August 8, 2007

bringing up an outsider

in my time, things weren’t so simple…i had to walk 12 miles to get to school…you have it so easy everything’s laid out in a plate…i would never dream of talking to my elders like that…getting a government job in those days was a blessing from above…

everytime my parents complained about us being the easy-generation, or my grandmother started her story about how she struggled because of a lack of education, i almost always felt guilty for not having to rough it out as bad as them.

but now, i realise that each generation has its own share of challenges. of dilemmas and decisions that will change the course of their lives, and those of the generations to come.

we – the non-resident desis-at-heart – have a question too, looming in our minds until we finally take a side, whether or not the question is answered rightfully: to leave, or not to leave.

for praveen and me, the reasons ‘for’ and ‘against’ are on an almost equal scale, in spite of me being the more fussy one of both of us, and praveen being the veenedam vishulokam-types (one who is happy wherever he gets a place to rest).

i had a long list of complaints when i first arrived here in the uk, which kept increasing in almost all the five years i’ve been here. but in the last few months, including the ones we were away in india, i have grown to live with my differences. there are a lot of things i would have loved to change here, but for some of these i am now grateful as well.

of course this doesn’t mean that i love my bombay any less, but that london is growing over me as well. and i have realised that both the cities are individualistic in their own way, and… well, that there is no point in making any comparisons anymore.

with the arrival of athri, our equations have suddenly been tilting this way and that…

not many months ago, another ‘n-r-i’ malayalee friend who lives in leeds here (and whose sister jayashree was my classmate) and i were sharing this dilemma, when he presented a different perspective. suddenly he said: ok, lets look at it this way…why did our fathers leave kerala and settle in bombay? for better opportunities, right? better lifestyle, better schools, etc, etc… haven’t we turned out to be good citizens because of their decision? it has paid off hasn’t it?

hmm, i nodded. it was an interesting question. one i haven’t been able to find a truthful answer to yet.

i loved my growing years in bombay. maharashtrian, gujarati, punjabi, tamil neighbours, all varieties of food and tastes, the languages, get-togethers with cousins and their families, the hindi movies…we were so multi-cultural that not once did i think of myself as a ‘malayalee.’ we celebrated onam and vishu, much in the same way as we enjoyed holi, diwali and raksha bandhan.

i don’t remember having any malayali neighbours. in fact, the only, and closest connection we had in bombay was my mema‘s (father’s sister) family at mulund. and her children – my cousins – were as much ‘bombayites’ as us. apart from the rare mohanlal or mammooty movie we watched on video, or travelled together once to my father’s village (when my grandfather died), ‘kerala’ was just a place we visited occasionally. there, at my achchamma‘s house, and with our keralite cousins, although we all laughed and played and danced together, the geographical and cultural distances between us only seemed to magnify our differences.

as i grew up and came across more from-kerala-malayalees, at college or at work, i began to detest everything about their attitude. their accents, their outlook towards women, their sense of dress, their wanting-to-include-coconut-and-rice in every meal, their males-get-to-be-served-first rules, the hypocrisy in their manners, their narrow mindedness… (there were one or two exceptions though).

i must have come across to them as a snobbish hinglish-speaking bombayite too, for no sooner would i make an attempt to converse with them in malayalam, than they would flash a stupid yellow grin and say sympathetically: bombayinne aane alle? (you are from bombay, aren’t you?) or, the even more annoying malayalam ariyo? (do you speak malayalam?) in the same sarcastic tone. and that would kill any other potential cause for communication between us once and for all.

at home i would murmur and complain to my parents: yes so what if i am from bombay, i am a malayalee and my language is more refined than theirs. what did he mean ‘malayalam ariyo?’ did he think i was born with a hindi tongue? why, i can speak two or three languages more than him and he still acts like a bully! why was he looking *through* me like that? kerala men have never seen a woman or what? and on and on until my sister rolled up her eyes and changed the subject, or switched on the television.

if she was in the mood, my mother – who is an iyengar from bangalore – would add in her own list of complaints (her favourite being: they served me rice with their bare hands!).

but my father – the real malayalee among us who left his kerala home when he was 16 – the one who took the decision to stay on in bombay and give us a better life, would never be offended. even when i angrily vowed: “come what may, i will never marry a malayalee man,” he seemed more amused than hurt. but he never rose to defend his people either.

green, green grass

my husband is not a malayalee but a tamilian from kerala, which makes him more malayalee than most of the keralites i have known. despite the fact that we live in london, in the six years in his company, including the frequent trips to his home in kerala (and subsequently, my grandma’s place), his malayalee friends, the ‘left’ and right’ of politics, a lot of south-indian movies and music…i think there has been a lot of unlearning – conscious or unconscious – in my bombayite upbringing.

going to university here only speeded up the process, giving me an exposure to even more cultures of the world and making me approach subjects and books i would have never known otherwise existed. somewhere along the last few months, my mind has stopped rejecting everything-kerala and, on the contrary, turned curious about everything-kerala instead.

my MA writing-projects included, among bollywood and harry potter, ayurveda and naalukettu houses. reading about the nayars of malabar, about kerala before and after tipu sultan’s time, was fascinating. a friend’s narration of two small stories from the aidihyamala brought big fat tears to my eyes. it was then that i realised: i was so thirsty for this knowledge that i had been running away from it.

had i been brought up in kerala, would i think differently, or would i dismiss the rich malayalam literature, and culture as ‘ghar-ki-murgi-dal-barabar’ (loosely, meaning taking things for granted) as is usually the case with things that are around you? would things be different, if my father had taken even a single offense to my zillion complaints about keralites, or/and then defended them? would things be different if we visited his home more often?

today, i know it’s not too late to catch up on my kerala lessons. but less than twenty years from now, athri will be looking for somewhere to stand among our roots as well.

do we give him a better ‘quality of life’ staying here, learning about the british culture (or comparatively, the lack of it) along with him, listening to him speak in a foreign english accent? or do we go back home to india, where we can ensure he learns the values of respect, tradition and family, the indian way.

i can only sigh and wait for life to decide.

for now, looking at the slim, roots-in-jamnagar-brought-up-in-kenya-and-london surveyor who had visited our house and admitted (very sadly) that he didn’t belong anywhere, or my dear sri lankan neighbour roshi, who says she envies me because her own country is war-torn… “at least,” like she put it, we indians “have a choice, and a place called home.”