People from various communities have made the city their home and contributed to its development

“Easily seven generations,” says Karthik Bhatt. That's how long his family has been here. “My ancestors migrated to Tamil Nadu in the 1600s,” he clarifies. The language spoken at home is a unique dialect of Gujarati, interspersed with Marathi, Tamil and Telugu words while the staple diet is rice, rasam and sambhar.

The young chartered accountant, who has been documenting his community's history in the city, belongs to the Khedawal community of Gujarat, one of the earliest migrants from a village called Umreth in Gujarat, “Why they chose to settle down 1,500 miles away is unclear. It is said that they came to Thanjavur and fell in love with the place,” says Mr.Bhat.

Deciphering the stories behind migration is never easy, especially in a city such as Chennai that is home to over 30 different communities. The numerous ‘bhojanalayas' and ‘dharamshalas' in Park Town and the strong presence of Telugus, Malayalees and Kannadigas in every sphere of life, are just a testament to the cultural melting pot the city is. While one might debate the nature of Chennai's accommodativeness, the flourishing of so many communities definitely points to a rich process of cultural exchange.

Historians note that the migration of various communities to Madras stretches back to the 16th Century, and occurred mostly in pursuit of commercial interests. By the time Fort St. George came up in 1639, many of these communities had set up base. A native town called Black Town had by then come up with a diverse population and Telugu was the predominant language.

Even today, says M.Jaishankar, a chilli merchant in Park Town, whose father came from Nellore, many wholesale traders in north Chennai are from Andhra Pradesh. Long-time Telugu residents talk about changes in dialects and those settled here for several generations may not know to read or write Telugu. The city, even now, receives a steady stream of people who seek jobs and education, says Srilakshmi Mohan Rao, Secretary, World Telugu Federation.

After the Telugus, came Gujaratis and Marathis, mostly from Thanjavur. While the Marathis were government officials, Gujaratis were mainly into the jewellery and garment trade. The more recent of the trading communities were the Jain Marwaris who came about 100 years ago. The city is also home to Kutchi Memons, Bohra communities, and those who speak Saurashtra, a peculiar dialect that has Gujarati, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu words.

Over 10,000 Punjabi and Sindhi refugees flocked to Madras after Partition and soon, bustling colonies including Gill Nagar came up. Ramesh Lamba, general secretary, Punjab Association, says that about 3,000 families are settled here. “Though many of us run successful businesses, we do not bring people from Punjab to work here and 99 per cent of our staff are locals.” he says. While earlier they found it difficult to even find wheat here, now every restaurant has Punjabi food on the menu.

With Telugu being widely spoken many would not consider the community migrant, but the situation was different for the Malayalee and Kannadiga migrants who had to carve out a place for themselves. M. Nanda Govind, president, Confederation of Tamil Nadu Malayalee Associations, feels declaring Onam a public holiday in Tamil Nadu is a recognition for them. Every community has managed to maintain its identity even while trying to merge with the local population here. Most associations run dormitories for new migrants of their community, and run classes to teach their language. The Maharashtra mandal even teaches basic Tamil to members. While earlier settlers are based in Vepery, people coming here now on job transfers are in Velachery and K.K.Nagar, says Smitha Bendre, vice-president, Maharashtra Mandal. However, not everyone lives in the same locality. K.P. Acharya, president of Karnataka Sangha. “Unlike other communities, we do not live in clusters and we easily get accustomed to new places.”

Many hospitals, schools, night shelters and colleges were built by these communities. Most of them have community marriage forums. “Often though, those from our native place are not too keen on alliances [with us] as we have become a different community altogether for them,” says Vikram Vora, a Marwari merchant.

But it is not easy getting partners from the same community. “Frequent intermarrying into the same families has caused a unique gene in many Komati Chettys here which makes the administration of a particular anesthetic fatal for them. Hospitals in Royapuram take particular care when a Komati patient is admitted,” says historian V. Sriram.

Over time, most of these communities, except for the Gujaratis and Jains have shifted to the service sector, education, medicine, construction and other areas. “Our children are getting into law, accountancy and IT, away from our traditional businesses,” says Gulabchand Bohra, a Marwari from Ajmer. The Rajasthani community migrated to different places to provide ‘ration' to the military some 150 years back, and stayed back, says Mr. Bohra.

“The 10 restaurant chains that Kannadigas run earlier had 30 outlets each, but now that number has come down to just five,” says Mr. Acharya, on how labour cost is also a reason why many traditional businesses of migrants are slowing down.

The fact that many of these communities have lived as clusters for years together might prompt one to wonder whether the city is truly multi-cultural. But the near absence of any upheaval says a lot about the social fabric of the city. Instances of communities going back to their States, like what happened in Maharashtra in the 1970s, are almost unheard of here

However, debates about the city's cosmopolitanism are still on. Biswarup Pal, consultant anaesthetist at Fortis Malar Hospital, a resident of the city for two decades, says that though he calls Chennai home, the city has not made him feel at home. “Chennai is not as cosmopolitan in texture as Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore is,” he feels.

“There are many similarities between Oriya and Tamil communities. But, we still do not have an authentic Oriyan restaurant in the city,” says Sadanand Patra, a professor and member of Utkal association.

However, others swear by the city. “Our State is home to lakhs of people from here too. Though we have always felt welcomed in Tamil Nadu, the Mullaperiyar issue has caused some concern,” said Hari.T, who hails from Calicut and has been in Chennai for over a decade now.

Over the years, life has changed for these communities as well as for others. “The only regret is that we as a State have become uni-lingual now. Fifty years ago, we had the capacity to pick up multiple languages, there were Kannada and Telugu movies being made, and we had neighbours who spoke different languages. Now, that does not exist,” says Mr. Sriram.

(With inputs from Vasudha Venugopal, Deepa H Ramakrishnan, K.Lakshmi, Petlee Peter and Ajai Sreevatsan )

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