My grandfather picked out his grave many years before he was due. A tidy little confessional in the ground, seven feet by four, in the farthest corner of the parish’s cemetery, almost out of sight. Typically for him, he chose privacy over prominence. After his time, it would become a fond metaphor for the kind of person he was: non-invasive, forever lost in thought, not fond of crowds. Not for him, the ungainly pitter patter of people’s footsteps as they climb over the graves of strangers and acquaintances to get to the resting spots of their own dearly departed.
He was not an ordinary man. He was a member of the first generation of lawyers to pass the Bar exams in independent India, and one of a select group of intellectuals handpicked by the Party to visit the erstwhile Soviet Republic to learn in greater detail about Communism and its workings. He duly returned and set up a practice representing the disenfranchised agricultural laborers in their struggle for land ownership. He was in many ways an embodiment of our state, Kerala: highly literate, conscientious and self-contained. Tucked away in the Southern most corner of India, lush and evergreen Kerala is almost as inconspicuous on the national political front as his mortal abode.
Growing up in Kerala in the early Nineties, I lost a large number of friends and family to the charms and promises of India’s metropolises, and further yet, to the great economic dream of Western civilization. In inimitable Malayalee* fashion, they would leave never to return, adept as we are in equal measure at cultural acclimatization and camouflage. The children of our NRI compatriots were the bane of my summer vacations, armed as they were with first world goodies - M&Ms and Walkmans and Air Jordans, and full of irrational phobias of insects and impossible standards of hygiene that the otherwise unreasonable adults in my household were curiously happy to oblige. I remember wishing desperately that my body would react as drastically to mosquito bites, that my clothes spoke as loudly of sporting affiliations. But more than anything else, I wanted to smell like them - that heady mixture of deodorant and Juicy Fruit and superiority.
The grand Malayalee tradition of immigration, in no small part, played agent provocateur in my cultural leanings and formation. Groomed as I was on Hollywood and American sitcoms in newly liberalized India, my childhood was merely a footnote in a larger movement – a mission to leave, to emulate. Long before I left these shores to pursue my higher education in the colonial embrace of a British university, I was subconsciously grooming myself for that moment. I was already one of Them, from Nirvana to Nick Hornby, from The Beatles to Beckham, in spirit if not in post code. I had - to the best of my abilities - eschewed all regional affectations before I was old enough to vote, in humble imitation of my satellite heroes, careful not to let my Indian-ness spill over into my taste in music or movies or even fast food. Cometh the hour, I was ready.
The university years sped by like a dream. They were a time of unbridled cosmopolitanism, a veritable mosaic of cultural enlightenment put together in the most romantic fashion by the Euro. Weekends in Barcelona or Paris or Amsterdam, made possible by the fabled Irish flair for budget travel. Ryan Air, how do I love thee, let me count the ways. A lot had changed since high school, most importantly the mortality of memories. Inscribed digitally in the Facebook permanence of an acquaintance’s penchant for photography, remains to this day, an ode to my naiveté: a picture of eight of us in the afterglow of Graduation, feet in the air, arms aloft in celebration, ceremonial headwear swirling merrily above us. That too, would pass.
If one of us had inspected that photograph in greater detail, he or she would have noticed the realities of spiraling interest rates on education loans and a sputtering job market lurking ominously in the shadows of our Victorian playground, like villains in an Angry Young Man - era Amitabh Bachan film. Unlike my illustrious predecessors, the graduating class of 2007 was met with a new world order. For the first time in our lifetimes, the West was no longer a bastion of prosperity and financial stability, but an apocalyptic wasteland of sub-prime landmines and plunging currency values. Urban legends abounded of rogue traders and cutbacks, austerity and restrictions on employment visas.
My friends from continental Europe and Asia and Africa fled to their homelands. I refused to lose heart. I had years of stored up pop culture cred to fall back on. I was one of Them. I persevered, severely over-qualified and under-employed, in the hope - nay, Faith - that the greatest economic recession known to man was but a minor blip in Mission Juicy Fruit. In a curious twist of fate, I lost my closest gora friends from university to India. While I crunched numbers for their banks and financial institutions that threatened to go under any second, my British friends took off for the sandy beaches of Goa, and the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, to find themselves. Because seventeen years of first rate education just didn’t compare to backpacking across the third world when it came to matters of self-realization. Because dire as the economy was, their government could afford to let them postpone loan payments by a year. We weren’t that similar after all.
Still, I had my own countrymen - statesmen, in fact - for company: all those Malayalee uncles and aunties who had cast anchors in this foreign land long before I ever stepped foot on the isle, the Columbuses to my Pilgrim, the trailblazers. But MTV can only take you so far. They didn’t spend their evenings on the football terraces of Arsenal FC, or their nights at impromptu gigs of obscure indie bands as I had imagined. They had formed instead - somewhat paradoxically - a Malayalee colony of their own in the Empire. They had merely traded one suburbia for another, a middle class upbringing in Kerala for a white picket fence in the UK. I was in no man’s land.
I subscribe to the theory that everything you do builds up to one particular moment in your life, that everything is connected. As I write this, I am sat across a plastic table from a group of holidaying Mumbaikars as friendly as any group of people I have met on my European travails. We are in a tarpaulin-and-straw-thatched shack-turned-restaurant on Kudle Beach in Gokarna, in the higher reaches of the state of Karnataka in India. The clock is at least a couple of hours past midnight. Earlier today, we shared a boat to the ocean-locked Paradise Beach a little further away, and several bottles of local brew. Two days ago, I had to trek fifteen minutes to get here from the public transport-served Om Beach. Outside, the Monsoons beat relentlessly at our make-shift shelter. We will continue playing Dumb Charades or Rummy till the weather lets up, and retire to our rooms.
Hindu mythology has it that Lord Parashuram, one of the three Rama avatars of Mahavishnu, circled the earth twenty one times in the process of ‘Khatriya Samhaaram’, a one-man annihilation of the ruling class or the Kshatriyas, to avenge their murder of his father. He then offered all his earthly belongings to the Brahmins in penance. Varun, the Lord of the Oceans, granted one boon to the homeless Parashuram - he could lay claim to as much land as he could cover in one thrown arc of his weapon, the parashu or axe. Parashuram, feet firmly planted here in Gokarna, proceeded to throw his axe as far as Kanya Kumari, the Southern-most tip of India. The oceans between Gokarna and Kanya Kumari immediately parted, and Kerala was born. The irony is not lost on me.
Since returning to India three months ago, I have been fortunate enough to find a publisher for my first novel and an agent who goes out of his way to find me more work. The Mumbaikars appear to be as enamored with my Newly-Returned-Indian status as I am with their determination to have a good time come rain or sunshine. They have all pledged their support for my literary aspirations, and offered lodging and guided tours to the best roadside chat stalls if I ever visit Mumbai. I have been told - repeatedly - that bhel puri is only the gateway dish to ultimate chat nirvana.
One of them, an investment banker by day and aspiring musician by night, strums the reassuring chords to Papa Kehte Hain on his guitar. Despite my sketchy grasp of Bollywood and its music, I am more than familiar with the pop classic though the lyrics escape me in maternal reproach of the Hindi classes I opted out of in school. Twenty-odd years after Aamir Khan first regaled the nation with his tale of professional ambivalence in the film Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, the song continues to be a staple of Desi gatherings, in foreign universities and inaccessible Indian beaches alike, no less anthemic than Jana Gana Mana or Vande Matharam. He has since matured into a cultural icon, a maverick of Indian cinema and the first of the three Khans to venture into mainstream social activism. As we join in the chorus with gusto, one of the Mumbaikars reminds me that Aamir took the better part of two decades to find his niche. I smile. We may not be ready to define ourselves just yet, but something tells me we have time.
*Malayalee – A native of Kerala, and speaker of the regional language, Malayalam