After spending much of my childhood in a state of equilibrium in the tiny country of Kuwait*, I was sent to Chennai to complete the last two years of my schooling in that Brahmin fiefdom also known as Mylapore.
I used to study in a school that was almost secular – we celebrated Christmas and Diwali with equal fervour, and reserved our exhilaration for Eid-ul-Fitr which came hand in hand with at least seven days of freedom from school. The best year was the one in which Diwali and Eid coincided, the holiday extended to nine whole days. There were fireworks and a vegetable biriyani courtesy of our Malayali Muslim neighbours, and also a lamb biriyani from the Egyptian lady, who wanted to call a truce (this dish was promptly packed off to those who ate lamb). And then I joined a school which cancelled morning sessions on Avani Avittam day and labelled itself progressive by admitting two students from two different faiths in the year 2005.
I found it suffocating, to say the least. If I made new friends, I would be asked by family members if they were Iyer or Iyengar (the thought that it could be neither of the two would never need to arise here). Does this qualify as culture shock too? The shock felt from continuous immersion in a culture that revelled in maintaining its exclusivity.
Home to me will always be the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. But there wasn’t anybody I could reveal that to.
Interesting aside: Making new friends was an obstacle race by itself: new students were not generally remembered in a school where everyone knew everyone else from the time they were toddlers with runny noses, and people mostly had the same friends, give or take a few misunderstandings. For you to be noticed, you either had to be exceptionally good looking, or brilliant, or your talent at something would have to more than compensate your other shortcomings.
*Kuwait – can be confused with Dubai, Abidubai and Sarjah, as conveyed by Vadivelu in Vettri Kodi Kattu