Oil painting, artist unknown.

A stray remark by a friend triggered this post. She said,”You Brahmin, Pethi girls used to be so typical in college! Combining Birthday treats of people into just one party, sharing petrol money if you travelled together, and never ever being lavish!” 😳😳😳 Yes, well, attribute it to our modest lifestyles and limited pocket money, if you please; rather than to our caste or place of residence! And don’t forget, we also worked very hard and were amongst the brightest of the lot!!

I once met a very prominent citizen of our city – born in Pune, residing here her entire life, in the Camp/Bund Garden area. About 70 years old now. She said to me – “I’ve always wanted to attend the Sawai Gandharva Mahotsav ( a world-renowned Hindustani classical music yearly fest), but have never done so yet! Somehow can’t cross the river and go into the town part to do so!” 

Several out-of-towners, as soon as they hear you are from Pune, will be ready with quick comments as to how the Punekars are over smart, snooty, miserly – most of these out-of-towners however reside in Pune/covet to reside in Pune.

When a lot of Punekars who have lived here their entire lives but have not set foot outside the core city radius of 5 km, hear where I live in Pune, the inevitable comment is “oh, but that’s not Pune at all!”

A Maratha, a Brahmin and a Punekar of an unspecified non-Marathi caste will be talking to each other. The conversation will likely go something like this:

Maratha: “I am a 96-Kuli, Shivaji Raje is our ancestor. We’ve done great heroic deeds! We’re the ones who are the rightful beneficiaries of the Hindvi Swaraj!” The only heroic deed that the said Maratha will be currently doing is enjoying the monetary benefits of selling off his land to a builder! 

Brahmin: “We are the ones who trained Shivaji Raje and also ruled after him! We gave this place its culture, its art, its intellect, its identity and just about everything in between!” Leave alone the fact that the said person’s progeny is now in the US of A or Australia or Great Britain or anywhere else in the world, making money, visiting once in three years and with children totally clueless about this great culture or identity!

Non-Marathi: I set up and developed trade and business here – neither you Marathas nor you Bammans could do it! What greatness are you talking about? I make the wheels of this city run!”

😳😳😳

The list of such incidents could go on and on – the point is how stereotypes and stereotyping is so ingrained in us, that a little bit of a difference in anything is enough to put up the walls and cast the partitions firmly between “them and us”!

I grew up in a middle-class, educated Brahmin household in Pune. My childhood was comfortable in all respects, but sparse, not lavish. I studied in Delhi where I was always referred to as “Ghati” – a general term for cocooned, Marathi people who refuse to come out of their shell and mingle with others. That name continued even when I eventually made many more non-Marathi friends there than Marathi ones! I, on the other hand, treated all North Indians as Punjabis – chilled out, extravagant and shrewd business people! I was stereotyping too! My first work assignment was with a 5-star hotel in Delhi where I was treated as the “pseudo-socialist from JNU” who had strayed into the extremely materialistic world of decadently luxurious 5-star hotels! The next assignment with a German company gave me the status of “an Indian who spoke German and hence was welcome”! Marriage brought in more confusion in the form of a family who is a Maharashtrian by name but North-Indian by culture! They’ve always lived in MP and Gujarat! Many transfers and changes in cities brought in various influences, the result of which is that it is not easy to define or slot me into any particular caste or religion any more! And my children get very perplexed when they are asked questions about the same, because they have not been brought up withthe values/ traditions/ teachings of any one particular caste, culture, religion or language. 

Though I have written my story here, it is similar to a lot of stories of people of my generation who moved out of their towns or cities to study and work, maybe had intercaste marriages, travelled and settled overseas etc. A “stable 9-5 job with the same organisation for 35 years” is a pretty much obsolete idea now. Things are in a constant state of flux and one can’t be in the same position or condition for years together. For many years we could never say for sure whether we would be in the same place the same time next year! 

But the barriers in the mind, are alas, tougher to bring down! In Mumbai – the town side and the suburbs; in Pune – the Peths and the rest, or “this side of the river” and the other side, in Delhi – the posh South Delhi and the Chandni Chowk/Karolbaug divide – the list is endless. We will more often than not more easily accept a foreigner into our house and treat him/her more lovingly and with a more open mind than we would a person from “across the river”! 

This post is not about the do’s and dont’s of these behavioural traits and patterns. This is also not a sermon on how we should do things differently. These are just patterns I’ve been observing for a long time now and these days they provide some amusement to me! Because somebody’s vice is always somebody else’s virtue; somebody’s loss is somebody else’s gain and somebody’s absolute must-do is somebody else’s must-avoid! Inspite of this we all survive; some in our cocoons, some others in our oysters, yet others who treat the whole world as their oyster! 

Disclaimer: No offence absolutely, whatsoever is meant to any person, caste, creed, race, religion here. We all have friends, relatives, acquaintances, colleagues and students from all these different backgrounds and it doesn’t matter whether they are “like us” or “different.” However, the observations are true and the experiences first-hand and personal, hence authentic! The great Pu La Deshpande wrote “Punekar, Mumbaikar ani Nagpurkar” many decades ago, with scathingly witty observations about quirks of people from these three cities. I neither have the wit nor the talent of this great man, but I find his observations relevant even today. What does that tell us about ourselves? We are still islands, holding on to perceived/created identities, so that we can define “us” versus the “others”. Right or wrong, relevant or irrelevant – can’t really say. Can we be curious rather than critical? Open to just listening to a different perspective, rather than stating it outright as wrong “because it’s not ours?” 

Midway might be the way to go. What say?

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