My father was a librarian and his ‘native place’ was contained, theoretically at least, within his name. South Indians (or Madrasis as they were known in Delhi in the 1960s) often had two initials before their names: the first indicated a place name, the second stood in for the father’s name. So B.S. Kesavan expanded into Bellary Shamanna Kesavan, which made me a Kannadiga from Mysore, and if a classmate wanted me to get more specific, I could even supply an ancestral place name.
Only it wasn’t as cut and dried as it sounded. My father, despite his name, felt no sense of belonging to Bellary. The name was an affectation, a lie: an ancestor who had achieved petty government rank had decided that it was grander to claim Bellary, a district capital, as home, rather than the obscure place to which he belonged, a tiny town called Bindignavale. When, towards the end of his life, he felt the need to return to his origins, my father led a little cavalcade of cars filled with members of his extended family to Bindignavale where his ancestors had endowed a temple.
The language my father and his brothers grew up speaking at home was a dialect of Tamil because many generations ago their ancestors had migrated from the Tamil country to present-day Karnataka following their spiritual preceptor, Ramanujacharya. Their descendants—B.S. Kesavan and his brothers amongst them—spoke pidgin Tamil within the family and Kannada to the outside world. This didn’t make them linguists, it made them liminal: ‘real’ Tamils thought they were inadequately Tamil while militant Kannada activists refused to see them as authentically Kannadiga.
Hebbar Iyengars tended to go on a bit about how light-skinned they were and this anxiety about pigmentation sometimes became the basis of speculative theories of origin. One cousin, who had read B.G. Tilak’s The Arctic Home in the Vedas, explained to me that this absence of darkness indicated the northerly, non-Dravidian origins of the Hebbar Iyengar community. In his mind, he was simultaneously from Mysore and the Central Asian steppes, that cradle of white, Indo-European goodness.
My claim to being a Kannadiga, or even my claim to a hybrid Tamil-Kannadiga identity, was nominal. I first visited Karnataka when I was 21; I was born in Delhi, educated in its schools and colleges and I’ve been working in that city ever since. My mother’s family had been Dilliwallahs since at least the time of the last Mughal: we had the papers to prove that Munshi Nathmal, our ancestor, once a minor clerk in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s administration, turned his coat and defected to the British the moment Delhi rose in revolt in 1857. I had none of my father’s languages: for many years I couldn’t even tell if he was speaking Telugu or Kannada or Tamil; it was just a sludge of south Indian to me. I spoke Hindi and English and nothing else, which used to prompt my father to say that I spoke my mother’s tongue, not my mother tongue.
If I had a native place, then, it was Delhi. In terms of location and language I was more an Agrawal from Delhi than an Iyengar from Mysore, but so powerful was the idea of patrilineal descent that through childhood and youth I believed I was ‘south Indian’. But even my north Indian identity was an odd confection of fact and prejudice. My mother’s family had lived in the old city for more than a hundred years. In the bania narrative of Delhi’s history, everything bad or coarse that had happened to the city since Independence was put down to the influx of Punjabi refugees. They were vulgar, thrusting, untutored in Delhi’s ways and especially its language. They said ‘mere ko’ instead of ‘mujhey’, and ‘bola’ instead of ‘kaha’. I soaked up these notions as a child and came to the conclusion that since everyone must have come to Delhi from somewhere else, and since we weren’t (heaven be praised) Punjabis, we must have arrived in the city from UP. My mother even had a cousin who had ancestral property in Banaras, which seemed to clinch things in favour of that state.
Some years later, a maternal uncle gave me a yellowing book with a family tree that traced my mother’s lineage to Jind. Jind had been part of undivided Punjab and was now part of Haryana. I didn’t want to be from Haryana so I said I didn’t believe the family tree. My uncle grinned hard-heartedly and told me to count from ninety to hundred in Hindi. I did. When I finished he said, "Can’t you hear yourself? Instead of the simple ‘n’ sound of ikyanvey, baanvey, tiranvey, chauranvey, which is how someone from UP would count, all your ‘n’ sounds come out like the retroflexive ‘n’ in Haryana. Because Haryana is where you’re from."
(Mukul Kesavan is a historian, cricket writer and novelist.)
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
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