Friday, 29 May 2015

Of 'Madrasis' and 'Bengalis'

The winter was just beginning in 1988. I saw him while I was waiting for the bus at R.K. Puram in New Delhi. He must have stepped out of the train just the day earlier. His wavy hair was ironed down with coconut oil, and his palms were sticking from under his pullover. He came close and struggled to ask me the direction to a location in Hindi.

Explaining the directions needed a few questions and answers. I could have relieved him of his discomfiture by talking with him in Malayalam. But then, I didn’t want to deny myself the vicarious pleasure of making him struggle with a difficult language. I was in my early 20s then, and at that age I enjoyed this mild ragging.

The skyline of Thrissur with the recent buildings built mainly by migrant labour.
In fact, he and I belonged to same class in the facelessness of Delhi – an immigrant from South India. The city called him, me, and also my friends from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Pondicherry and Andhra Pradesh by the same name – Madrasi. We were those who ate “dhossas with sambur”. Fortunately at least then the Delhi-wala star had not made the lungi dance famous.

From being a Madrasi I had moved to Madras in 1992. I had my brush with the term Madrasi at a premier academy for training future officers of the armed forces. The Press Information Bureau (PIB) chief in Chennai had a programme to take journalists from Chennai to Government of India institutions in different parts of the country every year.

In the news bureau of the newspaper where I worked, we took turns to participate in this annual tour. When my turn came, the destination was Pune and its near-abouts. One institution we visited was the Academy.

Our group reported at the Academy early in the morning and attended a press briefing by the commandant – a lieutenant general – and his senior team before breakfast. It was November 1999, and the country had just gone through the Kargil War. For the journalists from Tamil Nadu, meeting and speaking with cadets from their State would have made excellent human-interest stories for their publications. They requested the general, through the PIB chief, for an opportunity to interview cadets from Tamil Nadu.

The general appreciated the idea. “Woh Madrasiyon ko bhejo!” the general told the colonel. “Woh Madrasiyon ko bhejo!” the colonel repeated to the major. I saw and heard the order getting lost in the military undergrowth.

After visiting the beautiful locations in the Academy, we returned for lunch. There were a few cadets standing ramrod in attention for us, in whites and blazer. “So, you are from Tamil Nadu?” asked the PIB chief. “No sir, we are from Kerala,” one of the cadets replied. Those following the general’s orders perhaps interpreted the term Madrasi in its generic sense.

Denoting a large community with a generic name has strong socio-political intent. It is a stamement of power. It means, “I don’t care who you are, where you are from, your individuality or your dignity. You are here to help me with my interests.”

More than two decades ago, Malayalis like me smarted under the generic reference. In the year when Tracy Chapman sang “you got a fast car” on behalf of all of us migrating in search of our dreams, my stranger-friend at the R.K. Puram bus stop and I had moved into an unknown land for employment. We hadn’t gone to Delhi in a fast car, but had taken the Kerala Express. Far removed from a fast car, a scooter was our near-term aspiration.

Flash forward to today, and I hear an equally disparaging expression being used, this time in Kerala. “Awan Bengaliya” (he is a Bengali) is a term that I hear being used in Kerala all the time. Again, the term Bengali here is as potent as the Madrasi in terms of its geographic reach. Perhaps more. It covers anybody from Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Bihar, the seven states of the north-east and maybe even Bangladesh.

These young men and women have got into trains and moved to lands with unknown people, language and food habits to chase their dreams of employment. They work hard, live simple lives in shared accommodation and send home as much money as possible. They run the Kerala economy from bottom up – constructing buildings, manning restaurants and private security services.

They are finding ways to make themselves comfortable in the new land. Recently, in a wayside restaurant the young man spoke with me in Malayalam without hesitation. “Midukkan” (smart boy) was my surprised compliment. Malayalam is not an easy language to learn. And to be able to converse in it with reasonable confidence requires far more than an average effort.

They are here, but not here in the Kerala society. Everybody is aware of their presence, but prefer to look through them. Interestingly, this is being perpetuated by the very Keralites who are at the receiving end of similar treatment in the emirates such as Dubai. Much of the workforce that migrates from India (or for that matter Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh or the Philippines) in the Gulf countries is treated as invisible part of the society. Theirs is to work and not be seen. And certainly not be heard. 

The tragedy is when a similar behaviour is perpetuated within the country – among fellow countrymen and women. As long as you and I see somebody from a different part of the country – from a village or town as real as ours – as a generically-labelled Bengali or Madrasi, we are abetting crimes of discrimination. We cannot then be outraged on social media over attacks on taxi drivers in Mumbai or on students from the north-eastern states in New Delhi.


  1. Interesting. Have tried resisting the Madrasi tag, very often succumbing as it seems more ignorance & laziness than ill-intent. Was furious after seeing Chennai Express especially with all the "madrasi" ing the film had - mixing up all the Southern states in 1 melting pot. Clearly we may be part of the minority as the film became a hit. However, willing to shout with you, whenever you are!

  2. In my opinion, much of the time and for most people, the stereotyping into "Madrasis" and "Bengalis" is an act born of cultural ignorance rather than of ill-intent, of laziness rather than of malice. However, this negligent act of a lazy and silent majority is oftentimes the backdrop against which vested interests, generally via disgruntled miscreants, cause acts of discrimination, violent or not - in India and around the world. Ignorance, therefore, promotes discrimination.

    USA, a pluralistic society like India and a land that I immigrated to a quarter century ago, has taken one approach to grappling with discrimination. Oversimplified perhaps, but I describe the US approach to enforcing non-discrimination as refusing to acknowledge the multiple colors in the palettes of race, religion, ethnicity, et al. Being color-blind means gray is the only color. While this is not a perfect depiction, and while there are glaring acts of discrimination as seen too often in the violent acts of trigger-happy police departments, most people in the US seem to believe that ". . . all men are created equal."

    India has taken a different - and perhaps more vibrant - approach to being a pluralistic country: It is not that gray is the only color, but that all colors are beautiful and equally worthy of being celebrated - much like the multi-chromatic colors of that festival of colors - Holi. Nowhere is this more evident than in India's national anthem: "Madrasis" and "Bangs" are both acknowledged and celebrated, as are all the other regions and/or linguistic groups. Utopia? Perhaps. But is there a better way?

    Mr. Warrier, the issue you raise is so relevant: The generic classification of "Madrasis" and "Bengalis" are often hurtful and harmful. Taking a page from the US, anti-discrimination organizations (ACLU, NAACP, and especially, Anti-Defamation League), the enlightened ones - perhaps the activists, hopefully the media - takes on this issue in India, and whacks the mole every time an incident - innocent or not - of this nature takes place.

    I applaud you for taking on this intentional and unintentional bigotry.

    --Amit Chandra, Boston, USA