Oct 31, 2009
Tamil Brahmins and brainy diligence go together. Here is why
I have always been fascinated by Tamil Brahmins. The austerity, the scientific temper, the ruthless reliance on logic, the capacious memory and the superiority complex. But they seem today to be an endangered species in India due to the way Dravidian politics has developed and captured Tamil Nadu. This is not to defend them on accusations made against them by non-Brahmins, but to talk about these unique people. This is the story of my friend V.
V grew up in the temple town of Madurai. As a boy, he woke up early and studied the scriptures before going to school, and made sure he never came less than first in his class. When he got into IIT, it was unsurprising; indeed, it was predestined. From his birth, his parents had told him that he needed to get out of Tamil Nadu after school, since the reservation system made it difficult for even a student as meritorious as him to get admission to any local engineering college. After graduation, when he went to IIM, letters would come from his parents addressed to him as V, BTech (Hons).
In college, V decided he must read some fiction. He had earlier had little time for leisure reading. At the hostel library, he went for value-for-money, picking up the thickest book available, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Now Ulyssesis one of the most challenging books ever written, and hundreds of thousands of readers have given up in despair halfway through, but to V, it was a book, so it needed to be read, and understood. He read throughUlysses, with the occasional help of a dictionary, then re-read it.
Soon afterward, on a whim, he became a member of the British Council library. Where he discovered three racks full of books on Ulysses.
Being a diligent Tamil Brahmin, and determined to get to the bottom of it, he read all the studies. He learnt that Ulysses worked at seven different levels, he learnt of the various hidden references to the classics, that Joyce wanted to capture all of life by following one man through one day in his life. Over the years, V continued his studies. He read all of Joyce and read up on them. He can recite large chunks of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake from memory. I have no doubt that outside academia, V is the world’s top authority on Joyce and his works.
While working, he decided he needed to learn something new. So he asked himself a question: what the hell is this Western classical music thing? Within a few years, his knowledge was breathtaking. He could listen to renditions of the same Bach symphony by three different philharmonic orchestras and identify each orchestra. He tried to explain to me that it was obvious, this philharmonic’s version was more piquant, that that philharmonic’s version was more stately. It was all lost on me; I only felt awe. So great was his collection of CDs that not only did he have each work of Mozart by various artistes, he also had the complete works of Salieri, Mozart’s bitter rival, as seen in the film Amadeus. Salieri was not bad, V told me, it was just his bad luck that he was a contemporary of Mozart. He did not deserve being utterly forgotten.
In the meantime, his software career in Silicon Valley progressed well. But some years ago, he told his boss that all this administrative stuff and managing people was boring the hell out of him; he wanted to be a pure programmer again. He was demoted with a raise, leaving him more time to pursue his extra-curricular interests. Which is why he has stayed on in the US. He has no particular love for the country, but he has access to the best libraries in the world, the best art galleries, and he can watch U2 perform live.
It’s travel that is V’s newest passion, or rather, undertaking. He has climbed Kilimanjaro, has been to the Everest base camp, visited Machchu Pichchu. And after many years, I am going to see him again, in January in Delhi. I look forward to that, and I look forward to enjoying again his precise, honest, limpid Brahmin mind.