Micro racism 2.0: Idli-Dosa vs Pani-Puri

It represents a new pushback from the south of the Vindhyas against what one has experienced in the north for decades.
Actor Shruti Haasan recently
shut down a fan’s request to say
something with a southern accent, calling it “micro racism”.
Actor Shruti Haasan recently shut down a fan’s request to say something with a southern accent, calling it “micro racism”.Photo | PTI

It’s nice to see a coalition government in Delhi led by PM Narendra Modi’s BJP taking power with critical support from the TDP under Nara Chandrababu Naidu. This should augur well for south-north relations.

I put south before north with deliberate intent. Mathematics teaches us that a permutation is not a combination; the former involves a sequence that has its own meaning. It’s time to apply that concept in our social, political and cultural life, just to get a hang of what things were, are and could be. Saying south-north relations instead of the other way should help us understand how equations work in a world where perspectives differ by points of view.

The provocation is a story about actor Shruti Haasan, who shut down a request during a live session on Instagram. It seems she was asked by a follower to say something in a south Indian accent and she called it an act of “micro racism”. This is what she said in Insta-slang: “So, this sort of micro racism is not OK. And it’s not OK when you look at us and say idli-dosa-sambar either. And no, you don’t imitate us well, so don’t try and be funny.”

Point taken. Let me add that we Indians have a strange way of describing southerners as ‘South Indians’. Can we drop that ‘Indian’ bit? It kind of states the obvious. Perhaps there is a post-colonial interpretation to this—about seeing one’s own self from an outsider’s POV. That may be an excellent practice spiritually, but perhaps not in a socio-political sense.

What Haasan did was a rare act of a southerner retorting in a firm manner. It represents a new pushback from the south of the Vindhyas against what one has experienced in the north for decades. As a kid growing up in New Delhi, I was used to southerners being called ‘Madrasi’, mocked in supposedly funny accents and described in idli-dosa idioms.

Social media has turned the southern annoyance into amusement, with jibes flying both ways. Southern retorts are often targeted at the so-called ‘national’ TV news channels based in the north that frequently play down southern issues or reveal a superficial understanding of them. Such media outlets have been suitably dubbed by a humourist as ‘Amit media’, with Amit serving as a catchphrase for a typical northern name, much like idli-dosa. If I may be allowed a somewhat micro-racist pun on north-speak, this idli-dosa conversation is getting batter and batter.

We heard some news of unwelcome deterrence in this matter earlier this year, when a DMK minister taunted Tamil Nadu’s governor for asking southerners to learn Hindi for better prospects. “While English is an international language, Tamil is a local language. We were told that learning Hindi could land us with jobs. Is that so? You go and see in our state and in Coimbatore. Who are those people who sell pani puris?” the minister said in a reference to northern migrant workers.

The harsh fact is that ‘pani-puri’ is now an oft-used expression in Tamil Nadu to describe migrants from the north. When southerners went north soon after independence to seek jobs in the national capital, they were mocked as migrants, not as employees of a new republic. The boot is on the other foot now.

The Hindutva-Dravida divide in ideologies is aiding tensions that reflect in the streets as micro-racist humour. Jibes and memes are seeing a reverse swing from the south, which is new.

Politics has become extra-sensitive. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor walked into hard retorts from the BJP earlier this week after sharing on social media a meme on Uttar Pradesh linked to its exam paper leaks. The joke mocked UP as one where answers are known before they get questions.

It should not surprise us touchy folks from northern states are no longer amused by the academic acronym, BIMARU. The term, coined by demographer Ashish Bose in the mid-1980s, was created from the first letters of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Used academically to denote states that ranked low on income and human development indices, it also became a pejorative as southern states marched forward in economic terms.

But these Hindi states were and are politically crucial. With the economically prosperous south also becoming politically significant, we may as well question headlines that describe Hindi-speaking states as the ‘heartland’ of India.

We may gently point to how southerners, Sikhs, Bengalis and even northern Biharis have been routinely lampooned in Bollywood for their accents. The current pani-puri pushback pales in comparison. Decades after its release, Mehmood’s ostensibly Tamilian accent in Padosan stands alongside its memorable music as a stark reminder of idli-dosa politics.

To get the point across, I may as well use a line from a Bollywood hit set in UP, Tanu Weds Manu Returns: “Kya Sharma ji! Hum thode bewafa kya huye, aap to badchalan ho gaye.” (What is this, Mr Sharma! I turned just a tad disloyal, whereas you have become characterless.)

The rise of southern micro racism, much like its northern part, is best nipped in the bud. The occasional pani-puri references stand against decades of northern stereotyping of Southerners. The south is no longer going to watch this standing by idly. Or should that be idli?

(Views are personal)

(On X @madversity)

Madhavan Narayanan | Senior journalist

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