Demographic mosaic

Print edition : September 05, 2014

Jain women in a religious procession at Royapettah.

Mint Street in the Sowcarpet area of George Town. The Marwari community has made Sowcarpet its home. Photo: R. Ravindran

A 100-year-old building on Rangoon Street. Photo: R. Ragu

Members of the Sadh Sangat of Gurdwara Guru Nanak, East Tambaram, distributing food on the day commemorating the martyrdom of Guru Arjun Dev. Photo: A. Muralitharan

Part of the Onam celebrations by the Nair Seva Trust in Chennai. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

Anglo-Indians in front of a well-preserved house at Veteran Lines in Pallavaram which reflects facets of British architecture. Photo: A. Muralitharan

IT IS EASY TO DEFINE “home”. For the author Maya Angelou, it is a “safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned” though she longs, “as does every human being, to be at home” wherever she finds herself. The American writer Gertrude Stein saw no contradiction in declaring that “America is my country and Paris is my home town”.

For most people, insulated from the world of literature or other finer pursuits and struggling to make a living, home is a place that provides food and shelter. Over the past 375 years or thereabouts, Madras (now Chennai) has sustained and supported millions of people. After the English East India Company decided to prepare for a permanent settlement in Madras in 1640, capital and labour flowed in and opportunities opened up. The conversion of the fishing village into a city continued through the centuries, bringing into Madras’ fold hundreds of specialised and non-skilled workers, speculators and investors, refugees and migrants, artisans and artists, and a wide variety of performers to entertain the new working class.

It helped that there was no Theodore Roosevelt era diktat on learning the local language (“Every immigrant who comes here should be required within five years to learn English or leave the country,” the American President had famously said). Madras leaned more towards President Lyndon Johnson’s assertion that the “land flourished because it was fed from so many sources—because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples”.

The expanding city was no melting pot; a melting pot presupposes a kind of merging of identities. The accommodation of a continuous stream of immigrants affirms the city’s level of tolerance and acceptance. This became the key to the city’s growth and prosperity.

Chennai, now the capital of Tamil Nadu, is home to diverse groups of people. Telugu-speaking people, for instance, constitute about 40 per cent of the city’s population. The strident demand to make Madras a part of Andhra Pradesh during the reorganisation of States in the 1950s did not result in rancour between Telugus and the rest of the Madras population. (Coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema, which were part of the Madras State in 1947, were merged with Telangana in 1956 to form Andhra Pradesh.) More than a dozen Telugu television news and entertainment channels, the many Telugu language publications, and the good run Telugu movies have in Chennai today point to the fact that the people from Andhra Pradesh consider Chennai their home.

The presence of several language associations and outfits such as the Andhra Club, the Andhra Mahila Sabha, the Telugu Mahajana Samajam and the Indian Telugu Association is an indication that Telugus are at home here. Although numerically smaller in number than Telugus, Malayalees are an influential group in Chennai. Kerala’s Malabar region was part of the Madras Presidency. A reference to Madras in popular fiction is found in the first Malayalam novel, Indulekha, published in 1889. In the novel, the hero, Madhavan, comes to Madras for higher studies, goes back to Kerala to claim the love of his life, marries her, and prefers to come back to Madras to settle down.

The Malayalee Club is the second oldest club, after the Gymkhana Club, in Chennai. The many branches of the Kerala Samajam in the city point to the fact that the city’s Malayalee population has been growing steadily (some say the number of branches may not be a true reflection of the numbers, which could be much larger.) The creation of the Confederation of Tamil Nadu Malayalee Associations was an attempt to lend a collective voice to the community at large. A result of this has been the Tamil Nadu State declaring a restricted holiday for the largely Kerala festival Onam. Two Malayalam newspapers, Mathrubhoomi and Malayala Manorama, have their editions in Chennai.

Karnataka, the third southern neighbour, also has a significant number of its people residing in Chennai. The Kannadiga population in Chennai is estimated at three lakh. They are mostly professionals or are engaged in the hotel industry. Kannada organisations run a slew of educational and cultural institutions and are a prominent part of the cityscape.

There is a historical reason for the large presence of these linguistic groups in Chennai. The Madras Presidency that the British created for administrative convenience included parts of today’s Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka, and Madras was the home province of the peoples belonging to these regions until the middle of the 20th century.

While the contributions made by the people from the three southern States are relatively well known, those of the other diverse groups that constitute the demography of Chennai today is largely under-recorded. It is difficult to provide a full list of all the linguistic groups that make up Chennai, but it is more difficult to ignore some of the prominent communities that make up the megapolis.

From Pakistan to Chennai

As Partition became a reality in 1947, Devi Chand, like many local businessmen, went about his normal life in Bahawalnagar, Pakistan. He did not fear the worst. He was a citizen of some standing, his father was a “Patwari” and was well connected with important people in the region, and the people who worked for them were loyal. Devi Chand had sent his pregnant wife back to Giddarbaha, a village on the Indian side of Punjab, to satisfy his concerned family.

On August 14, 1947, Pakistan woke up to “life and freedom” over the dead bodies of Devi Chand, his father, and countless others. “Father and grandfather did not think any harm would come to them,” Devi Chand’s son, S.K. Jain, now a Chennai-based trader, says. “You see, they owned a lot of land, and grandfather and father also had a line of shops in Bahawalnagar. They were well known and thought, come what may, they would be safe,” he says, recounting one of many stories his mother had narrated to him.

“Their trusting ways, and also their ego to some extent, let them down,” he says, sitting in the comfort of his residence on Chennai’s pricey Casa Major Road. Jain was born later that year, in December 1947, in Giddarbaha. Life was not easy. The material belongings they had in Pakistan ceased to be theirs the day the men of the family were murdered. After completing his graduation from Chandigarh in 1967, Jain began to look for a job and the search led him south. “I worked for my relatives for some time in places such as Bangalore. Looking for opportunities, I moved to Chennai,” he says.

He ventured into iron and steel retailing. Credit was hard to come by, so Jain began at the bottom of the ladder. He invested all his savings in his first lot of purchase, and ploughed back the profits.

His business acumen and years of hard work paid off. Jain, a Punjabi Hindu, now runs a thriving retail business in Chennai. Two of his three sons, Gaurav Jain and Manav Jain, help him run the business. His third son, Aman Jain, who knows no other home but Chennai, is an information technology (IT) professional running his own start-up. A married daughter, Pooja Nagpal, lives close by. “When I came here, everyone was very nice,” recalls Jain. “Most of them were God-fearing, were considerate and helped me a lot. I cannot run the business without the people from Chennai,” he says, adding that he is a Chennaiite by default. “Let us assume that I want to go back to my village. There is no one there. Maybe about 10 per cent of the people who went to school with me will be alive now. I have lost all connections with my village. This is my home,” he asserts.

Jain’s Tamil is still patchy but “good enough for his employees to understand” and for him to “get by” in Tamil Nadu. The rest of his family speak decent Tamil though. His children echo his views: Chennai is the city they have known; their friends live here, and they are most comfortable in this city. The number of Hindu Punjabis is not very large in Chennai but that of Punjabi Sikhs is significant.

The Sikhs even have a colony, Gill Nagar, named after an illustrious official, Colonel Gurdeep Gill, the then Inspector General of Prisons. Not many Sikhs live there now as the community’s members are spread across Chennai. A relatively prosperous community, Sikhs have made their mark in the automobile spare parts business. They run educational institutions and are also present in the entertainment business. More than 3,000 Sikh families have made Chennai their home. The Punjab Association, which came into existence in 1939, is an umbrella outfit that seeks to cater to the general needs of the community. It also runs schools, hospitals, clinics and working women’s hostels. The Sri Guru Nanak Sat Sangh Sabha, established in 1949, is another place that brings Sikhs together during special occasions and festivals.


Kumar Chandiramani has no recollection of the place of his birth, Saigon (later Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam). Not surprising because Kumar left Saigon, along with his parents and other members of the Sindhi community in Vietnam, when he was six months old. The year was 1954, and his father, Gobindram, decided to move out because Vietnam had just entered into another war, and this time, it promised to be a long-drawn-out one.

The Chandiramani family’s destination was not the nearby Singapore or any of the other South-East Asian cities but Madras. “Oh, that was because my father’s uncle, Arjun Das, was working for Chellarams [on Wallajah Road],” says Kumar. “They were looking for good hands, and my father fitted the bill since he was into garments too,” says Kumar, who is also into garment designing. In fact, most of the Sindhis like Kumar, from Hyderabad in the Sindh province of Pakistan, are connected with one or the other aspect of the garment business.

Kumar made Chennai his home though many other Sindhis he knew went looking for better opportunities in South-East Asian cities and elsewhere. Kumar met the girl he got married to, Manisha, in Chennai. “It was love-cum-arranged marriage,” says Manisha, a Sindhi from Bangalore.

Manisha’s side of the family lives in Casablanca, Morocco. They had moved to the African country before Partition. Kumar and Manisha have two children, Deepa Chandiramani, a marketing and communications manager with a multinational hotel chain, and Karan Chandiramani, a garment expert now in Guangzhou.

“I have never faced any problems in Chennai because none of us was politically inclined,” says Kumar. “We are as much a part of Chennai as anyone else is,” he adds. They go about their routine work each week and have fun on the weekends. Sindhis take great pride in their ability to have fun, and events such as weddings become occasions for all age groups to enjoy themselves. Singing, dancing, playing pranks, loads of good food and alcohol mark any Sindhi event, and Sindhis in Chennai, too, live up to the reputation of the community elsewhere. (There are many Sindhis who also stay away from alcohol, but one teetotaller adds that this does not mean that they have any less fun.)

Hyderabadi Sindhis’ surnames end in “ani”, and this is how they are distinct from Shikarpuri Sindhis. “We Shikarpuri Sindhis will have at least some small role in finance,” says Suresh L. Raheja, who was born and brought up in Chennai. Many of the Shikarpuri Sindhis are big names in the Indian business circuit; they also have a small stake in the finance market. Raheja’s wife, Archana, speaks fluent Tamil and can easily pass off as a Tamilian. She says she loves the language, and the family knows no other home but Chennai.

But some memories of the distant past have not faded away. Raheja recalls the time when his family fled Sindh, the difficult times they had in Mumbai as unwanted refugees subsisting on two pieces of bread and channa, and the trauma of moving on yet again, setting up a hearth and making a living. Some of the Sindhis went south, as far as Kozhikode, Kerala, in pursuit of a livelihood. A few others moved inland to Bangalore, some moved further south to Vellore, Salem and elsewhere in Tamil Nadu. Raheja’s father himself initially moved to Vellore and eventually came to Chennai. “I’d put the total number of Sindhis in Chennai at around 75,000,” says Prakash J.C., a chartered accountant, who also heads the Sindhi Federation of South India.

Prakash is acclaimed by his community for his efforts to keep the Sindhi culture alive. He is also instrumental in encouraging Sindhis in Chennai and elsewhere to start age- and gender-specific community organisations. “He constantly reminds us that we need to speak in Sindhi and we should not forget our roots,” says Radhika Raheja, a PhD in microbiology, who was, until recently with the Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, New York. Radhika, who grew up in Chennai and did her engineering in Vellore, is in the city to spend time with friends and family ahead of commencing her postdoctoral stint at Harvard University, United States.

Jodhpur to Sowcarpet

In the early 1950s, the law graduate Ganesh Chand Bhansali decided that moving south from his home town, Jodhpur in Rajasthan, might result in a better living. Those were the times when community members in Chennai helped one another, and Marwaris were no exception. The highly orthodox, vegetarian, cow-worshipping, exceedingly religious community, which made Sowcarpet in north Chennai its home, embraced any newcomer from its native land, provided him with seed money, and helped him with initial contacts. Most of them prospered. When Bhansali came to Chennai, he was taken to a small firm that retailed tyres. After a few years, he was encouraged to set up his own shop. He also began a small finance business on the “side”.

His grandson, Sanjay Bhansali, today helps run most of the businesses that the family has built up over the decades. A past president of the Rajasthan Youth Association (RYA), Sanjay insists that the community gives back to society quite a lot. “The RYA has been distributing schoolbooks, notebooks, and uniforms for 51 years. We also have a cloth bank and a medical bank for the poor,” he says.

Sanjay is also active in the Home Guards and is now an area commander. “Most of our people are service-minded and are active in many organisations. Our community believes in contributing to the place where it prospered,” he says. Despite the demands of his work, which often begins at the crack of dawn and goes on late into the night, Sanjay sets apart each month the five days required to be a part of the Home Guards. He and many other members from the community have been doing this with dedication for years. “Now I am not required to do the mandatory time each month. But as an area commander, I do much more,” he says. Sanjay and his friends organised the recently concluded Home Guards meet at Vandalur, on the outskirts of Chennai, where home guards from all over Tamil Nadu participated.

For him, and every member of his family, Chennai, not Jodhpur, is home. “Two hundred per cent, Chennai is our home. My grandfather might know people in Jodhpur, but for us there is nothing there. Our people, what we know... everything is here,” he says. Sanjay has seen his community branch out from Sowcarpet to Vepery, Kilpauk and Anna Nagar. A rough estimate places the number of Marwaris in Chennai at around 1.5 lakh. “That too should be on the lower side,” he says. The population is significant enough for a Jaipur-based Hindi newspaper, Rajasthan Patrika, to begin an edition in Chennai.

But the Marwari migration from Rajasthan has dipped to a trickle. “I now see a lot of Hindi-speaking north Indians coming to Chennai. This has been the trend in the past 10-15 years. But some people here do not see them as different from us. For them, everyone is a Marwari!” Rupa Chawda did not have a say when her family decided to move from Anjar in Kutch to Bangalore. “My grandfather, Dev Ram Chawda, established a saw mill in Bangalore, and we all moved there. My father, Rafik Lal Chawda, and a friend decided to move to Chennai and set up a timber business here,” she says. That was 27 years ago. Rupa, who took up interior designing here, says she cannot think of living in any other city now. “We do visit various places, but I feel like coming back to Chennai as soon as possible,” she says. Recalling a visit to some south Indian pilgrimage centres sometime ago, she says her family began missing idli and dosa after the first few days. It was an exclusive Gujarati tour, and the operator had taken pains to make sure that all the pilgrims got Gujarati food.

“After the first few days, we asked the tour organiser: ‘please give us idli and dosas’,” she laughs. Rupa does not feel any different from the people here. She proudly points out that a brother and sister of hers have married Tamilians. “My daughter was born in Chennai. She belongs here,” she adds. Any thoughts of going back to Gujarat? “No, I don’t see anyone in my family doing that,” she adds.

The Hindus from Gujarat have built temples dedicated to Swami Narayan in Sowcarpet (near the Ekambareswarar temple), near Dasaprakash, also in Chennai, and elsewhere in Tamil Nadu. The community, numbering roughly about 50,000, gets together on festive occasions. Khedawals, an orthodox sect of migrant Gujaratis, are found largely in Thanjavur. They came to the Chola capital a few centuries ago. Some of them have also moved to Chennai. A few of them have come together in Chennai to found the Baj Khedawal Gnati Samaj, a forum for Khedawals. The Samaj also has a Facebook page.

Chennai was nowhere on young Viresh Seth’s radar. In fact, he had never had any interaction with a person from south India during his youth. The Allahabad resident was going about his job as usual when his employer, Karam Chand Thapar and Brothers Limited, asked him to relocate to Chennai. That was in 1971. KCT brothers, which began as a small coal trading company in Calcutta in 1920, had grown in size and stature. The money was good, and young Viresh, who was from the heartland of Uttar Pradesh, did not have a problem with relocating his family. He was married to Aruna Seth and was ready to start a family. Any extra income was welcome.

“The company was into importing coal and pepper. The Tamil Nadu Electricity Board was a major consumer of coal, and the company wanted someone in Chennai to coordinate with the delivery and also to do the liaison work,” recalls Aruna. The coal was offloaded at Paradeep port (in Odisha) and it made its way to Tamil Nadu. The family initially found Chennai difficult. No one seemed to understand Hindi, and English too was barely understood by retailers and traders. “But we got used to it and eventually learnt Tamil,” says Aruna. Chennai literally grew on Aruna. Their three children went to school in Chennai. With the Chennai branch doing well, Viresh gave up any thought of moving north. Also, given the education of the children and the fact that the family had made new friends in Chennai, they were not in a hurry to leave the city. Viresh worked on a commission, and as business grew, his desire to stay on in Chennai grew proportionately. He finally retired in Chennai. Two of his three children live in Chennai while one has relocated to Australia.

Aruna likes Chennai for another reason: its medical facilities. There is nothing comparable in Allahabad or other parts of Uttar Pradesh, she asserts. More than 10,000 Mathurs, Kshatriyas and Baniyas from Uttar Pradesh have made Chennai their home, and many more are moving south lured by the better infrastructure and the generally better law and order situation in the metropolis. As a community, they are not very active but as a group they do have their associations in place, and meet socially during special occasions and festive seasons.


“Anglo-Indians did not come to Chennai from somewhere. They were created here,” says the author Harry MacLure. The Anglo-Indian community, much like the Burghers of Sri Lanka, was the result of locals marrying or having relationships with the Portuguese, who had come to India centuries before the British. The earliest of them, Vasco da Gama and his men, initially landed on the Kappad beach in Kerala. Later, they fanned out over much of the peninsula. The term Anglo-Indian seems to have originated after the British captured much of India, leading to the popular perception that it refers to the group of people who were of mixed Indian and British parentage.

The Anglo-Indians, a book MacLure co-authored with S. Muthiah and Richard O’Connor, is an authoritative account of the community in India and traces the origin and growth of four generations of Anglo-Indians here. MacLure agrees with the other popular perception about the Anglo-Indians, that they were associated with the Indian Railways.

“Yes, yes. My father was a driver, so was my wife’s father. Most of the Anglo-Indians were among the ‘running staff’ [a railwayese used to refer to the personnel who are directly involved in the operation of a train],” he says. The Anglo-Indian concentration in Chennai at that time was in Perambur [home to a few Railway workshops] and nearby Purasawalkam.

“They took a great deal of pride in operating the trains. Legend has it that your watch could be set as a train passed a station. Trains were always punctual,” he claims. The onset of reservation (in jobs) sounded the death knell for Anglo-Indians in India. Chennai was no exception. The fear of losing jobs, insecurity over the looming anti-Hindi agitation, and a sense of discomfort over the direction that independent India was taking, were among the reasons that drove the first Anglo-Indians out of India.

“There was a mistaken notion that they would be marginalised here. In the 1960s and 1970s, Anglo-Indians left in droves. It was also easier to migrate to countries such as Australia at that time,” MacLure says. But there are still a significant population of Anglo-Indians left in Chennai. “About 40,000,” says MacLure. They are no longer merely in Perambur and Purasawalkam. The community has moved out and found work in varied sectors, including IT and IT-enabled services. Their sound diction makes them good candidates for call centres too.

There are not as many Anglo-Indians leaving for other countries any longer. “In the past, everyone depended on the Railways. When that [opportunity] was lost, they became insecure. But now, almost nobody in the community depends on the Railways for a livelihood. They have got used to doing other jobs,” he says. There are now six Anglo Indian Associations operating in Pallavaram, Ayanavaram, George Town, Vepery, Perambur and St. Thomas Mount. Today, a dense Anglo-Indian pocket in the city is surprisingly Madhavaram in the north. “Rents are cheaper there than in Perambur or Purasawalkam. Plus there is a beautiful church there,” says MacLure.

Anglo-Indians constitute the one special group of people who have representation in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly. Most Anglo-Indian MLAs have taken no serious interest in the discussions that go on in the House. Usually, after their first speech (at the start of the session), they are barely heard at all. In their defence, it is pointed out that being nominees of the ruling party, they do not have the choice of airing their views in public or in a forum such as the Assembly. They prefer taking up the issues in private with the Ministers concerned.

These and many other groups, such as Armenians, Parsis, Bengalis, Burma Tamils, and the people of north-eastern India, contribute to the character of Chennai in no small measure. While records show that the migration patterns coincided with negative events in north India and elsewhere in the past few centuries, the past three decades have been an exception to that rule with migration taking place for better opportunities.

It all began with the IT revolution in the 1990s. Bangalore was the IT capital, and many pioneers in the field in Tamil Nadu insist that this was because Tamil Nadu did not market itself well. Hyderabad, too, stole the march initially because of an ambitious and hard-working Chief Minister who saw in IT an instrument to leap ahead in the quest for development.Chennai was comparatively steady and refused to jump on to the bandwagon that offered dramatic concessions. Soon enough, some of the major firms wanted to shift out of Hyderabad following the Telangana struggle, and Bangalore, which welcomed the IT sector right into the city’s core, choked on its new-found success. Chennai, which directed its IT growth along Old Mahabalipuram Road on the southern fringe of the city, finally caught up and began adding huge numbers of people to its workforce.

While immigration over the past century has brought to Chennai close to a million migrants, the IT sector added a third of those numbers in under two decades. “There are about 3.6 lakh IT sector employees in Chennai,” says K. Purushothaman, regional director, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, NASSCOM (National Association of Software and Services Companies). The sector provides indirect employment to twice that number. Add the growth in the automotive sector to that, and it can be said with confidence that the number of people arriving in Chennai for work in the past few decades outnumber those that came in the past century.

The new migrants are from everywhere: no Indian State goes unrepresented. The new workers also include a significant number of Nepalis, who fill up the slots of watchmen, cooks and even drivers. For most of them, Chennai is home today for sure.

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