As the evening sun begins its descent, Subash and Bishwamitra Shougrakpam sit on the promenade of Chennai’s Elliot’s Beach, whiling away what remains of a muggy day. They are talking video games, a language shared by many smartphone wielding young men with time on their hands. Shougrakpam is showing off a game he has recently discovered, describing the action as his fingers dance around shooting faceless enemies on the Internet.
“Why don’t you ever talk to me in English,” asks Subash, who moved to Chennai from a Tamil Nadu village to attend college. “At least that way I can pick it up a little. But you’re always talking in Tamil!”
A 21-year-old hairdresser’s apprentice from Manipur, Shougrakpam is short and wiry, with close-cropped hair that is almost always covered by a cap that never quite sits flush on his head. He speaks Tamil fluently, albeit with an accent. He is busy parachuting into a virtual battlefield and ignores Subash’s comment. A moment later, he resumes his running commentary on the game. Despite his friend’s frustration, he is still speaking rapid Tamil.
Shougrakpam is one of many migrants from the Northeast who live in the informal settlements that have sprung up and co-exist with the erstwhile fishing village on the edge of the affluent neighbourhood of Besant Nagar.
Although there is no reliable estimate of their numbers, their presence in the area is sizeable and hard to miss. Bookended by the Velankanni Church and the Ashtalakshmi Temple, the seaside settlement is one of the innumerable outposts of the great Indian migration, which, according to the 2011 census, has seen close to 139 million Indians leave home and move to faraway places across the country in search of employment.
In Chennai, a city of 7 million people, there are over a million migrant workers. The ones from the northeastern states work primarily in the hospitality, retail, and beauty industries. Their innate sense of style and grooming, their fluency in English, and their supposed ‘presentability’ — typically, a euphemism for their fair complexion — make them ideal employees for restaurants, salons, and clothing stores across the city.
It is hard to tell when the first wave of migrants from the region chose to come to Chennai or why they picked this area to live in. However, what is certain is that almost all of them trace their arrival back to a friend or family member who made the journey before them. In Shougrakpam’s case, it was an uncle. “He had worked here for many years. I came with him to study in a school here.”
Having relocated from picturesque Imphal to the industrial belt in Chennai’s northern reaches, he immediately confronted the issue that discomfits most migrants from the Northeast when they arrive in Tamil country: the language.
Shougrakpam is one of the few who quickly picked up Tamil; most migrants from the Northeast find it harder, sticking to their own kind and counting the days until they can go back home.
“I came here to work and make money,” says a young nurse from Darjeeling, who doesn’t want to be named.
“There are no good jobs back home. My parents work in a tea garden and that is very hard work.” Although she has a decent job and what she calls “a good life” here with her husband, she doesn’t see the city ever becoming home. “We’d like to go back when it is possible. This isn’t where we belong.” Many of her fellow migrants are similarly tethered to their homelands, performing a delicate balancing act between Chennai where they work and their homes in the Northeast, a dance that never quite seems to stabilise.
The reason more of them arrive each year is fairly straightforward. “I feel very safe here. And the people are helpful too. It’s not like in other cities like Bengaluru and Delhi where people from the Northeast are discriminated against and harassed,” says Jennifer from Assam, voicing what appears to be a commonly-held view among many of the migrants from the region.
Ironically, while the rest of the population sees them all as uniformly ‘Northeastern’ — when it isn’t pejoratively branding them ‘chinkis’ or ignorantly identifying them as Chinese or Nepali — the migrants themselves share little in common with each other.
“Most of the locals simply say we are from the Northeast. But we are not the same,” says Shougrakpam.
“We are all very different. We look similar, but I cannot tell if someone is from Manipur just by looking at them.”
In the urban villages of Besant Nagar, the predominant migrant communities are Assamese, Mizo, Naga, and Manipuri. And their paths rarely cross. In fact, even within these State-specific identities, there are divisions — a Manipuri Meitei doesn’t celebrate the same festivals or speak the same language as a Manipuri from one of the hill tribes. Every day, as they go about their lives in the city, they navigate these dual identities: a generic one labelled on them by their adopted environs, and the other, a more deep-rooted one, dictated by the circumstances of their birth.
The troubled politics of the Northeast, which has seen decades of conflict between many of these groups, plays a part in creating these divisions. And language ensures that even the apolitical don’t escape the corrals. Although most of them can speak functional Hindi and many rely on their English skills professionally, in the microcosm of the Northeast that they have recreated in Besant Nagar, they are either unwilling or unable to transcend their mother tongues.
When asked if he has friends who aren’t Naga, Angeles Hriizhlou, a hairdresser from Nagaland, rattles off a long list of Indian States his friends hail from. He says he knows a few foreigners too. But there is no mention of any other northeastern community. Shougrakpam too struggles to recall if he knows any Naga or Mizo people.
Perhaps the only factor that seeps through these linguistic and ethnic walls is food. Although the cuisines are different, many communities from the Northeast share a common list of ingredients — most of which are near impossible to find in Chennai. This has led to the mushrooming of several informal ‘Northeast shops’ in the area which stock everything from the legendary bhut jolokia chilli to fermented fish known as ngari, sunflower seeds, passion fruit leaves, and even brands of instant coffee and tea that are generally found only in their hometowns. These fly-by-night stores represent a tangible, physical link to a faraway homeland.
In the cramped two-room tenement that Shougrakpam lives in, there are more people than pieces of furniture. Some are family, others friends.
Most of them look forward to returning home. “We are not lonely because we have family here, but it’s not home,” says Herojit, Shougrakpam’s uncle.
“We are here now, we work, we earn, and then we go.”
But Shougrakpam represents a small minority of migrants who choose to add a third layer to the two identities already thrust upon them. “My friends and family talk about going back, but I like it here. I’d like to stay,” he says.
Apart from having picked up the language and having cultivated Tamil friends, he has also developed a taste for the local culture. “I’m bored of Manipuri food. I prefer Tamil food. And I watch a lot of Tamil and Telugu movies. Manipuri movies are all about romance, which is nice, but it gets annoying after a point. I’d rather watch Vijay and Prabhas any day.”
Despite Shougrakpam’s obvious affinity for his adopted home, assimilation is a never-ending process fraught with roadblocks, big and small. Asked if he sees Chennai as home, he says, “It doesn’t matter how much I feel at home here, I can never say I am from here. People will look at my face and not accept me.”
Back on the promenade of Elliot’s Beach the video games have drained the batteries on their smartphones, and Subash and Shougrakpam are saying their goodbyes when a crow perches next to them.
“We don’t have many crows in Manipur,” says Shougrakpam. “So when we see one, we believe it is a sign that someone is going to die.” Tamil Nadu has an abundance of crows, says Subash. “In our culture, we say a crow is a sign that a relative will visit soon.”
*Last names of several respondents withheld on request.
Originally published by The Hindu on 29 September 2018. This essay has been produced with the help of the National Geographic Society and the Out of Eden Walk journalism workshop.