Byline by M J Akbar: Tying the knot in Tamil Nadu
The South is another country, in just about every country. No one associates the north of France with holiday, cuisine or luxury. The north of Italy wastes its time in production, profits, brand-building, grumbling and fantasies of secession; the south goes to church, forgets to collect the garbage, remembers to collect tourists and has fun: would Berlusconi ever build a private palace improved with Putin beds and exotic weekend guests in north Italy? The south of America tried its hardest to secede in the 19th century. Today it is so convinced that Barack Obama was born in Kenya rather than Hawaii that it has launched a movement called “Birthers” whose principal purpose is to delegitimize the first African-American President of the United States. The more north Britain gets, the more dour becomes its public image, although the Scots are far nicer than their reputation would suggest. But they have to live with the burden of being the closest British neighbours to the North Pole. Pakistanis of the Frontier could not be more different than Sindhis, although they could give each other competition in their eagerness to be hospitable to a stranger. Anything is possible in Pakistan, but it is difficult to envisage a Taliban in the deserts of Sindh.
I suppose a nation has to be vertical to claim a north and south. Russia is horizontal. It stretches through the extremities of east and west, through nine time zones. You never think of a south Russia; you just slip from Russia into Central Asia, as if Russia extended breast upwards. If the east and west of Russia are radically different it is because they exist in different continents, with powerful and distinct cultures. Even the bland single dimension of Communism could not merge Europe and Asia into a Soviet continent, despite seven decades of strenuous effort. Central Asians rediscovered their Turkish-Islamic roots with gusto when the Soviet Union disintegrated, and the Pacific east had always retained its own flavour. China is too round, and Han, to permit a political sense of north and south, although the cuisine, China’s finest cultural achievement, is gloriously divergent. Perhaps our contemporary sense of China as a seamless geography is a reflection of the political success of the Communist Party. But if you push Tibet into the category of south China, then the metaphor becomes poignant: the south is a different country.
India is rare, but not unique; it has north, south, east, west and a middle. Middle is the railway track that runs from Mumbai to Kolkata. The overlaps do not deny the reality. There are so many definitions of difference: language, aesthetics, cultural morality, aspiration, dress, forms of prayer, music. It is not just the difference between Hindustani and Carnatic strains; you do not hear the lilt of Bengali Baul in the west, while the sinuous sway of Rabindrasangeet is lost in the north. One would have thought that electoral politics, measured by the same Election Commission yardstick of numbers, would at least be similar if not the same. But democracy is resplendent in its own colours in the south.
You leave Coimbatore airport for barely a minute, and you are staring at the next election: the posters of the general election have not faded yet and the contest for the Assembly elections has begun. There is no confusion about who will lead the DMK. Karunanidhi, the Marlon Brando of this political epic, will remain the patriarch, but executive authority is being passed to his son, Stalin. Stalin will seek the legitimacy of popular endorsement in the contest against Jayalalithaa in a year and a half. Karunanidhi still sets the dialectic pace in the confrontation against his bête noire, but the next Assembly is Stalin’s to win or lose. His face is on every poster: lots of frizzy black hair climbing from the scalp, a filmstar smile, and very modern in a tie. Purists might pick holes. The hair is suspiciously luxuriant, its colour is a bit too uniformly dark perhaps, and the tie might certainly have been knotted better. But the voter sees a pleasant man who can still claim a working relationship with youth. Image is not all, but pretty good fuel for early momentum. The Jayalalithaa response has not begun. She is keeping her powder dry, perhaps literally. In any case, she is not blessed with the resources available to a ruling party. However, the Assembly elections, still many months and dozens of intermediate events away, are not our immediate worry. Our concern is the knot.
The father of the Indian tie is surely the Bengali western-oriented gentleman. The tie was not part of any Indian’s dress code before the Permanent Settlement in Bengal, and then took its time before becoming a fashion item. It begins to emerge, via a scarf after 1834, when the British made English the language of government and created a new British-centric establishment into which a slow dribble of Indians was permitted, particularly through the law courts. The walls along the staircase of Calcutta Club are decorated with portraits of past presidents, each attired in a handsome striped tie put together by a majestic knot, Windsor or its single-cousin. Would a potential Bengal Chief Minister campaign in a tie? Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has not even been seen in a jacket. Mamata Banerjee pursues an image of poverty with a vengeance. She does not possess anything but plain cotton saris. She made her male ministers wear a dhoti while taking the oath of office; among them were those who had never worn a dhoti.
In Tamil Nadu, Stalin wears imported ties and Jayalalithaa the most fabulous silks. Voters might once have demanded Kamaraj’s simple handspun; today, they do not particularly care either way. They have enough poverty in their own lives. Why would they want to impose it on their leaders, when they know that their leaders are not poor?
But, Thiru Stalin, do get someone to knot a better knot.