V for Vernac, P for Proud

Social Commentary

V for Vernac, P for Proud

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

It was a drowsy Friday evening when my friend and I were invited to join another party with live music and bottomless sangrias. The word bottomless will get me anywhere, but the place itself looked lovely from the outside, the patio a muddy yellow of old chandeliers, the stage a bright neon pink. Nestled in the patronage of old money, some new talent.

We walked in, smiling languidly at our surroundings, when, with a pitch that cut through our torpor like a knife, some girl behind us said, “Look at those vernacs!” There was no doubt that it was aimed at us: My friend and I weren’t dressed to the nines, as no working-class nine-to-fiver ever is on a Friday night after a full day of work. I’ve no idea what gave away that I am not from a metro city. It could’ve been my cotton trousers that my mother and I picked out at a crafts exhibition in my hometown Allahabad. It could have been the ends of my shoulders curving, my own little mimosa pudica syndrome, where my gait hunches when I’m exposed to something new in my migrant city.

Before that moment, I’d only known of time dilation in theory, but for the first time in my life I became an observer to the passage of a moment. I turned around, loading the instantaneous, “You look like you think Dostoevsky is contagious diarrhoea,” insult on the cannon of my tongue. Instead, I asked myself, “Why?”

Why was it offensive? Technically, she was not wrong. I am a vernac. I spent 18 of my formative years in Allahabad, feasting on dum aalo-kachori, reading everything from Mahadevi Varma to Isaac Asimov. My childhood was full of kites, fragrant guava trees, and the serene kind of suburban quiet that turned every afternoon rainfall into a kaleidoscope on my verandah. I didn’t just learn cuss words: I learnt how to spit them from between my teeth so the listener recoiled.

Where I live, the bulbs that go up in Durga Puja pandals are reused until the fog of Christmas. A paanwallah in Allahabad today can give you a synopsis of everything from the day’s headlines to gossip at the high court before the edge of the betel leaf turns. I grew up richer than anyone stuck in a small room in a big city because I grew up with a wealth of experiences that no number of malls in your neighbourhood can compensate for.

I’m sure that the fact that he was from Junagadh never got in the way of Dhirubhai Ambani’s lifetime of minting money and building an empire immortalised by the ugliest building in human history.

So why was it thrown at me like an insult? I’m not embarrassed about where I’m from. It is evident in the way I refuse to refer to subzi as “bhaaji” and try to be friendly with my neighbours. I still say behenchod with a guttural emphasis on the “hen” that means business. I have been told, in a fit of misplaced appreciation, that I “don’t seem like I’m from Allahabad at all,” and I was so haunted by that statement that I memorised all the songs of Gangs of Wasseypur.

I brushed off the comment for what I know it is: a party-friendly form of mild xenophobia that immigrants everywhere must face. If my label reads vernac so be it, it’s a label shared by some of the world’s finest people.

If you think Shakespeare was not called a vernac by some lofty Duchess of Nobodycares when he went out with his friend to watch a live band and drink sangria, you are wrong. He wrote plays about common folk in the common tongue, and depraved and lascivious they might have called him, but a failed writer they could not. I’m sure that the fact that he was from Junagadh never got in the way of Dhirubhai Ambani’s lifetime of minting money and building an empire immortalised by the ugliest building in human history. We wouldn’t have WhatsApp without Jan Koum, Ukrainian immigrant who grew up in Fastiv. His is the success story that parallels only Sergey Brin’s, another vernac, another immigrant, and if you’re wondering who that is then here’s a hint: I would not be able to tell you to just Google it without him.

I am one of the many migrants who leave the humbler, simpler, small-town life because our dreams tug at our sleeves and take us to places we don’t recognise. I have left high ceilings and afternoon naps for smoggy commutes and living in shoeboxes to become somebody someday that Allahabad can reclaim with pride. Mumbai’s munificence extends to my disposable income and my ability to go home at any time of the night. But my space in the city is limited to taking my inch and scrubbing it so clean that the entirety of me reflects on the surface: That’s how you know that you made it in this city. I too am scrubbing this communal toilet of hopes and dreams. Some days I do it with a song on my lips, other days I do it with the corrosive kind of homesickness that burns holes in my soul and my resolve.

The thing about immigrants and vernacs all over is that if we got hot and bothered by every bully we encountered, we would never make it out of our own homes. Even at its barest minimum, the amount of effort that it takes to come from a small city and settle into a big one makes most of us adroit at appreciating the value of whatever opportunities we find on the way. Our priorities sit in the order of survival, settlement, and success like Russian dolls in our laps, where we only get to a smaller doll once we crack open the bigger one.

The luxury of finding things hurtful belongs to people with smaller problems. As a vernac, I can see, speak, interact and extricate things out of the majority of this country and from an economic standpoint alone that makes me an asset. Marketing decisions made in boardrooms are based off volumes of research done extensively about our demographic.

In a micro setting, three years of hard work from me and a lifetime of privilege from the girl who called me a vernac, afforded us the same evening in the same place. For the rest of us, being a vernac isn’t a disability. It’s a skill set and I belong wherever I end up.