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Our Chauvinism ...

Living in Bangalore, a city poised precariously in many ways where it is today,  it is impossible not to be buffeted by continuous contestation at every level.  We are subjected to the most intense contests over money & capital, land, politics, changing social structures and economics, urban management, traffic, infrastructure, development itself and almost anything else you can think of.


For much longer, however, Bangaloreans have had to deal with another uncomfortable manifestation of something harder to nail.  Almost every Bangalorean has experienced what we commonly have come to refer to as 'linguistic chauvinism', in one situation or the other.  These encounters affect particularly the non-Kannada-speaking among us, or those who might  appear like non-Kannada speakers. Ask around, and you will get your fair share of stories of how someone (of the non-Kannada-speaking variety) has experienced contentious moments over their inability to speak Kannada - and has has to then navigate their way deftly out of the situation.  Beyond the smaller circle of those with personal experience of such linguistic territoriality is the much wider circle of those who have had to live through city shut downs, threat to property and fear of violence during periodic 'Rajkumar' riots or protests (as they have unfortunately come to be known).   In other times, there have been 'Kaveri' riots - allegedly abetted by political-party manipulation - but nevertheless terrifying in their impact on many Bangaloreans.  Beyond the unfortunate real victims of these conflicts who tend to, as in all situations of urban conflict, be the most under privileged among us,  these riots also have the effect of spooking, in particular, non-Kannada speaking Bangaloreans.


So how are we to make sense of this?  And what are peoples' own life experiences when it comes to chauvinism in our city, as such?  Almost all Bangaloreans I talk to, who migrated to settle here from some place outside the state, tell me that they find Bangalore a more tolerant and easier city to settle into, than many others.  Notorious infrastructure problems & the rapid decline in livability, in recent years, aside, on the social acceptance front, Bangalore seems to always score high points.  So what do we make of this contradiction?  What are people referring to when they respond in the affirmative to the question about whether they think Kannadigas are tolerant, accepting people?   And how do they reconcile this with the outbursts of linguistic chauvinism that they undoubtedly have been subjected to?


Interestingly, the sharpest reactions, from Bangalorean Kannadigas, to accusations of language and cultural chauvinism, are very often framed against the backdrop of Tamil 'aggression'  (it could, in reality, be just linguistic cohesiveness and perceived unity - but nevertheless appears 'aggressive' to the other).  Many Kannadigas whom you may talk to on the street, will tell you that the real chauvinists are not them - but the Tamilians.  That the real exponents of exclusive cultural identity are in Tamil Nadu.  That while living in Bangalore you can get away never speaking or learning a word of Kannada, you will be forced to learn Tamil in Tamil Nadu, and so on.  From my own experience, and as a functionally-Kannada-speaking, yet more English oriented, Bangalorean, I can't deny that these observations, at face value, seem to have an element of truth to them.  By way of one example, I personally know people of the footloose, 'cosmopolitan' variety who have wanted to move someplace else, having tired of living in Bangalore and of seeing it descend into its present state of chaos, but have never been comfortable considering a location in Tamil Nadu to move to, essentially because of its monolithic Tamil identity and culture.  All you have to do is travel into Tamil Nadu and it is evident that you are in a culture that is far more 'about itself', far more assertive, un-shy of its Tamil-ness.  But why or how is this a 'bad' proposition, in any way?  Once your self-image is in order, as I suggest may be the case in Tamil Nadu, it is much easier to both dispense respect and command it.  More power to such a dispensation !


You may suggest that this is making a case against cosmopolitanism.  But in a modern Indian context 'cosmopolitanism' has come to imply a numbingly insipid, highly superficial and utterly rootless ethos.  Ask urban, English/Hindi-speaking Indians what they mean by 'cosmopolitan' and many will say, shopping malls, global brand names (Nike/Reebok, Pizza Hut), the widespread use of Hindi (of the TV-serial variety) and an over-commoditized, commercial-Hindi-filmi sense of behavior, fashion and aesthetic.  Bangalore certainly provides no resistance to any of this, does it?   Where is anyone forced to encounter any authenticity of any sort in this city ?   Do we as 'cosmopolitan' Bangaloreans ever have to stress ourselves in encounter with anything culturally or historically substantive, from this region ?  Such as, say, the grand, universalist and iconoclastic poetry of the Shaivite Bhakti poets (Basavanna, Akka-Mahadevi, Allama Prabhu ...)  Or bother with the insights of a Bendre or Kuvempu ?  How many of us use an opportunity to witness the a Kannada folk theatre performance, live, in our city?  Or do we have any appreciation of the the ethos of our northern districts that have produced the likes of Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal, Mallikarjun Mansur, Kumar Gandharva and Basvaraj Rajguru ?  What celebratory 'cosmopolitanism' is it, that in order to accommodate the other, excludes the most uplifting work, art, thought and genuinely universalist (and therefore cosmopolitan, in a true sense) product of its own extraordinary people and culture?


And what is it about, say, Chennai, on the other hand, that makes seekers of this peculiar kind of 'cosmopolitanism', uncomfortable ?   The widespread use of mainly Tamil, is probably the first complaint.  Veshtis, white shirts and half-sarees are widely worn - but don't look particularly like the 'desirable' image of new-India, do they?  And the food is perhaps derided for being too local (the best mor-kozhumbu or aat-kaal soup don't exactly fire up the taste-buds of the new middle-India).  Yet, Chennai cares little about what anyone thinks of it.  It is what it is. Self-defining. It seems secure and indeed, in many ways, assertive.  It does not suffer the identity-angst of Bangalore.  It is not shy of Tamil or its Tamil-ness.  It celebrates its own heroes - cultural or other.  It enjoys, celebrates and puts on show its own high quality cultural product - whether it is the December music season or its dance and literary events.  Bangalore has undoubtedly made feeble attempts, as it has grown in size and importance, to show-case its own flavor and thereby define itself - but these have remained just that - feeble attempts.  And they are often mired in controversy (Bangalore Habba, for example) - not surprisingly - over whose festivals these really are, and over who they purport to address and represent.


On the one hand, we have an example of a culturally (& psychologically?) secure, self-respecting society that is not buffeted, as much, by external referencing or evaluation but is, as a result, widely perceived from the outside as being monolithic, too different, and less accommodating.  Yet there is a contradiction there, too.  Recently, an academic, intimately familiar with Chennai, yet originally from Mysore, narrated how, in his experience, Tamil Nadu sometimes appeared less chauvinistic, than Karnataka.  Invited to speak, on one occasion at Periyar University in Salem, he was advised not to bother to prepare his speech in Tamil (despite his hasty and best attempts to do so) and that English was welcome (Hindi might have posed a completely different problem, but that may be subject for a different commentary).  On the other hand, he told us, in Mysore, if you even tried to deliver a key public address in English, at the university, you were sure be heckled and harassed off stage.  What does this tell us?  Does it merely re-iterate, at one level,  that a society that is more culturally secure within itself and about its own identity and place in the world, will both dispense and, more importantly, command, much greater respect from the 'other' ?


What we seem to see in Bangalore is quite the opposite.  A society that is largely seen as highly accommodating, tolerant and easy to settle into in fact reveals deep identity schisms and unresolved battles over itself and its place in the world.    This is a slippery slope we stand on.  The less self-respecting we are, the less respect we command and the more of it we are then forced to demand.   Whether it is rallying around the symbol of Dr. Raj, or the quick resort, via frustration, to stone-throwing and blackening of non-Kannada signage in the city, or the meaningless demand in institutions for speeches to be in made only in Kannada - they all seem to suggest a deep desire to obtain respect and recognition that is not otherwise forthcoming.