Madrasi in Lutyen's Delhi

Madrasi in Lutyen's Delhi

A few days back me and my wife saw the movie “2 States”.

A telling statement by the mother of the hero concerned the lifestyle difference between  North Indians and “Madrasi”(an all-encompassing word  used in the north to describe people from the south).

It set me thinking about the life of a South Indian in the Delhi of the 1950s and ‘60s.

I lived in Delhi almost from my birth for over two decades.

There was dichotomy in my life as at home it was pretty ‘south indianish’ but rest of the time I was a typical Delhiwallah with all the brashness that came from dealing with the outside world.

This behaviour is still inherent in me in spite of having lived in Bangalore for several years.

Just to give an example: A southerner will ask an autorickshaw driver whether he would ply to Hauz Khas.

The driver will disdainfully ignore him. A Deliwallah will just get in and order the driver to take him to his destination.

The term ‘Madrasi’ has several origins.

One of course is that most of South India came under the Madras Presidency in the British era.

However, my research has a different take. Just after Independence, there was a sudden requirement of clerical staff and officers at the Central government.

Thanks to their education, people from the south were in great demand.

At that time, the main train to Delhi from the south was the Grand Trunk express from Madras. So thousands of people arriving by that train began to be referred to as ‘Madrasi’.

My father took a more exotic route and flew to Delhi by the night mail service Dakota that had a transit halt in Nagpur.

As it happens in most migrant population, Delhi ended up having sanghas representing each of the southern states.

Our highlight was the monthly get together at the Delhi Karnataka Sangha.

Once a year we had a Yakshagana performance. But within the southern community there was subtle class differentiation.

The ones in South Delhi claimed supposed superiority over the ones who settled in Karol Bagh.

Naturally, with more and more south Indians migrating to Delhi, availability of ‘our’ food became a priority.

As usual, the Keralites were the first to kick off and set up what were called ‘Nair messes’. These were a boon to bachelors.

Then came the iconic Madras Hotel in Connaught Place.

In spite of its name, it was run by South Kanara Brahmins. Sunday morning breakfast was the wrong time to visit this restaurant as it would be full of north Indians who relished the sambar.

A little more sophisticated place was the South India Boarding House/Sunny Coffee House also in Connaught Place. Of course, Karol Bagh had its own share of south Indian restaurants. Provisions were bought from Madras Stores on Baird Road.

Today, Delhi and surrounding suburbs are full of second or third generation ‘Madrasis’. They seemed to have blended pretty well with the locals.