Earlier this year, Business Insider, the American business and entertainment news website, carried an insightful yet hilarious array of slides on its portal. The title explained the intent: ‘A Complete Guide to National Stereotypes Around the World’, and the slides looked at how a nation — or a people — sees itself relative to other nations — or other peoples — of the world.
So if the French regarded Russia as Napoleon’s dream (unrealised, one may add), the Russians regarded the French as victims of fashion. The most astute observations (stereotypes themselves) about national character were, expectedly, about the United States. Much of Africa was to the Americans “a fucking desert, dude”, bits of it about “hunger and stuff”, and so on and so forth.
The absurdity of reducing enormous swathes of land, inhabited by millions into bare-bone characteristics is what makes stereotyping obnoxious. In a grim world, it can inflame tempers and lead to horrific, organised violence, instances of which are way too numerous in the history of humankind. In a world slightly less severe, where a well-endowed sense of humour can help deflect us from such dire consequences, stereotyping, however irksome (blacks make good athletes, women are guided more by emotion than reason) can end up generating a few hearty laughs.
If you are unconvinced, watch Tamilian actor Dhanush singing Why This Kolaveri Di? on YouTube — that is, if you are not among the 11 million who have already seen it.
Listening to it play, I was reminded of a rather churlish joke that a friend used to narrate. ‘Why does it take a South Indian longer to reach home than his counterpart from the north?’ it ran. The latter has to go home, while the former has to go home-u, was the answer, in an obvious dig at the slight lingering on the last syllable that is considered typical of the way an average south Indian enunciates his words.
Much of the hair-splitting analysis about the surging popularity of ‘Kolaveri Di’ perhaps misses that point. Yes, the rhythm catches on. But if you have seen young Tamil boys drumming their fingers in a crowded bus, you realise it is nothing phenomenal. Yes, it is about jilted love, but then that subject is the staple of every genre across ages and continents and can hardly break new ground. But try repeating “White background, night colour black” in your workaday accent, and you discover that it is as sodden inspiring as yesterday’s newspaper.
And, you also discover where the magic lies. That there is a land south of the Vindhyas, political borders insisting that they are four separate states but many know better and refer to all the people there as Madrasis. And never mind their formidable culinary nuances, many would continue knowing better and insist that they eat idli-dosa through all hours of the night and day. And when the same have their hearts broken by white-skinned girls, they nod and smile and sing of “empty life-u, girl-u come-u, life-u reverse gear-u”.
And just off the cuff, what kind of foot-tapping song would we get if a young man’s heart was broken elsewhere in the country? Well, a Bengali would not be able to sing himself out of his stupor, even as his Devdas-like stubble drowned in the liquor. And those in the north would be so busy with their batons and lathis, bashing up the girl, her brothers, uncles, nephews, neighbours and sundry others passing by (Kolaveri Di does mean ‘killer rage’ in Tamil slang), we would all be dancing to a different kind of music. And a different kind of stereotype.