Long before Facebook and cell phones, in a distant past smudged in the mist of memories, a young Bong found himself a job in the capital of Malluland, which was then known as Trivandrum. And he happened to be from the capital city of the western half of Bongland.
When the appointment letter reached him from the unexpected corner, he took out a map of India and a compass. Putting one prong of the compass on the dot called Calcutta and the other on Trivandrum, he turned the compass around. To his utter surprise, he discovered that Trivandrum was farther-off from his hometown than any other place in India. Only Gilgeet in Pak Occupied Kashmir came somewhat closer. Yes, if you draw a circle with Kolkata at the centre and Thiruvananthapuram on the periphery, no Indian city will be outside. Singapore, Bangkok, and even Vientiane are closer. So the young Bong under reference, that is, yours truly, was awestruck by the distance he would have to travel to earn his maacher jhol and bhat.
The sense of surprise remained with me as I stepped out of my hotel on the first day of my new job in a suit still smelling of Lindsay Street. How stupid of me! I had reckoned that my low-profile-reasonably-high-pay job demanded that I turn myself out nattily. But I was alone in Western attire in a sea of white shirts, dhotis, and saris, sticking out like a cactus in a bed of jasmines. Stray dogs watched me with deep suspicion. When they did nothing more damaging, the first thing I thought was: “Hair oil must be cheap here!”
Every man and woman had soaked their head generously and had a shock of shiny black hair. At the East Fort Bus Stand, I noticed something else: everyone carried an umbrella, although it was December, and for some deep reason, they were holding them upside down, with the handles dangling near their feet. Well – I thought – handles should have something to do with hands, shouldn’t they?
On my first day in office, I was amazed by the fact that almost every colleague I got to know asked me what caste I belonged to. It was 18 years after the first elected communist government in history came to power in Kerala, which was incidentally led by an upper-crust Brahmin, Elamkulam Manakkal Sankaran Namboodiripad. I couldn’t help feeling that communism hadn’t even scratched the social fabric of Kerala. It couldn’t repeat the successful social engineering that had happened in Bengal under the leadership of Rammohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Swami Vivekananda, and others in the nineteenth century.
But first impressions are often misleading. There is much to learn from Kerala and one important aspect we learned soon after we set up our home is the respect that middleclass educated Malayalees give to manual workers. In Bengal it was common then to have separate cups and plates for domestic helps. With a deep sense of shame, I admit that my family was no exception. So when my wife offered our first domestic help tea in a separate glass, she protested: “Why do you have a separate glass for me?” And as we spent one of the finest slices of our life in Kerala, we kept learning.
I always try to help anyone who asks for help if s/he is not a child and doesn’t look healthy enough to work, particularly those who are elderly and frail. I do this not because I am generous – no one has accused me of such a foolish trait – but because once I read a line written by Sunil Ganguli that has got etched in my mind permanently: “I don’t disrespect beggars because I am yet to come across anyone who hasn’t ever begged in their life.”
Much later, one evening in a small town in Central Travancore, possibly Adoor, an elderly woman in an almost tattered sari stopped me as I was entering a restaurant for my supper. I gave her a rupee or two and climbed down a flight of stairs to reach the restaurant which was on the basement. It was full and I took the only table that was unoccupied. Minutes later, the elderly woman who I had given money came in and sat down on a chair opposite me. As we had our meals, we exchanged pleasantries and I tried to build a conversation with my pidgin Malayalam.
… And I secretly bowed to Kerala. This wouldn’t have happened anywhere in India in 1995 – not even in the land of Vidayasagar and Vivekananda.
I am afraid that my brother Samir, the President of TBA who has asked me to write an article for their Durga Puja magazine, is regretting his decision by now, unless he has already deleted the file from his computer. I am sorry to go on and on, and that too around a weighty topic like social engineering. So I will bring this to an end shortly, after discussing another lovely trait of Mallus.
They are wonderfully lethargic, argumentative, and unenterprising as long as they are in Kerala. They most favourite word for a shopkeeper then was “Illé”. He would say this and quickly go back to more important things like reading Matrubhumi. I had a similar experience in Thrissur early this year; so maybe, things haven’t changed much. But the moment they cross Kasargod or Palakkad, a magical transformation happens in Mallus. They become the most hard-working and enterprising workers, sought after by employers all over the world, be they nurses, carpenters, or corporate honchos.
Thanks largely to them, controlled population, and the frugal habits of its people, Kerala is one of the wealthiest states in India. Most Mallus are well-off and a significant number of them are rich. But in my 10 years in Kerala, I didn’t come across one Malayalee who flaunted his/her wealth (except at weddings, where women wear gold waist bands heavier than a bank vault). Barring exceptions, people in Kerala live simply and never show off.
In Trivandrum, we had a neighbour once whose father-in-law used to visit them often. The elderly gentleman was always in an ordinary mundé and an even more ordinary shirt, if at all he had one. He spoke authentic English and sat on the veranda of his home every morning and read two newspapers. A shortish man, he looked most ordinary, you would pass him on the road without noticing him at all. He also had a slight speech impairment and we could follow him with some difficulty. On Sunday mornings, I often joined him for a chat and had an excellent cup of coffee with him.
One day, I asked him, ‘Uncle, what did you do before retirement?’
‘I never retired, I never had a job in my life.’ Answering my raised eyebrows, he added, ‘I have a little plantation.’
‘Coffee, and pepper and cardamom too.’
At this point, if I hadn’t asked him how much land he owned, it would have been a breach of protocol. People routinely asked me how much my salary was. And a few even inquired if I had any income under the table. So I asked, ‘How many acres?’
‘Sixty-seven’, he said slowly.
And I nearly fell off my chair. In those days, if you had four acres of rubber plantation, you could live in a bungalow with a large garden, drive a car, and send your children to boarding schools. And cardamom and coffee are costlier, aren’t they?
And uncle was not alone in wearing his wealth with humility. Later, when I bought a rickety second-hand Fiat, we sometimes called in a middle-aged driver called Unnikrishnan, who was an exceedingly polite man. He would talk in such a small voice that we had difficulty in catching him. Unni, always wearing a freshly pressed white dhoti and shirt and a deferential smile, would accept duty at any time even early in the morning, although he lived quite far away. I thought he needed the money badly and I secretly wondered if I could help him in any way. One day I asked him, ‘You said you don’t get driving duties often. How do you manage?’
‘I have some coconut trees sir’, said he.
Unni folded himself in like the leaves of a touched touch-me-not plant and said in an even smaller voice, as if admitting a serious guilt, ‘I haven’t counted sir, but it’s nineteen acres, sir’.
I decided that the next time I needed money, I would touch Unni for a loan.
Bengaluru / Wednesday, 10 August 2016