I cut the umbilical cord… but then looked for it again
Bombay, especially life at KC College at Churchgate — where I went armed with just one lingo in my pocket, Malayalam — was a cultural shock.
Circa 1982. A death warrant — leave or get killed — was served to me by my political opponents in my salad days. Quitting all your near and dear ones one fine morning — and the dreams I had been weaving around them — wasn’t an easy choice. The Jayanti Janata Express, the train of hope for all job aspirants in Kerala once upon a time, took me to a great city called Bombay, which taught me to dream bigger dreams than a village boor can.
Bombay, especially life at KC College at Churchgate — where I went armed with just one lingo in my pocket, Malayalam — was a cultural shock. The tears I shed after being pickpocketed at Kurla station on Day 1 of my college life made me open my eyes wider. I resolved to act like a Parisian in Paris. Believe it or not, the first step to the newfangled dream was to cut my umbilical cord to Kerala. I snapped it with a sharp-edged scalpel, making sure it could never grow back in my sunset days. But it did. Like it did for my maternal uncle, who quit his mother tongue forever when he left for Ceylon but spoke only Malayalam during his last days in a Colombo hospital.
In Bombay, I shut the door on Malayali festivals such as Onam and Vishu and rang in the spirited ones like Holi, Diwali and Ganostav.
The Kerala sadhya (feast) on plantain leaf was pushed into the backroom of life as an unwanted cultural relic which I seldom revisited, while I let myself drown in the ecstasy of all the hues of Holi. I wrote to my sweetheart back home, suggesting she shed her frock and half-sari and slip into “something called churidar-kurta”.
“What’s a churidar?” she asked in the next letter. I couriered one to Kerala which she carried to a studio in a sling bag to send me a brand-new cultural treat. The rest is history.
Today, as I sit on an empty beach waiting for the sunset, I am looking to reclaim the umbilical cord I had snapped four decades ago. It’s too late to stitch back on. No one recognises you in various WhatsApp alumni groups. Your posts aren’t acknowledged or responded to.
You are a cultural pariah.
It’s too also late to realise that when you escape from the trappings of one culture, you are also alienating yourself from the people associated with it. The only meaningful way to compensate, once you lose your social identity, is to satiate your soul. Is that the reason why my columns these days bleed nostalgia? Maybe.
I have stopped reaching out to old friends to reclaim my space in their memories. But I love spending an hour or two watching my favourite chaiwala in Karama make tea, while his rickety samovar lets out thick plumes of a sweet culture.
It doesn’t pinch my pocket anymore when I pay through the nose for a small piece of jackfruit to claim back the taste of childhood. I can’t wait to go to the market on the weekend and bite into a green mango sprinkled with a dab of salt and chili powder. I can feel the freshness of the old homestead when I roll my eyes over a plantain leaf before making pan-fried ada in it.
I can savour a forgotten culinary culture when spicy beef roast with coconut flakes burns my taste buds. Memories of my mother are brought when I browse through the shelves at good old DC Books outlet in Dubai. Words grow wings and flutter back to the past when I breathe in the scent of ink and paper.
But the passage to the past won’t be at the expense of a globalist perceptive I adopted over the years, having spent most of my life outside India. Life at the moment is a cocktail of the different lifestyles I’ve lived. If a Christmas tree springs up in the centre of my living room in December, if my wife shops for an Arabian lantern during Ramadan, if the oriental lamp and the Diwali chirag jostle for space in my balcony, that’s the vestigial culture of a land I am seeking to resuscitate.
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