Thinkings on Thalis, Tamil, Tumblers, and Traffic

Ram Charan
B.ARCH 2026

My identity concerns only surfaced after I was eight. In a generous timeline that allows for miscalculations and misconceptions, I would say my initial thoughts about identity began during the earlier years of high school. It was not as if I was entirely isolated from people who shared my ethnicity; many of my close friends and acquaintances share the broader “Asian-American” if not “Indian” identity. As someone whose parents are from India, I now belong to one of the largest, if not the largest, diasporic communities in the world. Despite being among one of the most prominently shared identities, I, among many, also experience a disconnect common to many American-born confused desis as they travel back to India for the first of many times.

If I were to describe my identity simply, it could be understood as a mixed plate of legal frameworks and cultural values akin to the treasured South Indian thali. This daunting dish is a collection of various lentil and tomato soups, masala-drenched vegetables, and crunchy fried side dishes to go with rice. The combination of individual sides forms a mixable, malleable, mouth-watering experience. It is served on a large metal plate with smaller metal bowls the size of your hand. Or, on special occasions such as weddings and other receptions, it is served on a banana leaf. It comprises a series of subjective choices; there is a convention, but in the end, you define which tastes you wish to combine through your choices. My identity is a mix of various combinations of sambar, rasam, and an assortment of curries. The tastes are pointedly different but together represent a unique experience of a seemingly traditional dish.

I can claim to have experienced South India’s culture firsthand through such stories as the bucket-mug shower. The following is a seemingly complex but easy-to-understand process: Step 1: heat the water with the water heater. Step 2: mix hot water with cold water. Step 3: fill the bucket. Step 4: use water to shower. Step 5: drain any excess water by dunking over the head. I have experienced eating specific foods at storied franchises such as Saravana Bhavan, Ananda Bhavan, and, most recently, Ratna Cafe. I have had the pleasure of taking an auto rickshaw across the city to visit relatives, grappling with the harrowing reality of Chennai traffic. I even understood various slogans (prayers) and folktales through the spoken descriptions of my grandparents.

Yet there is a distance to all of it. Listing these specific experiences, I feel I am trying to convince myself as much as I am trying to convince you of my identity. Despite my understanding of the Tamil language, it feels as if I am on the outside looking in: a witness to that which defines being Indian, but a passive bystander in terms of embodying its specific identity. I hold close to heart his resilience in the face of doubt and adversity in my definition of what it means to be from Chennai. The same can be said of both of my parents. A typical connection between many of my family members and their inherent qualities of resilience is that they manifest in plain view during their courageous ventures throughout the crowded streets of Chennai.

The seemingly chaotic yet organized jumble of four-wheel, four-leg, three-wheel, two-wheel, two-leg, and no-wheel traffic that occupies the streets of Chennai at all hours is indescribable by the simple use of the English language; it is truly a visual experience. Metal-framed buses with yellow numbers painted across their heads push and pull against the flowing current of smaller vehicles day and night. They blare their horns to warn oncoming traffic and are met with an orchestra of responding horns from adjacent drivers and vehicles. Everything is instantaneous, and vehicles must be driven with expertise. Skillful drivers waste no time, cutting through narrow gaps and corners between other cars, the domineering buses, or a group of aggressive motorcycle or auto rickshaw drivers. Street dividers and fences line up against black-and-white striped barriers, trying desperately to instill some form of division between differently sized cars and carts. Tree canopies extend their shade gracefully downward from behind the boundaries of angled pavement, providing respite from the humid sun. The vibrant mix of yellow rickshaws, brown to red buses, or even other blue and green trucks make for a menacing experience for those who dare to enter the streets.

I have heard countless stories from my family members about experiences in the dreaded Chennai traffic. Perhaps it is an auto rickshaw driver desperate to finish their fare. Sometimes, a car cuts aggressively in front of the family, as mentioned earlier. However, it is most often an avid motorcyclist who just cannot resist the urge to try and sneak through an opening. This specific sharing of driving stories is one of the ways I have tried to understand South Asian sensibility. The resilience and determination required to navigate the chaos of such a world is inconceivable to me. Those in my family who live in Chennai are comfortable with the uncomfortable nature of the traffic. The hot, close, and densely packed cars are all but normal for them. For me, it is inescapable, incomprehensible, and unnavigable. It is a part of South Indian culture, like many others, that I can understand at the surface but cannot myself navigate.

My dad and mom’s joint description of the proper way to have Madras filter coffee is similar. My limited understanding of the South Indian sensibility is influenced by collecting these specific fragmented pieces. The dabra and tumbler are held at a careful relative angle by the drinker of the coffee in such a way that when hot milk is poured between them to cool it, it does not splash. In the grand set of qualities that define South Indianness, it is a fraction of what it means to be South Indian. Regardless, together with other similar stories, it has helped me to paint a somewhat incomplete picture. What it says about the South Indian sensibility is still out of my reach, but it has a specificity that is unattainable by a more researched or objective approach. Perhaps it says that the South Indian community is collective; sharing coffee is common among office-goers or those at home. I remember my parents had specific ways they liked their coffee; drinking it was a rite of passage. Perhaps it says that coffee is an essential staple in the culture of Madras and represents the immense energy needed to succeed, thrive, or even live in the city. Or maybe it just means that some people like coffee. Either way, these experiences are two that I use and associate with helping to describe a South Indian sensibility.

We are responsible for articulating a definition of ourselves so we can be recognized and made visible in our voices and actions. It helps to define our place in the current political arena of the United States for future discussions of representation and political work while also providing a sense of accountability. Our level of complicity within the realm of the “model minority” myth is something to reconsider and begins with an articulation of the imperfect. A definition of the problematic nature of acclimating to an environment that is not conducive to difference from a decided national and state-enforced identity is crucial in dispelling the myths about the lives of Asian Americans. This definition begins with the variety of identities under its broader definition and most definitely includes the voices of South Indian Americans.

The principles of life that I draw from Chennai traffic and Madras filter coffee speak to a sensibility that helps others understand how my perspective is informed. The South Indian community deserves to have their culture, voice, and people celebrated. How does this look? “It is only through culture that we conceive and enact new subjects and practices in antagonism to the regulatory locus of the citizen-subject, by way of culture that we can question those modes of government.”1 The dissemination of our culture through the use of our voices is our weapon against the state and its false forms of definition. It begins with discussing small experiences that help clue others into our respective cultures.

Was my dad correct in asserting that I am not someone who is entirely “Indian?” Maybe my inability to comprehend Chennai traffic suggests that I am more American. One might argue that the attempt by a state apparatus to mark and assimilate me into the identity of an American through citizenship means I should reject all that is American. My experience of being South Indian is the same as eating a South Indian thali. It presents as a complex series of interactions between seemingly opposed ideals and flavors, but through overlapping, it provides a unique taste or subjective understanding. Your experience is valid. Being an Asian American is valid. Being a South Asian American is valid. Being a South Indian American is valid. And by extension, so am I.


1. Lisa Lowe, “Immigration, Citizenship, Racialization: Asian American Critique,” in Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 1–36.

Ram Charan is in the process of learning to make rasam.