(Published in The Sunday Statesman Magazine, June 5, 2005.Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)
My dear girls,
Do you remember how in your essay about yourself you said you hate South Indian food? Another time you said you hated being corrected for making fun of the Tamil language. How it annoyed you that something that can so simply be called ‘Alu’ becomes ‘Urulakayyangu’ in Tamil. It is not a crime to dislike what you are force-fed. Or spoon-fed, literally, like sambar.
It is quite natural to rebel against these things at sixteen and seventeen. I guess you cant imagine your mother in the same role, but at your age, every time my 'Paattu Saar'--that's the music teacher--went away after a class, I had to play the Rolling Stones' 'Jumping Jack Flash' at top volume on the record player. I made sure he heard those rocking, mocking opening chords before he reached the end of the road from our gate. My purpose was two fold. One, to rid the air waves in the drawing room of the reverberations of my halfhearted vocal exertions. Two, to get back at the teacher who took an unnecessarily malicious pleasure, in my view, in complaining to my mother about my faulty Tamil pronunciation and my absolute inability to read or write the language.
I had to carry on taking the singing lessons, however little I enjoyed them. However, my mother never stopped me from playing the Stones record at the end of the session. She was really a very wise lady even then!
In time, I came to love Carnatic music. What I really learnt of musical appreciation was definitely from the parents, certainly not from the 'Saar', though I still have the registers he filled in his crabby hand with lyrics (in Tamil) And I can belt out any of those songs at a moment’s notice.
Our culture, according to the edifying extracts in our school textbooks, was a legacy. It was handed down to us from the generations before us. Our culture represents who we are. This is not something to scoff at, I learnt later in life. On reflection I realise that in addition to being 'Good South Indians' we were also taught at home to be 'good Indians'. Above all this there was a culture, which we were taught to value, and that was the importance of being good human beings who practiced and upheld good moral values. If I had to give it a label it would be Liberal Humanism. These values are tied up with everything I ever learnt as a child, whether it was learning to walk, learning to feed myself, or learning to read. I choose these examples because I can’t remember when I learnt any of these things, and I cant forget or un-learn any of them either. Being good, law abiding, tolerant of other people and respectful of their freedoms was at the heart of this cultural legacy whose packaging may well have been South Indian food, language and customs. There was truly liberal thinking here, live and let live.
When I was young, it was considered important to marry within the community and carry on the traditions we'd practiced. I don’t mean my parents wanted me to marry a cook (ensured supply of ‘kootu’ and rice) or a pundit (who would chant correctly pronounced Sanskrit verses at me) or a Carnatic musician who would cure me of my fondness for Jumping Jack Flash!
Now that brings me to the real point. Jumping Jack Flash was as much a part of the education I imbibed at home as Madurai Mani Iyer's 'Seethaapathey'. More than two cultures could and did coexist without cancelling each other out. I didn’t realise that until I was older (and I hope, wiser). Wodehouse, Georgette Heyer, Woodstock, My Fair Lady, Archie Comics, Mad Magazine. The Beatles, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Kumar Gandharva, K.L.Saigal and R.D.Burman --we were exposed to all these at home. There was a harmonious coexistence of different cultures. Harmony, as you both know, is something that runs parallel to the melody and enhances it. You can have many things running together in your 'cultural heritage' and I think you'll find that you do have them. The more there are, the richer you will be. Even the hard to please music teacher would borrow books from my Dad's Wodehouse collection and enjoy them thoroughly.
I hope you understand that it would be possible for any of us to survive in surroundings where there was either no South Indian --or any Indian-- food or language or music, no Tamil New Year's Day and no Diwali celebration. But it would be impossible to survive without any language communication, any music, any books or any conversation.
And it would be very difficult to live amongst small-minded, selfish, ungenerous or uneducated minds all our lives. So remember that when we speak of our culture we are speaking of something very big, yet something basic, which you'll find among all civilised people. It is something inclusive and evolving. It doesn’t exclude ideas or influences; its existence isn’t threatened by anything new. You could find that you share something of this with someone in Finland or Tirunelvelli or in Assam or Japan. A shared fondness for sambar has nothing to do with it. It's all about not letting your dislike of sambar get in the way of someone else's fondness for it. Dislike it as much as you please, but understand that someone else can like it. Live and let live.