Contrary to the widely held notion in the South, the Madrasi stereotype often attracts preferential treatment in the North.
I first became aware of my “Madrasi” identity, ironically, by the denial of it. During a social science lesson in school in Jamshedpur, the class stumbled upon a paragraph on Tamil sage Thiruvalluvar. The teacher asked a classmate from Palakkad to explain the verses quoted from the Thirukural. Sensing a trap, he diplomatically replied that he would ask his elder sister for the exact translation and return the next day.
Valluvar’s image had greeted me in public buses during vacations in Chennai. As I did not know Tamil, my father translated for me in English the quotes from the Thirukural that accompanied Valluvar in the buses.
I rose my hand to explain the meaning but was asked to sit down by the teacher who said, “He (my friend from Palakkad) is a Madrasi. He will know the meaning better. You are a Christian. How will you know Tamil?”
My friend from Palakkad was right. This was indeed a trap; a trap of ignorance. In the class of 60 students, we were probably the only two who knew that Palakkad was in Kerala, I was from Madras, Valluvar was Tamil and Christianity had come to our respective states centuries before it had reached Jharkhand—where we stood. And although we came from districts of the erstwhile Madras Presidency, we saw ourselves as Tamilians or Malayalees and not Madrasis.
Madrasis have now become more aggressive in denying our imposed identity. There is a context to this. The Madrasi comedian character has gradually vanished from Bollywood. The violent opposition and lampooning Madrasis faced in Maharashtra, is now borne by Hindi and Bengali speakers. We’ve grown more prosperous than the North and have also increased our political clout. However, these have not necessarily changed clichés we associate with North India.
On a recent visit to Tamil Nadu, several people asked my about how dangerous Madhya Pradesh is and how brutish Hindi speaking people were and whether rapes took place on the streets of Delhi in broad daylight. They would usually end their remarks with the customary: “For them anyone from the South is Madrasi.”
Madras or Chennai, as it is called now, has been a melting pot of cultures ever since it became a city. Terms like ‘Seth’ for Hindi speakers and ‘Peter’ for English are commonly used here. These do not denote any disrespect and are used a matter-of-fact description of the person referred to.
It’s the same with the term ‘Madrasi’. Unlike the South, where police routinely round up Hindi-speaking labourers found near a scene of crime, Hindi-kaarans in the North —for reasons real and imaginary— consider Madrasis to be well behaved and intelligent. It is also assumed that a Madrasi will not have a criminal background, despite the fact that the leadership of the Naxalite movement has a disproportionately large number of Telugus (also called Madrasis).
After the recent use of pepper spray in parliament by an MP from Andhra Pradesh, a politician in Jharkhand told me, “Even when you Madrasis try to be dabanng (assertive/bully) like us, you do it high-tech.”
Delhi, like most other metropolitan cities, has a system of tenant and employee verification by the police. This is particularly troublesome for people from districts facing insurgencies in Kashmir, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Manipur.
One look at my verification form and the head constable said: “Seeing your moustache I thought you are from near-Gwalior, but your permanent address says Tamil Nadu so there’s no need to verify anything. You people don’t know what crime is over here.”
Perhaps, he had forgotten about forest brigand Veerappan— who had a moustache that puts mine to shame.
When I moved to Bhopal, an estate broker took me to the house of the leader of a religious ultra-nationalist organisation. They had a room to rent. At the time I didn’t know that the house-owner had faced trial for rioting.
“When I told them your name, they asked if I was mad to give their house to a person from your community. But when I said you are a Madrasi, they agreed as long as you don’t bring meat in the house,” the broker told me.
He had assumed I was a Muslim. I didn’t take the flat, but let the assumption remain. The only Madrasi Muslim they had heard of was Tipu Sultan of Mysore, from the TV series, I learnt from the house owner’s mother-in-law.
My former landlady in Delhi, who is well in to her eighties, liked to tell the neighbours that I was a journalist from Madras. She also liked to exaggerate that I had all the politicians at my beck and call. I think she did this mostly to dissuade land sharks who were encouraging her to sell the house.
She went a step further. Without my knowledge she had even arranged for me to meet a prospective bride—a lawyer whose ancestors migrated from West Punjab, with my former landlady, during Partition.
Fortunately for me, I was transferred to Bhopal and my bride-to-be married someone else. The day I was leaving, my landlady said, “I gave you this house because you are a Madrasi. Finding you a girl is my duty, which I did because you are a good Madrasi,” she said.
She then recounted another one of her Partition tales, which came to her in flashes.
“We fled from our zamindari near Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) and took shelter in a church,” she said. “My father was very scared because my sisters and I were young. No light was lit and we muted our sobs as there were gangs roaming outside. My uncle had gone to the garrison for help and we feared the mob had got him. Suddenly we heard the sound of a truck and people jumping out. We thought that this was the end, until my uncle banged the church door and yelled, “Fauj hai” (It’s the army).”
Her description of the troops is quite remarkable. “They weren’t as tall as regular soldiers or rude like them. They were dark and muscular. They offered us rice and arhar dal. They were very courteous. The badges on their shoulders read— MADRAS”