I went to an event recently that confirmed a sad frustration I've been carrying around with me for a very long time. A sad frustration I only tend to feel when surrounded by brown people who don't know me.
The event was a Hindu and Sikh singles night – something I’ve never been to before and had actually previously steered away from. One thing you need to know about me is that when it comes to dating (and any parts of my life), religion, colour, caste, state etc. etc. are moot. What matters is what you’re like as a person. So I’m not really sure what possessed me to go to this event. Perhaps it was that casual 'how’s the boy situation?' phone call I had with my mother the week before…
To be fair it was a good night (I even met someone – gosh, I’m blushing as I write this). Anyway, as pleasant as the event was, I have to say, I wish the organisers conducted more research before embarking on such 'specialist' events.
During the evening, one of the organisers very attentively asked me how it was going. I replied it was going very well, thanks. He then asked after my ‘background’ or should I say, assumed the following thoughts in his head before I'd even uttered a reply:
"You're Tamil aren't you."
And I could tell Tamil for him was code for dark South Indian. Why was I being so judgmental? Because of what followed next.
“No, my parents are from Kerala,”
I replied. Cue puzzled face and short silence from the organiser. Followed by:
“Oh right… is that a religion or caste...?”
“No, it's a southern state in India - next to Tamil Nadu.”
“Oh, so you are Hindu?”
“Yep, I'm Hindu.”
“Oh ok, good.”
I should have then half joked that if Kerala was a religion, would he have let me into his Hindu and Sikh night. I’m guessing not.
Awkward a situation as the above may be (for him, not me), it’s a conversation I find myself having quite a bit with brown people. Note I say brown people and not people, as I find most people of other colours (or generally people who aren’t from the Indian sub continent) tend to know what Kerala is. Or at least they know that South India isn’t just a region below Mumbai where everything’s very same-y. I mean, (and expect a soap box rant right now) but how would you feel, dear proud Punjabi friend, if I casually called you a Gujarati. Not too good, right. It’s the same thing. How we Keralans feel when we’re mistaken for a Tamil. Or how a person from Karnataka feels when they’re mistaken for a Keralan.
South India is not a blob – it consists of five very distinct and individual states.
Kerala couldn’t be far from different from its neighbouring Tamil Nadu – in religious etiquette, food, attire and of course, language.
I think this conversation frustrates me the most when speaking to potential dates. Once a date with Punjabi roots asked my sister where she was from. She, perhaps wrongly, said 'South India', but it did bring up an intriguing response. “Oh what, Gujarat?” When she then went on to say, 'no, Kerala', you could imagine the poor fella being confused beyond belief – 'there are other places in India other than Punjab?!' And when a brown date questions why my dating history doesn’t just comprise of brown dudes, they ask:
“But wouldn’t you feel more comfortable marrying brown instead of white? After all, you’ll have more in common – like culture”
I can only feel sheer exhaustion and disappointment.
I’m starting to think that people who are from the five southern states – bar Tamil Nadu – are somehow to blame for this. Not for the sheer ignorance displayed towards them, but for lack of specificity on their part. Whenever they’re asked by anyone 'where are you from?' they reply with that deadly reply, 'South India'. They’re not distinguishing themselves in the first place, so no wonder people just think 'South India' is a big blobby state. And I give exception to the Tamils because they tend to be incredibly, no – fiercely proud of their heritage, so if you generally ask a Tamil what their background is, they’ll reply with pride – 'I’m Tamil', not, 'I’m South Indian'.
And this is probably the reason why some people tend to group all people from the southern states as being Tamil.
Including my dear singles organiser.
Please don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to shove every brown date (or brown person for that matter) into this narrow-minded shoe. Many of my dear brown friends respect the differences and nuances between the different southern states. The guy I’m currently seeing (still blushing) is the polar opposite of this, hence why we’re coming up to month one (mini yay, followed by more blushing). But I do wish more people were like him and my friends, who ultimately don’t care what you are and where you’re from – as long as you’re a lovely person.
I guess, while we wait for everyone else to think like this, I put a plea out right now to all fellow people who have roots from the southern states: stop referring to yourself as South Indian when asked where you’re originally from. Instead say you’re from Andra, Telengana, Karnathaka, Kerala or Tamil Nadu. Don’t be shy – instead take lead from our Punjabi, Gujarati and even Tamil neighbours, and say it with pride.