On International Migrants Day, SUBHA J RAO speaks to a few migrants who have made the city their own
Samiran Batra, 15, travelled from Midnapore in search of a job. He landed in Chennai and worked there for a while in hotels, learning how to cook. Today, he oversees the preparation of the North Indian dishes you eat at Annapoorna (People’s Park). “Naan Samiran Batra paesaraenga. Neenga?” he asks in proper Kongu Tamizh.
Carpenter Mohammed Naseer is 30. He also hails from Midnapore. He came to the city three years ago. “When I first came, I was clueless about the language, people and customs,” he says. Today, he can understand basic Tamil and makes his way about the city easily. “I used to miss home a lot — people, food, mustard oil… Now, I love living here,” he adds.
Migrants constitute a huge percentage of the city’s workforce. They work in the food, construction, manufacturing and beauty industries, …all drawn by the prospect of a better life. Employers also vouch for their hard work and ability to mingle with the local populace. Vivek Srinivasan, executive director, Sree Annapoorna Sree Gowrishankar, says their migrant staff is quick to grasp things. “There are people who joined as cleaners. Six months later, they are proficient cooks. They adapt very well.” His migrant staff is mostly drawn from Bihar, West Bengal, parts of Uttar Pradesh and Nepal.
Naseer lives with fellow carpenters on site or in a house provided by his boss, Vijaykumar, a contractor. But, there are some things he still craves. “River fish and the fish we would catch in our fields and tanks. Rohu, Katla… Here, I get only saltwater fish.” Vijaykumar says his experience with migrant labour has been fantastic. “There’s a great level of trust. When they go home for holidays, they bring back another set of workers, usually related. They have a hierarchy similar to a family. There’s a chacha, a bhaiya…If you treat them well, they are loyal.”
Bijay Kumar, 20, hails from Rae Bareli. He travelled many cities before coming here. He is a cleaning boy at Annapoorna. “It was very difficult in the beginning. Now, I know how to spend my days off. We go out as a group, we watch films… this is also home, and idlis are a favourite,” he says.
Samiran says nothing can beat the water, weather and Coimbatore makkal. “There is nothing you don’t get here. It helps that my family is with me. I don’t miss home at all.”
Ten years ago, petty shop owners might have turned their noses at mustard oil. Today, many stock tiny sachets of the oil and ingredients for panch phoran, the five-spice mix no self-respecting Bengali will do without. They also speak in broken Hindi to communicate with their new customers.
After a day of hard labour, what nourishes all migrants is food and gupshup in their mother tongue. If its rice with lasoon dal and machli for Naseer, it is aloo baigan and roti for Bijay — a taste of home in a distant land. As for Samiran, he’s almost turned South Indian. “I might cook North Indian, but ennoda favourite idli thaanga…”
The UN General Assembly, taking into account the large and increasing number of migrants in the world, has proclaimed December 18 as International Migrants Day. This day, UN member states and intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations disseminate information on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of migrants, and ensure their protection.
In his report to the General Assembly in October 2013, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon put forward an ambitious eight-point agenda to “make migration work” for all: migrants, societies of origin and societies of destination alike. “Migration is an expression of the human aspiration for dignity, safety and a better future. It is part of the social fabric, part of our very make-up as a human family,” he said.