How Kerala will learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Charayam

Babykuttan (age 34) was in a word, ambitious. From a relatively young age, he exhibited a single-minded focus and result oriented thinking. This exceptional commitment to the end goal combined with a steely determination helped him quickly rise up the ranks of his chosen profession. He aspired to be the best at what he did, and developed the necessary skills and experience slowly over several years and atop countless coconut trees. Hard work pays off. In a short span of 5 years, he was the best toddysmith ( thengukayattakkaran ) in Central Kerala and had the abs and hairy legs to show it. Coconut plantation owners from far and wide, driven to desperation due to lack of workers thanks to NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, India’s hairy brained laziness subsidy wherein laborers are promised a fixed daily wage irrespective of whether they work or not), flocked individually and in droves to Malappuram, his hometown, to beg and cajole him to come do the needful on their trees.  Some had, in the not too distant past, even offered to marry their firstborn daughters to him. All in all, he was at the peak, both literally and figuratively, of his profession. But amongst all this merriment, one thing continued to elude him – a chance at true entrepreneurship, an opportunity to give free reins to the hidden potential within him.

And then came the announcement. Kerala Government banned alcohol sales from over 300 bars in Kerala. Apocalypse could not have happened in a more terrible fashion. Well-bred alcoholics across the length and breadth of Kerala were shocked.  To put it even more mildly, they were devastated. The daily fix of rum or brandy, which the Kerala Beverages Corporation had hitherto promised them, stood cancelled at a moment’s notice.

Opportunity presents itself to true believers eventually. To Babykuttan it presented itself when he was at the pinnacle of his daily rounds. He wasted no time in heeding the call. He plucked his Micromax from within the folds of his lungi and made the call. Reception was excellent from atop the tallest coconut tree in the grove, the head of which he was gracing at that moment with his existence, hairy legs gripping the woody trunk.

” Mariakutty”, he croaked, his voice failing him with emotion. ” Take out the pots, pans and tubes. We are going into the Charayam business “

Picture taken from
Does not give a fair representation of Babykuttan and Mariakutty- who are entirely the figments of my slightly tipsy imagination 

Of Mallu physiology, socio cultural history and the devious Mundu– or how I look thin by eating more

I dread going back home these days. While it’s always a pleasure to see the relatives and answer my dad’s questions on what I had done lately to prove I’d matured enough as a person for him to hand over the bike keys to me, there are other things that get me down. Specifically the comments some of the well-meaning relatives are apt to make re my girth. Most of these folks saw me last as a 15 year old kid, and appear to have pegged me at that age forever. So it is an understandable shock to them to see that I’ve long since broken out of that mold by eating bigger portions of beef fry and kappa. What’s not understandable, however,  is their regrettable need to inform me of the same in front of everyone.  “ Ahha, Deepumon onnu nannayittundu” . Don’t snicker hypocritically. Most mallu guys go through this phase in their lives.
Mallu girth through the Ages

Before Nehru
Over the years, I have realized that the problem is actually not that old. Kerala’s dysfunctional relationship with weight gains and losses began rather recently (in terms of the lifespan of an average Bonda in a Mallu tea stall). Specifically, from the late 1940s. Before independence, we as a nation state were very clear about our size choices. The rich who could afford to eat ate rather well and consequently looked like this
Whereas those whose responsibility it was to cook for them ate poorly and thus looked like this
After Nehru
But after independence, life became more complicated. For starters, Nehruvian socialist democracy trickled down to our small state too, bringing with it it’s core philosophy of Equal Suffering – Instead of the rich eating more and the poor eating less, everyone would now starve equally irrespective of caste, wealth or color. The homegrown Naxalite movement chipped in by cutting down everyone who disagreed.  This was also the time when Hollywood movies began to make inroads into Kerala, with young, handsome and more importantly, thin Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe capturing the attention of the youth. Influenced by these factors, the gastro cultural landscape of a young and vibrant Kerala shifted considerably, resulting in mallus who looked like these
Before Prithviraj  (the actor, not the Rajput)
“But wait. Does what’s written above me mean that Kerala changed overnight into a hotbed of young, lithe, sexy looking things?”
Errm, no. You see, with a staple diet of rice and coconut oil, we were always only one sadya away from plus size garments.  And it is here that a seemingly innocent and indeed, borderline irrelevant actor who had masked this horror thus far came to light – the quintessential Malayali garment “mundu”. Mallu guys have always worn this simple, one size fits all cloth in lieu of pants. Easy to wear and discard, this macho version of a sarong has been a constant in mallu guys’ life, lurking in the background.  While on the whole it looks pretty innocuous, its devilry lies in the fact that it is completely forgiving of increasing girth. Whereas an ordinary size 34 pant would creak and groan under the strain of a size 36 waist, eventually resisting all attempts to pull it up beyond the thighs, a mundu simply wraps itself around the abomination, shrouding all evidence of an overindulgent lifestyle beneath its forgiving folds.
Allowing Suresh Gopi to retain his Oomph and Vigour
But as the saying goes, the only constant in life is change. There were rebels in those times too. But they had a tough time holding onto their belief that exercise should be part of a healthy lifestyle
With the exception of Jayan, who exercised enough for both himself and his horse
After Prithviraj (again, the Actor )
But come the new millennium, things began to change. Taking inspiration from Hollywood as before, the average Mallu youth began to wear jeans and pants as a matter of course, and the mundu for the first time in its devious life found itself absent anything to wrap around. In a desperate attempt to fit into the new-fangled skinny jeans, kids across Kerala began eschewing rice in favor of whole grain cereal and air. Some went even further by actually daring to step into dark gyms. Results started to be seen.
The new lifestyle allowed Prithviraj to lose his baby fat, build a six pack and make a fool of himself in the Hindi movie Aiyyaa
It is no small wonder then that the aspirational mental template of an average mallu youth has been moulded into something of a cross between Paul Newman and Steve Buscemi.  And unfortunately, I do not fit that mould. Not anymore. I love my porotta-beef fry and am proud of it.  But constant criticism is wearisome, and there is really only one way to deal with it.
I have started wearing a mundu.