It starts as soon as I open the door: that bizarre, enigmatic sensation of being somewhere utterly contradictory. The Subway restaurant on the edge of Trivandrum's Technopark campus is the only American chain restaurant for literally hundreds of miles around, and this makes it both the starkest example of Western influence on life in Kerala and the most jarring collision between that influence and the steadfast conservatism of this corner of India. The restaurant is right next to the building in which I work, so today I've decided to spend my lunch break there.
The music always hits me first. No Bollywood vocoders or Malayali whistles here: the dial is always tuned to an American radio station, generally near full volume. As I walk in, a track by one of my favourite groups, Arcade Fire, blasts out of the PA – a group I don't think I've even heard in restaurants back in NZ, let alone in India. “I woke up with the power out! Not really something to shout about!” shrieks singer Win Butler as I walk to the vegetarian counter. Living as I do in rural Kerala, this line is peculiarly apt.
The sandwich geniuses behind the counter smile broadly and welcome me, perhaps their most frequent customer. The first time I went, I was surprised to receive a sub pretty much exactly as it would have been back in NZ, or anywhere. The staff are all young local guys, most sporting thick accents and thicker moustaches, and the all-black Subway uniform – as blunt a symbol of corporate domination as any – can't dwarf their effervescent personalities. Their food preparation skills are as strong as their competitiveness when playing impromptu cricket in front of the store when it's quiet. Confident that my sandwich will be exactly as I imagine it, I order a foot-long Paneer Tikka on Hearty Italian with Southwest, Honey Mustard and Caesar sauces and all salad fixings except olives. The server points out that they have no lettuce today, and are offering chopped raw cabbage as a substitute. “OK,” I say, after a brief sigh. “But just a little.”
A couple of other patrons enter and the PA falls silent for a moment as the song ends, before it bursts back into life with James Blunt: "Gotta ask yourself the question, where are you now?". One joins a pair of fresh-faced businessmen in sharp suits sitting in the corner, and they all resume a conversation about an upcoming deal with a German investor. Another is a saip, or white man, and I only realise I'm staring when he finally looks at me and gives a brief, awkward nod and smile. (As a white guy who stares open-mouthed at other white guys, I'm just as much of a contradiction as anything else in here.) I smile back with as little pretence as possible. I sometimes like to see myself as a kind of welcoming presence for foreigners who are passing through. He probably just thought I was weird.
A North Indian couple enters at the same time as a group of local men and women. The couple's trendy t-shirts, tight jeans and clipped English are sharply contrasted with the men's loudly coloured dress shirts, mundus and flowing Malayalam. The latter group head directly and swiftly to the non-veg counter and all order the same thing, the men chattering constantly, the ladies standing silently and demurely behind. The couple, however, dawdle their way up to the veg counter, indecisive to the last. “What do you want?” asks the man. “Mmm... something veg...” replies the woman, her nose twitching upwards with a faint exasperation that suggests her mind ought to be made up by someone else. (Song change: 'She Will Be Loved' by Maroon 5.) Having made it to the display, she asks, “What do they have?” despite all the options being laid out in front of her. The man looks bored and waits for her to decide before choosing something for himself.
I munch on my bread, paneer and cabbage. It's a surprisingly agreeable combination if accompanied by lashings of Southwest sauce. The feeling of eating fresh ingredients is a joy to me, but not so much to my colleagues, who are used to parippu dal and fish curry with rice. “It's... okay,” they invariably say ('okay' meaning 'not great', a euphemism they seem to have jokingly picked up from me). “Far too expensive.” Quite true – Subway is a rare treat for me, with one footlong sub costing as much as a whole week of lunches at the places where we usually eat. If we were those guys in the corner, cutting multinational deals every other week, perhaps we could all get used to this Western style together... but not in our present positions as outsourcing mules.
Out the glass fronting and across the highway, a sea of coconut palms waves elegantly in the breeze. They surround Technopark, and cover much of the region: a constant reminder that if the West wants to dig its fingers into this physical and cultural landscape, it's going to take a long time. But this Subway is here. It may not be very popular, but it draws enough characters – foreigners, out-of-towners, foreign-returneds and the more affluent locals – to stay alive, and in those characters, the many contradictions of Kerala are shown in crisp relief. After depositing my tray at the counter, the Kaiser Chiefs provide a fitting soundtrack to my transition back to Malayali salaryman life: “Oh my god I can't believe it / I've never been this far away from home”.