Human geography will outstrip all the cartographic lines we put down on maps. We draw them compulsively, needing to categorise and separate—on the ground, on paper, but somehow there’s no finality. We put a door in the wall and try to feel safe behind it.
But people are always crossing over, lines will always blur and sometimes even our doors get broken down. There is that kind of creeping, assimilating tide washing in from a dominant culture. It will take us over, ingest us and our ideas, our protective lines will be breached and we were too meek to push back.
In a vertically described country like mine the geography of north and south became very powerful, caricature powerful. The dichotomy of light and dark is the anchor of the main stereotype at play in our perceptions.
The ‘fair’ beautiful north Indian, and the dark ugly south Indian was comically epitomised in Hindi films a long time ago, and that image refused to go away. No one says these things openly anymore in our new sophistication, of blurred-lines living. But you can see these ideas expressed loudly in bullying internet forums, where the trolls take off their everyday middle-class disguises. These ideas still live snugly just beneath the surface inside respectable, cluttered conservative minds.
Deep down south, people have been unconsciously adjusting their culture and costume to fit in. There’s simultaneous resentment and acceptance. People from bigger, badder cities to the north come down and silently mock southern mores, and this evokes a secret desire in the southerner to be more like them.
Also, there’s a country bumpkinness attached to those who will not adapt, in the face of these invading, new deprecating norms. Bollywood is the standard and kitschy Hindi TV serials fine tune sensibilities.
The split in geographic consciousness between north and south is a very old one. You can trace it back to the great English poet John Milton or even further back to Aristotle. Milton got this particular concept from Greek philosophy. They believed that intellectualism was stunted in colder, northern climes, while mediterranean heat was more salubrious to wit in general. This reminds me of a friend who once declared this about India, jokingly, “Draw a line through the Vindhya hill ranges (roughly running through the middle of the country), above that is agriculture and below culture.” It was reverse racism served with humour laced with a hint of umbrage.
People intertwine with their geographies. Being far from us, others may have divergent climates, strange trees and animals in their backyards, dissimilar dialects, and so they are bound to be different from us. But how does the insinuation that one is better than another start circulating insidiously through an epoch?
Even within smaller regions there are curious north and south splits. I have a friend from Kerala whose father insists that northerners from his state, speaking a dialect of the state language Malayalam with a lilting twang, are more cultured and southerners with their broad speech inflections uncouth. Weirdly, movies from the region used to reflect this particular belief. Some comedians in Malayalam films from the ’90s adopted this southern dialect and became famous for their schticks.
Is it possible to write about something without colouring the piece with your own opinions and motivations? It is possible, but never entirely. As much as you will try to be objective, there will still be a colour to your ideas, tinted by the things that happened to you as you lived, the area and milieu which grew you up and outward, the chauvinisms of your parents colouring even your most belaboured, studied writings. As I write this, you can trace the old stain of my resentment in this attempt at objectivity. I hope I can now be a little less bitter about the casual bigotries I put up with. I hope I can now simply be, neither north nor south.