Growing up in Mumbai

Matunga – for any Tambrahm in Mumbai, especially those of a certain age, the very word evokes the feel of home. Sometimes called ‘Mini Madras’, Matunga in what would be some where in the centre of what is the original city (as opposed to the suburbs) was probably the first place the initial immigrants, young, eager, bright and wide-eyed, came to from Dadar station when their trains from the south arrived in Mumbai all ready to conquer the world, with an introduction to perhaps, if they are lucky, to a relative (distant or otherwise), or maybe someone from the same village they belonged to, or even a relative’s relative!

While I am not sure if this is 100% accurate, from what I’ve heard from my parents and grandparents, most young Tamil Brahmin boys and men started arriving in Mumbai (or Bombay as it was called then) somewhere in the early forties, some years before India would finally throw off the yoke of British dominance and become independent.

Both sets of my grandparents arrived in Bombay somewhere in the early to mid-forties, luckier than most as both my grandfathers had an older brother already settled in the city, in Matunga as it were! If I were to probably measure the distance my paternal and maternal grandparents live away from each other, when they first arrived in the city, it should probably be a maximum of 1 km.

Matunga is the heart of the Tamil Brahmin community in Bombay and as such the roads are filled with the sights and sounds of temple bells and the smells of filter coffee and delicious food!

Temples like Bhajana Samaj, Astika Samaj and Sankara Math, shops like Mysore Concerns, Giri Stores and the row of flower sellers in the road outside the post office along with the vegetable sellers who have carts close-by are all hallmarks of the Tamil Brahmin community in Matunga! Who can forget the Ram Navami and Navaratri celebrations in Bhajana Samaj, the Diwali sweets that always were sold in the hall in Sankara Matt, the banana leaf sold by the vegetable vendors during any major festival, the gaggle of priests, outside the temples, the sound of the temple bells and sugarcane stalks just before Pongal?

When their families grew, both sets of my grandparents moved from their family homes and out of Matunga. But they both didn’t’ pull the umbilical cord too much and move far away. Both of them moved another kilometer away from Matunga in opposite directions actually, and that was where my parents were brought up.

So growing up, we lived in another area which was a fifteen minute walk from Matunga, which was in the periphery of our lives, without actually living there. We used to go to Matunga for literally everything and my mum still goes there atleast two to three times a week for her weekly ‘fix’. This area in Bombay is the lifeline for the community and even today when other mini Matungas have sprung up across the city and suburbs – like Chembur, Chedda Nagar, Bangur Nagar, Mulund, Dombivili, Vashi, etc you can still people who have moved away from Matunga come here on weekends to catch-up with family and friends, eat at childhood haunts and buy essentials which you don’t get anywhere else in the city.

Growing up, there was always this disconnect – we were Tamilians, but without the accent which is usually caricatured in movies and television and always had questions on why we needed to wear a bindi on our forehead or flowers in our hair. In my and my sister’s case, it was compounded by the fact we didn’t go to the school that most of our Brahmin friends and relatives went to (which was a school run by a Tamil trust where the language was taught as a second language)!

Growing up also we were quite insular. I would say this with the benefit of hindsight. Every Tamilan I knew at that point in time was a Brahmin – either from one of the districts of Tamil Nadu or from Palakkad (from Kerala who are called Kerala Iyers or Palakkad Brahmins). Where we stayed, while not in Matunga, was in fact another Tamil conclave, with almost all the 30-40 buildings in the area having a sizeable Tambrahm population each. My building had 19 flats and with the exception of 2-3, every flat was a Tambrahm flat! This was pretty much the case (the percentages being slightly more or less, with some exceptions) for the other buildings in the street I lived in. Even in school, my friends who were Tamil were Brahmins. In fact, coming to Singapore with its vast Tamil population was actually a culture shock to me as I had never seen so many people from so many Tamil communities and the temples were the biggest shock – I had not heard of all the different Gods that were worshipped there (all the temples I visited prior to this were my community temples or the other temples in Mumbai)

Since most of the community emigrated to Bombay around 60-80 years back, the dialect of Tamil, we speak is completely different from what is spoken by the community in places like Chennai and Singapore. Bombay Tambrahms have retained the words and cadence of their speech from all those years while communities in Singapore and Chennai have adopted more of the local language. So the Tamil we speak may actually seem strange to those who don’t speak like this! S used to tell me that they used to be made fun of in school when they spoke Brahmin Tamil, which is why his Tamil sounds more like how it is in movies while mine is the one they make fun of in movies!

Writing this post has made me so nostalgic. I think the next time I go to Mumbai, I will try and capture all the sights and sounds of the city so that every time I miss Mumbai, I have these to see and hear! Also this post has made me realise I need to pen down more about my life, so that GG and BB know what that was like….

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