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VOL. XXII No. 1, APRIL 16-30, 2012
A portrait of the median
N.S. Jagannathan, former Editor-in-Chief of Indian Express and Financial Express, passed away in Bangalore on December 24, 2011. He was 89. Here's an old (20.2.2008) blog posted by him on Tambrahms (which actually reproduced an e-mail sent to him by his nephew).

My nephew sent this mail. I am posting this in my blog so that those who have not read this interesting article when published can read and spread the word to others.

'This piece, it must be explained at the outset, is not a history of the Tamil Brahmins, or a gratulatory account of the community's famous achievers. It is more in the nature of a portraiture of the 'average or the median' member of the species. In an endeavour of this kind seeking to crystallise the unique qualities of a whole people, it would be misleading to talk of the 'tall poppies', the all-time greats, such as Sir T. Muthuswami Iyer, G. Subramania Iyer, Subramania Bharati, Rajaji, Satyamurthi, Sir C.V. Raman, Srinivasa Ramanujan, Madurai Mani Iyer or Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar.

It would be more appropriate to use (or misuse?) the well known statistical concept of the 'Bell Curve': a graph showing the distribution of the range of any characteristic within a population – say, height, weight, intelligence etc. This is typically a bell-shaped figure with a single well-defined maximum, an initial steep slope and a gradual tapering further down. Since such a distribution is common in nature, it is also known as 'normal distribution'. The maximum number in the frequency distribution, also called the 'mode', occurs roughly in the middle. It would be permissible to take persons in this range as authentic representatives, warts and all of the whole community. What follows is one man's perception, necessarily subjective, of the defining qualities of this 'representative' Tamil Brahmin.

Those who have seen the 1971 Satyajit Ray classic Seemabaddha (Company Limited) would recall a cameo in it of a conversation between the yuppie Bengali hero of the film and his personal secretary, a middle-aged Tamil Brahmin. The young man 'on the make' is a covenanted officer in one of those once-famous British merchant houses of Calcutta. The two have forged a relationship of extraordinary mutuality based on trust and admiration for each other's contrasting qualities. Tormented by the neurosis of upward mobility, particularly by his frustration over a decisive promotion still eluding him, the young executive asks his elderly secretary the secret of his sangfroid, his total imperviousness to tension and worry. The secretary sagely replies: "Sir, it is quite simple. On a cold day, when the hearth-fire is on, the best position to occupy is the place that is neither too near the fire nor too far. If you are too near, you might get singed. If you are too far, you would not get the necessary warmth."

Here, if you like, is the metaphor of the working philosophy of the archetypal Tamil Brahmin. What this illustrates is that the Tamil Brahmin prefers to function (and function efficiently) from behind the scene, rather than thrust himself to the front, with all the hassles and hazards of overexposure and too public a presence. His preferred position is the row behind the throne (as when the pompous minister briefs the Press). His passion for anonymity is notorious. His real successes are private ones secretly to be gloated over by himself or, at the most, in the intimacy of chosen friends. Even his jokes are private, with his cynical wit much in evidence when among intimates. His forte is wit rather than humour, unlike, say, the Punjabi. He is a master of the double entendre and is an inveterate punster, often bilingual and sometimes even trilingual. A random example: At the height of Japanese commercial expansionism in Europe and America in the 1970s, an envious joke was that the Japanese multinational Sony had bought the Leaning Tower of Pisa and re-erected it in Tokyo. The Tamil Brahmin tourist in Japan watching the operation is supposed to have made the deadpan observation: Nikkumo Nikkado which is Tamil for "God knows whether it will stand or fall."

An apocryphal quip describes the Tamil Brahmins as "the best second-rate men in the world." Rude as this remark is on the face of it, it is in many ways perceptive and could well be considered a compliment. (It is certainly better than being considered the worst first-rate men.) The sneer latches on to the central characteristic of a Tamil Brahmin – his instinctive preference for anonymous functionality behind the scene rather than high profile highfalutin from centre-stage. A Tamil Brahmin would readily endorse E.M. Foster's famous prayer: "Let no achievement on an imposing scale ever be mine."

This ineradicable modesty coexisting with proven competence is the reason why his preferred professions are the great anonymous ones, such as the Civil Service, where it is easy – indeed the required trait – to be 'the faceless bureaucrat'. He lets his nominal boss, the publicity-hungry politician, boast about policies whose details his ingenious mind has given legal and formal shape to, with all the ambiguities and obfuscations safely hidden in the fine print. Give him a brief of your intention, and he will give it a shape that would pass muster with a trusting public. Like the prestidigitator, he gloats in secret not over the illusion that the public laps up but over his real skill of sleight of hand that had made the illusion possible. An extreme example of this is the Tamil Brahmin folklore to the effect that some of the brilliant judgments of the English judges in pre-Independence Madras High Court were really written by their Tamil Brahmin bench clerks.

In the public sphere, the representative Tamil Brahmin is an apolitical pragmatist rather than a passionate ideologue, a trait that makes him an ideal public servant rather than a political leader. Temperamentally, he is a natural Tory or, at best, a Fabian, believing in the art of the possible rather than in the impossible dream. A British Conservative of the 1960s famously said once: "Let the socialists dream their dreams and scheme their schemes, we Conservatives have a job to do." This sums up admirably the working philosophy of the Tamil Brahmin administrator. Grand gestures and conspicuous posturing are not in his blood. Risk averse by temperament and playing for safety, he is rarely given to extreme positions or assertive stances in public. A pugnacious Tamil Brahmin is a contradiction in terms, though high profile T.N. Seshan, former Chief Election Commissioner, might seem to disprove this assessment. (In any case, he is a "Palghat Tamil Brahmin", a sub (?) species that deserves a special study in itself!)

Intellect rather than imagination is the Tamil Brahmin's forte. (Harsher judges might even say that intelligence rather than intellect is a Tamil Brahmin's strength.) Typically, a Tamil Brahmin is a professional executive or administrator rather than a professional politician or entrepreneur or a labour leader. It can even be argued that this is a throw-forward of the ancient Varna taxonomy: of the Brahmin – the purohit and the counsellor in contrast to the Kshatria (the forerunner of the modern-day politician), Vaisya (the prototype of today's entrepreneur), and the Labour leader (the champion of the working class, the modern-day shudras). Thus it is that you find that some of the greatest Diwans of Indian States of yore such as Seshadri Iyer and C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar were vintage Tamil Brahmins.

The Tamil Brahmin is by instinct a Rajabhakta, putting his ingenious mind at the disposal of the ruler of the moment for any purpose the latter chooses. But it is not a passive role of the flunkey, doing the bidding of his master. His manifest intellectual superiority makes him an ideal Amaathya, or Counsellor. Many a ruler of the former princely States had the good sense to listen to their Tamil Brahmin Diwans: this was true even when the advice was to quietly quit the scene collecting their privy purses when Sardar Patel ran a coach and fought through their puny sovereignties. Quite often, some of these princelings have been saved from the extreme consequences of their rather lurid private lives by the sagacious intervention of their counsellors.

Ostentatious wealth is rare in this community, testifying once again that a representative Tamil Brahmin abhors extremes. Though poverty and privation are not unknown in the community, the median Tamil Brahmin has a reasonable competence that meets his un-extravagant needs. Thrift comes naturally to him to the point of stinginess. A famous story used to go round the editorial anterooms in the days of Ramnath Goenka. A Marwari friend asked RNG why he paid his Punjabi editors fabulous salaries while his Tamil Brahmin editors were paid a pittance. Ramnathji is supposed to have replied: "Arre bhai! My Punjabi editor gargles his mouth with rose water after brushing his teeth. My Tamil Brahmin editor is content with 'rasam sadam'. To everyone according to his needs. Pure Communism!"

Competent, conventional and conformist, the median Tamil Brahmin is rarely adventurous or conspicuously unorthodox. Resilient and quickly adaptive, he would never wish "to stand out" as too heterodox or for that matter excessively orthodox either, despite the fact that, until recent times, the caste mark on his forehead was a give-away. A favourite expression of approbation in the community is 'God-fearing.' But his conformity is a convenience rather than conviction, arising partly from his reluctance to be the odd man out. Ancient taboos atavistically present in him are observed in the letter rather than in the spirit as in the obligatory rituals regularly performed. His house has its sacred and secular spaces clearly demarcated. Even today, in villages and small towns where the 'flat culture' has not yet found its way, a traditional Tamil Brahmin house has the ancient layout of increasingly 'sacred' space as you go inwards with the right of admission to each strictly caste-graded. In cities, where the drawing-cum-dining room layout has insinuated itself into domestic architecture, the Pooja room is inviolable.

A Tamil Brahmin's modernity is equally skin-deep, readily discarded in the privacy of his home. He eagerly sheds his trousers and shirt the moment he is back home and gets back to his comfortable veshti and bare chest. Until recently, alcohol was not a domestic amenity even among the more affluent and 'modern' Tamil Brahmins and was meant mostly for others who might visit. Though, for professional reasons and for compulsions of livelihood, he will go to the end of the earth, he is by no means as cosmopolitan, readily jettisoning his cultural baggage and merging with the homogenised nondescript new environment. His domestic pieties are preserved whether in New Delhi or New Jersey and his twin-passions of temple worship and Carnatic music are never ever abandoned, wherever he is.

Like the Jew to whom he is often compared, he is a great survivor. One of the earliest communities to have eagerly embraced the exhilarating new opportunities offered by English education in the early 19th Century, the Tamil Brahmins acquired a near monopoly of the much coveted Government employment of the times. This had naturally led to upper caste non-Brahmin resentment, which effectively politicised itself in the first decades of the last century. When this self-consciousness captured political power and formed governments in the 1920s in the Madras Presidency, it pursued vigorously a policy of reservation that ended the Brahmin's earlier monopoly of government jobs. This was the signal for the great Tamil Brahmin diaspora that still continues.

Denied opportunities at home, the Tamil Brahmin sought and found newer pastures in Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta. Caste-neutral professions such as accountancy and journalism became the alternatives. Still later, newer professional opportunities abroad, notably in the United States, became the magnet. And with the ascendancy in recent years of information technology where brainpower is more important than capital investment, this dispersal has become a flood. Almost every English-educated middle class Tamil Brahmin family has a younger member abroad.

Like much else in the world and in this country, the Tamil Brahmin profile is no doubt changing. The younger generations are conspicuously deracinated and some of the unique qualities of this community are getting blurred and homogenised with the rest of the world. Older generations still around are often disconcerted by the fact that the young Yuppies are losing their unique traits such as the love of their mother tongue and routine absorption of domestic pieties in an ambience of soft Hinduism.

Sanskrit slokas and Tamil prabandam verses that used to reverberate in the house in the stillness of the evening are being heard less and less. Raucous rock music is displacing the softer Carnatic melodies and ancient civilities are being replaced by modern brusqueness in the attitude of the young towards the elders. But deep down, not much has changed. They are still the world's best second-rate men.'

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In this issue

Can't Mylapore Festival be more people friendly?
George Town needs a master plan
Why don't the women answer?
Tambrahms - A portrait of the median
Perambur Railway Hospital - With a focus on cardiac care
The great debate of the 1930s
The Baroda connection

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
Dates for your diary


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