A different mirror

Anuradha Oberoi  

Discovering how many North Indian communities made Madras their home over decades and centuries requires a dramatic retelling of their past. Something behavioural scientist Anuradha Oberoi did with much enthusiasm at her talk on ‘The communities that make Chennai’ organised by the Press Institute of India as part of Madras Week celebrations.

Anuradha, whose doctoral thesis is a cross-cultural study on the levels of assertiveness in North and South Indian women, was married into Chennai, and it was as an outsider that she first observed the integral mosaic formed by various communities here. “While lifestyles are simpler and there is no need to keep up with anyone, Chennai lacks the feeling of ‘apnapan’, a sense of intimacy that Chandigarh, where I grew up, has in plenty. It set me on the path of researching why we are different.” For, chronicling Chennai’s people is an extraordinary journey that travels beyond the confines of community. It is a celebration of the multiculturalism that the city subtly wears on its heart.

A columnist for a Kolkata-based newspaper, Anuradha is working on a book that records the lives and times of the Punjabi, Sindhi, Bengali, Marwari and Parsi communities that have made the city their home. While she discussed how the communities performed on parameters such as education and hospitality, she spoke at length about the origin, inherent traits and contribution of the Punjabi, Marwari and Parsi groups.

“Punjabis populated Chennai in three waves — pre-Partition, Partition and post-Partition. Before 1947, there were only four Punjabi families in Madras — Chandhok, Malhotra, Suri and a Muslim family that remains untraced.” When Partition sundered a subcontinent and fractured homes, relationships and identities, it brought with it an influx of refugees from the Punjab with little belongings and many heart-rending stories.

Anuradha says person after person she spoke to had only one refrain, “Once uprooted, it didn’t matter where we got off when the train stopped.” With the help of established names from the community such as G.S. Gill (then IG, Prisons), P.N. Dhawan and Inder Sain Chandhok, the refugees were handed out small businesses to re-establish themselves. “For many, it brought back memories of how prosperous they had once been. The family that once owned the Gulbahar brand of squash sold sweet potatoes by the roadside. An abandoned girl at the railway station was adopted by another family. But, there were stories of success too. M.C. Dhingra, who owned mansions in Pakistan, settled in Periamet, a predominantly Muslim area, where he dealt in leather goods. In settlement for the houses he lost, he received evacuee property in Periamet, where he developed deep bonds with his Muslim neighbours. So deep was the relationship that when his daughter Vimla Batla married, it was they who cooked the biryani.”

Anuradha also spoke at length about how the traders of that generation, who sometimes lived 16 to a room in the initial years, spread out into the city and encouraged education in the generations that followed. She also spoke of the ‘moorak mandali’ or fools collective and its weekly meetings that helped many a refugee Punjabi stave off the pathos of Partition and fostered a sense of community that led to the founding of schools, colleges and gurudwaras.

“The Marwaris, who have been here longer, have kept their identity intact, and their boundaries with others, pucca.” Known for helping one another in the community prosper, Anuradha spoke about their keen sense of “belonging”.

While speaking on the dwindling Parsis of Chennai, who number 210 today, with only five children under the age of 10, Anuradha said, “They continue to remain articulate, elegant, philanthropic and celebrate their quirks like no other community does — especially their eccentric love for all things bikes, eggs and hand-wound clocks.”

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Printable version | Oct 25, 2020 11:05:46 PM |

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