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 café (“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.
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