It was a familiar refrain, one which I heard most days at Kazhakuttam railway station as I waited for the Vanchinad Express after work. (Mandan means 'idiot'.)
I spotted him coming closer. ('Idiot white man'.)
“What are you doing yaar, prandan sayippu...”
At this point, when he calls me a 'mentally ill white man', the smile I've been stifling breaks free. Time to hit back.
“You are the mandan, mandan Mallu, walking around with your hands-free kit swaying in the breeze like you're some bigshot...”
“Sha! Mandan sayippu! You are such a mandan...”
“You're the biggest mandan...”
“You're the mandan of mandans...”
And so Chandu and I slap each other on the shoulder, pretend to strangle each other, try to push each other onto the railway tracks. We might keep trading silly insults for the next hour until we part ways. More likely, we'll talk about our lives and loves, sharing the things that make us different and alike. Sometimes, Shuaib will join us too, if he isn't chasing some new girl. Other times, Chandu will be the one missing. Occasionally, I won't see either of them and will SMS or call to find out why.
This was my routine most evenings for two and a half years. It's funny: I'd never intended to befriend anyone on the train, let alone develop a full set of unique internal references and patterns of language; a shorthand for years of brotherly time spent. For the first few months of that daily commute in Kerala my presence on the train was a true oddity, both for my fellow passengers and for myself. I generally stood alone with a book or a music player, and would occasionally humour young men who wanted to ask me a neverending series of questions – without ever really letting them in. And then one day, Chandu and Shuaib were there with me, friends to make me feel like I belonged when in fact I looked completely out of place. Not sure how it happened. Maybe I was just in a good mood that day.
We made for quite an unusual crew: three twentysomethings of various shapes, sizes and backgrounds. Chandu was Hindu, a 3D background modeller in one of Technopark's top animation houses, and recently hitched in a love marriage to his childhood sweetheart. Shuaib was Muslim, a carpenter in a huge furniture factory near Kazhakuttam, moving stealthily from one girl to another. Then there was me, the mandan sayip, a writer and medical transcriptionist from New Zealand, in a long-term relationship when we met but single when we were forced to part ways (by India's employment visa law changes). Once, when we were all crammed onto one motorcycle on the way to Chandu's house, I yelled out '3 Idiots!' (in reference to the famous Aamir Khan film). They both yelled it too, over & over, for nobody's benefit but our own.
We did a lot of crazy things. Being a commuter service, Vanchinad Express was always stuffed to the gills, ferrying passengers from Thiruvananthapuram or Technopark back to Kollam and Kochi. It wasn't worth fighting for a seat when we clambered aboard at Kazhakuttam, so we'd simply sit on a set of vertical stairs below one of the train's open doors and watch the track race by beneath us. Sometimes, we'd stand and hang our bodies well outside the doorway, taking pictures of ourselves and laughing above the din of the clickety-clack right under our feet. We'd swap headphones and make jokes about each other's music collections, although Shuaib in particular actually liked a lot of the 'English songs' – from Arcade Fire to Kanye West – that I shared with him.
When we weren't being crazy or sharing music, we talked. The topics of conversation were few. Shuaib's womanising. Chandu's marriage woes. My (eventually) single status and how they would find me a nice Kerala girl. (Which they did!) We got plenty of mileage out of those same topics, though. It helped that Shuaib seemed to have a new girl every week, while Chandu and I found it fascinating to compare relationship notes across cultures. We learned a lot about each other through those talks. They gave us a rare opportunity to be sensitive, without fear of judgment, in a society that demands stoic masculinity from its men.
Chandu and Shuaib taught me bits and pieces of Malayalam that I could use when buying vegetables or speaking with young children. For some reason, though, we ended up calling each other mandan and prandan a lot more than we practised numbers up to 100. All parties were equally responsible for this; the camaraderie of mutual insulting is apparently more powerful than that generated by language basics. That said, I was more than happy to answer their queries regarding English and to give impromptu lessons from time to time.
When Chandu went to Dubai to try and make it in a big animation company, he would give me a missed call about once a week. I learned from Shuaib that he was receiving the same. It took me a while to understand that he wasn't looking to talk; he just wanted to let us know he was all right, that he was still there and still our friend. In fact, we didn't speak at all until one day, just a few months later, he was there at Kazhakuttam with stories of horrible living conditions in Dubai. Thankfully, his infectious grin remained intact.
Now it's me that's gone. I must remember to give them both a missed call tonight. Maybe I'll let it ring, and they'll pick up, and we'll keep talking like we used to.
You can see some photos of Chandu and Shuaib here.
Chandu & Shuaib
I can't remember exactly why they became my friends; now I wish I were still in Kerala, laughing with them.