The standard dialogues I usually encounter are " How can you be a Malayali and not eat fish?", "What, you are allergic to prawns?? Ohh what a waste of a good Malayali life" and the most hilarious one is "What?? You don't eat rice?? Don't you people eat rice all the time with coconut in it? " The answer to all this used to be No, now it has been diplomatically amended to "I know, I'm pretty strange that way, aren't I"? Now it's not like my family is also a strange one, I'm the only aberration. The others enjoy their meat and their rice. My sister longs for home for a home-cooked meal while my cravings are for either specific dishes like the killer avial or homemade dosas...Now a true blue Malayali won't be caught dead calling them dosas...We call it doshas..the way a south indian says dosa can help you narrow down whether he's from the coconutty land ( that is if he hasn't said college or simbly till then!) Well I told you this piece was about stereotypes...My friends fall over themselves every time they see a Mallu joke - which often centres around how a Mallu pronounces a certain word or their affinity to work in the Gelf where their ungle already is... To this too, I nod my head in jaded resignation!
Those who don't begin by asking me my name or talking to me in Hindi don't immediately take me for a Malayali...And my poker straight black hair has been pointed as the reason for it, other than my 'unaccented' Hindi...Did you know that all Malayalis are expected to have springy curly hair that is maintained shiny with coconut oil glistening through the strands and the traditional kulippinnu - which literally translates to how your hair is tied after you have had a shower. This is essentially a few strands of hair taken from both sides and braided into a thin line to keep the rest of the hair in place! For easy reference to all of the above - think Lolakutty of Channel V fame - the bane of my life - (there are certain North-Indian friends of mine who nicknamed me that half an hour after meeting me for the first time!!!) And as you would have correctly guessed by now, I'm a far cry from this stereotypical depiction.
However, after living for the first twenty years of my life in Kochi, I don't think of it as much of a compliment when people say "Ohhh I didn't realise you were a Malayali till you mentioned your name!" and the other smart-assed observation is "Are you a Menon or did you marry one?"...I have been thinking about the reason why there is a clear mould in most people's head about Malayalis. Moulds are often about South Indians in general and then if they are informed enough to know there are four different states among Madrassis where four distinctly different languages are spoken, then more specifically Malayalis! The moment you identify yourself as a South Indian, there are people who start speaking jibberish and tell me that's how I speak my language. Well, how come I haven't seen you pull that fast one on a Bengali or a Gujarati? Our script is likened to jalebis squeezed out in rounded shapes into a bubbling vat of oil. Hmmm, if I think about that, there could be some geometric similarity. But if you'd tried to decipher the script, you'd realise we have far more letters than you'd care to memorise!
Lampooning is alright, all communities need to learn to take a few jibes, but to think all Malayalis have a few nurses hidden in their family tree or that all the rich ones grew rich by robbing the Arabs of the Gulf are stretching the stereotype a bit far. Our surnames too are generic caste names. So if you know a Menon does not mean that I'm automatically related to that one..Kind of like expecting all the Singhs to have come from the same big family banyan-like tree!
Often I catch myself trying to justify that I'm not a stereotypical Malayali, perhaps because I'm sick and tired of the number of jibes or the subtle change in accent to match my lilting tones that follow. But as I grow older, I have come to wonder why am I defensive about who I am? Every community has its own quirks. The bane or in many sense the boon of being a Malayali is the ability to adapt oneself into any environment and flourish there ( so long as it is not one's own state - we reserve the lowest priority for Kerala!) Now here comes another quirk that few have observed enough to stereotype. Put two non-Keralite Malayalis in one room and they will crib about how Kerala will never see development like other states till the cows come home. But no one dares point that all the capable managers and enterprising youngsters flee the state at the first opportunity and return only when the call of home grows louder in the years closer to retirement! Take a Malayali out of Kerala and incentivise him to be a diligent, conscientious worker and you might have a good prospect on your hand. But leave him in his state and he will figure how to get a full month's salary out of you by citing Worker's Rights without working more than ten days of the thirty in all!
I have been a non-resident Keralite for over twelve years now and over the years I have realised I look for ways to connect with my home state and root for my Malayali brethren. I have come to realise that I instinctively look for indicators that could suggest the person I'm interacting with belongs to a place close to where I am from. This is not to say that I discriminate against people from elsewhere - my closest people are all from the non-coconutty lands. Need I add, I'm usually the butt of a lot many cliched, over-used and under-thought jokes! But I have realised and now must admit that as I grow older, the need to appreciate my heritage is growing stronger and along with it, ways and means to break a few stereotypes.
Like for instance,
- Men don't wear wrap-around skirts, they wear a mundu. And no, you can't call it a white lungi. We consider that sacrilege!
- We don't eat, drink and wallow in coconut oil for every meal, snack and as a daily ritual. It is a practical livelihood choice, coming as we do from a land of bountiful coconut trees!
- Not all Malayalis have weird sounding names - many of us have pretty run-of-the-mill names, I pity the others, for they would have had scarring childhoods in Kerala or elsewhere!
- Cows are not slaughtered every day in every household. Yes, we don't have a religious taboo on eating beef, but fish can be considered a more endangered specie were it to be an option alongside beef before a Malayali.
- Because we are known for our deep-rooted affinity to spirits, does not automatically translate to everyone having Herculean abilities to gulp down unlimited amounts of alcohol, those that do it are merely trying to prove they are self-destructive too!
- We are not all prone to practising and performing Kathakali moves or instinctively understanding the glorious artform enough to hold discourses on it. With those that do, take it with a pinch of salt!
- and the last, for now, elephants are expensive acquisitions. Every house does not have one as a pet. In fact, those ancestral houses that boast of owning an elephant, talk of it, much the same way you'd boast if you had a Ferrari parked in your garage!