The chilly wind whipping outside my window curtly reminds me that I’m squarely back in the grasp of the northern hemisphere, much farther north of the equator than I was just hours earlier. Limited email access and constant moving around kept me from posting again until now, although I think another reason is that I was simply too overstimulated to do much more than snap photos. Even that became laborious at times and sometimes all I could do was watch and listen and, surprisingly, talk. During the past eleven days, I spoke more Tamil than I have in the past eleven years — or, the Tamil-Malayalam hybrid I heard growing up in my house that I spoke primarily with my grandmother as part of a language agreement of sorts wherein she would speak to me in English and I to her in Tamil. My outward appearance apparently belied my ability to communicate in a lexicon that was familiar to most of the Keralites with whom I came into contact because upon hearing the words come out of my mouth, some would widen their eyes with exaggeration, others would smile and instantly soften their posture, and on at least one occasion someone said with a guilty tone to her friend, “Oh, she understands what we’re saying.”
Malayalam is the primary language spoken in Kerala, but there is enough similarity to Tamil that I could make myself understood. Preemptive declarations of my language butchering also served to curry favor with the locals who then showered me with notes of praise at just how well I spoke. In many of these interactions, it seemed as if local Kerala citizens saw my presence as one of the prodigal child coming back to a home of sorts; I felt oddly parented by strangers and passers-by. This could also be the common infantilization that occurs when locals anywhere gaze with suspicion upon visitors of all kinds.
It was a collection of moments of verbal interaction, therefore, that stands out to me from my time in Kerala. And it was these moments that helped me to overlook the simply horrendous road conditions. Honestly, how does anyone actually get anywhere in South India? A momentary digression: we traveled to Tamilnadu, a neighboring state, for two days during the end of our trip to visit family in Coimbatore. Crossing state lines took on an entirely different meaning, and when I’ve finally processed the memory — that still seems like a B-movie nightmare to me — I’ll share more details, but suffice it to say that interstate commerce is another American feature for which I am truly grateful.
Ah, but the conversations, they were magnificent. With an 86-year-old woman who lives in the house next door to where my paternal grandmother’s parents lived, and where my paternal grandmother gave birth to most of her children. With shopkeepers with whom inquiries about the price of biscuits — those sublime, chocolate Bourbon cremes from Brittania — led seamlessly into discussions of how business was going and how they managed to get inventory while situated on the top of a mountain. With school age girls ranging from second to sixth grade who live in the village from where my paternal grandfather hails, a cluster of four streets, each with its own temple. And during each conversation, a few common questions were posed to me:
- What is my land? This is better conveyed in Tamil with the use of the word “oor” as in to say from where do you originate. Certainly a loaded question to which my answer was usually twofold: From the States now, but originally from Palghat. The latter immediately evoked a smile in my interlocutor.
- What am I doing here? Wherein “here” meant Kerala and “what” implied a few different things including: Am I on holiday? Why would I holiday here? What am I doing while on holiday here?
- What do I do? As in my livelihood? And when I offer a brief description of my academic post, a pensive nod immediately followed by the next question.
- Where do I live now? This is different from “What is my land?” because it implies that one can be of somewhere and also exist and inhabit a domicile somewhere else. It was easiest to say that I live in New York, which is half true.
Occasionally I thought about George Ella Lyon’s poem “Where I’m From,” which I’ve used as a key text in my graduate courses and also with youth at the teen after-school program where my research team and I conduct research. In the past when I have filled in my portion of the poem as a participant in whatever activity I was facilitating, I hearkened back to my days of sharing a bedroom with my grandmother — the same one who grew up in Kalpathi, the village where her former neighbor still lives. After spending several days in her home state — where road work is being done by hand as women and men move one boulder at a time to create a crash wall on windy, mountain roads and where a 15-story building that takes six days to build in China may languish in perpetuity in this land — my answers may skew toward the ways of being the locals seemed to embody. Theirs is not patience or complacency, but a different category of attending altogether. If India is a land of extreme paradoxes, then Kerala is a state of tremendous consistency amidst the unsettling. Children go to school. Some men and women work — selling the fruit and vegetables that are plentiful in this fertile land — while others spend time visiting with one another, going to the market where they shoot the breeze with shopkeepers, tend to home chores, and make time to eat and enjoy the day.
People in Kerala seem quite content. And even though they drive as if they are field testing the turning radius and gear shift of their vehicle, they don’t seem the type to fly into fits of road rage. Everyone is just making his or her own way. Of course, this is a mere glimpse (and likely oversimplification) of what realities may be, including persistent poverty and challenging living conditions. But judging solely from the handful of people I spoke with directly, the physical beauty of the state’s topography is only amplified in the kindness of its locals.
Future post: the overwhelming awareness and presence of color…