Monday, April 11, 2011

Glimpses of the Devils Own Land - II

We Mallus are often a spineless lot, you know. Unlike our fellow-Dravidians, you will never find two Mallus conversing in Malayalam in, say, America. They would be the first ones to switch to an alien culture. We poke fun at the unsophisticated, often crude, folksy demeanor of our fellow country-men, like we get a kick out of certifying our own social conduct as different from theirs, and better. Perhaps, we're not entirely wrong. In fact, to a huge extent, we are right. But who says folksy isn't interesting.
Moving cities is no joke. Especially not if the city you are leaving happens to be where you have lived some 25 odd years of your life. Whether it has anything to do with the Southie-Northie divide, I cannot say for my parents, who had after considerable thought and debate decided to plunge and make the final move, and shift to Kerala, a place they always like calling home. There was no time for apprehensions and worries as the shifting and all the brouhaha that followed took up all their time, energy and money.

It will take a year to settle down and at least nine months to unpack, we often sighed. So there was no dearth of activity. The cherry on the cake of disorder was when my father fell ill and was admitted at the hospital nearby for about a month. Now here was an old man, having just bid adieu to his home of 35 years, that he always hated calling home; after 30 years of service to a government that he forever faithfully defended (even in the face of insult as my brother would often ask him, “You were in the ‘Intelligence’? How ironic!”), coming home, with a wife who was his biggest critic, and a cynic of a daughter; this old man had been deprived of a good night’s sleep for almost six months. And now he got a chance to get that sleep, only in the confines of the white walled, rotten phenyl-smelling room of a sort-of-upmarket hospital in his hometown. All this when he was still getting used to discarding his Arrow trousers for Mundus, shirts for, well, nothing! To make matters worse, Onam was around the corner, his first in his good old home. Everyone was racking their brains on how to make him feel better, for his absence was enough to dampen the festive spirit. No one really wanted to celebrate. And on the morning of Onam, while we young pretty ladies busied ourselves with the morning rituals, essentially the decking up of the house and ourselves, the elaborate breakfast, and the cutting and chopping preceding the even more elaborate lunch, in the midst of it all, we conveniently forgot about dear old daddy whose only company was his wife who was frantic, wondering how to stop her husband sulking when he wakes up.

Just as he opened his eyes that morning, and sighed deeply at the Onam he was missing, that he had looked forward to for over a year, he was greeted by a familiar smiling face. His childhood friend, also a cousin, had travelled 50kms across the city to greet him that morning. It was 'chaddi' buddies meeting after several years, true Bollywood style. What was touching was the friend’s simple act of concern. He chose to leave his slurpilicious ritual breakfast that morning, because all that mattered to him was his friend who could not share his breakfast with him.
It made me think. While I spent most of my energy on criticizing these irritatingly crude, hypocritical, conventional beings, and cursing my fate for having been born on one side and ending up on the wrong side of the planet, this one incident made me introspect a bit. We Mallus are a hypocritical lot, I admit. But we have a heart that goes out to those in pain. Simplicity comes to us naturally, and we value simple gestures. If gossip is our middle name, it also perchance reveals some genuine concern for a stranger. And rest assured that it comes from the heart and not always from a perpetually conspiring head. Mallus, I thought to myself that day. You can hate their ways. But you cannot hate them.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Glimpses of the Devils Own Land - I

I look at them and wonder, don’t they get bored?! If I had to live a routine where my morning, noon and evening chores made the story of my life, I am sure I won’t live long. Thinking out of the box comes to them rarely. And those who do are treated almost equivalent to pariahs — stay away from society.
I wanted to shake them a bit. But then, since I am living amongst them, I must follow suit to some extent, I tell myself. Like they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. But don’t turn into a Roman though. In five months of my stay in the devil’s own land, I got a glimpse of not just the beauty that nature has so generously, bountifully blessed this land, but also the pettiness that makes life so interesting for this 100% literate population where every second teenager is either an aspiring doctor or engineer (PC Thomas Zindabad).
Apart from the mandatory visit to the not-so-nearby temple every morning where mothers of bachelors and spinsters indulge in some match-making for their engineer and doctor sons and daughters, the only thing that excites them is gossip. What is happening in the neighbour’s family? Did they steal the coconuts from your tree? I thought that branch fell within your boundary. Oh the land has a share in his great grand uncle’s property! You must fight for your rights then! So what if his uncle’s daughter in law’s half brother is a High Court advocate? You must fight for your tree before you lose your coconuts!
I had had my fill of the neighbour’s gossip that day and decided to venture out with a few cousins, to the town. The intention was to explore some unexplored cuisine in the city, which eventually left me thoroughly dejected. These idly-dosa eating species leave their traditional-modern kitchens (built mostly to show off than to serve any utility), where dosa, idly and puttu kadala are the staple menu of the week, only to go to the town and eat dosa, idly and vada at the hotels and restaurants around. If experimenting is on the agenda, then a visit to the “Cool Bar” or “Ice Cream Parlour” is a must. If you are a Brahmin, you must not stop before a board that says “Non Veg Hotel, serves naadan beef curry and chicken stew with Aappam or Porotta”, for more than a minute without screwing your nose and saying “Aiyee”. It is a crime that might leave you with the slight threat of being ostracized from the family.
If shopping is on the agenda, then you must not return home without at least one of the national dress of Kerala — Not the sari, or the set mundu, but the nighty! When you go around the town, it is not just the lungi/folded-mundu men who brush past you seemingly unassumingly, that you would want to beat up for doing so, but also the women. Is it their nature to be dominating, I ask myself. It is not the sophistication that I am accustomed to in the city I was brought up in that forces me to think this way. Just basic human etiquette. Why is it so difficult to walk past someone without bumping into him to the extent of throwing him off his balance!
Some juice and ‘chikkan noodils’ down, I decide to turn back home. I realized that if you are not a rice person, then eating out for lunch will leave you disappointed, for you would be greeted by boards saying “Uunu Ready” at every hotel around, which is the traditional rice meal on the banana leaf. Do not mistake hotels for whatever you understand by the term in your city, for these are basically restaurants. If a night-stay is on your mind, then look for ‘Lodges’. The uniformity of the noon menu amazes me. It’s the same throughout Kerala and not a single Malayali has any complaints! Back at home, its time for the evening tea and ‘snakes’, which is basically 'chaya' (tea) and 'pappadavada' (can't translate this one!). I sigh to myself. Its not too bad, you know, if you want to know the difference between fact and fiction, between reality as it is, and the need to hide it and project a polished image before the world, between ‘nai roast and masala (dosa)’ and ‘noodils and gopi menjurian’, between the lungi clad coconut tree climbers and the sophisticated mundu clad neighbor keeping an eye on his coconut tree — you will find it all in this beautiful land. Green comes to them naturally, I guess. More on why I still like this land of Envy Green in the next post!