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.