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My Celebrity Complex

My Celebrity Complex

January 13, 2012

In Kerala, strangers' stares made me feel like a celebrity. Now that I've left, is it wrong to miss them?

The pairs of eyes would follow me everywhere. At first I sought to shake them off, employing either a thousand-yard stare into the distance or a direct, dagger-like glare back into their faces - neither of which registered a response. The eyes remained on me like two unremitting voids.

I then tried smiling in their direction, hoping to disarm the undisarmable. I might get a brief grin and head-wobble back, followed by an aversion of the gaze, but this success was only temporary; the moment I went back to minding my own business, the eyes in question returned.

Finally, I understood that even after thirty years - let alone three - I would stick out like a flashing neon sign in south Kerala. The eyes continued to follow me, but I developed a sort of immunity to them - an ability to absorb their previously energy-sapping qualities.

And then I was back in New Zealand, and suddenly, I missed the eyes. My pale skin didn't hold the same interest for my compatriots as it did for Mallus. I now search for a flicker of interest in the faces of strangers, occasionally smiling in the hope of getting something back, but everyone adopts that same averted thousand-yard stare I used to rely on so frequently. This public isolation is probably the strangest thing about being back home.

In my first post for The NRI, I joked that my presence in Kerala afforded me a sort of celebrity status. But it was true, as it seems to be for most foreigners who live in India. Even before I set foot in my new house on the day I arrived in Varkala, where I would live for three years, my neighbour had already invited me to his son's wedding. It must have been a surreal sight: the tall saip, worn out from his first overnight train journey and with luggage strewn on the road about him as his rickshaw pulls away, and the sixtysomething Malayali gentleman clasping his hand and speaking in broken but vigorous English.

I would be invited to a disproportionately large number of weddings, receptions, births and annaprashana over my three years in Kerala. People of all ages would halt outside my house and leer inside, as if it belonged not to an anonymous young Kiwi but to Sachin Tendulkar. Shop staff would rush to my side the moment I entered a store, tripping over themselves (and me) in an effort to offer their best service. Perfect strangers would ask endless intimate questions, thinking it reasonable that they should be privy to as much of my private life as they wished. Sometimes, young men on the train would even try to snap a surreptitious photo on their mobile phone: the informal paparazzi of Kerala.

Such attention all became quite commonplace; I took it for granted. Then it all fell away the moment I returned to my homeland. The perks of anonymity are many, but the 'celebrity complex' remains somewhat ingrained - and like real celebrities who have actually done something to deserve some attention, I feel an almost pathological urge to force my way back into the limelight. I long for strangers' eyes to once again find me fascinating, or to at least be able to approach anyone in the street and be met with enthusiastic smiles. This is, of course, fantasy. (Only Rajnikanth, via a seemingly endless series of outrageously choreographed fight scenes, has ensured his own popular immortality.)

While Twitter mentions offer a minor illusion of celebrity, the fact is that I am not in Kerala anymore and no amount of knocking chappal-covered heels together will get me back. Fellow firangs, saips and madamas, I hope you'll reassure me I'm not alone in my attention-seeking mental state. If, however, I am, there are some very good doctors in my city. I think some of them might even be Malayalis. 


  • sandy
    18.01.12 12:50 PM
    oops! thats what bollywood celebs must be feeling if they went to say...gstaad! BTW I am an Indian girl and when i went abroad it was weird bcoz people seem to just look 'thru you. In india we complain about the 'attention' but when its not there we get perversely 'wistful'
  • Deepak
    16.01.12 01:37 PM
    If a alien visits our place,,, we will also treat with the same way.. like a new creature on our home land !

    Even when a north Indian comes and buys a cigar at a local shop in any part of south india, people will treat him/her as celebrity !

    Indians like non Indian Things- which is pretty shameful !
  • Sacha Gomez
    Sacha Gomez
    14.01.12 03:00 PM
    I was expecting something on these lines from you at some point, Barns! Most interesting to see how much of India is left in you and how often your Indian Tourette's acts up.
  • Neelam Kamdar Bhamani
    Neelam Kamdar Bhamani
    13.01.12 09:10 PM
    hahaha..what a plight!! No, you are not wrong to miss the stares....who wouldn't like to be treated special?
    I enjoyed reading your post!
  • Bronwyn
    13.01.12 01:56 PM
    I'm with Maeve! At the beginning, I was definitely uncomfortable to stand out so much, and made a concerted effort in the way I dressed and composed myself so that I would attract less attention.
    It didn't work. So then, gradually, I got over it and began to be myself. Like Maeve said, just being different can be an interesting conversation starter, and has definitely been an advantage in getting into or out of certain situations.

    Now, I am with you in the attention-seeking mental state. I feel like I made an effort to 'adjust' to become someone who doesn't mind people paying attention to me all the time. It changes your personality a little bit, and in that personality, it's hard to go back. I feel so invisible now when I visit Canada. So interesting.
  • A. Mitchell
    A. Mitchell
    13.01.12 12:45 PM
    Barnaby, you’ve given us an honest, touching account.

    In Ernakulam, the crowds would grow quiet if a Westerner walked by as a cinema hall was letting out onto the street. It is as if a bit of the filmy world was coming alive for everyone.

    These scenes will disappear as the world becomes more integrated.
  • Maeve
    13.01.12 12:01 PM
    When I initially moved to Mumbai, all of the attention made me wildly uncomfortable. I didn't want people looking at me 24/7, taking phone pics, or constantly inquiring "WhereAreYouFromMadamWhyAreYouInIndia". But over time, I've gotten used to it, and sometimes value the opportunity to start a conversation or hopefully leave a good impression of Americans with my inquisitor. Now, it is part of the daily experience.
    However, on a recent trip to New York, i completely forgot that there is nothing about me that makes me stand out there. In a bar, I blend right in. On the street, maybe someone looks at my outfit, but mostly they keep walking. What a strange experience to have to be interesting in your own right, not because of the unchangeable aspects of your appearance. (And further, the people who make small talk with me on trains in NY are by no means as friendly or enthusiastic as my favorite nosey-Indians)
  • Maria
    13.01.12 11:26 AM
    You articles are one of the few that I never never miss. I think 75% has to do with the fact that you write with that enviable mix of 'simple + witty' and the other 25% is probably bcos I actually like you as a person too :)

    Was smiling at the mention of the informal paparazzi clicking away at you..hahha...

    Strangely enough I relate with the article. Nothing to do with my skin colour ofcourse, but more to do with my gender. I used to loathe the 'vayanokkis' of Kerala who just stared and stared and stared. And now that I am finally free of them and amongst Singaporean men who kinda look right through me, I must admit it has been a fatal blow to my vanity. I kinda miss the gud ol' vayanokkis ... :D

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