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North is north and the South is south

There are other forces at play too which are bridging the gap between the North and South very rapidly. Economic migration within India is normally north to south in search of higher daily wages. The southern states have always outperformed North India in terms of GDP growth; with Tamil Nadu’s per capita income at $3200 coming in at almost double of the national average for India which is $1884. So naturally the labour at construction sites and at tea gardens all over the South tends to be from UP and Bihar.

VINATI SUKHDEV | New Delhi |

North is North and South is South. And never the twain shall meet. And for a long time, in modern India, they did not meet. The portion of India above the Vindhyas went about its kheti-badi and its caste-based politics, its dips in the Ganga and its blips in GDP growth.

The young embraced in startling yellow mustard fields and got married under colourful tents called shamianas almost always accompanied by Band, Baaja and Baraat. And of course, lots of good food and alcohol. They lived beyond their means and having been force-fed by indulgent mothers, stretched beyond their too tight buttoned shirts.

Below the Vindhyas, their quieter neighbours lived in spartan homes (immortalised by the Chetan Bhagat line ‘a south Indian home looks like a north Indian home that has been burgled’), enrolled in science and engineering colleges, went to temples, and got married in plain white sarees and lungis without much fanfare and almost always without meat and alcohol. They opened their mouths only to pop idlis or sing Carnatic music or say aiyaiyo. I am deliberately stereotyping here but in broad brushstrokes this was the trajectory of India’s two halves.

The naysayers had already pronounced India as a continent, not a country. The sceptics said the British had got it wrong and force-fitted a nation into a geography. The historians harked back to the impossibility of one ruler over such a large area; even Ashoka and Akbar could not annex the deep south. The cynics pointed to the plurality of faiths, the innumerable languages, and dialects. There could never be one India they said and nowhere was the divide more rigid than between the unrelenting North and the immoveable South.

There was no one clash but enough brief skirmishes between the two civilisations which lent credibility to this view. The Centre’s attempt to impose the three-language formula in Tamil Nadu led to riots in the 1960s. The few north Indians who would go to live in the South (mostly Central government or bank employees or those working for multinational corporations) would complain about being treated like outsiders. They would not find maids to do their housework or be able to flag down autorickshaw drivers. They were cheated and overcharged because they looked and sounded different.

I am sure the South Indians living in Delhi had their own version of this story. But it was fear and ignorance of the outsider on both sides no more. Yet 75 years later, I see a different India, peopled by young Indians. They are young and they are pan-Indian in a sense that older Indians could never be.

Today, South Indian college groups go trekking and paragliding in the Himalayas, the Delhi Khan Market foodie set exchange notes on The Bangala menu in Karaikudi, Chettinad. North Indians who for decades thought of South Indian food as no more than idlis and dosas are now discussing where to get the best paniyaram.

Personal tip: try a café called Cliffy’s in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh, run by a lovely South Indian couple! The differences are still there but there is an excitement of discovery, not fear and suspicion.

Goa has been overrun by Punjabis with opulent homes and large swimming pools. Tamil Brahmins are bringing in Brahmin brides from Bihar and UP because there is a shortage of Brahmin girls in their state. Casteism is trumping regionalism here! The desire to conform to traditions (marriage within the caste) is leading to some unconventional solutions.

There was a time in the 90s when advertising and marketing agencies would test new products for the Indian market in southern cities like Chennai and Hyderabad because they were considered the most conventional markets in India. If a product was accepted there, it was considered kosher for the rest of India. I was surprised to learn that if not Chennai, Hyderabad is now the fashion capital of the South, rivalling Chandigarh for lavish spends on designer clothes and handbags.

There are other forces at play too which are bridging the gap between the North and South very rapidly. Economic migration within India is normally north to south in search of higher daily wages. The southern states have always outperformed North India in terms of GDP growth; with Tamil Nadu’s per capita income at $3200 coming in at almost double of the national average for India which is $1884. So naturally the labour at construction sites and at tea gardens all over the South tends to be from UP and Bihar.

A news item about a Bihar labourer’s daughter topping the SSC Board in Kerala is enough to make every Pan-Indian heart burst with pride. But it is also about a wider story of bridging the gap geographically, and hopefully, in the next generation economically too. South Indians themselves have migrated notably the Malayalis bringing back with them the riches of Dubai and the language.

It has always amazed me how many people in Kerala these days know Hindi and it is almost always because they worked in the UAE and had Pakistani colleagues who taught them. The online marketplace is another great bridge. I discovered this recently while trying to arrange a wedding during the pandemic. No longer the trek to South India or even the local Nalli Silks to buy the finest Kanjeevarams. Beautiful sarees are just a click away and the infinite variety is an education by itself.

Time was when all South Indian sarees were referred to as Kanjeevarams; now Uppada, Gadwal and Pochampally roll off North Indian tongues as easily as Benarasi and Chanderi. Finally, the soft power of Bollywood should not be underestimated. What the might of the Central Government could not do in the sixties, has been achieved through a lilting cultural transfusion of song and dance. Sometimes aping the South (lungi dance, lungi dance), sometimes providing dance mixes for South Indian sangeet (yes, even South Indian weddings have a Sangeet night now!).

The recent success of the Telugu film Pushpa: The Rise with Rs 365 crore collected at the box office within 50 days and Rs 100 crore in the Hindi belt alone, shows the crossover is happening on both sides. Telugu star Allu Arjun is now well known amongst movie buffs in the north. The days are gone when Bollywood exported only ‘failed’ stars to the south Indian industry. Now mainstream Bollywood stars are happy to work in South Indian films which often have larger budgets, more efficient schedules and better technology on tap.

The cultural transfusion is definitely on and enriching both sides. Movie critics have tried to analyse the success of Pushpa in the Hindi belt with reference to the pandemic and the shortage of big screen films with spectacular sets, panoramic vistas, proper high voltage action and chases which has been missing due to the coronavirus. However, I think the time has come when Indians are looking beyond narrow geographical boundaries and circumscribed communities and traditions. This is a trend that must be celebrated.

Temple tours, food tastings, adventure tourism, Indian films, and the rise of a brave new generation, they all fan the yearning to explore the big, beautiful country we call our own. Our North. Our South. Our India.

(The writer lives in London and is the author of East or West: An NRI mother’s manual on how to bring up desi children overseas.)