A dull evening, with worries dipped in whiskey and clouds shrouded in rain, I rummaged in my cupboard for a change of clothes and found something familiar. A T-shirt I picked up at a stall at Soul Sante, in a world before the virus. A black tee with white stenciled letters, written in a style that is hard to make out quickly as Malayalam, printing out two words unmistakable to every Malayali stuck in lands across the sea or ghats.
Words that light up many unsure eyes, new to foreign lands. If you are a Malayali, or mallu as if we are known in the lands that knew us first for our porn, you know what they mean. For the others, you probably heard this, or will if you listen closely when two mallus meet for the first time.
It translates to ‘Where are you in the homeland?.’ Like all translations, it’s a crude approximation. In Malayalam, it’s an easier, shorter, very obvious question. In Malayalam, veedu is your house, and nadu is your land, and it often means nearly the same thing.
A typical tongue twist would have made it ‘Nattil Evidunna’, which means “which part of the homeland are you from?” But I have never heard anyone ask that. The question is always ‘where are you?’ as if they know a part of you is still there.
For the many haters of our land, this question simply proves that no one can stay in Kerala because of a lack of jobs. I don’t want to argue with that because there’s some truth in it. Pravasi Malayali (migrant) is a term that is so mainstream that we have ministries for them, or us to be precise.
But I think the phenomenon predates the current lack of jobs, albeit at a smaller scale. Kerala is oddly shaped, a long, narrow slice of the coast. There is no point in Kerala that is farther than 120 km from the sea. Countless generations lived with their backs to the ghats and their eyes on the open seas. Of course we sailed out. It must have been hard not to.
Trade was a tentpole of our economy for centuries. That and the fact that almost the whole state is near the coast must have led to many of the traits we celebrate today – pluralism, tolerance, and peace. Across the world port cities tend to be more liberal and less xenophobic. It’s a natural effect of seeing outsiders and foreigners as people you can make money off, rather than threats to your imagined supremacy. People like to demonize money, but trade and exchange of exotic currencies is the most effective way to achieve peace.
Some of my friends have argued that Kerala is tolerant because it did not have Muslim invasions or suffered from partition horrors. Maybe, but that’s a little like the nature or nurture question right? Whatever be the historic reasons, the place has a sense of brotherhood unseen in many other parts.
It’s not that you will go to Kerala and people are singing songs about religious harmony and social progress. Wait a second, we actually do, during Onam. But my point is, it’s more about the things that are not said or things that do not occur to you.
Growing up, there were plenty of fights in the schoolyard. And then in college. People fought over love, politics, philosophy, booze but it never occurred to anyone that they could fight over religion. Today I notice people call me ‘rice bag convert’ whenever I disagree with them on Twitter. I was informed by a Mallu raised in Delhi that it is a religious slur implying that your ancestors converted to Christianity for a bag of rice. I’m pretty sure it would have taken at least a plate of beef but whatever. I’ve been called many things but I have never heard a religion-based slur ever in Kerala. A standard conversation between friends usually has innuendos about three generations of ancestors, but never religion. It simply doesn’t occur to people, not even when you have been kicked in the balls by thomachan or moidu kutty next door.
Everyone celebrates Onam and no one thinks about it as a ‘Hindu’ festival. We have Onam celebrations in church and school. Just about every house puts up a Christmas star too. When Eid comes near, we would salivate thinking about the pathiri and chicken our friends would bring to class, not rant about Mughal invaders. It is not that we were great, enlightened, tolerant souls, we simply didn’t give a shit.
Growing up, I always thought Kerala was regressive. It is in many ways. Alcohol is taboo but a sizeable part of the populace lies drunk in a ditch on an average Wednesday. There is deep-rooted patriarchy, sexual repression, and homophobia, among other things. But then you leave the state and realize people fight over lunch. I don’t think people outside Kerala get how surprising the whole beef issue is to a freshly outsourced mallu. Imagine someone told you there are parts of the world where Aloo is frowned upon, but then you actually meet someone who throws a hissy fit and walks out of a restaurant because they saw french fries on the menu.
As the years go by in distant lands, the place feels more like home, not less. Just like your parents might nag you when you’re home but you still want to go home coz it’s safe, something that has been underscored during the recent COVID crisis. The mathematically challenged will look at Kerala’s caseload now and say we are doing badly, but I spent a year there and only saw near impeccable management. I traveled home with a pregnant wife after the first lockdown and two days later we got a call from the Kottayam collectorate, asking about our mental health while in quarantine. They spoke at length to my wife, asked her if she has specific medicines and supplements, and offered to buy us meat or fish. Told her she shouldn’t hesitate to tell them about any cravings.
I went to a nearby primary health center to collect my quarantine certificate and saw freshly painted, well-lit, and equipped facilities. Met very pleasant, helpful doctors and nurses. I went to the district hospital for a COVID test and saw the same thing. They even had golf buggies. I took my dog to a government veterinary hospital, where you will see both auto-rickshaws and luxury cars coz the doctor there is a legend. Again, well-maintained facilities with an ambulance parked in front, when COVID patients couldn’t get them in other parts of the country. In the whole year, I was there, I did not see a single Whatsapp plea for oxygen cylinders.
When my daughter turned six months old, the nearby Anganwadi called me to remind us that we should start solid foods for her and said they will give us nutritious Amrutham powder for free. She was apologetic about not coming by sooner. When we left, I called her again and she personally went to another Anganwadi to get us packets as her Anganwadi was closed that day. She still eats that. It’s hard not to feel attached when the place comes through like this, at a time of crisis. There is a certain faith that we can go back to our naadu if things get bad, which counts for a lot.
Now you might be reading this and thinking this sounds like a propaganda piece. It does, and I’m sure there are people who didn’t have pleasant experiences. But this has been mine, and I am normally known to be a cynic. I know many others who share more or less the same sentiment.
Maybe one day we will grow up a little more and see more flaws in our land, but I hope the feeling remains. These are turbulent times when many of our fictions and ideals have crumbled, and we, or at least I need something to hold on to. Maybe Kerala is too small for us to live in, with our dreams and ambitions, but it must remain a place to dream of and go home to. A place where there are legends about the friendship between the temple’s Devi and the church’s Mother Mary, where the biggest festival celebrates an Asura (demon) king who was righteous.
We who live in exile might be guilty of imagining the place to be rosier than it really is, but maybe it is that myopic optimism that keeps the dream alive. If enough people believe in it, it will stay real.
For now, I’ll stick to the tradition. I notice a Malayali sounding name, or a slight twang in their accent, and ask eagerly,