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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 11, september 16-30, 2009
The Punjabis of Chennai
(By S.R. Madhu)

The 5,000-plus Punjabi families in Chennai constitute a relatively prosperous community. They are spread out throughout the city; there’s no “little Punjab” anywhere in Chennai. They are prominent in trade – such as automobile spare parts, surgical instruments and sports goods – and in construction and real estate, as well as in the hospitality industry.

Lt. Col. Gurdial Singh Gill and Mrs. Gill

Many Punjabi-owned spare parts shops are on General Patter’s Road. Uberoi Sports on Mount Road was Madras’s first sports goods shop, followed by Pioneer Sports, Lightway Sports and others. (They got their merchandise from Jalandhar, India’s sports goods manufacturing hub.) Migrants from Pakistan’s Sialkot, V.N. Bajaj and P.N. Bajaj, set up the surgical instruments company SISCO (South India Surgical Co) on Mount Road.

Anuradha reels off names and businesses. There is Bharath Goyal (managing director of the Park Sheraton hotel and president of the Punjab Association today); Vivek and Pankaj Sachdev (NPT Offset, a leading printing press); Tina and Atul Malhotra (who are partners in two upmarket businesses on Khader Nawaz Khan Road – ‘Absolute’, a hotel, and ‘Evoluzione’, a garment store); the Khannas who run Roshanlal (wedding garments and gifts, Mount Road); the Kapoors (Kapoor Furnishings on St Peter’s Road, Sagar Furnishings on C.P. Ramaswamy Road); S.T Bedi (steel rolling mills), who would throw parties at the drop of a hat, with glamorous participants like Hindi film stars Jeetendra and Vinod Khanna from Bombay; Gunit Singla (who runs Uncle Sam’s Kitchen – a restaurant in Guindy, plus a catering service).

* * *

The Punjabis-in-Chennai story can be divided into three phases – pre-Partition, Partition and post-Partition. The Punjab Association, set up in 1939, is perhaps the one factor common to all three phases. It has served variously as firefighter, builder, bonding force and social mobiliser of the Punjabi community.

“My four-year-old son Adish had tears streaming down his cheeks,” recalls Anuradha Uberoi. “I was on a visit to my parents in Chandigarh. My son was fed up with chappatis for breakfast, and wanted idli or dosa as he did in Chennai. My mother got a grinder rushed in from Chennai.”

That was 16 years ago. Adish is now 20, a student in New York. He recently came home on a holiday. The day before he returned to New York, he went to Grand Sweets to buy tomato paste, tamarind paste, murukku and potato chips. “I miss Chennai eats more than Punjabi eats in New York,” he said.

A management consultant with a doctorate in psychology, Anuradha Uberoi moved to Chennai from Chandigarh 23 years ago, two years after her marriage. Now, “I’m a hybrid of two cultures,” she states... “I perhaps know Chandigarh better, but I like Chennai better,” Anuradha laughs. She has overcome her initial shock over “formal, frigid” Chennaiites. (When she tried to pay a neighbourly call during the early Chennai days, she was asked, “What do you want?” This would never happen in Punjab, she says.) But over the years she has got very used to Chennai – its attitudes, its culture, its food. “Now I can’t think of living in Punjab,” she says.

Anuradha provided glimpses into the history, lifestyles and workstyles of Punjabis in Chennai during a Madras Week talk at the Rotary Club of Madras South. She expanded on the talk when S.R. MADHU met her later for this article.

“In its early days, the Association met in members’ houses, since it had no building and no money,” says Anuradha. But they entertained themselves with typical Punjabi panache. They fondly started the ‘Moorakh Mandali’ (a fools’ collective). The president was called ‘Maha Moorakh’ (chief of fools). A garland of slippers was ceremoniously placed round his neck, an arti was performed with a lalten (lantern) and cowdung. Members ribbed each other, told tales and traded wisecracks. A potluck dinner was the perfect end to a rambunctious evening.

The Punjab Association has come some way since – with its own building (in Royapettah), and schools, clinics, hospitals, and working women’s hostels in its name. It celebrates festivals, organises picnics and get-togethers, and discusses problems.

The Arya Samaj, another association of Punjabi Hindus, runs its own schools. (Arya Samajists do not believe in idol worship, they perform a havan around a fire as a form of prayer.) Many Punjabi Hindus are members of both groups. The Sikhs of Chennai have their own association, the Guru Nanak Sat Sangh Sabha, set up in 1949, for social, spiritual and cultural bonding. Many of them are also members of the Punjab Association.

* * *

While the small group of Punjabis was evolving gradually in Madras, economically and culturally, Partition’s horrors exploded in northern India and Pakistan. Nothing remotely resembling the insensate killings of the north occurred in the south. But a refugee overflow did swamp Madras. More than 25,000 Hindu refugees – Punjabis, Marwaris, Sindhis, Gujaratis – made their painful way to Madras in 1947 and after.

The Punjab Association rose to the occasion and managed this human flood resourcefully. The refugees didn’t have the foggiest idea about Madras. On arrival at the Madras railway station, weak and hungry, bemoaning their fate, they were calmed and reassured by the man who met them at the station – Gurdial Singh Gill, better known as just Colonel Gill. He was the Inspector-General of Prisons and knew just about every leader in Madras. He was to become an iconic figure.

Led by Col. Gill, P.N. Dhawan, Col. Sangamlal and Premraj Chandok, the Punjab Association mobilised the entire community into rescue and relief mode. The Red Cross was roped in as well. A Sharanagat Raht Punarvas Committee (Rehabilitation Committee for the Refugees) was formed. All Punjabis were urged to pitch in with money, accommodation or jobs for their unfortunate brethren.

Over time, this refugee colony was to make its benefactors proud. The Punjabis set up small vegetable and fruit outlets and did good business. They gradually diversified into textiles, surgicals, furnishings, restaurants. The colony was later to develop as Gill Nagar.

Gill Nagar, today, a middle class residential colony, has only about 15 Punjabi families – perhaps it’s a matter of time before these 15 families move out too. Anuradha held a Focus group discussion recently with women from these families. They help the menfolk with their own little enterprises. One of the women offers paying guest accommodation, another manufactures quilts, a third is into direct marketing, a fourth runs a catering outfit for north Indian food, yet another sells garments while her husband Jasbir Singh is the only Sikh dentist in Chennai.

Col. Gill is someone who is remembered by all. Punjabis have also been long-term residents in Madras.

* * *

P.N. Dhawan, who came to Chennai as the manager of Uberoi Sports, was another founder-member of the Punjab Association. A selfless social worker, he was also an amateur dramatist and used this talent to raise funds for the Punjab Association. He scripted and produced plays on Partition that were hugely popular. The first of these, Shahidon ki pukar (The Call of the Martyrs), directed by Chimankanth Gandhi and staged by the Punjab Association at the Raja Annamalai Hall in 1954, was a tremendous hit. The 3-and-a-half-hour play cast a spell on the packed house – “there was no dry eye in the hall”. Dhawan took the play to Bangalore and Bombay, where again it was a sensation. Dhawan’s efforts helped lay the financial foundation for the affluent Punjab Association of today.

Jaidev Chaudhary (“Jai­devji”), 83, is another much-respected pioneer and achiever. Born in Multan, Pakistan, to Arya Samaj parents, he studied in Benares, did his higher education in Kuruk­shetra in Sanskrit, and came to Chennai in 1944 at the age of 18 to help his Chennai-based sister and brother-in-law run their automobile spare parts business.

The business prospered, but Jaidev is better known among the Punjabis as a tireless crusader and do-gooder. He is connected with an array of welfare projects and agencies. He organised medical camps for refugees from Burma, spearheaded Gujarat earthquake (2001) relief, raised Rs. 35 lakh for Kargil war widows (a part of the money was handed over to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund, the rest personally to children of war widows), and helped the 2004 tsunami victims in Tamil Nadu. He has piloted a Rs. 2.5 crore project to create a settlement at Kaipanikuppam (a village, an hour’s drive north of Pondicherry) for tsunami victims, under which 123 new houses will be built, 37 will be renovated and a primary health centre will be set up. An MoU for the project has been signed with the Tamil Nadu Government.

M.C. Dhingra was another enterprising refugee who made good. He was a graduate, very rare for Punjabis in the 1940s. He spurned jobs, sat on the pavement in Poonamallee High Road and sold leather pieces. He befriended the Muslims of the area and they proved his friends too. Over the years he developed his pavement trade into a sophisticated leather business.

M.C. Dhingra is no more. His daughter Vimla Batla is a beautician, perhaps the first in Madras. She was trained in Bangalore by a French woman. Armed with a beautician’s certificate from Paris, she set up Saloni’s Beauty Clinic in Wallace Gardens, later she moved the beauty saloon to Shafee Mohammed Road. The business was wound up after 23 years.

Old-timers recall Vimla Batla’s lavish wedding in 1961, perhaps the first big Punjabi wedding in Chennai. Vegetables, provisions and sweets came from the north. Local Punjabis pitched in, hosting wedding guests from outside Chennai, and offering food and transport. Dhingra’s Muslim friends cooked loads of biryani in their kitchens and lent drama to the emotional bidaii ceremony.

The success stories of the Partition migrants gradually drew more Punjabis to Chennai – either to seek a fortune here or to expand businesses from North India. Anuradha mentions Sardar Mohan Singh of Oriental Building and Furnishing Co. He went to the US from Delhi in 1947 and bagged a bottling contract for Coca Cola. (From the US he phoned his daughter Koko Malhan and said “I’m joining a company named after you!”) The Sardar set up bottling units in several places. In Madras, he bought 28 acres of land in Guindy – formerly the Narasu Studios – and set up the bottling plant called Southern Bottlers. The redoubtable Sardar Mohan Singh also created another Madras landmark – he helped build the American Consulate-General.

Mohan Singh’s daughter Koko and husband Gurcharan Singh Malhan moved to Madras in 1965 to run Southern Bottlers, and lived in a house built in the Guindy property. The business thrived. Southern Bottlers won a Government of India award for employing the largest number of handicapped people.

In the 1980s, the Hindi film Inquilab starring Amitabh Bachchan and Sridevi was shot on a set specially created in the Guindy property. The set remained after the film was completed, and was used by Koko and her husband for a right royal celebration of Holi. When the Sardar died, Koko Malhan inherited the Guindy property. The Malhan family has leased out seven acres of it to ITC, which is now busy constructing a luxury hotel there.

* * *

The Punjabis of Madras in yesteryear were traders and businessmen, with little college education. But today’s generation has realised the value of education. Many schools and colleges have come up. There are in fact three clusters of Punjabi schools:

  • Five schools named Adarsh Vidyalaya, set up by the Punjab Association, as well as the Anna Adarsh College for Women.
  • Seven schools named DAV, set up by the Arya Samaj. The regular Sunday havan at one of the DAV schools draws Punjabi Hindus in large numbers.
  • The Guru Nanak school and college set up by Col. Gill and his friends.

Anuradha elaborates: “Punjabis wanted a Hindi-medium school of their own: Adarsh Vidyalala was the result. Those days – in the 1940s and 50s – people were very particular about preserving their own culture. Today, of course, Adarsh offers courses in Hindi as well as English.”

The Punjab Association also runs three working women’s hostels and an orphanage for 200 children.

Mrs. Visharada Hoon, the first principal of Adarsh School, says, “I have seen the Punjabi community flourish. Initially the Punjabis used cycles, then cars, then they built houses.” Mrs. Hoon is 83, her daughter Vinita Hoon is an environmentalist (one of her projects relates to sustainable development of coral reefs in the Andamans). An off-beat Punjabi?

* * *

Punjabis take their fun and fellowship, their biradari (brotherhood), and rishtedari (relatives and relationships) seriously, says Anuradha. They spare no pains to help one another or to just have a blast – damn the expense. As for rishtedari, “Punjabis go out of the way to help even strangers. Which other community offers such warmth?” asks Anuradha. Rishtedari can shred red tape, solve any problems, whether it’s day or night.

But Punjab today has its downside too, Anuradha says. She is appalled by the consumerism, the money-mindedness, the flaunting of wealth. “Punjab is an unbelievably dressy place,” says Anuradha. “At any party, the conversation is all about what people are wearing, the latest necklace, bangles, perfumes, sarees. I was told that my dress sense had gone down, that I was no longer ‘with it’. When I called an old friend, she invited me home but said her mother-in-law would be in, could I wear diamond ear-rings? I said, ‘No Thanks’. I longed to get back to Chennai, where I could be myself, and hog the idli-dosa and puliyotharai and curd rice that I love.”

Anu quotes 23-year-old Sagar Kapoor, son of Rajesh Kapoor of Kapoor Furnishings. He returned recently to Chennai from the US where he studied and worked for some time. “I’m proud of Chennai,” he declared. “I don’t regard myself as a Punjabi in Chennai, but as a Chennaiite.” (Incidentally, Sagar’s brother Akash is a proud Chennaiite too. He has acted in Tamil films and done ads for Shakti Masala, Nallis and Regent shirts.)


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