Trivandrum. Kerala’

‘Oh. Madrasi. Kannada?’

‘No. I am from Kerala. It is a different state’

‘Ya ya, I know.Madrasi’

My initial days in college (forget the city for sometime) was one of the most awkward and mentally uncomfortable days I have ever spent in an unknown city. Not only did I have to constantly ward off rather idiotic (to put it mildly) statements regarding my home town but also reiterate the fact that I had absolutely no knowledge of Kannada or Telugu.

Yes, we South Indians do not speak a common language.

It didn’t come as a shock though. Moreover, it took me by surprise. The ignorance with which people treated me (Yes, ignorant treatment) and their laughing it away if I attempted to correct their blunder.

It made me feel very funny about myself. About everything. Made me realise how insignificant I had become and as well as my identity.

No. I am not exaggerating.

I don’t want people to come running up to me and shower praises for being a Malayali. Neither do I want them to know every city and town in my state.

What I want is acknowledgment and appreciation. And if there is appreciation, hopefully some respect.

Coming to think of it, the ignorance I had to deal with ( and continue to do so) has nothing to do with the fact that others don’t know certain markers of my identity. It has more to do with how we perceive ourselves and others. It is about realising how stereotypes are made and people are put in boxes, making it hard for them to break free.

In a multicultural society like ours, where no two people on the street will have similar opinions (which is sometimes a good thing), shouldn’t we be more aware of our differences? Is it enough for us to soak ourselves in on our realm of comfort and not understand others differences?

Perceptions of people and places can sometimes prove to be very funny.They provide for good entertainment (like Lola Kutty and Sardar jokes) and give us this ability to laugh at ourselves. But is that all there is to it?

It certainly isn’t. The ideas that we hold of people, irrespective of whether we have interacted with them or not goes a long way in influencing our societal relations. In fostering communal harmony and friendship. Language is not the sole factor for stereotypes. Pre conceived notions can be around almost everything. Religion, skin colour, accent, dress, food…absolutely everything.

It is not easy to do away with our pre conceived notions. We all have them. I have prejudices that have back lashed on me a couple of times and I am acutely aware of it. What we need to be aware is that stereotypes can be healthy if they are positive. If you think certain people are hardworking or intelligent or stronger, then these feelings do no harm. Trouble stirs when we define ‘ourselves’ and ‘others’ in terms of what we are and what they are not.

Cultural differences are universal and they are likely to exist as long as humanity exists.

These differences shouldn’t be a cause of division and conflict. It shouldn’t be used as a weapon to insult and humiliate others.

Once, while travelling by DTC, a classmate of mine remarked that all South Indian boys are dark and it must be difficult for them to find a bride.

It was too much. I had this sudden urge to scream at her and point out to her all the dark-looking men and women in the DTC bus. To look her straight in the eye and tell her that people are dark depending on their anthropological structure, the climate, topography, genes… Anything but the fact that they are south Indians.

But there was nothing I could do except chew on the helplessness I felt and get crushed beneath the weight of all those stereotypes I held about North Indians.

See. That’s exactly what I am talking about. Why am I using the words ‘South Indian’ and North Indian’? Aren’t we all citizens of the same country? Entitled to the same fundamental rights and obligations?

When did we develop these invisible internal divisions? I really don’t know.

Honestly, living in India is a real challenge. An incredible experience. You just have to step on to the road and get swept away by the crowds, the bustle, the cheer, the tragedy, chaos. The feeling of oneness that unites every one of us. Does it hurt for us to be a little sensitive? Or for that matter, sensible?

We get offended if someone mocks at our roots or traditions. But very often we don’t stop the insulting words we hurl at others.

If RJ Nitin passed an insensitive comment about Indian idol winner Prashant Tamang, we, young people (the major target audience for FM stations) shouldn’t brush it off lightly. No, we don’t have to go crazy and torch buses or vandalise shops. All we need is to stop and think about it.

Was RJ Nitin trying to be too funny? Doesn’t his comment echo is inner most notion of North easterners? Isn’t it shameful?

The media, very often, plays a crucial role in instilling positive and negative ideas in us.. Media is a strong tool that can also change realities and initiate action. Perhaps this is why Chak De India left a lot of people feeling better about who they were.

But the media’s portrayal of certain communities and minorities sometimes do more damage than good

They do it to raise their ratings. But mostly, they reflect the opinions of a dominant and ignorant public.

We ought to know better.

So what if students from Mizoram and Manipur are more fashionable? So what if Tamilians have a heavy accent while speaking English? So what if Punjabis are stronger than some of us?

So what?

I know I am being cheeky here. Trust me, I really am not.

I am just venting my frustration for always being typecast as this or that. Frustrated that people continue to judge me even before they talk to me.

Their ignorance, to be honest, sometimes irks me so much that I wish I could give an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

But then, that isn’t really the answer to any of the questions I bombarded you with.

Think of the people who inspire us the most. Of those who make us proud.

Mahatma Gandhi. Jawaharlal Nehru.Lata Mangeshkar, M.F.Hussain,Sachin Tendulkar. Amitabh Bachchan.

Sunderlal Bahuguna.Medha Patkar.Arundhati Roy.Irom Sharmila along with millions of others whose voices we choose not to hear.

They don’t’ worry about their language, region or religion.

They only worry about seeking justice for the oppressed.

They only worry about uniting different people together.

Maybe we should go up to our classmates and say hello (Hindi. English. Any language you know)

Maybe we should stop ridiculing our drivers, gardeners and maids.

Maybe we should just critically look into ourselves and initiate change.

I am sure it will of some help.

But as of now, I only want to remind myself that I am not a madrasi and I do not speak Kannada!

Divya Kannan