Ayyo’, a Madrasi Who Hates Pandits, Biharis

Random Jottings by Someswar Bhagwat

This was written in  hospitals some years ago, during almost a month spent outside Intensive Care Units, Operation Theatres or in wards. It stirred memories and made me think how we, in India, are not Indians but Kannadigas, Maharashtrians, Telugus, Biharis or……

It brought back memories of an editor, imposed on the local edition of ‘national’ (read ‘notional’) English daily, being introduced to the seniors there. “I hate Malayalis” was his instant reaction when he was introduced to a Malayali sub-editor and “I hate Kashmiri Pandits,” when it was the turn of a KP.

Old friends occasionally remind me of a conversation piece I used to use over 40 years ago: “ a Teluguvaadu  given million rupees would take the first train to Madras (now Chennai), try to produce a film and lose it all. A Bangalore Kannadiga would invest it in real estate and earn enough rent to live on. Give a Marathimanoons money and he would put it in a bank to live off the interest (it was high then).

A Marwari would lend it at high interest to double it in a year or two. A Gujarati or Sindhi would start retail business to make a lot of money, without adding to national wealth, but a Punjabi would start an industry, create jobs and raise the GDP.” That was my retort to those who told Sardarji jokes (who have the sense of humour to tell it themselves).

What made me think of these silly stereotypes about different communities was the fact that in all the major hospitals, the lingua franca of the nursing station was Malayalam (just as that of Marwari-owned Indian Express group till recently was not his Hindi or English but Tamil). It is changing now.

Over half a century ago nurses in a Vidarbha town agitated asking for rice. It was scarce following the 1962 China war; they ate just rice alone (that too parboiled rice), as all – not just most – of them were from Kerala. Imagine the mid-1960s, when most towns were not as cosmopolitan as they are today. Imagine chuni-bhakar eating, Marathi-speaking Amravati town in land-locked arid Vidarbha and Kerala where it rained, rained and rained. Young girls from there who spoke nothing but Malayalam came hundreds of miles away and kept hospitals there running.

Some countries in the world today look to India for trained, dedicated nurses. And there would have been no nursing in India but for these young Malayali girls, most of them Christians. The argument that they came just because there were no jobs in Kerala is simplistic. Their sense of compassion, dedication and patience could be due to their Christian roots and belief in Jesus washing the wounds of a leper. .

Just when these thoughts were in my mind, a man who rose to prominence for agitating against Malayali pavement shop-keepers in Bombay (now Mumbai), Bal Thackeray, was in hospital, perhaps being served by Malayali nurses. His Shiv Sena later spread hatred to other groups too, but I don’t recollect his ever assailing Malayali nurses for near monopoly. His hate-campaign and blessings of leaders like Sharad Pawar made his Shiv Sena come to power in Maharashtra with a Chief Minister, his son and dynastic successor, Uddhav Thackeray, with the support of dynastic Congress and Pawar dynasty’s Nationalist Congress with Pawar holding the remote-control.

The ‘sons of the soil’ could start roadside shops to sell duplicate goods or take the jobs of the ‘Madrasis’, but the daughters were not equally forthcoming to take up nursing, with its night duties and not-very-easy, often unpleasant, hard work. Bal Thackeray’s very name brings forth images of hatred most Indians had for other communities.

Not very long ago  most people (even educated) in the Hindi belt thought  all South Indians were ‘Madrasis’, Telugus used to refer to Tamil as ‘aravam’ (unpleasant to the ear), a Marwari was regarded as a ‘makkhichoos kanjoos’ (miser), a Marathi a lazy ‘ghati’ or a Bihari as uncouth and backward. Sardars in north and Nadars and  chettiars in south have been butt-ends of jokes for decades.  

During the freedom movement there was a joke about Netaji Subhashchandra Bose addressing a predominantly-Tamil audience in Mumbai’s Chembur-King rCoss area. In the context of split between his and Gandhiji’s followers, Bose reportedly asked: “Gentlemen, are you moderates or extremists?” The audience, in one voice, answered: “Sir, we are just stenographers”.

Some jobs are traditionally linked to certain groups. These stereotypes are now breaking. Just as most stenos, at one time, were Tamilians, earthwork was (and to some extent is) mostly done by Telugu ‘Palamoor labour’ (Telangana’s Mehbubnagar was Palamoor), foundry work by Biharis,  shop-keeping by Marwaris and Sindhis, timber trade by Gujaratis and taxi driving (at least in Mumbai) by men from the UP-Bihar area.

Many Bata officials all over India once spoke Bengali as the company was in Bengal. Locksmiths and duplicate key-makers are mostly Muslims with ancestors from Aligarh (UP). Most of the male cooks in flats in Bangalore are from Odisha. A majority of the ‘poura karmikas’ (sweepers) of civic bodies in Karnataka are Telugu. Most Patels in the USA run motels. A closer look will reveal many more such links.  The reasons for such traditions are historical.

A senior Bihari journalist was so impressed by the translation of a story by Masti Venkatesh Iyengar that he learnt Kannada to read his original works.  Most actresses in Telugu are non-Telugus. Rangeya Raghav, a Tamilian, was a great Hindi writer. P.V. Narasimha Rao spoke excellent Hindi, Marathi and many other languages. News reader J.V. Raman, Swami Agnivesh and CPM’s Sitaram Yechuri, all Telugus, spoke better Hindi than many Hindis, as did a Kannadiga, Sudarshan of RSS. The editor of the (then) famous HIndi daily, Aaj Benaras, was Vidyabhaskar, a Tamil of Telugu origin.

Do pro-Kannada agitators know that the first three Gnanpeeth awardees had roots in other languages – Masti Venkatessh Iyengar in Tamil, Da. Ra. Bendre in Marathi and D.V. Gundappa in Telugu? They should be proud, just as Telugus should be that aTamil-origin Iyengar wrote their anthem Maa Telugu Talliki Malle Poodanda, and a Tulu king from Karnataka, Krishna Devaraya, called Telugu the best Indian language. There are many such examples.

 Comedian Mahmood’s ‘Madrasi’ said ‘ayyo’ in every sentence and spoke horrible Hindi. Today many South Indian politicians speak fluent Hindi (while the late Sushma Swaraj who could speak in Kannada, was an exception in the North). Those finding others’ language unintelligible or funny should know their own tongue sounds just the same to others. These stereotypes may provide some fun as jokes, but are dangerous if they lead to the “I hate….” syndrome.


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