April 05, 2020
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An Intriguing Dualism

The Tamil psyche is a paradoxical mix of a 2,000-year-old heritage, regional pride and modernity

An Intriguing Dualism

AMMA' and 'baapji' are a study in contrasts. The 'Dravidian' icon and the 'Aryan' grey eminence. A convent-educated Tamil woman and a Hindi-speaking patriarch from 'Aryavarta'. The difference between Jayalalitha and Vajpayee, at one level, reflects the tensions between the North Indian and the 'Madrasi': does the heart of India lie on the banks of the Yamuna or the Kaveri?

 "The Tamil," states Union power minister Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, "is constantly conscious of the fact that he was the original inhabitant of this land and to him belongs the right to rule India." Adds a Tamil historian: "Most Tamils have always been conscious of the denial of fair treatment to them from the Centre and feel that, at this point, Tamil Nadu's relationship with New Delhi must be renegotiated." Tamil Nadu once demanded secession from India and proclaimed its opposition to Hindi. "If there is one thing that unites all Tamils, brahmin and non-brahmin, it is the rejection of Hindi," says N.S. Jagannathan, former editor of the Indian Express.

Tamil psychology is reflected in some of Jayalalitha's stances. After all, when you speak a language that is more than 2,000 years old, you're bound to feel a little superior towards the agrarian cultures of the Gangetic delta. When you've experienced a social revolution that has literally thrown out the elite castes from the state, you're not afraid to make life a little difficult for the mostly upper-caste men controlling the levers of power in New Delhi. And if you happen to belong to a "devotional society" which transforms its political leaders into cardboard-cutout deities, you might actually start to believe in the divine rightness of everything that you do. "Most Tamils feel that Tamil tai (mother) is equal to bharat mata," says civil servant and historian T.K.V. Subramaniam.

"The Tamil," states former IIT (Madras) director P.V. Indiresan, "has a split mind." Rationalism and religiosity coexist: the great mathematician Ramanujan was also a devout believer; former chief election commissioner T.N. Seshan may be a legal reformer, but he is also an amateur astrologer. A Tamil student recalls how his older male relatives would often sit in traditional dress in the precincts of the local temple, discussing in English an arcane point of British law. Computer whizkids in the US cruising in cyberspace never leave home without an obligatory lighting of a devotional lamp. IAS officers may rationally administer their ministries, but also pray for six hours every day. A senior bureaucrat used to rearrange his schedule to fit it with prayer timings. "For the Tamil, tradition and modernity exist together but both in water-tight compartments," says Indiresan.

The Tamil woman, adds Renuka Khandekar who is writing a book on Tamil brahmins, abides by adakkam (restraint). "There is an emphasis on dressing right, sounding right, on the right manners, on a certain brutal pragmatism. Going to pieces in a crisis is just not on." Shades of 'Amma' here: whether climbing into a police van or voicing "unreasonable" demands, she always looks composed. The Tamil brahmin woman living outside Tamil Nadu is more experimental, more extroverted but carries within her a  certain austerity, a secret craving, says Khandekar, for simple thayir sadam (curd rice).

There is also a dualism in society. The Tamil ethos is by and large temple-centred, orthodox and based on the authority of 'elders'. Yet it was this very society which saw the emergence of an anti-brahmin, atheistic, social revolution: The DMK movement inspired by the rationalist 'Periyar' challenged brahmin supremacy and "created a situation in which a pious citizenry supported a party committed to atheism," as economist Swaminathan A. Aiyar puts it. For the Tamil at the moment there seems to be no contradiction between a temple visiting brahmin woman—Jayalalitha is an Iyengar—leading a party once committed to atheistic anti-brahminism.

In the Tamil mind, cultural distinctiveness and assimilation also coexist. Murugan, one of the several thousand descendants of the Salem construction workers who came to Delhi in the '60s, says that although he speaks fluent Hindi and loves to watch Shah Rukh Khan movies, he makes sure his wife at least dresses like a traditional Tamil woman. "Tamil mera dharam hai," Murugan asserts.

The proliferation of folk deities and cults of heroes makes the Tamil a sort of a 'hero-worshipper' and creates a devotional society, where deities preside over almost every facet of life. Instances of self-immolation are part of this ecstatic and sometimes hysterical adoration of a hero, a politician or a filmstar who becomes a demi-god. Says writer and veena exponent Meena Murthy: "Tamils are very emotional people."

WHEN MGR died, crowds streamed into Madras and amidst mass grief, 31 of his followers committed suicide. In early Tamil poems there are descriptions of how those close to the king would starve to death with him when he chose to die in the rite of vatakkiruttal (ritual suicide). The king, leader, elder or god was in ancient Tamil society the subject of a sort of reverence that finds echoes in today's personality-cult oriented Tamil politics, as in the cult surrounding Jayalalitha. Ousted AIADMK minister R. Muthiah recently declared that he would lay down his life for "madam".

M.S.S. Pandian in his work on the MGR phenomenon also points out that in Tamil 'subaltern' consciousness the man who is able to shatter caste and religious barriers (as MGR did in his films) is regarded as a hero. Throughout the Tamil countryside, Pandian writes, there are folk heroes like Chinnanadan who fell in love with a lower-caste girl and Madurai Veeran who eloped with the king's daughter. Writes author V. Vanamamalai: "All these Tamil folk heroes are low-caste men who protect the rights of lower-caste women, challenge sexual caste norms and challenge the privilege of higher caste groups." An important indication of the Tamil duality here: while there is an acceptance of social taboos and traditions—the Tamil is taught never to argue with social traditions—there is an equal admiration for the social rebel.

There are other paradoxes. However admiring of a ruler's authority the Tamil may be, he is confident of his own ways: in the Madras presidency, Tamil brahmins may have served Her Majesty's Government but never let the British transform their core values. Says Vijaylakshmi Dixit, daughter of a Tamil ICS official: "For us the Tamil way of life was not optional, it was obligatory. Men may have worked in the British civil service and eaten western food outside the house, but within the home it was always Tamil food. Wherever we live in the world we take pride in the fact that the food tastes the same. Our ceremonies and way of life are the same as they were thousands of years ago." So the Tamil brahmin may have adapted quickly to western ideas but still never allowed Macaulay to tamper with his sense of the self.

Indeed, when your literary texts go back to the first centuries of this millennium—the early Sangam texts are dated to the second and third centuries—pride in culture comes easily. "The phonetics of Tamil forms the basis for Telugu and Kannada," says Murthy. Ancient culture makes Tamils a tempered people, who tend, unlike Jayalalitha, to shy away from confrontation.

"The Tamil remains convinced," says Kumaramangalam, "that the roots of real civilisation are more available in the south than in the north." Adds Dixit: "One drop of Tamil blood ensures quickness and intelligence, a quality which I'm afraid a number of other communities simply do not have."

Tamil pride lies not just in the ancient culture but also in the 'Dravid' identity. "Dravidian pride," says sociologist M.N. Srinivas, "is an anti-north, anti-Hindi, anti-brahminical pride." Regional pride is perhaps stronger in Tamil Nadu than anywhere else in India. In fact, according to Jagannathan, the defining moment for Tamil pride came with the anti-Hindi riots of the '60s, which laid claim to a linguistic, racial and ethnic sub-nationalism. "At the political level," he says, "the sense of a Tamil identity is very important." This tremendous Tamil regional pride, according to Srinivas, is what translates into sympathy for the groups like the LTTE. A former civil servant points out that Tamil pride is one of the reasons why Jayalalitha will never accept that she is just another coalition partner of the BJP. "A Tamilian is always Tamil first and Indian second," Khandekar says.

 For the non-brahmin Tamil, Dravidian Hinduism has little in common with the Vedic Hinduism of the BJP and north India. Therefore, says N. Ram, editor of Frontline, "although the Dravidian movement has lost its edge, the Tamil is not as vulnerable to Hindutva mobilisation as northerners are. The Tamil is very aware that the phenomenon of communal riots was almost non-existent in this state until a few years ago."

The Tamil brahmin mentality, often described as "rigid, brilliant, arrogant and completely eccentric", has more in common with the Hinduism of north India. Journalist T.C.A. Srinivasa-Raghavan explains that it is a bit like the mentality of the Jews in Europe. It is an "us versus them" mentality that considers itself far superior to almost everyone and clings to its distinctiveness. Tam-Brahms are characterised by a range of superstitions, a dedication to learning—Tam-Brahms dominate the world of Infotech—and even a sense of humour. "Lots of jokes about flatulence," grins Srinivasa-Raghavan.

THEY divide the world into brahmins and non-brahmins, hardly ever marry outside caste, have a mild to manic obsession with hygiene and instruct their oil-bath taking, castoroil drinking children in the finer points of the Vedas. However, back in their home state, public Tamil is by now completely de-Sanskritised and Tamil Nadu is the first Indian state to have a judge, Rathnavel Pandian, from the low Maravar caste, classified by the British as a 'criminal tribe'. In the old days the brahmins practised a sort of caste apartheid. Three per cent of the population controlled 70 per cent of all jobs and had almost complete social and legal power. "Now, brahmins are a lost species in Tamil Nadu," says Srinivasa-Raghavan.

Yet, the Tam-Brahms have traditionally dominated the central bureaucracy. "The reason for this," says former foreign secretary A.P. Venkateswaran, "is brahmins were not allowed to take jobs in their home state." Khandekar points out that the inclination towards the bureaucracy came because of the ease with which Tam-Brahms, with a virtual monopoly on education to begin with, imbibed Western education in the Madras Presidency.

From Ramanujan to Vishvanath Anand, there is no denying the capacity of the Tamil brain, specifically the Tam-Brahm brain. Jayalalitha has her own private library and regularly surfs the Net. Indiresan says Tamil cerebral power is a result of the ancient tradition of learning: "Learning has been there for the last 2,000 years." The brahmins inherited not only the literary traditions of the Vedas, but also mathematical annotations, astronomy, astrology and other sciences.

"All over the world," says historian Mahesh Rangarajan, "there is a strong link between the priestly class and an inherited ease with mathematics." Because the brahmins had to calculate the movement of the stars, know about the exact amount of materials for rituals, mathematics was fundamental to their sacred duties, and probably explains why the modern Tam-Brahm is an excellent mathematician. Today, India's top mathematicians like C.S. Sheshadri and R. Balasubramaniam are Tam-Brahms. Dixit says diet contributes too: "We feed our children 'rasam', which is supposed to unlock the tongue so that Saraswati can flow out. We feel that anybody who can master the Tamil language can then master any other language."

Kumaramangalam points out that Tamil Nadu—with the largest number of engineering colleges in India—is perhaps one of the few states where parents actually sell off land in order to finance their children's education.Tamils, says Subramaniam, tend to speak in proverbs, they constantly give examples of what they are saying, they have an easy access to parables and allegories which comes from their literary inheritance.

BUT intellectual freedom is regarded as secondary to social duties. However educated, superstitions must not be questioned. "Social ties are so strong, you simply do not rebel," says Subramaniam.

Further, the facility with numbers created a tradition of money management, mostly among the non-brahmin upper castes like the Chidambaram Chettiars (former finance minister P. Chidamabram is a Chettiar) and the Mudaliars. Says Kumaramangalam: "Money management rather than business has been a traditional Tamil strength." The banking sector has often been regarded as a field that was dominated by Tamils. Swaminathan Aiyar points out that Tamils are very conscious of the fact that in the '60s, Tamil Nadu was India's most industrialised state, ahead even of Maharashtra. "When Jayalalitha talks about a 'package' for Tamil Nadu, she is reflecting a sense of economic assertion," says a Tamil author.

Today there are important examples of Tamil modernity. Literacy is over 65 per cent, well above the national average. The average age of marriage for women is 26. Fertility has shown the greatest decline among Indian states. The rate of tax collection is among the highest in India and 50 per cent of all married couples practise family planning. Industry is going through a phase of expansion, with the recent entry of Hyundai, Ford-Mahindra and Mitsubishi.

Most Tamils feel that they are more efficient, capable of better economic performance and have a more developed work ethic than their counterparts in the north," says Murthy. The work ethic has even dictated eating patterns. The office-going Tamil eats rice and sambhar in the morning, skips lunch, eats 'tiffin' at 4 pm and dinner in the evening. "Tamils are disciplined officegoers," says Krishnamurthy of the Tamil Sangam in New Delhi, "and eat according to the hours they have to work."

Today the Tamil in Tamil Nadu is in assertive mode, increasingly clamouring for caste privileges, now that the brahmin monopoly has been broken. Caste competition between non-brahmins has become fierce as educated non-brahmin upper castes like the Mudaliars and the Reddiars are accused of taking away most of benefits. "This is why reservations have such unanimous support in Tamil Nadu," says Srinivas. According to Jagannathan, the assertion of Tamil Dalits will be a major feature of contemporary Tamil attitudes. There were signs of Dalit assertion in the 1998 election itself—a new Dalit party significantly called Pudiya Tamilian (the New Tamilian) got 2 per cent of the vote.

Does Jayalalitha have a superiority complex? Tamils do have a superiority complex, says Jagannathan, but this comes from their inferiority complex because they feel that they have not been given their due. Ancient culture, economic progress, social change; the Tamil is conscious of having achieved a great deal and yet not been recognised for it.

But the Tamil is a paradoxical creature: his is a devotional society which spawned a social revolution, his practices are traditional yet his skills are modern, he strives for scientific education but is vulnerable to the cult of hero-worship, and his economic achievements have brought caste conflicts. "This sophisticated dualism," says Srinivasa-Raghavan, "arises because the quality of civilisation is so old." "But whatever happens," adds Khandekar, "the Tamil is genetically programmed for survival."

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