The (Strange) Circle of (Malayali) Life

If you are an avid fan who reads PinkLungi articles almost as soon as they’ve been posted, then you are reading this as I’m 20,000 feet above the Arabian Sea.

If you only open Facebook during lunch hour, you’re probably reading this as I’m 30,000 feet over
Western Europe.

And if you’re reading this article at the end of a long day, you can probably relate to how tired I must be as I step out of the airport and experience my first afternoon in…

“Canada? Why Canada?”

The 36-year-old PhD Graduate and mother of three smiled sheepishly as she tried to think of an appropriate answer. This was our seventh IELTS Speaking practice session, and while we’d become familiar with one another, she was still tentative about her choice of words.

“Because,” she started, only to hesitate. I raised an eyebrow, part encouraging, part admonishing.
“Because…it’s a better life, sir?”
“Better how?”
“Better….like, my children will have a great quality of education. Healthcare is excellent and free. I will get a much higher salary. The overall quality of life will be…excellent!”

Seven months later, as I write this article, I realized what I felt when I heard her talk. I couldn’t quite name it then, but since my editor requires an appropriately short and distinct title for my article, I think it’s this: The (Strange) Circle of (Malayali) Life. Yes, it’s a Lion King reference. And no, I’m not sure if “Strange” is the appropriate word. I’ll leave that up to you. Read about this circle of life, and tell me what word you’d choose.

The NRK

Over the past half-century, Malayalis have famously flocked to the Gulf to earn a better living. And even though statistically speaking one in every three households in Kerala has a member working in the Middle East, they are not the only Non-Resident Keralites. Representatives of our state can be found in every major developed country, and almost every continent. Nothing reinforced that point more strongly than when I happened to watch a BBC Panorama Documentary about Ukraine.

No, the documentary wasn’t about expatriate Malayalis in the East European country. It was about football hooliganism. As I watched clips of racist football fans hurling objects and abuse towards a group of innocent foreigners, I was thoroughly gripped by BBC’s stern journalistic style. They showed a montage of the violence, and then cut to the reporter in the hospital. I couldn’t concentrate on a word he was saying, however. Because my ears picked up the faint chatter taking place in the background, offscreen. Was it…

And that’s how I ended up hearing four Malayali youngsters argue passionately, using naadan theri, about whose fault it was that they’d been assaulted by a bunch of racist Ukrainians. While Jonathan from the BBC kept a straight face and tried to do his job.

Why are there so many Malayalis all over the world, though?

In the 60s and 70s, millions of men like my Dad were taken to the Gulf by a relative or friend with the promise of a better life. What did that mean? Better in what way?

My grandmother kissed her two sons goodbye in 1979, her eyes wet and her heart heavy, as they headed to the Gulf. But her sorrow was tempered by the knowledge that it was all for a good cause. Her sons would have a better life. Their children would have a better life as well.

What does better mean?

If you stood in the living room of every third household in Kerala during June in the final decades of the 20th century, you’d have an idea what better meant. Young expatriate fathers and mothers looked out the window at the thick lashes of rain and their relatives feasted their eyes on the giant trunks of luggage that popped open with requested bounty and rumoured luxuries.

Better incomes. Better houses, better cars, better jobs. Better schools for their children and better clothes too. Better gifts for the relatives back home and better stories to repeat at each house on the annual visitation circuit.

But not everything was better. The NRI kids, it was soon discovered, didn’t have better language skills. They didn’t know Malayalam as well as their native-born peers. Their ignorance of flora and fauna made their homegrown cousins look like David Attenborough. They swatted away mosquitoes that bothered nobody else. Like my grandmother would joke, “Their Gulf blood was a culinary novelty for the airborne insects.”

And once the luggage was distributed and the first wave of gossip exhausted, there would be one or two expatriates amongst a hundred that uttered those words. Words I never heard then as I glued my eyes to the marvels of Cartoon Network, but ultimately accepted and then investigated two decades later as an IELTS trainer.

“I’ll work for a few more years and then…”

The dream hasn’t been altered by the passage of time. In 2019 young men and women talked about it to IELTS trainers with the same optimism and naivety their earlier generation displayed in 1989.

“I’ll work for a few more years abroad, make enough money, and then settle back home…”

The vagueness of the words “few” and “enough” allow them to hold onto that dream well into their forties, inflating as vigorously as their standard of living does. It’s a dream that lives in hearts around the world, from Washington DC to Miami Beach, from a thundering football stadium in Ukraine to an unfinished one in Qatar. Some day, some day.

I never related to that sentiment. I was born and brought up in the Middle East, with constant airconditioning and uninterrupted electricity supplying the ammunition required to rightfully alienate me as an NRI rather than a nadan fellow. I didn’t get it when relatives quipped “Ippo Sheriyakhi Tharam!” and I often mangled Malayalam proverbs so thoroughly that they were quoted years later, generating genial bouts of laughter.

So when I settled down in Thrissur as an IELTS trainer, I was determined to reconnect with the motherland. Hop onto the same bus as I set off for work, hop-off with an extra bounce whenever I was sure a Hartal was eminent. This was my chance to shed my foreignness and become thani nadan chekkan.

And then I ended up spending nine hours a day watching boys and girls, men and women, children and parents and grandparents, all teeming for a way out of Kerala.

Why? Why do you want to leave?

There were plenty of reasons. Dismal income as a professional with years of experience. Lack of opportunities to grow. Fear of children growing up without the education and healthcare they need. Fear of stagnation.

I realized I was stuck in a terrible marketplace, one where people who owned the memories of rain, Mohanlal and kappalandi mittai were unable to sell it to me even for the high price I was willing to pay for it, while simultaneously craving to buy the sensation of blocked ears as your body and an entire airplane lifted off the ground. They wanted what I had. I wanted what they did. In the room where we sat, the word ‘petrichor’ was both treasured and trivial.

If like me you are wondering how this circle of life ends, I invite you to join me in the backseat as my retired father drives through the town he grew up in, past his ancestral home, college and teenage hangouts. Watch as he comments about the terrible roads and despicable driving habits of the society he grew up in. Wonder if he’s a foreigner or simply a native who took a 3-decade long leave of absence. Finally, ponder if there’s even a difference between the two.

So is that where my student ends up thirty years from now? What could possibly have tarnished his fond memories of cycling past paddy fields and playing football in the rain? Is it not a paradox of physics and economics that the Malayalis who left several decades ago now return to find a Kerala that is both greatly developed and yet, as they’ll declare when entrapped in chaotic traffic, “Naad Orikkalum Nannavilla (this place will never become better)”.

Is it because as fast as 4G phones and Tik Tok swept into our state and became symbols of rapid technological progress, our experiences and thoughts progressed faster? Every year people leave Kerala and inadvertently initiate the process of disenchantment with their homeland. Every summer they return and realize they’ve become a little alien to the style of living.

When my father’s generation left for the Gulf in the 1970s, they imagined a world where they’d have a better life. Better not just in terms of income, but better in terms of happiness. And happiness meant living at home, with all the sounds, smells and tastes that accompanied it, such as the sound of rain, the smell of coconut oil and the taste of homemade mango achaar (pickle).

Yet that never happened, did it? They never returned home, and when they did, they didn’t recognize the place they’d fondly remembered. And so what did they tell their children? Set out and find yourself a good job and a better life. There’s that word again. What’s better? More money, more job security, more clothes and cars?

And as the children set out for a better life, their parents return home having spent a lifetime chasing it. They return to large homes that were built with precious savings but now lie quite because of even more earnings that funded overseas education for their children. The retired expatriates of Kerala funded both their security and their loneliness.

Right now, as you reach the end of this article, I might be glimpsing out the window as my friend drives through a highway in Canada. You can be sure that I won’t be paying attention to the gorgeous scenery. Rather, I’ll be wondering what’s happening at home.

My retired parents will wake up in the morning and cook a quiet breakfast. They’ll indulge in some gardening that they’re more passionate than knowledgeable about (After all, nobody farmed in the desert). And then they’ll have a wedding to go to. My father won’t want to drive so they’ll call a driver. They have a son and five nephews, but none of them are within 4,000 kilometres of Thrissur so it doesn’t make sense to count on them.

They’ll attend the wedding and hear about how the groom came for three days from Sharjah and how the bride will be flying within a week. They’ll return home, have a quiet dinner and thoroughly check to make sure the gates and doors are double locked. Because unfortunately, the only people who don’t seem keen to go abroad are burglars.

They’ll visit their neighbors and talk at the dining table while the T.V. in the background plays a news clip about how a Malayali Association in the Gulf held an Onam celebration for 10,000 people, without explaining the nostalgia and idealization of Kerala that went into the preparation of those banana leaves and 14 special items on the menu. And their conversation will be punctured, not by the T.V. but by the entry of a gangly youngster with a shoulder bag slung over the shoulder who, the neighbour will optimistically explain, is the son/ daughter that’s going for a particular entrance exam/coaching/tuition/training so that they can go abroad/leave this town/flee this state.

They’ll maintain the house they built with their life’s savings, and thoroughly revitalize the dusty floors and cobwebbed rooms when it’s June. For their children will be coming, like migratory birds swooping down at the airport, armed with suitcases and kids, ready to introduce their past to their future. For the next two months, the entire house will be bustling with activity. And my parents, like countless other parents in every district in Kerala, will push the thought of the ensuing ten months out of their minds. No one is a better practitioner of Mindfulness than a grandmother who is seeing her grandchildren for ten days after a two-year absence.

But just as the big day is about to kick-off, their plans are hampered. I can imagine my father ending the call and shrugging as my mother asks what happened. “Dino won’t be able to come,” my father will say, referring to the regular family driver.

“Why not?”
“Because he left for a job in Kuwait last week.”

And that’s the circle of Malayali Life.

Is it strange? Surreal? Standard? Simple? Is this what life is like everywhere around the world? Are we supposed to be happy about it? Are we simply human birds yearning to take flight and disgruntled when returning home? I’m not sure what the right word to describe this circle of life is. But the past fifty years have proved that it’s relentless and seemingly never-ending.

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