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(Getty Images)

Opinion | No, Chennai biryani isn’t really a thing

South India is creeping into popular culture, politics, food and, not just as a stereotype, though that persists

At an election rally in Tamil Nadu on Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that Chennai Central station would be renamed after—for Tamil film star and former chief minister M. G. Ramachandran. He’d barely finished his speech, when former Union Minister M. K. Alagiri wrote the PM a letter asking that Chennai’s second major railway station, Egmore, be named after his father and five-time chief minister M. Karunanidhi. It’s still not clear whether these changes and requests will make it to the signboards, but it’s probably just a matter of time.

Given politicians’ enthusiasm for renaming places depending on what they believe will bring in the votes or reflects their idea of culture, it’s a wonder that Chennai’s main railway stations went by the unostentatious yet beloved names of Chennai Central and Egmore Station. But the announcement set me off on another path: Why is the south suddenly interesting to the north? Yes, it is election season, and there are Lok Sabha seats to be conquered, but south India is creeping into popular culture, politics, food and, not just as a stereotype, though that persists.

Till about a decade ago, south India was this generic region that stubbornly spoke languages no one else understood, and—gasp!—couldn’t instinctively tell that a book was female and a spoon male, in Hindi (or is it the other way round, I still can’t figure). It definitely wasn’t cool. But now, you really can’t go anywhere in Delhi without meeting a menu that offers “gunpowder" potatoes or Chennai biryani—which honestly isn’t a thing. There’s Dindigul biryani or Ambur biryani, which take their names from the respective towns, because the style of preparation is unique. But no, Chennai isn’t really known for its own style of biryani. It is known for its peculiar slang, Madras Tamizh or bashai, which is a mish-mash of words and emotions that’s largely unintelligible to most outside the city—wait, is that what those menu writers were going for with biryani? Unlikely, since the shades within a state’s culture are rarely noticed outside.

But there’s a lot of delicious laughter to be had from reading these menus: “Tamil street chicken" is the baffling name of one dish, in a fine print that’s even more complicated. After much thought and grilling of the waiter, it transpires it’s good old kotthu parotta, usually made with eggs, meat and leftover parotta (not paratha, please, it’s very different). Then there’s banana leaf rice. Yes, there are various types of rice in the south—coconut to curry leaf, chitranna to vangi bhath—but not banana leaf. Turns out, that’s the name for steamed white rice served on a banana leaf. If it was served on a steel plate, would you call it steel salver rice?

Napkins have Rajinikanth or Baahubali caricatures, it’s not extraordinary to hear a Tamil song in a restaurant, cocktails are named “Kollywood Pop" and in a rather problematic turn, “Dark South". Rajinikanth films are things of wonder that must be pencilled into a weekend schedule, Perumal Murugan is a hero at lit fests, and previously reviled, massive moustaches are suddenly to be flaunted because Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman wears one.

As a south Indian who moved to Delhi fairly recently, the “cool" quotient of Tamil is a bit baffling because most people can’t really locate Tamil Nadu or Karnataka on a mental map. Kerala is better off because of its beaches, and well, it’s geographically blessed by being a strip of land at the westernmost corner of the country. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have really complicated their chances of discovery by choosing to split up in 2014. Often, borders are blurred.

Some time ago, a concerned soul asked with great empathy, “I hope you’re not having too much trouble with the pollution in Delhi. Your cricket team was here last week and really struggled. They threw up on the pitch."

I agreed that the abysmal air took time to get used to, and then pointed out that I am from Tamil Nadu and not Sri Lanka, which is a different country. “But it’s the same, isn’t it, all south," was the well-meaning, but aggravatingly ignorant response.

At some extraordinarily philosophical, big-picture level, that is probably true, but the viewing of the region as one large entity without stopping to see the differences leads to other kinds of friction. The frustration at this inability to notice nuances does manifest as inflexible regionalism or protectionist ideas and even violence against “outsiders".

Despite the diversity in the country, we’re not exactly attuned to what could be offensive—“all south Indians are black" or “all Punjabis are loud". Jokes about accents or habits aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but they often tip into wilful ignorance and casual racism. Being careful with words is not just about trending terminology or political correctness. It’s about respect, and seeing each person and their background as being of equal worth.

Maybe, just maybe, the interest in food and film will deepen to knowledge of basic geography, understanding of culture, and respect for and an appreciation of linguistic and other differences. It’s well established that film and food are important channels of cultural communication, and strengthen tolerance of diversity. And then maybe, just maybe, we won’t find ourselves dealing with questions like, “Bangalore, amazing weather. So, do you speak Kannadiga?"

Shalini Umachandran works at Mint.

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