An outsider down south - 1
Namaskaram, Vanakkam…..this is how people greet you here. Butterfly coloured lungies folded way above the knees to make u read the boxer brand…..that’s how men dress here. Water proof floaters and not shoes are in vogue round the year and add coconut oil for aroma & flavour….Welcome to South India.
One fine evening, dad broke the news that he has been promoted and in the bargain has been transferred to Ernakulam. For someone who has travelled and worked throughout the length & breadth of India, Ernakulam was just another square on the chess board. But for me, born and brought up in Kolkata, it was a mixed feeling, for I was going to miss my childhood buddies. When I informed my friends about it, they enquired…Erna…WHAT?? For Ernakulam is not as famous as her twin - Cochin.
When we landed in Ernakulam early in the morning, my dad’s colleagues greeted us by saying “welcome to ‘Yearrrrnagulum’ Saaar”. I wondered if I had boarded the correct flight at the Kolkata airport for the name sounded unfamiliar... Once at home, our neighbour cordially invited us to have breakfast with them. I was fond of appams, dosas and idlies right from my childhood. Little did I know that I was in for my first southie experience.
We were served steam cake - baked hot with ‘kadala’ (dark chhole) curry – A Kerala delicacy. Steam cake – it sounded a vapour like thing ….how could u make a cake out of steam? They called it ‘putttttt ’. It’s called steam cake coz it’s made by baking smashed rice in steam. After the first gulp, I glanced at my mom asking her the silent question: “mom…don’t you think that they had forgotten to add any masala to the dish?” Coz my taste buds didn’t pick anything on their radar. She nodded in silent approval. If this was not delicious enough, the kadala curry was cooked in coconut oil….COCONUT OIL..!! My understanding was that coconut oil was to be used as hair oil. My dad on his part was eating nonchalantly, as if having golden fried prawns for breakfast. I had my first taste of SOUTH.
The next day I was enrolled in KV Ernakulam. It was the month of December but the mercury hovered around high 30s. How I missed wearing my oversized navy blue uniform sweater. At school, I made a lot of friends. But somehow, could not make a name for me for I was addressed as amirkhans to anibhuns and annieebuns to annieban(sounded like Ban on Ani) as well. Never thought that a 7 letter A-N-I-R-B-A-N could be such a tongue twister for any Indian. Thanks to Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, that my surname was famous and pronounceable. Thus being the only northie in class, I made my name with my surname-C-H-A-T-T-E-R-J-E-E. I still wonder, had it not been for Bankim babu, I would have gone to oblivion without a name.
The life at school was good….and at times outright hilarious…only for me though. Hindi was often taught and explained in English. For once I wondered, if it was vice-versa in the North. The letter ‘H’ became ‘Hechhh’ (As u sneeze) and ‘Z’ came to be known as ‘eezeddd’ (With a thud). The combination - ’ZHA’/’ZHI’ were to be pronounced as a god forbidden form of R – rrheeaeeaaa….Sorry. That was a futile attempt to make the reader understand that ‘ZHA’ can be pronounced only by a malayali and none else. Don’t even think about it…u may end up at the ENT/ Dentist/ Oral surgeon’s clinic with a forever twisted tongue, next time u try pronouncing ‘ZHA’, unless of course you are a malayali.
For someone who had taken for granted that the SUPW & Music periods were equivalent to games periods, I was dismayed to find that in my new school my classmates maintained regular class work notebooks for these subjects. My music teacher at school was incensed on learning that there was no such ‘notebook culture’ in my previous KV for subjects of such importance. To test my ‘skill’ she made me to sing aloud a community song in class. Though I found it juvenile, thanks to my bathroom singing talent, I assumed that somehow she was impressed. Nevertheless she still wanted me to write down all the songs that a ‘good KV student’ was supposed to learn throughout 12 years in school in a notebook. I never attended the music period ever after….and somehow I’m glad about it.
Slowly I started to learn Malayalam thanks to my school. Though a KV, Malayalam was the most preferred language there. I started watching Malayalam movies. I must admit, they were any day better than most of the contemporary bollywood releases. The heroes though, courtesy their ‘shape’ & mushes (meesha)….could give the best bollywood Mogambos a run for their money. But none can cast any doubt about their acting skills. The actresses were also ‘take home-able’.
I was settling in a nice life with parents and was starting to love it – be it the coconut oil fried food or the way people called my first name or be it the Hindi lessons being taught in English. I even got used to the climate. And there I was having spent 5 years of my life in ‘enthe swantham Ernakulam’ (my very own Ernakulam), readying myself to leave home for the first time in life.
END OF PART-1.[P.S. Dear all, who might find this piece of writing offensive and to those who may not exactly like what I have written, I have spent more than 9 years in Kerala, and those were the best days of my life so far. These are experiences that anyone from north India would have had in the beginning. And same applies to a southie on his first north India trip. It’s all about adaptability. Thank God, I adapted well and made such good friends. Given a choice and a chance, I would definitely choose to go back to Ernakulam