Friday, May 18, 2012

The Malayali Me - Stereotypes and More

The fact that my surname screams my Malayali roots loud and clear often means that people have pre-conceived notions about me and my preferences!

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! 

Comprende?? 

25 comments:

  1. That was vintage Deepthy. you most certainly don't look and sound like a stereotypical mallu. And while all south Indians are typecast into moulds of media and ignorance making, you might find why Mallus stand out if you read my interpretation http://cybernag.in/2010/12/idli-dosas-anyone/

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    1. I remember this post very well. :) I have been mulling this post for a while, was just waiting to get the right bite and humour..:)

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  2. And I am expected to snack on Roshogollas and phish, and converse with a Mamata Banerjee accent. My father has his roots in Lucknow and my mother in Kanpur. I didn't have any connection with Oest Bhengal till I married a guy from it's capital.

    Stereotyping is a prerogative of the intellectually lazy class. Try that, it shuts them up for life ;)

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    1. I like how you define stereotyping. The way I see it, earlier the moment you mention South Indian the broad categorisation was Madrassis. Now the 'better-travelled' Indian who has been to these states have started a more-specific kind of stereotyping...Btw, Oest Benghal is so true..:) In fact, another point I so failed to mention in the post was another key question " Are all Malayalis dark?", "What about the fair Malayalis that you sometimes see?" :D I'm sure as a bengali you get other variations of this too!

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  3. I was carried away by your sweet post to the times I spent in Kochi( then Cochin) and my first brush with people, land and culture!This post was like going down the memory lane of all the fond recollections. You conveniently forgot to mention of the real Malyalee beauties except to generalize about the coconut oil stained hair( which is not true always):)

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    1. :) Now I concur. But being a Malayali girl myself, me speaking about beautiful malayalee girls would have sounded like a massive case of self-delusionary propoganda..:) So i steered cleared of that minefield. But it is so true what you say and that I believe is the pitfalls of gross stereotyping!

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  4. yes yes comprende...

    I can understand the problem with sterotyping..in my case, its like Gujarati...I have tons of people asking me if I am Gujju married to a Tambram...most people take me as a Gujju mainly I think its because the way I look and my English has a Gujarati accent :) Ah! Well, I dont care....Better a Gujju than no one else :)

    LOL on the last points...especially the elephant one..

    and oh! you know I think a coconut tree is awesome and Malayalis have a lot of brains to use every part of the tree, from leaves to the fruit to the cover of the trunk to the trunk it self..thats amazing na..

    BTW you like dosa...come to my house, RD will make killer dosas and I will make edible avial and we can have a party okie ;)

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    1. :) R, you make offers that can't just be refused...:) I could walk to Kandivali for the dosas..:) But glad you saw the point I was trying to make..

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  5. haha, well said. I am a south indian, and I too have an unaccented Hindi. Infact I speak Hindi in the same way as Punjabis or people in delhi would. But that doesnot spare me. Like you correctly pointed out, half the people in india, don't even know that 4 different states exist in the south, leave aside the language and the captial of each of them. such a pity, considering Banglore, kochi, chennai and hydrebad are such big job hubs. And the Singh part was such a rofl!

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    1. I have been looking forward to writing this! In fact, I faced this in England too...met with a couple of fellow Indians in London and as we sat talking, they asked me what part of the country I was in..and I asked them to take a wild guess..and the first guess was Bengali (like I usually get!) and then a generic from the South..So when I asked why from the South, they said it was a guess! But when I said I was a malayali, they said incredulously " but you don't have an accent..i wouldn't have known if you hadn't mentioned it" !!!!!

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  6. from the bottom of a malayalee heart, it was worth reading!

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    1. :) here comes a high-five your way!!

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  7. aye. comprenede! nice one journomuse. i wonder if reading this is going to make much of a difference to the typical nothie's outlook. however, i'm sure it will touch each of the brethren; especially those who wandered away and are looking for each opportunity to connect back to their roots for sure!

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    1. Deeyess: Its great to see Malayalis agree with me, there are days when I want to say all this without much diplomacy, but then I guess the message is better conveyed with a dash of humour!

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  8. Jisha Kishore Kumar18 May 2012 at 19:25

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one – word by word….as a Gulf Malayalee, I can vouch that we face this kind of rift or rather a sort of discrimination over here – with a very sneering “oh that malabari” comment esp for English/Hindi accent and for migrating to all part of the Globe…:) and hats off to your funny bone; the final points on Kathakali and elephants were hilarious…:D:D:D

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    1. Aaah, damn, How could I forget the Malabari jibe that a lot of Pakistanis have mastered! I remember being asked if I was a malabari when in Saudi and I remembered answering very naively that we are not from malabar, my mom is from Thrissur and dad from Kochi...:)

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    2. Jisha Kishore Kumar20 May 2012 at 15:06

      Haaahaaa that was a good one! I'll do the same from now on..:D:D

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    3. Though funnily Dad is originally from Malabar, Perinthalmanna...:D I think it was when I mentioned this Malabari thing to Dad that he said, its alright..its true..maybe Malabari should be met with a Malappuram Kathi...;) Nothing more malabari than that, is there? ;)

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  9. Little bit of frustration is seen here.

    What I have seen is many of them , tend to tease Keralites a lot on their accent and many other things.

    I would say, in fact they are more frustrated to see the adapting capability of the keralites where ever they go. Here in Bangalore, if you go to any bakery, They would be from Malabar and they could speak all the South Indian Language + Hindi.

    I have seen Mangers commenting on the English of a Malayali in the appraisal meeting and them speaking JOO ( actual word is Zoo ) in front of a US client.

    I never wanted to comment on them as they to have their own preference of food, language, and Many other things. It us Malayalis or the so called Mallu's who moves around the world and get adapted fast. It is this reason , the story of Nair chettens Tea shop being on the moon was a point of talk, even by the PM of India about a Malayali is there.

    Be proud to be what you are and respect what others are. ( Thats what we have been taught to )

    And one more stereotype point. " All the Indian Porn are made from Kerala " [:P]

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    1. I agree with you on most points - what I can't understand is people getting so incredulous when their stereotype does not match the person they encounter. The amazement they feel makes you wonder why you are receiving such a back-handed compliment, or whether it is, I think your community is a bunch of comedians but you are different!

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  10. Deepti,mazaa aa gaya!(notice the absence of 'h'in your name).My Marathi phemilee is vhery proud to put an 'h' wherever it does not belong, so what! Can you give me pain ,they ask when they are looking for a writing tool:D I pass off as an Arabic woman more often,my Marathi and Maarwari connections go undetected :/

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    1. Haha, usually my name is mangled in ways you can't imagine. But I must say Sharmila, you have represented the accent bang-on..:) I have never understood this stereotype too - 'Woh log achche family ke lagte hai, ghar mein sab achchi English bolte hain'..:)

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  11. Working in a northie Co. in NCR for the last 5 years, I have given up hope. I hv nw developed anitbodies for the "incredulity" that accompanies the "So u r not a northie/born-n-bottup Delhite/Aap ko dekh ke patttai nee chalta". When they say that my hindi is unaccented I take it as a compliment. When they say that I dont look like a southie, or worse still I look like a northie I put on my best 'shavam-adakku face' and say "yes, it took 3 yrs for my parents to find a girl for me as I just dont hv the personality". I follow this up with... "By the by, is the elephant a domestic animal or a wild animal? We have 1 dog and 6 elephants at home so i'm a lil confused...".

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    1. My dearest brother, I'm still chuckling over your comment..and I know just the 'shavam adakku' face that you can make..:D LoL at 1 dog and six elephants!!!

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  12. Excellent read. I had to comment on this before I go as this was the post that introduced you to me.

    I must say though, when I read blogs, Delhiites now get a bad rap as the rape capital. This meme is catching on in a country that is not exactly stellar in the women's rights field

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