Confessions of A Chameleon Malayali

“How is your English so good?”

For a moment, I felt a warm glow inside. I was about to reply right away, and tell the middle-aged Canadian man that it was because I read a lot of books and watch a lot of English movies and TV shows and I did public sp –

And then the smile faded and I realized I was lying to myself and him. I wanted to confess the truth.

So here goes. These are the confessions of a Chameleon Malayali.

*

I was born and brought up in the Middle East in the early 90s. Every year, my family and I would fly back to Kerala, and spend two months meeting relatives who began conversations with “Ariyo?” (Do you know who I am?). It took me several years as a kid to either master the family tree or be convincing enough to make them believe I did.

I had a cousin who had the same first name, and pretty quickly relatives found an easy way to distinguish us. I was Qatar Marwan, he was Nadan Marwan (Editor’s Note: Marwan is a pen name).

Nadan Marwan went to the town by the local bus. I could barely read the Malayalam signboards on those buses and only ventured out with my parents in auto rickshaws.

Nadan Marwan knew about the cattle and the plants, the trees and the river. He knew how to catch fish and tame belligerent goats. I had to be summoned from the glow of Cartoon Network by my mother so that I could get a quick glimpse of an Elephant, and if time permitted, ask a ridiculous question that would provide humorous conversational fodder for the rest of the vacation.

Nadan Marwan was nimble, mature and street smart. I spent the first three weeks complaining about mosquito bites.

Nadan Marwan spoke fluent Malayalam. I elicited laughter and bemusement as I tripped over words of my “mother tongue” and raised eyebrows when I switched to English out of frustration.

Oh, valiyya sayipp! (Oh, big time Englishman!)

This is more or less the origin story of Chameleon Malayalis. Logically speaking, I’m sure there are at least a million of us who were born and raised outside Kerala over the past several decades. But sadly I don’t have an official number. There is no Chameleon Malayali Facebook group. Yet.

Everyone has their own story of growth and personal development, but I’ll take a stab at establishing certain commonalities amongst CMs (Chameleon Malayalis). 

We grew up watching English TV shows. We didn’t have access to Doordarshan or the marvellous Mahabharata program, nor the endless comedy clip shows on Asianet, Surya and Kairali that established a lifelong love of quotes such as “Polandine Patti Parayaruthu”, “Ippo Sheriyakki Tharam,” and “Sadhanam Kayyilundo?”

Instead, our babysitters were Star World, MBC, Channel 2 and Dubai One (at least in the Middle East?). So whether we liked it or not, wanted to or not, wished to or not, we ended up watching Friends, Oprah, Speed, Saving Private Ryan, The Matrix and countless other shows and movies.

Our friends were from all over India, so our English grew robust over the course of countless bus rides and 15-minute games during school recess. Every year the Second-Language Malayalam teacher would chide us about our grasp of the language. And the syllabus seemed to be designed to mock and torture us. We were taught about the poems of Vallathol and the stories of Basheer that talked about people and places we’d never seen properly.

Chameleons are bred through a vicious cycle of 1) Ignorance, 2) Alienation, 3) Transference and 4) Reinforcement. 

  1. We didn’t know how to talk fluently with our cousins and friends back in Kerala. 
  2. Which meant while they played football after school with their school shirts untucked and navy blue pants rolled up, we sat at home spending our vacation surfing Star Movies, AXN and HBO, all the while waiting for the start of the next school term when we’d meet our friends again.
  3. As we passed through high school, our friends were multilingual but our interests became specific. Every Chameleon Malayali bonded with their Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Gujarati, and Punjabi counterpart over movies, music, Karak tea by the corniche and caramel popcorn stained fingers after late-night movies at sprawling Malls on the weekend.
  4. And by the time many Chameleons flocked back to Kerala to attempt competitive exams to gain admission to elite colleges in the country, we no longer hung out with people from our state. We had our own version of “Nattilevideya?” (Where are you from back home?) Except the answers were Saudi, Bahrain, Oman and UAE, not Kannur, Thrissur, Ernakulam and Kozhikode.

Many of you already know all of this. Many of you are a Chameleon or know one.

But how do I explain this to the middle-aged Canadian man sitting at the dog park? How can I tell him why I have so much in common with him? How can I tell him that though I’m technically from India, I’m not really. Does visiting a country for 45 days every year make you “from” there?

I wish there was a new classification for all of this. When people ask me where I’m from, I’m tempted to say Qatar. The problem is my passport, my face and above all my accent indicate otherwise. The only people who know I’m an NRI are my friends and the Thrissur branch manager at State Bank of India. To everyone else, I’m a Malayali.

That’s why I and a million others like me are Chameleons. Yesterday I was immersed in a debate about Frasier and Lee Child with my Canadian classmate as we headed towards the recreation centre. Then he went on his way and I got into an elevator and stood next to three Malayalis energetically talking about Kumbalangi Nights. When the elevator creaked and almost stopped working, I chimed in on impulse, “Endu Prahasan Anu Saji!”

The three of them laughed appreciatively, and for a brief moment, I felt what Chameleons seldom feel. A sense of belonging.

Did I want to hang out with them once we got out of the elevator? No, I didn’t. In my previous article, I talked about my view of Crab Malayalis. I tried to explain what I thought were the drawbacks of spending time with people of your own language and culture. I believe they are all valid points. But there’s something I left out. Perhaps the strongest reason why a Chameleon does not want to hang out with Crabs.

Because sooner or later, our true colours will be exposed.

Do Chameleons who speak fluent English with foreigners when they discuss how they’re excited for the film adaptation of Akira think they are better than Crabs? I hope not. I know I am not “better” than my comrades just because I was blessed with language skills or knowledge of western pop culture.

Do Chameleons feel embarrassed by the actions of their comrades in foreign countries? Sometimes, yes. But how much of that is justified? Have you seen that viral video of the Indian family that stole things from a resort in Bali? Did you cringe as an Indian? And shake your head thinking how that moronic man embarrassed our country’s image with his shouting and half-hearted apology? Is that a valid response? Or are you being elitist or condescending or judgemental?

So when I say a Chameleon’s true colours will be exposed, I don’t mean everyone will find out we think we are better or that we judge them. Rather, I fear they’ll find out we don’t truly belong.

If I talked to those three Malayalis, they’d soon realize what my cousin brother and relatives figured out decades ago. When I don’t laugh at their movie references or understand which famous personality they’re talking about when I don’t match their enthusiasm for naadan food or nostalgia for rain-soaked football matches and hair raising bike rides along narrow roads past paddy fields, they’ll know. That I don’t have much in common with them, apart from a common language painstakingly taught by anxious parents and a dictatorial CBSE syllabus.

And that’s why I was in the dog park, talking to the middle-aged Canadian and making him laugh with my observations about his country. His wife and son joined in the conversation, and soon we were friends. They were nice enough to offer to drop me back to my apartment, which was on the way for them.

After waving them goodbye, I checked my phone. It was 7 PM, and the Canadian evening was finally about to begin. I checked my phone and realized all my friends in the Middle East and my family in India were asleep. I checked my phone and confirmed there was no book reading at a library, art show at a gallery or even a free concert at a park that night.

My Crab Malayalis were either taking a bus ride to Toronto or shopping for groceries at Walmart. My Canadian friends were with their families discussing local politics.

If you saw me at that moment, as I walked to the local mosque, you’d understand what it’s like to see a Chameleon deprived of camouflage. We venture out to new places and write fancy articles about the importance of experiencing new cultures, and then end up wishing we were authentic Malayalis. We crave Puttu and Pazham today, but browsed about Ratatouille on our phones and shook our heads when our mothers asked us if we wanted a second serving yesterday. We criticize Malayalam movies using our pretentious knowledge of English ones but wish we could join in the group’s laughter when someone quips “Kambilli Podappu!” during a bad WhatsApp video call. We are neither Malayali enough, nor are we foreign enough. We are stuck in limbo. We are not better than anyone. We are just lost and confused, hopeful and homesick.

The Pakistani Canadian at the Mosque remembered my name and where I was “from”, and introduced me to a fellow “brother from Kerala”.

“Assalamu Alaikum,” I said, and then my eyes light up and tongue uncoiled as I asked, “Nattilevideya?”

“Kannur, Ningalo?”

“Thrissur!” I said. And at that moment, I wanted him to believe I was. Hell, I almost believed I was.

I’d changed my colours once again.

And that’s how it goes.

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