Amma, alias Madrassi

When November comes, tens of thousands of senior citizens visit banks, treasuries, EPFOs, and PSUs to update their living status with their respective PDAs (pension disbursing agencies).
Amma, alias Madrassi

Kamal Baruah


When November comes, tens of thousands of senior citizens visit banks, treasuries, EPFOs, and PSUs to update their living status with their respective PDAs (pension disbursing agencies). However, after the introduction of app-based Adhaar-Face technology from Jeevan Pramaan’ by the government, the entire process has begun digitally to ease for pensioners at home. Also, ‘Sparsh’ from Defence, ‘Sampan’ from Telecom, and ‘e-Saman’ from Indian Oil make things stress-free. This writer has witnessed another year of such occasions, when the entire banking hall looked very festive with life certificates all around.

It’s really annoying when customers wait for service to hold their spot in a physical line and there is no seating arrangement. Remember when people used to spend their salaries and pensions all day long at the traditional bank or Treasury queue? Those were the days. However, customer flow management in banks is modernized these days with digital check-ins. Also, first-come, first-served in-branch queuing is available on its premises, issued with tokens and seating arrangements. Our office worked out the seating arrangements and has gone ahead with refreshments and a free health checkup, as has the campaign for a pension loan.

Despite some special arrangements, there has been a much higher footfall this year at our office; we saw a challenging glint in our eyes, and I cling to the belief that improving the customer experience is the key to winning customers in financial institutions. As I wanted to get away from the hectic pace of another day, I sat back after business hours to ponder some names, especially their surnames; whatever, it doesn’t matter as much as their identity; nevertheless, getting compliments at work always makes my day.

We usually trace people by surname, which tells a lot about their place of origin, caste, and religion. One case of exception is that Tamilians don’t use surnames because, traditionally, south Indians, especially Tamil Nadu, prefix their given names with those of their fathers. And I enjoyed updating life certificates at pension software one after another while talking with customers, and in doing so, I have mastered their native accent.

It was another turn for an Amma (senior lady) at my pension desk. Her silence didn’t escape my notice while giving her thumbprint on the life certificate. The name, Mrs. V XXX Madrassi, does not seem funny at first glance, but the funny surname made me giggle when she said it out loud, and I couldn’t stop asking her, “Is Madrassi your surname?" The Telugu-speaking lady hesitated, unsure of what to say.

Chennai was then called Madras, and everyone from southern India was classified as Madrassi. It didn’t matter what the Madrassis spoke at home—Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, or Telugu—but Bollywood movies took the stereotype to a whole new level and introduced the idea of a Madrassi that’s here to stay. But there is a history behind this fallacy, and the British were originally to blame for it.

The British established their very first colony in India at Madras, covering all of Tamil Nadu and major portions of Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra, and the southern edge of Odisha, and its inhabitants were technically Madrassi. People from the southern region flocked to Madras City for education, business, and professions. Later, the Madrassis started moving to the north and started occupying key posts in government and business. They were collectively categorized as Madrassis, wherever they went.

Madrassis, especially people from Andhra Pradesh, migrated to eastern India to seek opportunities. They are mostly illiterate. They (sweepers) play a critical role in maintaining cleanliness and hygiene in government buildings, facilities, and surrounding areas. When the British left, independent India reorganized itself into states based on linguistic patterns. Madras Presidency was regrouped as Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra, and Odisha. But the Madrassi nomenclature persists, and such references continue to crop up every now and then.

Now most of the mares are retired and live in sweepers’ colonies near the capital complex at Dispur and the high courts at Kachari Ghat. In the absence of a surname, Assamese Babus perhaps gave them the making of a suitable surname at their PPOs on retirement, thereby calling her Mrs. Madrassi. I've never seen such rare, uncommon surnames, even though it’s widely considered an offensive stereotype.

What is there in a name? The incident was full of humour. I’ll savour that moment for a long time. Shortly after filing her life certificate, I looked for her, but Amma, alias Madrassi, had disappeared into the crowd after her happy filing at my desk. After the November rush hour, and now nothing remains of those filing life certificates but to hear the name Madrassi, That’s an intriguing possibility next time.

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