At least once during my daily commute to work, I find someone staring at me like I was an alien. Alien on the bus, no sir. I’m just another human being. I’m certainly not responsible for the way I look. Last week, my trainer asked me if I knew Tamil and where I was from. I went, Oh God, not again! I told her I was from place xyz and she was surprised that I was actually from near her native place. And that very evening, one fellow was asking me for directions in a funny language that vaguely resembled English. When I replied in Tamil, he was surprised and asked “Tamil theriyuma!?”.
This is not the first time people have posed that query to me, and it certainly won’t be the last. At least these people think I am human! People almost always view me as an outsider. When I strike up a conversation with someone the first think they ask me is if I know Tamil. I’m lost for words. How can I converse freely in Tamil with you, sir, if I don’t know Tamil? Something is wrong with me, or the world around me.
I realise it is not my mistake that my ethnicity is often being questioned this way. In my first year at college, the chemistry teacher pointed to me and asked (yes, once again) “Do you know Tamil?” while she was beginning to demonstrate the experiment. This happened even when I got into another school. It’s got nothing to do with my colour or countenance. It is, I think, the images of Tamils in the minds of people that I do not fit.
In restaurants or shops, waiters and salesmen address me often in Hindi or English and rarely in Tamil. I’ve been asked if I’m Keralite, Kashmiri, a Sethji (you know, those people who lend money to poor blokes) and even if I am Canadian or Australian. Is it because I fit the stereotypes of people from these regions in their minds? I might never know.