CHENNAI : At 6 pm on a weekday, the tables at Northeast Kitchen, Egmore, are fairly empty, but the kitchen is busy as usual. Amidst the sounds of steamer whistles and clanking of vessels, a soft-spoken Amo Thingsoring tells us they’re busy preparing for the 8 pm crowd. His uncle runs the restaurant, and the 12 boys and girls working there are from different towns in Manipur. Amo, 21, is a Manipuri Naga who moved to Chennai last May. His day begins and ends at work, and life in Chennai has been a harsh reminder of responsibilities. “It was unsettling when I first came here. I made no friends in the city. I had to travel to work, and spend all day here.”
Amo and other cooks at the restaurant live with his uncle’s family in a six-bedroom house in Adambakkam. Sonia Shangshang, his 19-year-old cousin moved in last in December, and recalls getting used to Chennai at a slow pace. “I realised people are friendly here. It’s okay to walk up to them and ask how they’re doing. And the beach is my favourite. I’ll miss it if I go back home,” she says.
Sonia used to work in a call centre in Delhi. But her family feared her safety, and decided Chennai was better and safer. For Sonia, Amo and others at the restaurant, the Sunday mass at Wesely Church in Egmore, is a weekly escape from their work grind, where they bond with other Naga migrants in the city. Similar community meetings at homes and parks in the city, are common among migrants from Assam, Mizoram, and other states in the North-East.
Indukalpa Saika, secretary of Assam Association, Chennai, explains that the community meeting culture is fairly new in the city. He has lived with his family in Chennai for over a decade now, and speaks Tamil fluently. He says he knows Chennai better than his hometown. “We call today’s Chennai conservative, but you should’ve seen how it was earlier. People barely spoke in Hindi, and there were only a handful of us from Assam,” he shares.
Indukalpa observes a shift in culture in the last five years, as fewer students and more working professionals have moved to the city from rural areas of the Northeast. To help them find a safe place, the association organises meetings once in few months, and they celebrate Bihu, New Year and other festivals together.
The Chennai Mizo Welfare Association has 600 registered members from Mizoram. Lalnuntluanga Colney, president of the association, believes there are at least 2,000 other non-registered migrants from Mizoram in Chennai. The newer migrants are employed in restaurants, spas, and retail make about `10,000 to `15,000 on an average, and the few better qualified migrants settle for IT jobs.
Lalnuntluanga says that at least 10 youngsters, right out of school, land up at the Chennai Central station every day. “Many come to us with house rental issues, homesickness, poor pay and other problems. But in a few years, they love the food and simplicity of Chennaiites,” he explains.
Darshana Bora, a student from Assam, shares that it was only a matter of time before she started loving local food and music. She shares her hostel room with two others from Vellore and Andhra Pradesh, and says, “I was initially misunderstood because of language differences, but other interests connected us. My friends here now go out of their way to be protective, so I don’t feel out of place.”
Ask Darshana, Amo, or Sonia if they would leave Chennai to go back, and they respond with a firm ‘no’. “I always knew I had to leave home for work, and I didn’t think life in a city would be overwhelming. But I talk to my parents over the phone, and they think Chennai has made me mature,” shares Amo.