pondicherry bus kahan se mile ge’. But to my bad luck none of them could understand my words. I stood for one hour at the road side looking for possible help. In the meantime, I saw a running auto without any passengers, and like a bat out of hell, I waved at the driver. How to go to Pondicherry University? I asked him to which he replied “Bus Stand”? “No! Pondicherry University”, I repeated. If I quote his words exactly, he said ‘Pondicherry-aaa, going bus stand wokay, three hour journey, Pondicherry bus YAC non YAC yavailable’. I sat in his auto and for the entire 30 minutes or so, I enjoyed his broken english and ‘funny’ pronunciations.

By around 4 pm, I reached CMBT Chennai bus stand where I could hear conductors yelling Pondy, Pondy, Pondy. I approached one of the agents to ask him if the bus was going to Pondicherry. He replied ‘Pondicherry going-aaa, come, seat yavailable’. While travelling, I noticed the local music played in the bus was so loud and piercing. It was as if there were too many speakers installed in the bus. A passenger sitting next to me was talking on phone. The only word I could understand from his conversation was ‘sorry’ and he repeated it several times. I was impressed by his humility and I speechlessly started cursing the person on the other side of the phone for his cruel and unforgiving nature. However, lately I came to know that it was not ‘sorry’ but ‘sari’ meaning okay in Tamil.

Around 7:50 pm, I reached Pondicherry bus stand. Because, I had no friends at Pondicherry University, I decided to stay in hotel for that night. I asked few pedestrians and shopkeepers ‘bhai sahib, yehan pe koi hotel nazdeek mai hai kya’; but unfortunately no one could understand my words again. Time was running fast and so did my heartbeats. While standing out all alone, one of the bikers stopped nearby and asked me ‘where going-aaa? Scared with his physical appearance, with a long and dishevelled hair, tattered dress, missing footwear and with bike that was as old as black & white television, I replied with a babbling voice ‘I am waiting for my friends’. Again he asked, ‘Where from coming-aaa. I said, Kashmir.

He invited me to sit on his bike. But I denied. He said, ‘brother you coming from Kashmir, You Muslim, I Muslim, only help, come, wokay’. I took the risk to sit on his bike and my heart started beating aloud. He took me through narrow and compressed streets and finally stopped his bike outside the building painted white that turned out to be the youth hostel. He took me inside where I saw a gentle lady at the receptionist counter. He talked with her in the local language; something about me. The lady right away asked me ‘Beta aap kahan se arahe ho’. I pledge, I felt relaxed with her Hindi and I replied that I came from Kashmir, and I am supposed to go to Pondicherry University. Without asking for my identity proof, she said I can stay in the hostel. The biker, however, could not understand our conversation in hindi that was quite understandable from his face. He just uttered three words ‘Nice hostel wokay’. I thanked him and offered 100 Rs. Note, but he refused to take. He left the place by giving me a warm smile.

Next, morning I left for the university and it was wondrous to travel on the other side of the Bay of Bengal. When I was through with my registration process, I was allotted Room No. 18 at Ilango Adigal Hostel. It took me 15 minutes to reach the hostel under severe heat and humidity. A half-naked guy with black complexion appeared when I knocked the door of allotted room. Frightened by his appearance, I introduced myself. He welcomed me with a smile and introduced himself as ‘Manu’ from Kerala pursuing PhD in English. That night, I could not sleep comfortably. After 8 or 10 days, I was caught up with fever in the middle of the night and the gentle man sensed my restlessness. He consoled me and took me to the hospital at around 2:30 AM on his bike. He took care of me as if he was my real brother. Of late, during my PhD and Postdoc at IIT Madras, I found them (Maliyalis and Tamils) great, simple, sober and helping.

What impressed me most about them is their high opinion towards their culture. They treat it as if it is their religion. Several times I saw the then CM of Pondicherry visiting the university on important occasions and every-time he spoke in Tamil. And each time, he and his minsters were wearing local dress. Culture is such a strong symbol in Tamil Nadu that it is preferred over everything including life. When Jallikattu festival of Tamil Nadu was banned by the Supreme Court in 2014, Tamilians objected, and resisted, to the extent that they sacrificed their lives until the decision was withdrawn. The life of people is so simple that I have seen even professors teaching without footwear at times. They do not mind using cycles for transportation. One day, I attended marriage ceremony of my senior colleague. The dinner was served on banana leaves and on return every invitee was given a bag containing a coconut and two plants. I asked my other colleague, what am I supposed to do with these plants. He said, I can plant them anywhere in Pondicherry I wish. The idea is to make Pondicherry green.

The other day, I was travelling in crowded bus although there were some unoccupied seats on the other side. I was told that I cannot occupy them as they were meant for women. What I have learnt in my eight years at Tamil Nadu, I could never learn in twenty years in Kashmir. Having said all this, it is time for introspection to catch a glimpse of our own language, literature, philosophy, identity, values, tradition, food, lifestyle to make sure that we do not suffer from a cultural bankruptcy.