Pride, Roots and an Identity
It is one thing to follow Ambedkar's creed and declare onself nothing other than an Indian. Very patriotic and noble and all that, but there is a primeval need for identifying oneself with a set of people much smaller, a set of people who share a lot, lot more with you. An instinct that dates from the stone age, when all humankind (give me a word less clumsier) was made up of little tribes.
My 'tribe' are the Bombay Iyers. Iyers, because, well, that's the old Tamilophone tribe I belong to lineagewise, and Bombay, because that is where I was born and which is what I consider my motherland. The Bombay Iyers do form, by anthropological standards, quite a good tribe.
We have a unique language. Mixed with Hindi and Marathi, and based chiefly on the Palakkad sub-dialect of the Iyer dialect of Tamil, it is a tongue in which we share our thoughts and conversations. Born out of the language spoken by the first migrants to Bombay (my great-grandfather's generation) from Tinnevelly and Palghat, it has absorbed words from English, Hindi and Marathi. A second- or third-generation Bombay Iyer would find it awkward speaking with an Iyer from Tamil Nadu!
The Bombay Iyers originally ghettoed themselves in Matunga suburb, and have recently spread all over the city, notably Chembur (Daimond Garden), and Thane (Brindaban Society).
Our cuisine is not all that unique; based chiefly as it is on what Iyers eat worldwide. But we make a lot of chapatis, puris etc. at home and regularly (and not as a diversion), so that is some difference.
No, we're not that tribal to have a unique dance-form, music-form, song-form etc. But we have a tribal profession, that has changed over three generations. The greater part of the ancient lot were (1930-60s) accountants, stenographers, typists, clerks, secretaries, working on measly salaries and at two or even three jobs to make ends meet. My grandfather's uncle was the champion typist of the tribe - he could shoot 100 words per minute.
The medieval generation (60s-90s) were a notch higher - bankers, company professionals, bureaucrats, technocrats. A few tried their hands at enterprising - making it big at automobile ancillaries (K R S Narayanan) or cotton (Jayaram Mani) (both my kinsmen).
The current generation (post 90s), almost entirely is made up of software professionals, and a few doctors. If one, like me, did not studying Engineering or Medicine, one is doomed to bachelorhood. An added advantage is employment in America, with no stated intention of return. The father-in-laws will adore you.
I really like this lot. I'm part of them, and like being with them. Their marriage customs are not as long drawn out as in their south Indian kinsmen, but provide the few rare opportunities for the two main Iyer indulgences - sappadu and vambu. The former consists chefly of gluttonous gourmandry, the latter of malicious gossip. An Iyer is otherwise a quiet, unobtrusive worker, content to have his few measures of curd-rice with vadu-manga pickle at lunchtime. In all, they have led a life of middle-class ideals.
A few Iyers are breaking the mould and making it big. The best known is the cartoonist R. K. Laxman. Some have made it big in science - like K S Krishnan and K Kasturirangan. (The latter spent his student years in Mumbai.) N Rajam is a well-known violinist, as are the Ranjani-Gayatri duo. There is indeed a lively Carnatic music tradition in Mumbai. Shankar Mahadevan and Hariharan are well-known singers; Madhavan is a big actor in Tamil films now. You have Gowri Ramnarayan, the well-known writer and journalist from the Hindu. Naresh Iyer has recently made it good in singing for films, with the latest hit Roo-ba-roo. If you have more names to tell me, please do. I'll add them in.
One of my long-term wishes is to write a book chronicling this little community.
This community is going from strength to strenght today. I see many of my kinfolk, clanfolk and tribefolk in positions of comfort, money and power. Our days of struggle are over. In a way, we are coming into the sunlight, just as the rest of my country is. And it is among them, that my roots come from and identity springs.
And that is why I am swelling with pride.