Calcutta, the Tam-Brahms and the old Corporate World – Gomathy Venkateswar
Calcutta, the capital of W.Bengal, now a heaving and overcrowded metropolis was once the first capital city of British India. It achieved a lofty status in the days of the East India Company, whose directors amassed enormous wealth from their various business ventures including the nefarious opium trade. It held sway right up to the early days of the 20th century. Its unpleasant climate was one of many factors that played a part in the transfer of the capital to Delhi in 1911. In the 1920s and 1930s, attracted by its commercial reputation, large numbers of migrants from other parts of India arrived seeking gainful employment and a chance to make a lot of money.
Some of those migrants were from the south. Tam-Brahms (shorthand for Tamil Brahmins) whose ancestors ranged from temple priests, cooks and principals of schools to land owners in today’s Tamil Nadu and whose adherence to the rigid caste system had condemned thousands of lower caste people called Shudras to lives of harsh servitude, were now paradoxically the new outcastes of the south due to slow but powerful socio/ political change. They were given a taste of what it feels like to be treated as of no value. The activities of the Justice Party founded in 1916 and led by the great non-Brahmin reformer E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker ushered in the end of ‘high’ caste supremacy. He founded the Self-Respect Movement in 1916. His Marxist views and hatred of the in-built inequality of the caste system led to the slow erosion of Brahmin supremacy. The oppressors became the oppressed. It was the turn of Brahmins to experience the demise of easy access to higher education, professions and business opportunities. The new Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (Dravidian Association) set up in 1944 ruled supreme in the South. It was the turn of the under- privileged classes to have reserved places in higher education and jobs. Brahmins had to seek their fortunes in the great cities north of Tamil Nadu. Many young men left for Calcutta and later to Bombay and Delhi.
They were known for their mathematical genius as well as for their fluency in the use of English. They were able to secure government jobs as clerks and secretaries as they became proficient in the new shorthand taking and typing skills. They worked for British and Indian ICS officers as well as for the business class. Calcutta was at that time an industrial power house owing to its proximity to coal fields and an emerging steel industry. The British had made it their trading base since the 17th century and with the passage of time it had all the trappings of a great city with roads, railways and offices. And it was here that that the young Subramanyams, Ramaswamys, Manis, Krishnans Venkatramans etc. began to flourish. There were jobs aplenty for the multi-skilled Tamils. Their competence in accounting practice was proverbial. They rented shared rooms and ate at a canteen whose owner, Mr. C. Raman profited and kept them fed with good, homely food three times a day. In order to distinguish between the men with similar names, he would ask for the name of the company that employed them.
And so it began:- Bata Krishnan, Kilburn Gopalan, Philips Ramaswamy Iyer, Metal Box Ganeshan, Ford Motors Sitaraman ,Kodak Mani, ICI Srinivasan, Port Trust Venkateswaran, Parke Davis Padmanabhan and so on. This form of nomenclature carried on upto the 6os. The company was the name tag. To this day, a descendant of one of the pioneers might still identify her ancestor by linking him with a company. There were innumerable British companies in the first half of the 20th century. The British traded in Tea, Jute, Cotton and other commodities, ran shipping lines and made their fortunes, sometimes colossal. The birth of independent India in 1947 brought unionism in its wake. Militant unionism led to a Marxist government in W. Bengal that was only unseated recently.
The long established Tam-Brahms, no longer recent immigrants, had retired and British companies had closed down or left Bengal for less leftwing states. The Tamilians now saw themselves as Bengalis with their offspring born in the newly named Kolkata. The younger generation spoke Bengali fluently and spoke it even within their homes. The Tamil community had tended to live in a certain area amicably with Bengali neighbours. They had the reputation of being hardworking, honest and reliable. So the Calcutta Corporation gave the name of the Tamil Poet Laureate, Subramanya Bharatiyar to the street in which many of them lived. The street had a very South Indian ambience with women wearing Kancheepuram saris, jasmine in their hair and the sound of Carnatic music emanating from windows. Great Tamil musicians visited annually, including M.S. Subbalakshmi, Chitti Babu, S.Balachander and many more.
Today, the South Indian families have moved further south to a locality called Brahmapur in South 24 Parganas, where they have had houses built for them and where they enjoy a well-earned comfortable life style. Their love of Carnatic music and dance is undiminished but their names are no longer tagged with the name of a company.
Almost a hundred years later the direction of migration has changed. Indian students from all parts of India try hard to be accepted for further study at American universities and many Tam-Brahms are settled there holding very good jobs in IT and other fields.
Gomathy Venkateswar has been an educator for the last 35 years and has been the principal of several
prestigious private schools in India as well as in Nepal. She was a Fellow of the Fulbright Studies Program at the University of Minnesota in 1987. Now retired from active workm she enjoys working with a few NGOS both local and International for promoting literacy for women and children in the slum dwellings in her locality, and empowering the status of women.