Couldn’t I just ask you if you are Tambram?

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?

No.

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,Β  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?

Coffee please.

Good. Coffee sounds promising. Filter (good) or Nescafe (not good)?

Double Decaf Hazelnut Latte sprinkled with cinnamon?

The End.

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.

47 Comments

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  1. As usual, GOD.

    Retired manager from IOB, going by the name of “Varadarajan”. Somehow, I find that name a tad too common, with IOB retirees.

    I have now started waiting for sunday nights. πŸ™‚
    I really wish you blog more often.

  2. Haha.. I take it you have read the post on Maami’s blog about tambrahms? It seems though that in India tambrahms are trying harder to move away from the ‘iyer’ ‘iyengar’ kind of names, but here in the US, people are adding those to their american citizen kids’ names.

  3. Great people think alike-on small matters?!
    Amma’s flat is up for rent- ‘looking distance’ from your appice?Venuma?
    I can convince the house owner:
    We have no problems saar brahmana maadiri jit kudumi vechurukel
    Adada, parasuramar maadiri daadi vera
    Apparum, neenga yenga ooru pakkama?
    Wokay, wokay, May maasam ange varom, paarkalam.
    P.S:Office leaseoliyo? Tee hee!
    Ashok: πŸ™‚ The story here was hypothetical, so thang you for the offer. I will refer some of my Vietnamese friends πŸ™‚

  4. As a NonResidentTamilian (NRT) … who spent most of 2007 in Chennai… it was only this tag of tambram which got me a rented place easily and occasionally some nice food cooked by other same caste neighbor… and it was more and more due to my Tanjore dialect of Tamizh… they recognised that I am a Tambram !

  5. haha.. my grandfather had an easier approach.. he would jus whisper “nammalavaala” very loudly.. loud enough for the person in question to squirm and answer πŸ™‚

  6. We love slotting people into neat, nicely defined shelves of caste, sub-caste, district, taluk, veda-chapter, alma mater, language and soap-serial preferences!

    hehehehe…

    this thing is really very annoying…when we rented out our house to a family who weren’t brahmins, they were shocked we even agreed! n they kept askin us if we wr ok if they cooked non-veg…i had to tell them we r totally ok, as long as they give us some biryani whenever they make it πŸ˜‰

    but my relatives and the other maamis around…oh, they used to tsk-tsk everytime we blasphemists stepped outta our house! πŸ˜‰

  7. Heh heh. It takes a Tambram to bludgeon the Tambrams, eh?! The insider-outsider. Always the most heretical. πŸ™‚

    Methinks it’s the IT wallahs who’re the new brahmins (read privileged class) today in the rent and real estate scene. For crying out loud . . . there was / is /will be a world beyond IT, no?

  8. I remember travelling with my parents where my father would insist on finding out the relegion of the driver of the vehicle he was going to hire. He would try desperately to try and find some indication of a pillaiyar or a venkatachalapathy figure and if he didnt find one, he would ask the driver his name. I remember once getting into a very holy taxi and my father getting all paly with the driver asked him his name only to discover that it was shahjahan! The expression on my dad’s face was unforgettable
    However, we still keep in touch with him and call him up on a diwali or pongal day when other drivers are celebrating.
    This was another generation; ours will carry our prejudices in a more subtle way I hope..

  9. Hahaha! Though a regular reader, it is my first comment.

    For all the trouble, the house owner could have found some excuse to embrace you and thereby identify the presence of a poonol right?!

    I live in kodambakkam in a flat. Of the six apartments we are the only non-brams and you know what..the agreement paper had one point that stated that we were not supposed to cook non-veg!! Sigh! Managing with hotel food on Sundays all these months.

    Even the people on the nearby flats are brams and I find it very amusing when one maamaa comes out without fail in the mornings and afternoon and forms a strange pattern with his hands before looking at the sun through the small orifice!

    My boss too reads your blog after I mentioned it to him and we call you the Gajabuja guy πŸ™‚

  10. A regular visitor to your blog. But this is only the second time am commenting here. Your posts are kick ass (sorry if thats not a tambrahm way of saying SUPER BLOG! πŸ™‚ ) and am a big fan of yours…

  11. Weed will weed will rock you! Awesome. BTW, I find the bashfulness of the Tambram lessor in the inquisition of prospective lessess (to borrow a favorite word of wife’s) “chweet”. You should see the Gujjus in Bombay. No question is taboo.
    “How much you are making per month? All white or black also?”
    “What underwear you wear? Tommy Hilfiger?”
    “Why you are not having kids? You are doing planning or what?”

  12. There is a town in Oregon called Weed. If they dont already, they should sell t-shirts that say “Weed will Weed will rock you”. Quite brilliant!
    My sister probably had the best “Mental Algorithm for the Conversational Determination of Tambramness” thrust upon her when a school teacher insisted – “Unna oru nalla iyer aathu payyanaa paarthu katti vekkanum” . She had no choice except to announce her non-tambramness (It was either that or lesbianism – lesser of 2 evils I guess.). The 2-second eye-widening-jaw-dropping to quick-must-regain-composureness was apparently awesome to behold.

  13. Another kocchen could be,

    “Muy zun wrote the eye-eye-tea in ninedeen nindy piew you also wrote a?”

    For some strange reason 80% tambram kids end up appearing for the JEE or atleast having a copy of brilliant tutorials at home…..

  14. It takes one Tambram to mock at Tambram’s casteist prejudices. Good to know that we Tambram’s do not fight shy of laughing at ourselves.

  15. max … awesome imitation. … sema kocchen .. ippidilaam kettelna … aathukkullaye vidamaatenakkum. kettela !! naan eye eye dee ezhiddi kappu adhicchutten. enna panaardhu .. but I made my tambram appa proud by going to the yoou ess eaa and studying.

  16. “The Chennai Training Institute for Bram-Masquerading for House Renting Purposes”

    LOL..!!!

    Came here via Philips blog. I had dropped in earlier on the Facebook Mahabharatha post via Deispundit too. Good reads!!

    A

  17. Also – this reminds me of the time my cousin was studying – doing her PG at Madras sorry Chennai while her husband was posted at B’lore and it didn’t seem worthwhile for either to give up their careers and settle down right away in one place together. So the husband did the commute from B’lore – when ever he could since the wife being a doc was often on call on weekends and nights. At that time the wife was staying in a hostel and moved to a hotel room when ever the husband came down and this proved quite expensive – so when the obviously non tambram couple (dead against display of martrimonial bondage like even a little sindur let alone a mangal sutra or ring) went looking for a house they would use only on weekends and holidays- you can imagine the stir they created …:-)))

  18. Couldnt resist posting this…..

    From the Other Side..

    Sunday morning sitting with the Hindu Sunday Edition magazines, Appa sips his 3rd coffee of the morning.

    “Sir,..” , a voice from gate. I rush to the balcony to see who it is.
    “Veedu Tolet nu potirkku”
    Cast a polite smile and turn around to appa, his intriguing eyes ask the familiar question, “Nambalavaalaa?”
    I reply with shrug which means I dont belong to Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes clan..

    Observation #1: He has come alone, Where is his wife or mother?

    Thillu mullu isstyle Score Card
    Family: 3/10

    Ob #2: He has a bike. Whats that Livingstrong Band in his hands.. Over Modern’ooo.. The metrosexual dude nu nenapoo..

    Grooming: 3/10

    Ob#3: The poor dude starts speaking, he has been in Delhi all this while, no wonder is tamil is so Junooon’ish.
    Appa’s third and mighty weapon is Iyer slang.. which is not found in his vocab..

    Iyer’ness: 0/10

    So he shoots the straight koshin… Neenga NV sapduvaela?
    Dude: No
    Appa: Neenga enna?
    Dude: Na TCS la PM’aa irukaen
    Appa: (Smiling to himself) Naanga Iyer so…
    Dude: En wife Iyer daan

    Family: 0/10

    Appa: Oh..(Trying to cook up a reason to send him off) ..We personally prefer people who dont take NV.
    Dude: We dont take NV.Only Eggs.

    Eating habits:3/10 (Eggs are ok.. no smell no problem)

    Appa:Illa sir, naanga family ya irukara vaaal’ukku daan veedu kodupom
    Dude: yes sir, family yes. One wife and one year old kid.
    Appa: Sorry sir..Neenga vera veedu parungoo..
    Dude: Ok…

    Folks …all this conversation without even opening/showing of the house to be rented. This dude scored 9/50 whereas a minimum of 40/50 is required to gain access to see the house and nothing less than 45/50 would take you close to moving into the house.

    Appa comes back to his Sunday Magazine, mumbling, “Romba periya rodanai yaa irukku.. Iyer wife, family of three, stylish husband..epdi veedu kodukardhu..daily ingayae party panuvaa.. Namakku seri padaadu idu ellam!!”
    Goes back to his 4th coffee of the morning.

    Again a voice is heard below, “Sir…” and the saga continues…

  19. Ha.Krish, you really pushed him man..and yourself to the extent of not getting the apt. It seems like you wanted to play the game more than finding an apt for yourself. I would presume that if somebody was in extreme urgency to rent an apt, he would have said – “ama naanga iyer” – and got it right away. As usual crisp humor.

  20. Further to Narendra Shenoy’s observations on Mumbai….

    If we TamBrahms in Chennai had the financial muscle of the Jains in Mumbai, we’d preserve our variety of social engineering by going far more than just a board on the gate.

    Such as
    a)controlling all the apartment committees to ensure that only the ‘right’ people own, let alone rent in the building.

    b) pushing for supermarkets to stock frozen non veg in a forgotten corner, far away from where it can offend vegetarian sensibilities.

    c) use nexus with the mafia to ensure that butchers don’t establish shop anywhere near the main approaches.

    And so on.
    Ashok: You are right. In fact, I really don’t think Iyers would get that pushy and unsubtle even if they had that sort of financial muscle. Like Eddie Izzard puts it brilliantly, the South Indian version of Social Engineering is not quite like the Spanish Inquisition (Burn. Poke. Scream. Etc). Its more like the Anglican Church (Burn. Oh. You dont like it. Would you like some tea?)

  21. my friends say being male, single, non-tam brahm tenant-hopeful is an even greater sin. Apparently landlords are known to have a quick bath to wash away sins from looking at his subsect of the species

  22. That was quite funny. I gather you are tambram and therefore feel it is OK to poke at the lot? Do you do others or just focus on tambrams? Go on… I dare you. (And don’t assume I am a tambram).

  23. My first venture out of TN was at then Bombay! Renting then in Bombay was no small feat. When I found a nice (locked up) apartment in a desirable area, I had to cajole the U.S. returned scientist marathi landloard to rent to me. After his intial refusal, he happily relented to open up the apartment for ‘Tamils’…go figure!

  24. may the flying spaghetti monster save the tambram house-owning community when i start hunting for a rental place.. i am a tambrahm only by birth.. everything else abt me is non-brahmin.. πŸ˜€

  25. You know this is strangely funny. I am house hunting in Bangalore, so I went to look for a place in Malleswaram, a predominant tambram locality for one. I do not detest other people, but the sights of open pork shops and chicken rotisserie are a complete turn off. Come to Madivala in Bangalore and you would know how objectionable a butcher shop can be. Further, no Brahmin asked me if I was an Iyer or an Iyengar, but a Gowda gent who owned multiple properties in Bangalore. Why don’t you train your guns on other kinds of people who genuinely oppress both SCs as well as their own women?
    Ashok: I can only train guns on my own kind, Mani Iyer πŸ™‚ I dont know enough about others to make fun of them

  26. living abroad..intha mathiri vishayam ellam no clue… but I have seen many people assume tambrams are intelligent/clean/moral/ generally acceptable than most. dunno why. ana am using that to make my life easy!

    am reminded of all the childhood “avalaam” issues after I read your post. e-thanxs!

  27. hmm.. somehow i was always led to believe that non-brahmins owned quite a large proportion of the houses too.. dont know the statistical data for sure though.. but in my area in t.nagar, i would say only arnd 40 pc of owners are tambrams.. which should mean it wont be so hard for non-brahmins to find houses right??
    nice post btw..

  28. btw, i was an atheist from the age of 19 thru 35. At 35, when walking in the TS, i suddenly became a theist.
    This is such a fantastic para, that i will use it if ever i write on this topic, of course with due ack, as a quote : “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.”
    The sad part is that some ( not all )Indians in US add extra dimensions to the above :1. Number of yrs in US ( over 8 yrs = superior sub-caste) 2. Green Card or not 3. Own house or apt
    And Indians other than Tambrams would not hesitate to ask point-blank , if they needed to know ur caste or any personal info, for any reason, even just curiosity. Worst affected by offensive personal q’s are single middle-aged ladies in an Indian gathering, whether in India or US .

  29. i’ve never hunted for an appt. in chennai, but did offer my grand parents to a manifestly non tambram friend~ i must say though, delhi is unabashed about this. what caste, marital status, work….[lawyer? you probably don’t make money then / youre a techie? (i’ve found the source of finance to visit the US), interesting….]. muslims of course have it the worst – esp. the ones from kashmir.

    i’ve often tried to avoid the caste question with yudhistra’s ‘our caste is determined by our conduct and not birth’ answer only to get a ‘yeah, thats cute. ok, so what caste…no serious’. i was a ‘srinivasan’ for a really long time and …. that was assumed to be my ‘caste’ or should is *beep*~

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