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Sunday, 26 July 2015

Naadu Evideya?

Means, where are you from? [Or to be specific, which part of 'Kerala' are you from - as the question is in Malayalam - by a Malayali for a Malayali]. I have no clue why this is the most asked question when you meet another person from the state of Kerala. To be fair, this query is not unique to Kerala or among just its people. Recently in Spain, I encountered two French women who were happy to learn they both belonged to a certain province in south of France. Well France is a country, luckily they all speak French there and Kerala, though called God's own country by its tourism board is only one tiny state in India [a country of so many languages/divides].

For a long time I was not sure of the right answer to this 'where do you belong' query. I usually say Delhi, until someone further asks 'Punjabi or Marwadi'? As am neither, I tell I am from Kerala. Oh! so you are a mallu? [mallu is a shorter word for Malayali and almost derogatory but not many including Malayalis know that it is name-calling and is used innocently by the ignorant masses, of course!].

You 'look' Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Irani... [what not!]' I am also not sure what those 'looks' are meant to look like... I fail to find any such certain 'look'. When I look at the mirror in determination to solve this... I see a stupid face looking for some stupid answers.

To those who seek more I have responded - I am from Kollam district in Kerala [as my mom's ancestors are from Punalur, a small town in Kollam district's jurisdiction... Kollam and Punalur are 45 minutes away by road]. 'Naadu Evideya' must be a silly thing that people do out of just being their usual whatsoever... but am not sure why or how your diaspora matters today when most of us are born and brought up anywhere else than where our parents were born /or raised. 'Naadu evideya' questions one's roots. Roots are arguable. [Especially if you can overcome nostalgia of your parents and seek for more clarity... i.e. digging deeper into the history beyond distractions/skeletons in the cupboard.]

We all relate to our origins from what our families teach/tell us... some of us simply learn through language, customs, preferences... and most importantly by deeming certain things/places/foods/people more special than others.

Am I a Tamil?

My folks [mom's people who live in Kerala] put kolam drawings with rice flour on the front yard and speak Tamil fluently... and they refer to next-door neighbours as Malayalis. So I assumed we are Tamils. I really did not give it much thought until I reached Dubai few years back. Here there is a larger population from the state of Kerala and speak malayalam more than one would encounter in Delhi. And once the guessing games start with your connection with Kerala they unfailingly ask the inevitable - 'Naadu evideya?' Am sure it is just an icebreaker for many. But a head banger for me. How am I supposed to say I belong to my mom's hometown that is mostly in my childhood vacation memories? How does that qualify me from there?

I asked mother recently who we are really. Are we Malayalis? Is it appropriate to say we belong here as generations have been living in this state? She said we are not Malayalis but yes we have lived in the state and you don't have to feel any different because we celebrate Onam and Vishu too [state-specific festivals one to celebrate the sowing of the seeds and the other for harvest] and officially you are listed in the ration card. So yes you are Malayali, if you insist. This politically correct and winding answer confused me further.

The story goes few centuries back, she said. 'Our ancestors travelled from Andhra to Kerala. If we still lived in that state our surnames would not be necessarily Pillai, but Gouda [rings a bell HD Deve Gouda, the Indian PM with the shortest office term].

Apparently, the ancestors - a clan of few families who were learned [knew ancient scriptures] and were farmers and consultants to the ruler's court somewhere in modern-day Andhra Pradesh] - fled that land to save a young girl. The whole clan left in support of the family of the girl, and fled overnight, leaving behind land and livestock... crossed mountains and rivers to protect a 13-year-old from the king who wanted to marry her - and make her his 16th wife!

To learn the sound of Andhra, I decided to watch a Telugu movie. It was titled 'Life is Beautiful' and truly beautiful it was thanks to subtitles in English. After the Telugu dose for the first time in my life, I thought of making 'pappu' - one of the dishes they talk about in the movie. Pappu is simply paruppu (in Malayalam/Tamil) or daal (for North India) or lentil curry (for rest of the world). I followed this youtube video to make this simple and yum tomato pappu from Andhra ;)
The clan came to Tanjore in Tamil Nadu, a cultural heaven those days, and settled there for the longest time before crossing border to Kerala for trade and business reasons. In Tamil Nadu, the clan found *similar people - Kaundars or Tamil Pillais or Shaiva Vellalars ["We are not chetty pillais and we don't marry them or muthaliyars or  nadaars who also speak Tamil. Remember we are saivam (tamil for vegetarians)," insists grandma (punalur amma lovingly called pullu), making it obvious that she belongs to an era she belongs to!]. *Similar people those days meant those who bond more on premise of common deities and interests. In our case, worshipping lord Shiva, agriculture and education [including active participation/support of arts and sports] were of common interest.

Other details that surfaced during this unusual chat with mother stretched my imagination to bullock-cart days... when my little grand dad [Punalur pappa... whom we lovingly call pulpa] must have crossed the streams and rivers of Punalur ['Punal' means water 'ur' means city] in a bullock cart to nearby Tuticorn (in Tamil Nadu) where his father [referred to as Aiyya by the family... and I know there is a recent Bollywood movie by that name too!] and grandpa [Periya Aiyya, name to refer the elderly] traded ink [remember ink pens? still love them... and love to use inks mostly for painting/art needs]. Rewinding back in time... I imagined lil pulpa. He must have looked a bit like my brother appu. It was easy to imagine him as everyone says brother got the same eyes that ran in the family... maternal uncle [maman] had em too. In my imagination appu looked a wee bit funny with his oil-slick hair parted in the centre and same just-wept eyes that pulpa had.

Our family of traders sold ink and bought writing paper/raw materials for stamps in return. These were used for office work. Because periya aiyya collected tax as the treasurer to the king. He maintained all documents with the help of a large team of accountants who reported to aiyya. The tax probably was sent to British East India Company too. This story makes our aiyya a bad man in the colonial India despite his just-wept eyes. He must have been a terrible landlord who must have tortured the poor Indian farmers. Was he the villain sort? There is no tax on imagination. And there is no point killing the dead!

I have enjoyed long stares standing beneath aiyya's large oil painting that hangs in pulpa's office. I always felt the portrait's expressions changed everyday - from peace to anger to joy to pensive. But pullu always felt 'he looks very stern/strict' and that the picture frightened her somehow. Anyway, it is a brilliant piece of art! Aiyya was strict with his boys. He must have pushed all the young men out of the comfort of homes/hometowns for better... and that is why probably they had a good exposure to the world through university education and voracious reading [pulpa's library is huge... with old books in English, Tamil, Malayam fighting for space with Reader's Digest and other magazines he used to collect].

Though a small community in Kerala, like his contemporaries in Tamil Nadu, pulpa continued aiyya's interests and supported by donating land to set up educational institutions to strengthen the aim of Vellalar Sabha, that of educating the young. Pupla was not simply a countryside landlord with community headship... he was a lawyer by profession and one of the earliest Rotarians in the country.

The 'naadu' query ended there when mother told we are not Malayali. "But" she added, "you have your father's mother's (muthashi) mannerisms and voice and her sister's (pappamma) facial features, so probably you are one Namboodiri than a Saiva Pillai like me. In that case, you are probably more a Malayali," she said. And are Namboodiri's pakka Malayalis? Mother's answer to this catapulted me to another plane altogether. She read in some book that Namboodiris migrated from a land called 'nabadri' in Europe, somewhere near current Jerusalem. [Holy shit, so am not an Indian?]

Am not Indian?

Namboodiris are aryans whereas rest of South India is of dravidian origin, so there is no explanation but invasion/migration from North India centuries back. Legends add to the confusion - that they were the Brahmins who were promised the land (Kerala) by Lord Parshuram who reclaimed the land from the sea between Gokarna and Kanyakumari and created the present day Kerala. This brahmin community from Kerala are similar to Brahmins in Canera coast who speak tulu [a language that has no written form, and so is only spoken]. Anyway, Namboodiris are responsible for creating this 'naadu evideya' Malayalam by mixing Sanskrit with Tamil.

So what is the right answer for 'naadu evideya'? Mother says you can say it is Punalur, which is al right to say or simply stick to Delhi as that is where you grew up. [Well that throws me back to square one!].

She paused and added, "Or just keep away from people who probe too much... that sort of detailing is not required in an ice-breaking conversation."

Bet mothers always know the right answer! Whether or not it answers your question is arguable. ;)

PS: During an interview with KG Subramanyan, one of the pioneers of Indian Modern Art and author, for my column 'Diaspora Matters' in Times of India, he asked me who this diaspora is and if it really mattered so much that it must make it to a column head? He went on to enlighten further saying 'if you dig deep you won't be surprised to know that we are all Africans! We are all one.' That was a moment of truth. I think I finally got the answer! If you ask me 'naadu evideya'... I might just give you the absolute right answer... angu afrikela [there back in Africa!] ;)... On a different note, I wonder why people want a different passport or citizenship when all our ancestors did was heed to man's eternal nomadic instints and move about without bothering much about fringe benefits of staying put somewhere temporarily most-often compromising one's dignity. I also feel like laughing at racist remarks by intolerant fellas who hate immigrants and think they have a right to hate because they belong 'more' in the whatsoever country/place as they arrived a bit earlier/or were born there somehow. Seriously! I think I should simply say I belong to mother earth as Mars is not yet open... or open my palms and pretend dumb... Those who ask may not be aware how prepared I am finally to answer this one! Mother will sure pardon this dumb one! ;)

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