‘What is a Madrasi?’

Mamma looked up briefly. ‘Sarika, go play outside’ she continued rummaging through her clothes, completely ignoring my question. Alka didi* giggled from across the room as if I had said something wickedly funny.  

I first heard the word ‘Madrasi’ back at the new year party where I fell asleep on the table. I woke up to loud claps and shouts of ‘Happy New Year! Happy 1980!!’ Papa scooped me up and danced. There was a lot of laughing and hugging. Must be because of the ‘happy juice for grownups’ that everyone was holding- that’s what Papa called it. It must be true. There was a lot of happiness.

When he deposited me back at the table, I heard old Mrs Chopra, telling Mamma in a conspiratorial voice- ‘Lot of changes coming this year. A Madrasi is joining too!’ She quickly looked around. ‘You didn’t hear it from me’ Mrs Chopra said many things that people didn’t hear from her.

Over the past month, the staff colony had been abuzz with news that a new lecturer, a Madrasi, would indeed be joining. He would arrive with his family tomorrow. There was palpable excitement every time that word was mentioned but no one explained what it meant. He was a ‘Mr Menon’- how curiously unusual a name!

I stared up at the fan. It was mesmerizing to watch the long weary blades in their futile attempt at battling the all-encompassing Punjab summer heat. There was a lot of groaning and swinging and I was scared to close my eyes in case it came crashing down, a pile of metal and blades.

After a bit of contemplation, I rolled off the bed and ran outside to swing on the gates. The Katyal twins Dimple and Dolly rode by on their bikes. They were 10 and knew everything. ‘What is a Madrasi?’ I yelled. They looked at each other and nodded wisely. ‘Madrasi is a foreign place outside India. They speak a different language, wear different clothes and have different colored skin.’ I was astonished. Different colored skin??! The twins rode off before I could enquire further. My imagination knew no bounds. Green?! Pink?! What did they mean by different colored skin?!

Every house in the colony had signed up to provide meals for a week to the Menon family. The school’s Residential Cleaning Staff had been very busy getting the house next door ready for them. Papa said Mr Menon had two daughters and the elder one would be joining class 2 with me. He said I was to make sure she felt welcome. I felt important and special. No one else would have a ‘different colored’ friend. I decided to take the job very seriously. 

I was up early the next day and sitting on the verandah steps, barely able to contain my excitement. Every scooter and cycle rickshaw, every buggy had me running to the hedge that separated our house from the Menon house. Every time, I stared out into an empty yard and the big lock on the front door. The day stretched on and got hotter and still no sign of the Madrasis. I felt impatient.. 

Mr Gill visited at tea time and talked again of his sister’s Madrasi neighbor in Chandigarh. When I asked what color they were, he laughed his big booming laugh and reached for a third samosa. I was puzzled. The grownups either laughed or ignored me when I asked that question. Did they not know? But that made no sense. Was it a secret that they thought I was too young to understand? That thought made me even more curious. Now I had to know. 

By the time the staff colony kids had gathered at our house for chitrahaar, my patience was wearing thin. I felt grumpy and let down. My imagination had run untethered the whole day, painting my future friend the color of a butterfly at daytime who sparkled like fireflies at night. Mamma was not in salwar kameez, but had draped a sari – something I had seen on her on just two special occasions, so I knew it wasn’t just me who was eager to meet our new neighbors. 

We were about to sit down to dinner when the sound of wheels crunching gravel slowly approached. ‘They are here!!!’ I yelled and ran to open the door. The sun had retired for the day leaving behind a haze and the promise of another hot day tomorrow. Two open cycle rickshaws were pulling up tiredly along the narrow road. The street lights enveloped them in a golden glow every time they passed under. I stood on the bottom rung of the gate craning my neck to get a better view as they passed by me. 

The first one carried the Menons. To my intense disappointment, they were all people colored. Maybe it was because it was night, I told myself. Maybe they will look different in the morning. The man and the lady smiled at me. He had curly hair, kind big eyes and a warm smile. The lady was pretty and though she seemed tired, looked at the houses eagerly. She wore a sari and a bindi. Maybe for the occasion, I decided, just like Mamma. There was a little girl with big eyes like the man, sitting on the lady’s lap. Next to her was a girl my age who stared back at me just as curiously as I was staring at her. I was surprised to see that both the girls sported a bindi too.

The second rickshaw was piled high with luggage. There were iron trunks and a fancy large suitcase like the one maussi brought when she visited from Canada. So Madrasi was close to Canada, I thought. Their regular clothes must all be in there. There were baskets and cardboard boxes that looked a little sooty and dusty. I had heard mamma telling Alka didi earlier that the Menons would be exhausted after their three day train journey. Maybe the boxes had moved around while on the train. 

They stopped in front of the house next door. The man jumped out quickly and helped the lady down. He tapped the rickshaw driver on the back and smiled politely, as if to say thank you, after he paid him. The little girl held on to the lady’s hand and looked sleepy. The elder girl stood looking all around her while her dad helped unload the luggage. They both wore matching frocks and sandals. Both had short hair, just below the chin, with a fringe across the forehead. While the little girl’s hair stood out in a mop of unruly curls, her sister had silky straight hair. 

By now Mr Gill from down the street, Papa, Mama and Mr Katyal from the house across were walking towards the family, all of them smiling and holding out their hands in a gesture of welcome. 

I swung out on the gate, till it got close to the girl, my future friend. I was very disappointed that even under the bright street light, she did not look dramatically all that different. I studied her and an idea struck. Of course she would know what a Madrasi was! On the next swing out on the gate, I asked her. 

‘What is a Madrasi?’

She didn’t hear me. Mrs Gill, Mrs Katyal and Alka didi had joined the crowd now, carrying all sorts of food. Everyone was busy talking loudly in Hindi, Punjabi and English, and walking back and forth from the rickshaw to the front door, carrying all the luggage in. There was laughter and chaos. The girls stood taking it all in, eyes big and round. 

I got off the gate and walked up. It was impossible to make myself heard so I yelled at the top of my voice-


Everyone stopped talking and turned around all at once to look at me. Papa looked shocked, Alka didi looked dismayed and Mamma’s expression made me glad I was a safe distance away from her. At least no one was laughing now. 


It had been a tearful farewell at Palghat station. Four taxis, bursting at the seams with uncles, aunts, cousins, our luggage, and the four of us, drove from Ammamma’s house to the train station. Everyone cried, some sobbing inconsolably. Silent tears streamed down Amma’s cheeks. Daddy checked his watch, said little and looked uncomfortable. I pretended to be sad. Chinni, who usually cried easily, just sat and stared wide eyed and defiant, refusing to muster a single teardrop. I glared at her, feeling guilty for the both of us.

The train tore itself away from outstretched hands at the window bars and announcements that couldn’t be heard above the noise from the platforms. Whistling merrily, we gained speed and chugged off into the night. Amma was very quiet as she and Daddy went about dusting and preparing the berths for the night. The sour, metallic smell of the train mingled with the familiar smell of naphthalene balls and clean sheets. And of Ammamma’s house.

I hoped Ammamma wouldn’t wait for me the next morning. Dawn was our special time. I would find her in the huge kitchen, in front of the wood burning stove, the flames dancing about and casting mysterious shadows on the walls. She always had a big smile and a warm hug for me. I loved watching her start the day, way before the cockerel crowed, way before the various domestic help arrived. We would have a cup of tea together and listen to the cows fussing about in the wooden shed outside. The smell of coconut chutney, idli and stew would fill the air as the purple outline of the Malabar hills slowly became visible in the early morning light.

‘Come let me tuck you in Paru.’ I blinked hard, swallowed the lump in my throat, lay down and studied Amma. She hadn’t been happy about this. Daddy said there were no coconut trees in Punjab, maybe that’s why. I had heard her say she will miss our land. She said the change would be too drastic. Daddy said it would be an adventure. She said we wouldn’t be ‘among our people’. He said that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe it was like Madras, I thought. All of Daddy’s funny stories took place in faraway Madras. My grandfather, Daddy, his brother, his brother-in-law had all studied at some fun place called ‘Emsissy’** in Madras. Their stories were always about people and incidents, never about studies. I hoped Nabha would be just like Madras.

The train ride was long. Daddy asked us to observe and remember every interesting thing we came across, to describe to him once we got to the new house. Chinni and I sat and counted. I had never before seen the places we passed, or the colors, the clothes or the food that we saw at the stations. We stopped for a long time at a place called Vijayawada where I saw a man holding up a small mirror crisscrossed with many cracks. There was a monkey wearing a skirt, a colorful blue cloth tied on her head, a purse in one hand and she was standing in front of the cracked mirror. I was as fascinated with her fragmented reflection as she seemed to be. 

Daddy and Amma talked throughout the journey about Punjab. He told her about its people. He said they would never make her feel like an outsider. He described to us the school where he would be working and we would be studying. I had heard him say the same things over the past months. But this time Amma couldn’t walk out. Besides, she had questions. By the time we reached Delhi, Amma was talking to Daddy normally and I gave myself permission to be excited. Feelings inside me were lopsided when Daddy and Amma disagreed.

The train slowed down and pulled into New Delhi station with a giant sigh and we got down. Red uniformed porters swarmed all around. They were frail looking men carrying surprisingly large pieces of luggage, stealthily weaving their way through the giant body of tired, frazzled passengers. We freshened up at the waiting room. Amma made us shower and change but the smell of the train stayed in my nose. The noise stayed in my head. I still felt a little scared of falling down the toilet, even though we were not on the train, and the ground still felt unsteady. Very soon it was time to board another train and travel on to Ambala, and then on to Nabha.

The quiet railway station at Nabha was tiny. It was a very short stop and we had to hurry out, luggage and all. The hard slatted seats on the train from Ambala made my bottom hurt. By now the journey made me think of the incessant rains during monsoon season. Just when I thought it was over it would start up again, sweeping us right along with it. Ammamma’s house was drifting to the bottom of my memory pile. Amma had begun to look doubtful again and Chinni looked positively miserable. I looked at Daddy and he flashed me a quick smile. I picked up my steps.

Seeing the small line of cycle rickshaws, Amma looked at Daddy and said ‘ONE year’. He nodded, ‘Yes. Promise.’ The rickshaws snaked their way through narrow lanes and a busy little town. The roads felt flat, straight and grey. The soil was grey, the sky was grey, even the trees and leaves seemed grey. Vehicles were all pushed or pulled by men or horse. I didn’t see any car. Strangely, almost everyone tied a cloth on their head like Velayudhan when he had to plough the paddy fields in the sun. Except, these were colorful head cloths and there was no sun. Daddy pointed out what he called ‘dhabas’. They lined a side of the street. I watched a man whose stomach jiggled around a massive cooking vessel which he was stirring continuously. The smells made my stomach rumble.

We carried on past the small town. Suddenly there was silence and darkness out of which rose forts and castles all around. Some were in ruins and others gleamed white in the moonlight. Even Amma gasped. Chinni‘s focus temporarily shifted from her biscuit. Very soon, we reached the Staff Colony. We traveled up a narrow lane flanked by houses on either side. Each house had a lawn and garden in the front and a little gate. A thick low hedge separated the houses. There was a luminous girl standing on a gate staring at us. She looked like Silky, a pixie in one of the stories Daddy read to us at bedtime. Except she had dark hair and as far as I could tell, no wings. Chinni forgot her biscuit altogether and stared.

Suddenly doors opened and people descended on us, big smiles and handshakes and back thumps. Someone pointed at the pixie girl and said ‘Sarika’. Chinni tightened her hold on my hand. Everyone was talking and smiling and nodding and unloading. I felt hungry, confused and sleepy. Daddy was talking as if he knew everyone. Did he know them from Emsissy? But this wasn’t Madras. Was Madras close by?


I stared at her, astonished and delighted. The pixie girl read minds! For some reason everyone stopped talking and in the silence, only Chinni’s voice could be heard. She pointed at one of the nice uncles with a colorful blue head cloth and observed, quite loudly: ‘Just like the monkey!’

Mr Menon and Mrs Menon immediately admonished Chinni, who, completely exhausted now, burst into tears.

‘Don’t cry puttar***- That’s what I’ve been telling him too!’ said Mr Katyal with a hearty laugh, ‘exactly like a monkey!’ Mr Khatra, the subject of Chinni’s observation, grinned at her, throwing up his hands. He reached out and led her up to the front door. Paru glanced back at a grumpy Sarika and followed her mother. Mrs Menon looked embarrassed as she apologized and explained to everyone the monkey reference. Amidst more laughter and rapid questions about their journey, all the luggage was brought in.

The children woke up the next day to a medley of sounds, none of them familiar. A cheerful cycle bell that got more intrusive as it drew closer, booming voices in a language that was alien, the banging of pots and pans, an occasional braying of a donkey in the distance, the clip-clop of horse’s hooves – even the cawing of a crow sounded louder than it did back home. Finally, the sudden shrill sound of the doorbell made them sit up straight. They rubbed their eyes and listened as Mrs Menon opened the door to Sarika. Scrambling out of bed, they quickly followed their nose to find the girl standing there with a big expectant smile. She was carrying a hot case from which wafted a delicious smell.

Mrs Menon smiled at her and handed her a box she had kept ready on the table. ‘Tell me if you like this coconut burfi. Please thank your mom for sending us breakfast. This smells lovely!’

‘Is it from Madrasi?!’ asked Sarika, looking at the box, eyes round. ‘The city you are asking about is called ‘Madras’. It’s in Tamil Nadu,’ Mrs Menon explained gently, with a pat on her head. ‘This burfi is from Kerala. We are too! Be sure to eat it up quickly- coconut will go bad fast.’ Sarika nodded, though she looked confused. Mrs Menon assured her that the girls would come out and play as soon as they had eaten their breakfast.

As she skipped over a low growth in the hedge between the houses and on to the other side, Sarika was deep in thought. Her parents had given her quite an earful the previous night. Would she like it if someone looked her straight in the face and asked her what a Punjabi is? Puzzled, she said, ‘yes’, which made her mom get even more exasperated. Sarika quickly promised she wouldn’t ask again, though no one explained to her why she shouldn’t. However, when she was tasked with dropping off freshly made alu paratha this morning, she had been hopeful of gleaning new information. She hadn’t been disappointed.

The Menon girls quickly got ready for the day, tripping over open suitcases and running around boxes, excited and eager to explore the house and garden. The staff children came by in bunches, curious to meet the new neighbors. After an early breakfast, all the children gathered under the eucalyptus trees at the end of the street. Dimple and Dolly cycled up. ‘You have a strange name,’ Gurvarinder Gill aka Babbloo, told Paru. Mr Gill’s other son, Bhupinder aka Pikloo, who was a few years older, whacked him on the back of his head. ‘That’s my nickname. My real name is Ashwathi,’ she explained. Babbloo and Pikloo went into fits of giggles.

Chinni had already made a friend. She and Chikoo, whose real name was Ishita, would be in the same class. Paru looked around, feeling suddenly deflated. Everything looked and felt strange now that the initial excitement was wearing off. She glanced up at the eucalyptuses around them, so different from any tree she had seen. These stood tall and mysterious, their barks a strange grayish brown with a marble like design down the trunk. A dry wind blew through them that gave little relief from the heat. Paru thought about Ammamma and felt a knot in her stomach.

Sarika pointed at Paru and said to a bewildered Dimple and Dolly ‘she is neither pink, nor green!’ Surprised and distracted, Paru checked her arms and legs and nodded in agreement. In turn, she observed ‘You are not a pixie!’ Sarika didn’t understand. ‘What is a pixie?’ She asked. ‘What is a Madrasi? asked Paru. Sarika studied her for a bit. She eventually threw her hands up in the air the way Mr Gill had, sighing exasperatedly. Suddenly remembering something, she reached into her pocket and held out a shiny stone. ‘Here. I saved this to give to you.’

Paru looked in awe at the stone in her palm, gleaming in the spots of sunlight dancing among the eucalyptus leaves. Then at the eager face of the girl in front of her. She decided she liked Punjab after all.

Much later in the night, Mr and Mrs Menon stood in the neatly arranged kitchen, one washing the dishes, the other wiping and putting them on a shelf. Both of them were absolutely tired and barely awake after a day of unpacking. The neighbors had dropped in throughout the day. The children were fast asleep in their new room, content after a good shower and dinner.

‘How nice everyone is!’ said Mr Menon. His wife remarked – ‘Yes. We are the Madrasis.’ There was slight annoyance in her voice. She looked at her husband, expecting a response. ‘The term is a throwback to a time when most of south India came under the Madras Presidency. They don’t mean it as an insult. Nalini, most of these people haven’t been south of Delhi. We are the only South Indians in all of Nabha! Even educated people can be ignorant, no?’ Mrs Menon replied, ‘Yes’. Then with an unmistakable twinkle in her eyes, she said, ‘You called Mrs Sharma ‘Jaan’! That’s not her name, you know. It’s just what Mr Sharma calls her.’ She burst out laughing seeing the appalled look on his face. ‘So much to learn..,’ said Mr Menon thoughtfully. ‘..,and to teach,’ added Mrs Menon

Next door, Sarika pulled the sheets off her. She pulled herself up on her elbow and craned her neck to make sure Alka didi was awake in her bed. In a loud whisper, she told her. ‘They are not Madrasis. Mama, Papa, Mrs Chopra and everyone else is wrong!’ Alka didi rolled her eyes in the dark. What now. Sarika got off the bed and hissed – ‘They are Karelas!’****– With that tiresome puzzle satisfactorily solved, she hopped back in and fell into a happy sleep.

* elder sister 

**MCC ( Madras Christian College)

***actual meaning ‘son’, slang for ‘child’, in Punjabi 

**** Hindi for bitter gourd ( people from Kerala are called Malayalis)