“I don’t think my parents will have a problem with me marrying someone who isn’t a Malayali,” I messaged my friend.
She replied, “I can’t see you married to a Malayali either.”
I was curious. “Why not?” I asked.
“You are one of the least ‘Malayali’ Malayalis I’ve met,” she replied.
Instantly I was transported to the past. I felt the familiar sense of not belonging, of being an outsider, an imposter, and a poor imitation of the real thing. None of this was my friend’s fault, of course. I’ll tell you whose fault it is, but first a question:
“Are you Malayali enough?”
As some of you might know already, I was born and raised in the Gulf. My only contact with Kerala was during the annual summer vacations, which thankfully meant Monsoon season in God’s own country. Every year I discovered something new about this strange land.
Before long, I discovered that I wasn’t really a Malayali.
For the first few years, that wasn’t really an issue. I was just learning to speak, and everyone around me was still getting used to my awesome cuteness. (Introducing Exhibit A to the court!)
But by the time I was supposed to be speaking, the bemused chuckles and all-knowing eye-rolls began. You see, I couldn’t speak Malayalam fluently. We spoke Malayalam at home in the Middle East, of course, but for most of the day, I was speaking English in school and with friends. That meant my pronunciation was awkward and sometimes cringe or chuckle-worthy. What’s worse, my vocabulary was severely limited compared to my “native” cousins.
Of course, this didn’t come as a shock to my relatives. I wasn’t the first baby born in the Gulf. And that’s what they referred to me as – the Gulf baby. Along with incompetence in communicating in the mother tongue, other attributes included low tolerance to discomfort, pain, and a combination of both (such as getting molested by mosquitoes in the middle of a power black-out).
Those jokes and snarky comments shaped my understanding of what it meant to be a Malayali. For the longest time, I believed that a true Malayali was someone who spoke the language fluently. Fine enough, I was willing to give up my membership and remain on the waiting list for Malayali eligibility.
Then I ended up living and working in Thrissur for a year, and suddenly it looked like my membership would be confirmed. My relatives heard me talk about how I hopped on and off local buses and talked to countless Malayalis as an IELTS instructor, and remarked to my parents: “He’s become a proper Thrissurkaran, alle?”
Which is why when my dear friend said that I wasn’t a Malayali, I wanted to know the reason. Why was my membership under scrutiny?
“I speak Malayalam fluently, right?” I said, half assertive, half hopeful.
“That’s the only Malayali thing about you,” she replied.
I tried to objectively think of the criteria. What would a list look like? What are the things required to be a Malayali. Fluency in language: check.
“I love Kerala food!” I cried, trying to conjure up the love I had for Puttu and Pazam and Injempuli and the occasional Fish curry. Yes, I’d eat it all in a heartbeat. Except maybe the rice. Carbs, you know.
“Haha, are you offended by what I said?” she asked.
I wasn’t offended. Well, perhaps just a little bit. But it was dwarfed by a greater emotion. Confusion. A lifelong search for what was required to belong to this community. How could I become a Malayali?
I resumed the conversation the next day, eager to get to the bottom of it. “I’ve heard I don’t really look like a Malayali,” I suggested, “Some have said I could pass for Hyderabadi or an Arab, you know?”
“It’s not the looks,” she replied immediately. “I just don’t see you settling down in Kerala in a normal typical Malayali family wearing mundu and buying paal from the paalkaran.”
I thought about that. She was obviously right on the surface level. After all, I’d come to Canada in order to hopefully settle here. And I’ve yet to master how to wear a mundu without my female relatives being anxious around me.
“You don’t know much about Malayalam pop-culture, which is like a thing,” she added.
I hung my head in shame, thinking of how I’d messaged Govindan about a comment I saw on the PinkLungi Instagram page. “What does Vazha Aayirunnu Bhedam mean?”
That exchange reminded me of my childhood. Of how I’d ask my mother what certain Malayalam idioms meant when a relative uttered it in our presence. She’d lovingly, patiently explain it to me. But only after enjoying a laugh. Explaining to me was the obligation she had. I was being included thanks to her kindness. Like a wheelchair-bound person being lifted over the steps into a building.
“Like if you were to go to a typical pennu kaanal with a typical Malayali girl, what would you guys talk about?” My friend continued, adding to her list of all the reasons why I was the least ‘Malayali’ Malayali that she knew.
The final nail in that coffin is when she added, “I feel you think your thoughts in English, right?”
I sighed because she was absolutely right. For as long as I could remember, I’ve thought in English.
I would have walked away from this issue if my thought process ended right there. It wasn’t a mindblowing idea after all. As suspected, because I was born and raised in the Gulf, I wasn’t a proper Malayali. Suspicion confirmed.
But then I thought about it some more. I talked to Govindan, who lives and works in Mumbai. He was born and raised in Kerala, but it looks like his adult life will be spent outside it. So naturally, my doubt is: Is he any less of a Malayali?
Because he’s not always eating Malayali food, you know. Some of his diet has, I’m sure, been supplemented by Vada Pav and Paav Baaji. With each Paani Puri that he gulps down on the streets of Mumbai, does the Malayaliness leach out of him and flow down the road thanks to the torrential monsoons?
How long before he becomes out of touch with Malayalam pop culture? What if, God forbid, he contracts a deadly case of Anime fever. Can a worshipper of Naruto still be a Malayali? Perhaps yes, but what happens when the Karikku videos get bumped off his YouTube feed by Dragon Ball Z clips? Has he lost his Malayaliness?
Come to think of it, what about those immigrants from North India who came to Kerala years ago for a better life? Over the years they’ve learned Malayalam and as their economic status began to rise, bought tickets to Mohanlal’s and Fahad Fasil’s movies. Their wives and children eat Kerala dishes. Have they become Malayalis?
If they did, I don’t think our elder relatives who refer to them as “Bengalis” got the memo.
Interestingly, have you noticed how every once in a while some of us share videos of foreigners speaking Malayalam fluently? We are in awe of the Emirati lady who speaks Malayalam, or the American guy who can pronounce all the words. The local carpenter from Uttar Pradesh who mastered the language in less than 6 months isn’t given the same audience. He never goes viral. He remains invisible.
The more I thought about it, the less sense any of it made. It was like a nightmarish version of finalising the wedding invitation list. Who gets invited to celebrate Malayaliness, and who gets left out?
I ran through all the main categorisations:
- In terms of etymology: Malayali is derived from Malayalam, which comes from the terms “Mala” meaning mountain and “alam” meaning land. So technically, Malayali refers to a person from the mountains who lived beyond the Western Ghats.
- Language: Malayali is simply someone who speaks Malayalam.
- Ancestry: Malayali is someone who is born to Malayali parents. (Which leads to a whole lot of new questions, mainly, what makes the parents Malayalis, and what if only one parent is Malayali?)
- Geography: Malayali is someone who lives in Kerala.
- Culture: Malayali is someone who follows the culture of Kerala.
It was pointless. These categorizations either alienated me and awarded Malayaliness to immigrants, or granted me the badge and denied them the chance of ever acquiring it.
Finally, after about three days of considering the issue, I realised that all of us decided on the definition of a Malayali. That’s always been the case. I experienced that as a kid when my relatives cast doubt about my Malayaliness.
Our fellow citizens do the same when they watch immigrants pass them by on the street.
Your friends do it either consciously or unconsciously when you fumble a word, don’t understand a movie reference, or act in a manner that they’re uncomfortable with.
The truth is, even if you don’t care about this topic, you’ve created a list of your own. Of who should be considered a Malayali and who shouldn’t. This ever-changing list has been used to torment and taunt countless people. There are aunties who wave this imaginary list in the face of their younger, “modern, western” acquaintances, declaring that they’ve broken the rules and forfeited their membership.
It’s time for us to stop playing that game. It’s time for each of us to stop looking for ways to eliminate someone’s chance of being a Malayali. Instead of ensuring that our comrades are upholding our perceived standards, and if not, are promptly ejected from the Malayali Club, let’s try something different.
Let’s invite them. Invite them to cherish what you cherish about being a Malayali. Instead of shaming them, share with them. Instead of pointing out what they lack, promise them they’ll enjoy what they’re about to gain. Instead of manifesting Malayaliness as a bar that needs to be cleared, visualise it as an individual that continuously morphs towards something better.
So the next time you want to laugh at someone for eating Onam Sadhya with a spoon and fork, warmly encourage them to find out how good it would taste if they ate the meal with their fingers.
If your friend cribs about not having an air conditioner, rather than curse his parents’ fortunate economic status, help him adjust to sleeping with just a fan until he is reminded of and responsive to his own privilege.
Rather than look at people who are different from you and wonder why they are working in your land, welcome them in and wish them all the best.
Many years ago, I got into a scuffle with an Arab boy near my school. The security guards came and the boy spoke to them in fluent Arabic, poisoning their minds against me. I felt helpless and outraged.
As the boy went away, the senior security guard asked me my name and who my father was. And then he said, “I know you didn’t start the fight.”
I was surprised. I thought the Arab kid had convinced him.
“I know you Malayalis. You people are good. Hardworking. Decent. I know you didn’t start the fight. He did.”
Yes, what he did was basically racial profiling and generalisation. But his words also told a story. A story of how thousands of Malayalis had come into the country and led decent lives raising kids who were equally hard-working and sincere. This gray-haired security guard observed that over a lifetime and formed an opinion.
In a way, he formed his own definition of what a Malayali was.
Let’s all do that. Let’s all form a positive, inclusive, encouraging definition of what it means to be a Malayali.
Check out this Malayali’s debut novel, a crime thriller called “The Man Who Found His Shadow” that’s fast-paced enough to keep you flipping the pages! Now available as e-book and paperback on Amazon!