It was after almost two years of living in the Philippines that I again set foot in Calicut this past week. A town that is ensconced in an Indian state that is the motherland to many an NRI - Kerala. A town with winding roads that led to the beach and buildings that were short and stocky. A town that I had made compromises with when I had returned to it in 1994, after having grown up in Oman. Here, Pepsi was suddenly Lehar Pepsi... Mars bars a distant dream... And then there were the Ambassador cars that lorded over the lowly Maruti cars that were trying to sneak in. It was a town that had its own unique character, oblivious to the large number of citizens it exported to the Gulf and other international destinations.
Fast forward to July 2010 and there is now a fly-over cutting across Calicut, serving thousands of new foreign cars racing across a city that has become even more bustling than I remember. High-rise buildings stare down at us lowly mortals trying to make sense of the sudden and dramatic real estate boom in the city. There are gold shops that look like malls and apartment complexes that have edged out the old red-tiled houses. Suddenly it seems like Calicut is just another town, in any given country across the world. Just like the kind of town in which an Indian would choose to reside when emigrating to another land. And the kind of town an NRI would feel comfortable settling in when they returned home. So maybe that’s what has accounted for the sudden makeover. Could it be that erstwhile NRIs were changing the face of the city, one brick at a time, to make it more like the towns and cities that they had become accustomed to?
As I walk through my old neighbourhood I am overwhelmed by huge villas that have a distinctly “Gulf feel” to them. Garden gnomes have replaced the modest Tulsi. The heavy humming of air-conditioners cuts across the pitter-patter of the monsoons. I hear strains of Glee drift out from living room windows that once reverberated with Super-hit Muqabala. I wonder if I’m walking down a street in Manila, so homesick that I deluded myself into believing that I am in India. But no, I am really here. And ‘here’ now looks like ‘there.’
Even the ubiquitous Malayalee jewellery store has undergone an identity change. Once the shop windows boasted of traditional Kerala style ornaments like the ‘Kaashu mala’ or the ‘Poothali.’ Today the friendly sales guy, with a tie to boot, asks me whether I would like to see the latest selection in Singapore ornaments or Gulf jewels. The local neighbourhood bakery has metamorphosed into a Café Coffee day and is now serving me blueberry cheesecake with cappuccino - a far cry from the ‘Kaapi and Puffs’ that I was used to. Gone are the days when NRIs coming to India on vacation stuffed their suitcases with ‘Foren’ chocolates and gifts, for more often than not, there’s a shop offering a wide selection of just that.
We suddenly seem to be at a point where we can have the best of both worlds. As an NRI, you can afford to take those long vacations without having to worry about missing episodes of your favourite American sitcoms. And as an Indian who’s chosen to stay back, you can rest easy in the belief that you are not missing a thing.
Yet what I can’t make up my mind about is whether this is a slow obliteration of the town’s unique identity or whether it is just the inevitable triumph of globalization. Do we celebrate the fact that Indian towns are not so different any more or mourn the fact that we’re not so Malayali anymore? A question that I’m sure will pose itself in many different ways as I continue my sojourn as an NRI at large. Meanwhile I wonder what you, the reader thinks.