Culture Shock And Cosmology

by Ramesh Mahadevan

Dear Sir/Madam,

Kudos to all your esteemed readers for relating their experiences in this much venerated forum. Apropos from all the letters on this topic, my heart melted with pity when I read some of the "Culture shock" tales. I am a retired government servant and I am currently visiting my daughter Smt. Baghyalakshmi and son-in-law Thiru. Palvayanteeswaran, who live in a very modern flat in New Jersey, a stone's throw away from New York and both of them are breadwinners of the family. I write to the editors of 'The Hindu' oft, and I am herewith attaching a copy of the same for the benefit of all the kind souls in the Soc.Culture.Indian. Much ado has been raised about the 'Culture Shock'. But, as they describe aptly in this country, "You ain't seen nothin yet, my main man", till you read my experiences.

Let me take twenty seconds of your valuable time. I am trying to find the whereabouts of my dear friend Thiru. Ananthavenkataraman, of 1917 batch, Presidency College (first class, B. A in Chemistry). He was a very interesing person and knew many bawdy sanskrit verses. He even wore trousers to the college, breaking the tradition. He had the longest 'chotee' in the class. This is also an open invitation for all alumni of the above-mentioned college, 1917 batch, dead or alive, to please contact me through email or ouija board.

Now the Culture Shock. The hoi polloi of the S.C.I is very mild in describing the events as 'shock'. Sometimes, my eyes were welling with moist tears. To me it is 'Catastrophy'. (In this country they might spell it Katastrofy, Mr. Shaw must be rolling in his grave) and what is this, 'Kind of cute, kind of neat', I say? What kind of civilization is it if they show advertisements for windows during world news. They call it world news? I will show you what world news is. The newspapers here are not worth the newsprint they are printed on. No moving religious article on 'Sita's loyalty, and Hanuman's Bhakti' like the ones that appear in the last page, first column of your number one paper in our land. I would also like to know what kind of country is it that allows dogs to sit in the front seat of the cars and children in the back seat; that would allow its honourable citizens to dress in nothing but banians; that allows nubile ladies to show their private parts in magazines sold in public? Couples practising marriage everywhere in public? And people turn a Nelson's eye towards these things here. There is sex and violence everywhere. It is disgusting and I love it.

Where can I find vegetarian cuisine here, I say? Nice curd baath. All non-vegetarian, everywhere. Cows are slaughtered on all days. Their karma will catch up with them, you wait. One day I went to that organized garage sale called K Mart and asked them in a humble tone "Sir, where can I find chappals". He thought for a few minutes and said "There is one down the road and a cathedral in the campus". What is the point of having computators everywhere if you cannot even handle such simple horse-sense situations?

On Mahasivarthri day I was observing the holy fast. I had only eaten about a dozen idlis to propitiate god. Very suddenly I produced a 'Hic' sound. And then another one. I don't believe in allopathic treatment and so brought my homeopathic medicines. When I tried to reach for it, I found out that my grandson had eaten the whole bottle of sweet homeopathic medicine. No control over children in this country? Isn't this shock? Spare the rod and spoil the child. And no doctors visit patient at homes here. So they took me to a hospital. Someone quickly asked me to remove my dhoti and put on hospital gown. I tried to make a fig leaf out of my hands, even when I was in the semi-conscious state. This was another shock for me. Despite the best medical attention and a huge bill, I passed away around 1.00 am. I thought I had broken all the worldy bonds and 'Culture Shocks', Joachim Martillo posts and have become a humble servant of Him. But, when my soul went up, I was most shocked to find a gentlething, most horrible in appearance, pointing a pen and a sheet of paper and asked me to sign the form. I signed after being on the horns of dilemma for a few seconds, and then realized he was my agent and I am featured in the movie "Ghostbusters III". Isn't this culture shock?

It was my pleasure to share many of my shocking experiences from my mind's eye. I have to leave now, since I am skejooled to meet Sri Ayatollah Khomeini in a few minutes.


Do Tamils have last names (surnames)?

I had posted the following in soc.culture.tamil. A nettor feels that the topic may interest the citizens of SCI as well.

What is your last name (surname)? A question Tamils from TN encounter when they leave their home state. We don't have last names or first names or middle names. We are given a name (or names in some cases) and an initial. When last names and first names are needed, the entire resume is fed into a grinder and out come all the necessary names. Thus sometimes last name of a Tamil is really the name of a town he/she has never been to. And/or the first name is really the father's name. Or any other imaginable combination. Sometimes the caste name becomes the last name.

Robert Kanigel has a book on Ramanujan (kaNitha mEthai)t titled "The man who knew infinity." He describes the initial system thus:

     "Srinivasa was just his father's name, automatically         
      bestowed and rarely used; indeed, on formal documents, and  
      when he signed his name, it usually atrophied into an       
      initial "S."
      . . . 
      As he would later explain to a Westerner, "I have no proper

Perhaps he might have added "Nobody out here has a surname."

The initial system is not as simple. Some belong to the single initial system and some have two initials. Some have more than two. A textile shop in our home town bore the name of the founder with his all four initials. Often the two initials stand for the names of the village and the father. Sometimes not. I hear that L.R. Eswari's full name is Lourdu Rajeswari. Since there was a M.S. Rajeswari, the former decided to compress the name. Why do some have one and others two? Why does Soundararajan have two but Susheela only one? Puzzling.

It is not just persons who have initials. Towns do too. IF you enquire about the bus to Kallupatti in Madurai bus stand you will be asked whether you want to go to T. Kallupatti or M. Kallupatti.

Often the names of persons turn into a bunch of initials. Not just for stars - M.G.R., S.S.R. Go to any office. You will hear statements like "neenga ethukkum K.S.R.-te oru vArthai chollividunga."

We also come across persons with multiple names (not including the name used by ones mom because she is not allowed to say the father-in-law's name). Tamil Christians have multiple name syndrome. John Xavier Athisaya Kumar. You can get a first name, middle name and a last name and still have a name to spare.

Some have names that naturally split up (unstable molecules). Kamal Hassan is a case in point. Many of my Hindi speaking friends asked me whether he is a Tamil Muslim or a Malayali Muslim.

A word of caution to non-Tamils. When you hear a Tamil's last name, assume nothing. The other day I introduced my father to my department chairman.

"Scott, this is my Dad. Appa, this is our chairman."

He shook my father's hand and said "Pleased to meet you Mr. Ponarul." I explained the situation to my father later but he didn't like the fact that he was called by name.

I have a friend from Guyana (once British Guyana) who tells me that the Indians in her country are broadly classified into three groups. Hindus, Muslims and Madrasis. As far as possible marriage partners are sought within the group. How do tell if some one is a Madrasi? My friend says it is by their last name. Madrasi's tend to have last names that do not come from India or from any other place. They are just made up names.


Copyright(R) Mahadevan Ramesh