These are my notes from a lecture by Anuradha Oberoi on August 23, 2016 at the Press Institute of India, Taramani, as one of the five Madras Day lectures held over the week. Her talk was supposed to be about five communities, including Sindhis and Bengalis, but I have notes only for these three. I cant remember if she ran out of time, or my fingers gave up typing on the cellphone.
Punjabis in Madras There were only four Punjabi families in Chennai before the India-Pakistan Partition. Most notable names are General Gill and Sri Dhawan, who picked up partition refugees from Madras Central railway station and gave them food shelter and community support. The early community were mostly traders, who did not emphasize education, dismissive of it, now totally different. Now there are several first generation IIT graduates. Extremely friendly, often lived beyond their means, spent loads of money on clothes. This is captured by the phrase Jeb me ek, haath me das (one rupee in the pocket, ten in the hand). They suffered Culture Shock in the first few years at the insularity of Chennai but now prefer Chennai to Punjab. Life is more casual here. Punjabis are much more skeptical about women's education than south Indians, think women should stay home with kids.
Marwadis in Madras Marwadis never address each other by name, only by relationship term like chachee, bhabi etc. Extremely supportive of each other socially, helping cook etc. They lend each other money at low rates, but dont loan to outsiders, that is non-Marwadis, at least not at the same low rates. They spend a lot on weddings, far beyond their means. Joint families are mostly the norm. The majority of Marwadis are vegetarian, except Rajputs. They use lot of basin in cooking. Marwadis tend to recreate their homeland, the Marwar region of Rajasthan-Gujarat, wherever they go. Taking people for theertha yatra (journey to sacred rivers and temples) is considered very blessed. Wherever we go we have a home. People three generations apart will happily stay at relatives houses on tour. Tremendous community help, often exploited.
Parsis in Madras Only 210 Parsis are left in the city now. It's a very articulate community. Elegance in conversation.
The early legend is of Zoroastrian migrants from Iran (called Pars or Persia, hence the Parsis) fleeing the invasion of Islam, who first settled in Gujarat. When they asked for some land to stay, the king at that time showed them a full bowl of milk to indicate there was no space for them. The leader asked for a spoon of sugar, stirred it in the milk, and indicated that they would sweeten the land without taking up space, like sugar in milk. This delighted the king who allowed them to stay on five conditions.
Parsis are also noted for their tremendous community help. They provide low rent housing to fellow Parsis like Marwadis. Self depreciating humor. Ardent bike lovers. "We love bikes because they don't talk back, like our wives". Love eggs. They are polite to everyone but mix socially only amongst themselves. The first Parsis in Madras made money as dubashis and in opium trade but spent money on philanthropy.
They don't allow conversion into community and hence have the problem of shrinking numbers. There has been a Population Implosion. This is a subject of earnest debate within the community, but has not resulted in any significant change. If they drop below twenty five thousand globally, they will be declared a tribe. Parsi priests in Madras will not do rites for cremated, only for those taken to Tower of Silence (in Mumabi), in accordance with the original Avestan traditions of Zoroastrians. Vultures are extinct in Chennai, so no Tower is feasible here.
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