Tuesday, November 28, 2006

His & Hers – Part 2 - Surviving Malayalees

Read part one before you read this. Click here.

As an introverted brahmin boy with a poor complexion I lived in a room on the terrace of a three-storied building in small town Madurai – a surreal place with percussive music and rampant human emotions. My father was then a businessman selling laboratory appliances and chemicals to colleges around hinterland Tamilnadu. He had his shop on the first floor. My family lived on the second – my parents and my kid brother. My room was on the third floor on the terrace. My window overlooked the very tall ornate west tower of the temple, way higher than I was, against a streaked tumbling sky with flocks of birds.

If you climb right down to the ground floor, there was our garage with aluminium shutters that covered the twin door Herald parked amongst a lot of my father’s business stock. We were at the entrance of a small lane on the main road that led to the temple. Our lane was packed with buildings that housed people, a lot of tailor shops for some odd reason and a small eatery called Iyengar cafĂ© (“Don’t eat there ever. Smoke comes from your rear”). The house right opposite ours was a small aqua green decrepit caving terracotta tiled structure with a flat wall and a shut window. Nobody lived there ever. This is where the late night drunkards, having lost their vigor to incessant dancing to temple drums, urinate in their merry stupor. The management of Imperial Cinema – a green colonial building near the north tower – thought this is the right audience to advertise their late night porn. They pasted posters for their Malayalam movies on the flaking aqua wall. These were bright duotone posters typically with a flat green or blue and black on low cost seeping rag paper. The picture was always of some kohl eyed, heavily bosomed quartertone girl with a ‘come hither’ look that pumped the inebriated libido of the drunk with an inclination. The text was in Malayalam and a raunchy misinterpretation, I learnt later, in Tamil. The poster boys who cycled down that lane during the hot afternoons of siesta mounted the suspense by pasting a small strip that said ‘Imperial - Now showing – noon and late night’ over her cleavage and related anatomical areas of attraction.

This was my initiation to Malayalees and effective graphic design. And for a long time after I thought Malayalees made movies with voluptuous women showing their wares.

The next enlightenment that shone upon me was when our aged maid took her daughter to a Malayalee witch doctor to cure her of goiter through black magic involving a cut up fowl, some ink, a lemon soaked in blood and eleven rupees in one rupee coins. I thought what an exciting tribe making blue films and practicing black magic.

Over the next decade between my initiations and vocational education I encountered quite a few Malayalees. My grandfather’s driver was Pillai - a lean old man smelling of rotten fruit and coconut on Monday mornings, the odor of hooch and hair oil. His young friend was my grandfather’s aide – Velayudhan who was always sent to the bank. My grandfather also had a partner whose family spoke a dialect of Tamil that sounded close to Malayalam – they were Brahmins from Palghat. This went on till I went to a design school up north and was culturally neutered to a label that read ‘young adult urban Indian’. This was late eighties.

In India, the late eighties brought about a huge change. Early that decade the color televisions happened and further the cable networks dumped hours of glorious imbecilic content onto unsuspecting middle class living rooms through sets adorned with a tasseled plastic cover and flowers. The intellectuals were challenged with the seeping mediocrity. They were all either Bengalis or Malayalees. The design school had a fair share of them with the majority of other ethnicities opting for engineering or medicine as a career. I was bad at math, fainted at the sight of any red fluid and was good at forging signature on my report cards. I had to join a creative school. So there I was, by default, fitting with the fellow south Indians – Malayalees.

There was an unwritten rule about looking a Malayalee intellectual. They wore colorless colors – khakis, browns and greys – coordinated to blend with the background. They sported facial hair with pride. I am not talking about tufts of fungus that shaded your lip or jaw – that is what I had. I am talking about magnificent growth that put the likes of Marx and WG Grace to utter shame. It made Malayalees look mature and almost prophetic. My friends also looked worried and always carried yellowing books that questioned life, existence or any welfare state. Camus and Sartre, Baudelaire and Beckett, Kafka and Dostoevsky – drearier the better – was all staple. If I had to belong I had to read similar. I brandished my Lorca and hid my Ludlum.

I had to learn Malayalam. The general discourses, arguments, disagreements and banter were all in Malayalam. It was not difficult to learn. Malayalam, as they spoke, was a lot of phonetics and mumbling that approximately emoted the thought. Altogether for me it was lot of guttural noises loosely strung together with intense silences in between. It was like watching parallel cinema involving people looking out of windows talking two syllables at a time. I picked up fast and moved in. It was an ecosystem where the interpretation of common life, as we know now, was written differently. There was always a running popularity list of top five art movements, literary styles, books, philosophical concepts, ways to kill oneself and cinema. You keep up. You learn.

All Malayalees were not intellectuals. There were also the notorious men and women who were Malayalees from elsewhere, not Kerala. Or if they are from Kerala they had traveled enough to be culturally neutered. But there was an indigenous pervasive madness that squealed on their roots. A case in point was a curiously likeable gentleman who happened to be my roommate for a semester. He was a self-proclaimed prince and wore a sparkling diamond stud. He moved in with a menagerie of a pet rat snake (non venomous) and an eagle chick he stole from its nest. He had worn a motorcycle helmet to defend him from the angry mother eagle, scaled a tall tree and picked the chick in a wicket-keeping glove in the campus. The snake he had bought for thirty rupees from a shepherd on a dry riverbed. I have seen him and his girlfriend on moonlit nights wearing socks on their hands to pick gullible toads for the snake’s supper. The snake was not particularly hospitable. I have entered the room to find the reptile coiled on my bed ready to spring on me. The eagle chick crapped all over and squawked us awake through many nights. I survived till the warden personally supervised the removal of these creatures. A classmate of ours happened to see the snake in the shower stall and had an asthma attack. He went to the warden and painted a diabolical picture of poisonous creatures that were enthusiastically nestling in our room. The snake went to the riverbed and the eagle vanished. There are stories about my roommate hunting one of the campus peacocks and cooking it over a spit for a protein depleted pack of students. These Malayalees are unusual.

One more such Malayalee was a young girl who had lived all over the country. She was as mad as a hatter and I fell in love with her. We courted for over a decade and got married in Chennai. It was a pre-negotiated ceremony between the twelve-minute Nair wedding and the two days Tamil Brahmin one. A half-day that was short and sweet for the Tamils and delightfully long for the Malayalees.

I probably moved way too close to my subject. But the next few years were revealing.

This is becoming an epic. There is more to come.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Life is precious

When I saw Medha and Jags being dragged into the deep, helpless and tired it was a rude reminder that fragility is the very core of existence. Because, dear reader, life is like those stupid mint gums with jelly in the middle. It feels like it will endure the cruel intent of the molars of external forces. But effortlessly cave in, be chewed and spat out on sand to be discarded as an inessential atom of a future landfill.

On our outbound at Cherai before we visited Jose’s wedding we landed late, drank a few beers to numb the journey and retired early. Some of us woke up early to see the sunrise over the backwaters and headed to the beach. Medha and Jags were in those few. The sea was hard with the waves breaking like a stand-alone woofer playing drum and bass in a small car. I always hated getting into the sea. I keep complaining that I feel like a pickle in brine. So I was walking along the beach line not far from the swimmers.

M and J are probably the best swimmers that we have in the team. They are the ones who look and behave confidently in the water. They rode or ducked with delight, the way one should, making it all look easy. As they moved deeper, Medha later said, they suddenly could not feel the land beneath their legs. They swam lightly and realized they were being dragged in. We at the beach could see them losing control and of course the humor. They swam harder towards us and seemed to go farther. I was sure that I had lost them. One of us ran towards some fishermen to call for help. A passerby jumped in and helped them ashore. The sea had ravaged and returned them.

As they curled on the sand and brought up all the seawater that they had ingested I was consumed with a feeling of innate responsibility and relief. I felt grateful that the sea restored their existence back on land.

They rested, dried, washed and were back as before.

Medha and Jags, if you are reading this post, a note I want to share. Our lives are a network of weak threads. Weak threads of emotions, relationships and decisive moments that feel significant then. These webs of life could be effaced with ease. They are delicate and precious. Look at this as a shot to create one anew. Depart from the usual and try a new thought, an action or a connection.

Ride and duck with this earned mettle.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Leaving London

Water scalded me as I was deciphering the shower system (looks like those things Schwarzenegger blasts to bile and steel in movies) in the hotel after they made me wait for over four hours to give me a room.

I flew with a flu, through Delhi, was jetlagged, hungry, scalded and further got a mail from Brad that he is stranded on the tarmac in DC. His plane never took off as there was a tornado scare in Denver and he went back home. Three days in London with four meetings, creative workshops. I just landed and I was already beat. This was not bound to be a good trip.

I used to live in London for a while six years back. I used to work for a multinational interaction design and dotcom rainmaker, under a racist Director Creative Delivery with loveable warm English and Australian graphic designers. I remember wet and cold days living in a comfortable attic of a very fancy house in the northern suburb of Hampstead, walking through Jaguars in cold mornings to the tube station, reach Bank station with Armani clad Japanese land sharks and tall well kempt Englishmen all in black. Weekends used to be for making off-peak tube passes for cheap, a visit to a Korean laundrette, cold Hefeweizen draught and ultra-long walks in central London. I loved being there.

I am back here staying on Regent Street at Langham Place, overlooking the rather severe spire of All Souls Church and a vast part of the city. I had this urge to aimlessly walk. Walking on the shopping streets for lunch on a summer day is like a tropical carnival with well-endowed summer birds in lingerie and plumage. The streets have a fever of personalized fashion, creative freedom and the general sunshine for your mind. Belgian confectioners’ caramelized air, middle eastern women in tight fitting trousers and nothing much else, lanky locals in fancy spectacles, suits and thin leather portfolio cases, ambling big flowery ladies with flitting shaggy dogs, shaded Bangaladeshis in brown trousers and striped shirts, Indian kids with spiked hair and hip-hop pimp roll, huge Keira staring from the bus sides, advertisements for a Kerala Restaurant, African bike messengers with sling bags and trunked radio and I was way hungry. I landed at this small Italian bistro called Strada with a pavement band serving Peroni Nastro Azzuro wth fantastic fare including wood fired gourmet pizzas. I had a beans and pasta soup with a salami pizza washed down with Peroni. I had to hit the tube soon.

Londoners love excessive information. The steel alien staring at me in the bathroom had a graduated scale, 20 30 40 50 60, written around a knob that turns if you press a sinister red button on its side. I turned it all the way around. While I was screaming as I was rendered impotent, I reckoned that it was the celcius scale. In the same vein I saw plenty of Asian tourist staring at the Tubemap in crowded stations. The key for the map took a huge estate of your mind space and along with inane information on minding the gaps between the train and the platform; spreading along the platform and not crowding at the entrance etcetera left you tired to plot your route. However, if you have the time and penchant for excess information, which I did, you will love the tube. The time I landed in London was a busy one – summer sale was on, World Cup on telly and so was Wimbledon. The trains were running full all the time. The tube is filled with characters that can pale a PG Wodehouse. Finished my meetings, met friends, downed some Grolsch (lovely bottle, bad beer) and headed for supper.

A huge soup pot of Kare Lomen at Wagamama with Ramen noodles, shrimp paste and grilled prawns in it was supper. Sitting next to a bunch of cackling teenage schoolgirls from America was not particularly appetizing. But Wag stood good. The sunset was at 10pm.

The dawn was at 4am. Long days. At five I was getting scorched in my bed. We had a meeting that morning and afternoon was free before I catch a flight back that night. At noon I was heading to the Design Museum on Butler’s Wharf near the Tower Bridge. Nothing interesting. I decided to walk the Thames to Tate Modern. This was the most exciting thing I had done for sometime. I found alleyways through glass and concrete, found hidden markets with vendors making spice rice, and heard England vs. Ecuador from quaint pubs with adobe walls, drank lemonade at an old prison and reached tired at Tate. Took a break, drank Lucozade, crossed the Millennium Bridge, visited St Pauls and burrowed into the Tube again. Resurfaced at Paddington to claim my left luggage and head to Heathrow.
Tate Modern was a thermo electric power station called Riverbank that was converted into this astounding temple as a homage to modern art and its patrons. On a sunny afternoon. The play of light on the main platform leaves you speechless. The carefully lit glazed elevator chutes and the backdrop of sheer brick walls, steel structures and space creates an ambience of a place of worship.

Talking about places of worship, St Paul is getting renovated. Londoners as always thought up of something smart to do while it is being repaired. The facade has been meticulously rendered as a pen and ink illustration on huge pieces of sheet screens that cover the front of the church. The eventual effect is authentic and interesting. Click on the photograph to see the facade better.

The structure till the circular cupola on top is a drawing. If you walk closer you can also notice that it is a precisely done cross hatch pattern that has been blown up. Interestingly the entire print has been grey-ed down to sepia to make it less stark.

As always I was running to the airport. London was and is the most charming place on earth. Feels like home!

Please excuse the quality of these pictures. They have all been shot on my Sony Ericsson K750i mobile phone 2.0 megapixel camera. I did not carry my other cameras and the quality suffers. I will make up for this mishap soon!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

His & Hers – A comparative analysis of idiosyncratic neighbors. Part 1

I fell in love with a malayalee. When I was younger, probably less wise and way too brash I fell for a lass from a strip of land tucked between the sea and self importance.

I am a Tamil Brahmin - Tambram for short. I was an epitome of the motor mouth clan of white dhoti clad counsels for everybody’s general well-being may it be Sivaraman from the next street or the President of the United States. I remember my uncles, when they sat around chewing betel leaves and tobacco cured in rose water in the ceremony of rites for a dead grand aunt, always had a piece of advice for the captain of the Indian team, Governor of Tripura, Boutros Boutros Ghali, local legislator and the cook in the smoke kitchen. My clan was curiously deviant in there ways. They debauched in the early part of the night with popular Scotch, rum or viscous strong beer that guaranteed far reaches of inebria within a short span of time. Later they held their breath, walked to their leaves of dinner and their waiting wives. Tucked in a substantial amount of rice, lentils, flavored with heart stopping quantities of clarified butter and rounded off with double fat buffalo yoghurt and passed out.

Early morning was an alter-world. The house resonated with the nasal din of a humble turntable with an elderly lady doyen of carnatic music singing a popular rendition of the Lord’s thousand names. The uncle in question looked shaved (Swish blade), scrubbed and squeaky clean. He was clad in a wet dhoti and offered his daily prayers for over an hour. We kids were woken up to the smell of jasmine, pungently sweet joss sticks, asafetida from the kitchen and the names of the lord in the two hundreds. My uncle was closure to salvation. He had cleansed himself of the demon he was the previous night. He was ready to tackle the day and offer free suggestions to World leaders and passersby. This was planned redemption through extended exposure to moisture. He eventually contracted a disease that cursed him with swollen scrotums that were as big as melons. The doctor reasoned; the groin region was subjected to prolonged wetness.

My family’s lineage is apparently from sage Atri – one of the seven sages who eventually became a star in the constellation Orion or Great Bear. Later the lineage was subjected to temple work and farming in the paddy fields of the Cauvery delta in Thanjavur district – the granary of the south. Further the kings gave them land for their temple work or apparently wise counseling and they employed the lower caste lesser mortals to plough, till and reap the rice. The Brahmins of Thanjavur sat at their smoke flavored houses (the kitchen smoke was trapped between the tiles and cured the beams), drank endless amounts of buttermilk or coffee and the rice reached home. The idle men learnt vices yet did not lose their religion. Much later on a Sunday a bit after midnight I was born as the symbol of mutant values from the days of Atri.

When I grew up and fell in love I talked to my parents. They were happy that she was not a distant tribe like a Khasi or even better an Inuit. A malayalee was of a familiar clan. Familiarity is also the birthplace of contempt. My uncles and aunts who always knew everything better were the official harbingers of doom. They predicted a manipulative evil bunch of people who will charm their ward to submission and leave him helpless.

When I say malayalees I am talking about the Nairs or the Menons. Not the Palakkad Brahmins or the Namboodiris for that will be an endless thesis of vile games of cheap revenge and cynicism. While we are there I should shamelessly define the class too. I am not discussing the Dubai romancing working class here. They are probably busy trying to get a footing and define a paved path for their families. I am talking about the descent of well-respected civil servants, royalties, doctors and engineers - the people who built the post-independence Kerala and their descendants who dropped the torch along the way.

I have been married for ten years now. I have been the silent voyeur with a dedication of an anthropologist in observing malayalees. It has its fair share of idiosyncrasies, lunacy, Parkinsons and wisdom.

As a rule there are very few malayalees who agree with you on anything. Including the next part.

Click here to read Part 2.

A Slice of Life

I, apparently am shortlisted to the second stage of oktatabyebye.com. They wanted me to send them a 150 words travelogue. I quote "The next step requires you to share with us a 100-150 word write-up on your most relished travel experience. Please email this to priya@oktatabyebye.com within next week." I sent the piece below. You decide!

A Slice of Life

Traveling in trains through terrains and towns is like watching avant-garde theatre. The grilled window reveals a slice in the lives of people outside as it moves swiftly.

My early train journeys were predominantly across the baked Deccan to reach Gujarat. I have watched the shadow of the train quiver over sands of dry river beds, farmers in an argument on a red landscape, boys being slapped by grandfathers in white turbans, vacant wait of cyclists at the crossing and dust clouds of a distant bus with cargo on top.

Recently I had to visit a leather and sugarcane town at the northern corner of Karnataka on a photography assignment for a Flemish magazine. The town drunkards and smell of dead buffaloes being tanned drove me out of Athani. I fled on a bus to Belgaum.

It was that ethereal red flat landscape again. We stopped for a break and there were people with me who looked like the slapping grandfather and waiting cyclists.

There was a train at the horizon. Somebody was watching this slice of my life.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


I am sitting at this teeming terminal of the Mumbai airport, worn and inspired. I have been a lot in airports this month. These are vacant times like in an elevator where you pretend to be in a state of being that other passengers will not comprehend. These are dead times. There is no specific thought, unless you are alone in the elevator with a bomb of woman. It is strange if you are alone. You do things that you do not do in public places. Probably not what George Michael did. But it could be a jig or funny faces in a strip mirror - as if the closed doors deem you to be the king of the formica kingdom on winch.

I was in Dallas, Minneapolis, Washington, Chicago and Frankfurt airports. I was in transit with no agenda but to spend a lay over entertained and sated. It is like being in a crowded island of sleepwalkers with baggage tags. I have been back and am traveling to Mumbai now. I will be home with my daughters soon.

I will write again.