The phrase “Notoriously hard” is not something that is usually associated with the city of Chennai. Most aspects of this city (except the weather) tend to attract adjectives of a genteel nature (like genteel for example).
For instance, Mumbai is a happening city, where events tend to fall from the sky like they were dropped from a B1 bomber while Chennai is more of an occurring city, where events float down from the sky, attached to parachutes. You know what I mean right? When one says happens, eyes bulge out of their sockets, blood pressure rises and adrenaline flows like the Brahmaputra in spate, while occurs is spoken in a tone that is the aural equivalent of idli from Murugan Idli store.
Taking another example, Bangalore’s metaphorical IT knife is bleeding edge while Chennai’s is more useful for the application of butter on bread.
But there is an aspect of Chennai that can accurately be described as notoriously hard.
It’s finding a house to rent.
One would think that should be straightforward, right? I mean, if you are willing to pay the rent demanded and are not wearing a T-shirt that says Weed will Weed will Rock You, it should really be easy, right?
Us desis love taxonomies, and some elderly house-owning Tambram gentlemen are no different. I suppose every group has its own equivalent of this, but I am only going to write about what I am familiar with. We love slotting people into neat, nicely defined shelves of caste, sub-caste, district, taluk, veda-chapter, alma mater, language and soap-serial preferences. In fact, we have such highly evolved, multi-dimensional classification mechanisms for people that one suspects that Carolus Linnaeus possibly had an Indian connection.
But caste is a bad word in TN. So bad that we have to say *beep* instead. Let him who is without sin *beep* the first stone. Doctor, My arm is broken. Do I need a *beep*. Be a good citizen and *beep* your vote. And so on. So asking somebody what caste they belong to is a strict no no. In the past however, ones bramness was visible for everyone to see and hear. The names were unmistakeable (Venkatarama Iyer, Sabesa Iyer, Ramanuja Iyengar etc), the facial make up (Naamam/Vibhooti), and the lack of upper body garments usually revealed the advanced back-scratching mechanism called Poonal. But engineering college rules, office dress codes and Hollywood have conspired to make young people today look homogeneous, thus making it a complex chore to figure out if a prospective renter is tambram.
Let me give you a hypothetical example of a conversation (or is that an example of a hypothetical conversation?) between me, my wife and an elderly gentleman who was inspecting us for suitability while we were doing the same to his house. And assume that I had this device that could, at the press of a button, cause people to speak their thoughts, thus making public for the first time, The Mental Algorithm for the Conversational Determination of Tambramness, OR as his thoughts put it rather bluntly – How to determine Tambramness without letting an interested party know that you are a biased bigot.
And needless to say, I was trying my best to obfuscate my origins just to test the strength of his algorithm.
Note: Normally unspoken thoughts are shown in italics
You see saar. My two sons are in the States, and I am in charge of taking care of the flats that they have built. Now, they are also planning to come back to India any time because my grand children are growing up in a culture that it too diverse for our liking. So it is my solemn duty to see to that their flats are kept in good condition. Let me be frank with you. I only want to rent the house to Tambrams.
So sir, what do you do? And what’s with the long hair? Wife also bob-cut. Hmm. Artist-o? Or worse, hippie artist-o?
Working for a large IT company sir.
Oh. Appaadi (Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster). Not an artist. Service sector. Then there is a good probability. Good good. Nowadays everybody is in IT no? And your father?
He has a business of his own.
Oh. Very good. Oh dammit. Businessman aa? Had he said retired manager in Indian Overseas Bank, I could have confirmed Tambramness, but now I have to dig more. And what about the french beard? Oru velai Muslimo? You see, our clan deity (kula deivam) is Vaitheeswaran Koil. What about yours?
I am an atheist.
Oh. Atheist a? Karmam karmam. Anyway, this is going nowhere. Let me at least find out if he is vegetarian, because my traditions only allow extreme cruelty to flora and not fauna. This is a very lucky house sir. All my children got educated here and went on to do their higher studies in the States. So it will be very lucky for you also. Only one small problem. Some non-vegetarians have moved into the flat nearby and every weekend they cook fish and I cannot stand the smell. Hmm. Let me watch for his reaction. Will he empathize with my dislike for all fried forms of aquatic life?
(No reaction) Oh. (I also secretly indicate to my wife that asking which fish they were cooking, Seer fish or Matthi, might not be appropriate at this point)
It is completely torn I say (Kizhinchidhu). Let’s try the beverage test. Before you see the house, what would you like to drink? Tea or Coffee?
Good. Coffee sounds promising. Filter (good) or Nescafe (not good)?
Double Decaf Hazelnut Latte sprinkled with cinnamon?
ps: Here is a business idea for an entrepreneur. The Chennai Training Institute for Bram-Masquerading for House Renting Purposes. Royalties accepted in cash, kind, credit card and sodexho passes. Also, do read this post on “Brahmins-only” rental policies in Chennai by Maami.