If you see my parents, they look like the quintessential arranged marriage couple. After nearly 35 years together, they still take care not to touch each other while posing for a photograph and my mother’s smile dangles precariously between a smile and a grimace. But this image discolours the truth a tad.
Some 40 years back, they met at work, fell in love and got married. The talking point of the union being mom’s status as an iyengar and dad’s as an iyer. Simply put, the iyers and the iyengars are two castes of the Brahmin community, each, when given the chance, profess superiority to each other on all counts. If you listen closely, an Iyengar talking about an Iyer will say ‘Iyer a?’ in a condescending tone. And vice versa.
Mom tells me that when she told her dad about the marriage, he vowed to stand by her at any cost. Dad never told me what happened, but allow me to hazard a guess. His mother (my grandmother), threatened to go on a fast unto death. My dad threatened to go on a parallel fast unto death. Paati (grandmother) couldn’t fathom her son going without mother’s food and made him his favourite more kozhambu and parpoosali curry to pacify him. And grudgingly accepted his choice of an iyengar bride.
When I was younger, these questions never struck me as obvious. Why does thatha (mom’s dad) apply a namam and why does appa (my dad) apply a vibuthi? An image vividly comes to mind, where in a moment of unawareness, I applied a namam. My paati (dad’s mom) nearly suffered her first heart attack (the first of many mini-heart attacks), furiously rubbed it off and promptly applied three lines of veeboothi on my head. The permanent crease on my forehead can be attributed to the constant twitching it was subject to each time I applied a naamam and was furiously rubbed off to make way for a vibuthi. And vice versa.
Over the years, paati tried to brainwash me into believing that all iyengars were inferior. My mother use to tell me that all iyers had an inferiority complex that showed outwardly as a superiority complex. As my love and affection for both these women was immense, all this, as one may assume, left a dent on my psyche. Whose side should I take? I suspect at some point this caused a mild case of multiple personality disorder. Worried, my parents carted me to a shrink, who attempted to demystify the many me’s. His first question – ‘iyer or iyengar?’ "Ottha naaye, adekeda onkitte vandhein. Ennake therile."(moron, that’s why I came to you. I don’t know).
For a large part of my life, I led a charmed existence, unaware of the baggage I was carrying, until people started asking me if I was an Iyer or an Iyengar. When I tell them I am half iyer and half iyengar, their eyes light up. ‘Your parents must have been very brave’, ‘in those days, it was considered travesty’, and other such comments which paint a picture of super heroism. When they got married, I presume both sides came armed with truckloads of vibuthi and chandanam respectively to make a point.
This dichotomy exposes itself in many functions. At some point in time, one of them devised an order of how food was supposed to be served. Not to be outdone, the other made some changes. So whenever a function is held, an iyengar guest will instruct the server to serve in one manner. The iyer guest will instruct the server in a manner contrary to the iyengar. Inevitably, this causes some terse moments.
One day, in a bid to set the record straight, I asked my grandmother (while eating), what the actual difference was between an iyer and an iyengar. Maybe the setting influenced her answer but this was her reply– “you know, iyengars always serve rice first and iyers never serve rice on an empty plate.” For the lack of an appropriate response, I burst out laughing. She showed her displeasure by forgetting to add salt to the food the next day.