Shopping for bras in Kerala

Reams have been written about the urgent and inescapable need for reinforcing gender equality in society, especially in Kerala. Feminists, male apologists, male chauvinists and female school teachers have all expounded without mercy on the subject. While the domesticated kid generally tries to stay away from intellectually stimulating discussions of all nature (primarily due to lack of pertinent knowledge), this is one where I felt the need to make an exception. Not so much because I felt particularly full of expert knowledge on the subject matter but because I felt the need to air a grievance on the topic.

It has to do with shopping. To be specific, shopping with members of the opposite sex. To be even more specific, shopping with members of the opposite sex for unmentionables. Very embarrassing situation for guys to begin with, this exercise is made even more unbearable by the fact that a sort of gender bias applies uniformly in these situations, to the disadvantage of the male species.

Have you ever accompanied a girl on a shopping trip for bras? No? Haha, score one over you. 
But seriously, it’s not that great an experience. For while it’s perfectly all right for a girl to stride over purposefully to the male changing area with the express intention of scrutinizing a guy’s clothes, woe betide the hapless idiot who wanders over to the female changing section even by mistake. He is immediately struck dead in his tracks by a cacophony of indignant hisses and condescending stares from a variety of aunties, stalwarts of an era where interaction between the sexes was strictly regulated and monitored, with lapses in judgment punishable severely.

The segregation starts early on in childhood, with boys and girls seated separately in classrooms and in school buses. While such forced measures never quite stemmed basic human curiosity (games of “I show you mine you show me yours” still happened occasionally) it certainly put a veneer of cultural dis-respectability on the otherwise beautiful woodwork of healthy interaction between sexes.

Leading to inappropriate expressions of repressed sexuality, as humorously caricatured in the clip below from the classic Malayalam movie In Harihar Nagar. The guys are desperately trying to stalk a lady. 


Of course, the veneer has worn thin over the years, especially with society opening up more and more, but one venue where it still clings on strongly is the changing room of apparel stores. This was brought home rather painfully the last time I visited a Marks and Spencer store in the company of my better half in Kerala. While she flitted innocently in and out of the changing area to cast disapproving glances over my choice of pants, I was all but physically accosted out of the female changing rooms when I went to return the favor. The moment I crossed over some invisible moral line separating the male hoi polloi from the rarified atmosphere of the changing section, the cacophony of indignant h. and condescending s. erupted, creating a palpable sonic barrier.

Matters were not made any easier by the presence of these three barely clad mannequins right in front of the changing area. In an attempt to impart a finishing touch to the realistic nature of these plastic goddesses, the manufacturers had also installed nipples on all of their breasts. Not just that- for reasons best known to them, they had ensured that the afore mentioned appendages protruded rather obviously from beneath the sample undergarments the shop had provided them with. 



None of which would have been an issue, had I not been standing immediately to the left of these inanimate beauties as the cacophony erupted. I had fully intended to go see my wife, but, societal disapproval personified by an especially fierce looking aunty roughly half my size was barring my way. She had the loudest h. and s., and seemed to have taken it upon herself to protect delicate sensibilities from being offended that day by yours truly’s bid to see his wife.  It was a potent moment of truth. I felt the pull of a sense of righteous equality dragging me to the changing rooms, while the equally strong push of indignant morality stayed my feet. My wife, blissfully unaware of this epic battle of wills being waged not more than 10 feet away from her, continued shopping. Beads of perspiration rolled down my eyebrows, while the 4 feet bundle of indignant womanliness stood less than a meter from me, daring me mutely to take a step forward or peek a glance into the doorway through which my wife had just disappeared.

I sensed things had come to an impasse. The lady would not let me forward, and my own sense of soon to be injured manliness would not let me back down. In a bid to break this deadlock, I took a contemplative step sideways and promptly crashed into the mannequins, going down in a tangle of arms, legs and protruding nipples, to the accompaniment of a tremendous scream. The aunty, presented with the unique opportunity of helping a fellow human being escape some embarassment, had decided upon a secondary course of action and had let out a magnificent scream ,perhaps in vocal support to the recently violated mute nipples.

Long story short, I am not allowed to shop at Marks and Spencer until July 2017. My wife has promised to stop needling me about it by August of the same year. 

Sex education in Kerala or: Reasons why Josukuttan had to marry Anumol in a hurry

Josukuttan and Anumol announced the birth of their first child, Jomol, recently on the last page of Malayala Manorama. The proud parents had married 7 months ago. Grandparents were not available for comment.

Parents in Kerala shy away from teaching their kids the ins and outs of sex (pun intended) until the day they are married, and then expect them to take rational and smart decisions about family planning from the first night onwards- typical of the Indian mentality of ignoring an issue until it becomes a problem and then ignoring it further in the hopes that it will go away or better yet, metamorphose into a healthy grandchild.
The issue starts from early childhood. Kids are segregated inside classrooms, with boys sitting on one side of the class and girls on the other. Intermingling is not encouraged, and teachers keep a strict eye out for ‘troublemakers’ who spend more than usual time in the company of the opposite sex. Parents are routinely informed of such shenanigans through back channels, and ‘appropriate actions’ are taken. It’s no wonder then that kids who actually manage to swing a date in school despite such draconian rules become instant celebrities. Josukuttan, who managed to pass a note to Anumol in class and thereby successfully secured a date to eat icecream at the same time in the crowded school canteen sitting on adjacent chairs was forevermore remembered by friends as that ‘vallatha pahayan’

“Vallatha Pahayan”
Teenage and puberty are often confusing and desperate periods for both the kids and the parents. While the kids try to come to terms with changing physiology, parents spend sleepless nights devising ever more inventive ways to curb youthful enthusiasm. CCTVs installed in homes and GPS trackers fitted to mobile phones are the 21st century replacements of the grandma who used to stay at home and the ‘nattukar’ who used to keep an eye on the kids for free in the hope of getting gossip fodder. The downside to over regulation of course, is that the kids in turn come up with ever more inventive ways to circumvent the obstacles – and often succeed. Josukuttan bought Anumol her first burner phone pre programmed with his number, to be kept switched off and hidden inside her school bag at all times except from 11:00 PM to 12:00 AM, when he would call from his own burner. Calls were to be made and accepted only from within the confines of the bathroom.
Then comes college, which is quite a different ball game altogether. Girls and boys are thrown into close contact (figuratively and sometimes, literally) for far more extended periods of time than ever before in their lives, with little or no parental / teacher supervision. Of course, this is just a generalization, there are many colleges in India that impose a variety of curfew measures – ranging from holistic dress code to depositing mobile phones at the security desk before entering (the only time I’ve ever had to do that was when I did an internship at the Indian Space Research Organization, but national security justified the measure then. I wonder whether whatsapp texts between college kids merit the same security restrictions). Even under such draconian regulations, contact thrives. Josukuttan managed to arrange several internships for himself and Anumol at far flung industrial locations, each one further than the previous.

After college, the fun starts in earnest. Kids who till then mostly lived under a benign version of house arrest are suddenly left to fend for themselves in an unknown land where everyone speaks Kannada and drinks sweetened sambhar. They are paid decently enough to work 40 hours a week, with weekends being 48 hours of paid vacation with no supervision. Guys and girls can (surprise, surprise) “stay over” at each other’s apartments. This happy state of affairs is often helped along by the fact that no house owner worth her salt would rent her apartment out to bachelors based on the excellent logic that one can never be sure what these young guys would get upto without the supervision of a strict mom or a loving wife. At any given point of time, she is sure, young Josukuttan would be watching porn on loud volume ,smoking up and setting fire to the kitchen simultaneously , while the illegal second tenant in the apartment plots bombing the nearby water tower.  So naturally, she refuses to rent her apartment out to Josukuttan, thus playing her small role in securing the nation’s safety. Devoid of a home, Josukuttan has all the more incentive to accept Anumol’s invitation to stay over until he finds a place for himself.

All these phases in a typical mallu kid’s life passes by under the strictest possible supervision of the parents, who although very concerned for their kids’ future, never take the time out to  describe the basic precautions and safety measures to be taken. A typical mallu dad can never broach the topic to his son without stumbling early on (I should know, I shared an entire 15 minute awkward silence with my dad on this topic, which formed the extent of my sex education) and a typical mallu mom’s advice to her daughter on family planning can be summed up in 6 words “Don’t start nothing, won’t be nothing”.
“Really?!”
However, these same parents then expect their kids to magically acquire all the pertinent knowledge immediately after their marriage, which in Kerala (as in most of India) is seen not only as a union of souls, but also an elaborate social contract between the couple and the rest of the society, allowing them to have sex in the privacy of their bedroom without being judged and condemned by neighbours. However, even this ceremony does not equip the bride and groom with any knowledge of safe practices, the unwritten rule being that if the kids have been brought up in “good households” by “responsible parents” they would somehow figure things out on their own. It’s no wonder then that curiosity often gets the better of kids when they are left alone. Hit or Miss is not exactly a reassuring method of family planning, before or after marriage. And yet that is exactly how couples learn in Kerala.
Josukuttan and Anumol were no exception. Although Anumol steadfastly refused to share Josukuttan’s bathroom towel in the fear that it might make her pregnant, Josukuttan did not miss.  Within 3 months of living together, Anumol found it necessary to call up her mom for expert guidance.  Immediately afterwards, Anumol’s grandma Sosamma had a heart attack, and her dad flew to Bangalore to meet Josukuttan. After a few hours of terse conversation, Josukuttan was left in no doubt as to the honourable course of action to take.  The engagement announcement preceded the wedding date by merely a day, and only immediate family was invited. All told, the entire coverup was quite professionally done. 

 Last I heard, Grandma Sosamma is recovering well.

Grandma Sosamma and moral policing

Kerala (my home state) has had a love hate relationship with romance since time immemorial. Policeman turned legendary actor Sathyan regularly praised female form and beauty in hit movie songs. Keralites carried him in their hearts forevermore. Unfortunately his successors in that illustrious service have not been as dignified as Sathyan – case in point being some stalwarts of Kerala police who blackmailed young couples travelling together by threatening to ‘expose’ them to their parents and media.
sathyan-and-ragini-in-nair-pidicha-pulivaal
Erstwhile police officer Sathyan romancing his lady. Totally romantic
images
Current police officers threatening a couple. Totally unromantic.
For those of my limited followers who still evince an interest in the Domesticated Kid and have not been blessed enough to have been born in India, here’s a very brief primer to the interesting concept of ‘moral policing’ as practiced here. Imagine you are out with your girlfriend for a romantic stroll along the Juhu beach. It’s 6 in the evening and the sun is setting slowly across the sea, gently bathing the world with its cool orange rays, the dying flickers of yet another glorious day. Aforementioned rays reach out and touch your beloved’s cheeks, embellishing their natural blush and making her appear even more beautiful. She tilts her head, looks you squarely in the eye and lets loose another one of her bewitching smiles, the kind that makes your heart suspend regular operations and go into a sort of frenzied drumbeat, a primitive signal to your brain that something needs to be done immediately to take advantage of the situation. Overcome by emotion, you lean in to kiss her cheeks, happy in the knowledge that she will reciprocate. Suddenly three determined looking individuals of dubious lineage pop up out of the background scenery and demand situational details – including your name, age, & marriage certificate. Failing to deliver these, you and your girlfriend shall be subjected to a visual search, interspersed with choice words and gestures. The purpose of said visual examination is to ascertain your marital status without the aid of documented proof. If your girlfriend is not wearing a saree or salwar suit with bindi and a dash of kumkum on her forehead, the circumstantial evidence is deemed conclusive and you are declared in violation of a perceived moral standard which is flexible and unwritten. These three knights of cultural propriety could very well be (and usually are) a high school dropout who is now an aspiring thief, a college dropout who is now an aspiring politician and a primary school dropout who is now an aspiring friend to the aspiring politician. Their lack of credentials does not matter. For a glorious 15 minutes, the shared inability to understand the difference between ‘morality’ and ‘police state’ unite them in a brilliance of obnoxiousness.
Even though it’s prevalent across India, moral policing in Kerala has a uniquely Malayali twist to it. It is perhaps the only bipartisan issue agreed upon by all the major political parties in Kerala. Additionally, while moral policing is usually practiced by fanatic right wing extremist males in the rest of India, it is a gender neutral, age irrelevant and politically agnostic cultural phenomenon in Kerala – practiced equally fervently by the right wing fanatic Sankarankutty (age 23) from Venjaramoodu  and the die-hard Congress member Sosamma (age 69 ) from the Kottayam Catholic community. Separated by a chasm of age, political beliefs and myriad geriatric diseases, they nevertheless come together on the one inviolable rule – no man and woman of marriageable age (18 as per Sankarankutty and 14 as per the venerable grandma) can be seen together for an extended period of time without the social fabric of the state being torn asunder and its naked vulnerability exposed.
A few more words to drive home this unique distinction of Kerala – for it is an important one. Grandma Sosamma was never appointed the guardian of Kerala’s cultural integrity. It’s a duty she has gladly taken on herself. Her motivation is purely selfless, and her reward nothing more tangible than emotional satisfaction. You can see her at weddings, commenting unfavorably on the backless blouse of the bride’s best friend. You can see her at funerals, tut-tuting sadly about the deceased’s son who was seen the previous week with a ‘strange’ girl at the local bus stop. You can hear her shrill voice amid the din of train compartments, complaining loudly about boys and girls travelling together without parental supervision. I too, have seen her – my wife and I ran into her quite recently at a restaurant. She subjected us to a visual search and found us wanting. My wife was not wearing kumkum and I had on a batman T shirt. Without missing a beat in her stride, she turned to my wife, a woman whom she had never before met in her life, and asked “Ivan ninne kettumodi koche” ?  (Literal translation – “Are you sure he’ll marry you eventually?”  Actual translation –  “ I know you think you are having a good time roaming around with him, but wait until something happens (wink, wink) and then he’ll leave you and go to the Gulf , get rich and get married, while you suffer through life as a single mom, the constant butt of societal ridicule. Are you sure you want such a life?)

 

Sathyan, the legendary “man’s man” of Kerala cinema might have given grandma Sosamma an earful, but I responded by breaking into helpless laughter, much to my wife’s chagrin.

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 http://article.wn.com/view/2013/11/06/The_spirit_of_song_and_spice/
Does not give a fair representation of Babykuttan and Mariakutty- who are entirely the figments of my slightly tipsy imagination 
 



Relative Discomfort

One of the perils of being a Malayali living and working abroad is that sooner or later, someone boards the nearest ‘Uru’ bound for California and swims ashore to wherever you happen to be staying. It’s inevitable. As far back in history as I can remember we Malayalis have been boarding ships, planes, autos and hiding in cargo holds to go to “foreign” lands.  The network is so widely established now that the average time elapsed before you reach Siberia and your aunt’s father in law’s neighbour’s son calls you up is roughly 24 hours. 
The tragedy is that the two relevant parties in this conversation – you and your aunt’s father in law’s neighbour’s son (henceforth to be referred to as Appunni) won’t have the slightest interest in talking to each other.  But goaded on by parental pressure, Appunni might call you up. In the absence of any mutual points of interest, the conversation might go something like this:
You: “Hello? “
Appunni: “Hello?”
You:” Hello?”
Appunni: “Errm…. Sandeep? I’m Appunni. Vineeta aunty gave me your number”
You: “Who?”
Appunni:” Vineeta aunty? From Kollam?”
You: “Ohh. Yes… Errm, nice. Are you here in Siberia? “
Appunni: “Yes, they asked me to call you “
You: “They would. So, how are you?”
Appunni:” I’m fine. How are you?”
You: “I’m fine too. Errm… so, you are from Kollam?”
………………………..
And so on it goes. Most of these conversations start from a vague feeling of discomfort and end in a distinct feeling of dislike. And it’s not Appunni’s fault. The poor guy most probably did not have any choice in the matter either.  Based on my personal experience of having fielded such calls in multiple cities across Asia, I’ve developed some tactics which may be of use to the average hapless Malayali.
1. Don’t pick up calls from unknown numbers. This has the added advantage of making sure that your boss cannot reach you on those days when you are out “sick”
2. If by a remote chance you pick up the call and it turns out to be Appunni, tell him it is that day of the year when your college alumni call you up to review the next year’s admission list. It doesn’t matter which college you are from so long as it’s not IIM Ahmedabad. Even Appunni might know that they don’t screen candidates for admission at IIM A.
3. If you don’t follow the above two steps and are forced to talk further, don’t fret. There’s still hope. Tell him you are talking from the All Siberia Malayali samajam annual convention and you are collecting for this year’s awards dinner.
4. If all else fails, there’s the tried and tested way to handle all Malayalis. Just use this script word for word
“ Ahh Appunni, sukhamalle ? Vineeta ammayi told me you would be calling. I’m a bit short on cash right now. She said she’d send some with you…”

There’s a reason why Dasan and Vijayan tried to reach Dubai without paying the full fare. 

Arranged Marriages in Kerala – Survival Tips

A junior from college called me up the other day.  During the hectic heydays of college, he and I had collaborated on a few competitions. In the same lackluster tone of voice in which he used to describe the latest mail from Dare2Compete.com, he announced that his parents were “looking”. “For what?” I asked. “They said they want a Nair girl. Menon girls apparently are quite headstrong” he continued, barely listening to me. “But I drew the line at Kerala Matrimony. I said I would post my own profile” . By then I had cottoned on to what was happening. “How long did they give you?” I asked, with a touch of college seniorly concern. After all, this poor chap had sponsored my Biriyani and chai after we won competitions.  “Within the year, they said”. “Hmm.” “Got any advice?” he asked, hopefully. I knew then why he had called me up. He had seen my earlier posts on navigating the big bad world of Mallu weddings.  Although I had covered attending others’ weddings (see The Quick and Dirty 5 Step Guide to attending Mallu weddings)  how to behave post your own wedding ( see The Quick and Dirty 5 Step guide to attending Mallu weddings for Married Couples ) and even a how to guide for females (see The Female Guide to attending Mallu weddings) I had never written anything on how to survive the process of arranged marriage. “I’ll let you know”, I said. And so I am.
Disclaimer – all the below rules assume you go through the traditional Mallu wedding festival . If you believe in love marriage and already have a boyfriend/girlfriend, stop reading further. Or maybe, read on. It might provide some laughs. And shame on you for belittling our culture. “Ithinaano ninne padikkan hostelil vittathu?” (“Did we send you off to hostel for this?”)
Rule No 1 – Create thine own profile
 
 
Short of finding your own life partner, this is the best favor you can do for yourself.  Parents, well-meaning though they might be, never quite get it right with profile creation on matrimony sites.  No one can blame them too. Which middle class father sits down at the brand new ASUS desktop with BSNL Internet connection (all bought for this purpose) and starts putting together a wedding profile meant to get a decently well behaved and reasonably intelligent guy with all male parts in working order for his Beenamol ?  More often than not, in a bid to conform to the unwritten rules of expectation management, he ends up posting stuff like this –
“Aristocratic, ancient and financially well off parents of a 25 year old well behaved white colored, tall, slim, homely Catholic girl (only child) of excellent character invite proposals from parents of 27 -30 year old handsome Catholic boys of clean character and excellent education. Boy must have a 6 figure salary and prospects of off site jobs”
It is quite possible that the hidden meaning of these seemingly innocuous words escaped you. Let me deconstruct:
Aristocratic, Ancient family– Our family roots date back to the year 52 AD when Saint Thomas brought Christianity to Kerala.  Along the way, some King remarked that one of our ancestors had a distant resemblance to his cousin.
Financially well off , only child – Beenamol will get everything after our death, including the white Maruti Alto parked in our frontyard and my 30 year Housing Loan from HDFC
White colored – Contrary to what you may have thought, this doesn’t mean that she suffers from the same affliction as Michael Jackson. This is just the Mallu way of saying that Beenamol is fair
Homely Catholic girl of excellent character – Beenamol believes in Jesus and Mary, does not have a current boyfriend, and is willing to stay at home and reproduce
Handsome Catholic boys of clean character and excellent education – Must be an engineer
6 figure salary and prospects of offsite jobs – Boy must be a software engineer who can take Beenamol to USA (and her mother as well, once Beenamol gives birth)
You can replace Catholic with Nair or Muslim, but the rest of the message will remain pretty much the same. Beenamol will be much better off writing down her requirements herself.
Rule No 2 – Meet thy choice thyself before thy relatives meet
Once you zero in on a few possible prospects, make sure you take the trouble to meet them by yourself first before the relatives do. Such an approach helps to avoid a lot of potential goofups
a) Photographic  Illusions – Anyone who has spent half an hour sprucing up a photo for Facebook profile picture knows about this. It is hard to conceal that double chin or that unwanted moustache when you meet up at Shenoy Junction CCD.
b) Over qualification Conundrum – All other factors being equal, it is not a bad thing to go for the guy/girl who has made it well in life. At least it shows they have drive, ambition and skills. But beware if your prospective choice cannot stop talking about his MBA degree from IIM Calcutta or her PhD thesis.  You don’t want to marry a degree.  Unless of course, the guy is working with Goldman Sachs as an advisor to fashion brands. Then the sacrifice makes sense.
c) Social Incompatibility– A friend recently told me a story about how a prospective groom kept asking her if she wanted a cock at a dinner date they had set up. After the first horrified refusal, she understood his benign intent, relented and allowed him to order the soft drink for her. They had a grand time at the date, and after a few months, said yes to each other. I’ll eat sadya at their wedding and take photos at the reception soon.  Moral of the story is, there will be some defects to the package you finally take on.  It is for you to decide if you want to live with them.  Or as in my friend’s case, decide to whack him on the head whenever he mispronounced the word.
Once the families get involved, you lose the chance to reject the choice if you don’t like it. Simple as that.
Rule No 3 – Thou shalt forgive and forget all faux pas the day the families meet for the first time
You have passed the first 2 gates successfully, and now have reached that all important date, when your parents and extended relatives meet for the first time. This is one of those four occasions (deaths in the family, marriage and will disclosure days being the other 3) when the extended families on both sides of a couple congregate at one point. Long lost relatives and forgotten cousins land up for this momentous occasion. Mob control is not a Malayali’s strong suit. Faced with a multitude of advice, admonishments and general aggravation, our default response is to go into denial. But into each life some sambhar must fall.
So, girls – ride this day out. Do not respond in kind to aunties who ask you gently when you will learn to wear the saree. Do not freak out when they ask you about your culinary skills. Do not go into brain freeze when they question you about family planning.
Guys – ride this day out. Do not ask Aunt Girija how her son is doing. Do not laugh nervously when random people ask you about your bank balance. Do not eat a lot. Do not burp.

 

Remember, the day will pass. The big thing to know at the end of all this exercise is if you two like each other well enough to suffer a life time of togetherness. And if the guy will finally get the memo and start pronouncing Coke correctly.

The Last Train to Lucknow

 
Ahmad Razmid Khan sprinted down the platform, keeping one eye on the door handle moving away from him and the other on the dangerous maze of luggage piled up on the platform, strewn about in the haphazard manner characteristic of many Indian railway platforms. The last train to Lucknow was pulling out of the platform, gradually gaining momentum as the diesel engines strained to produce enough torque to haul the behemoth on its path. The platform was crowded, and Ahmad was finding it difficult to maneuver around the constantly moving mass of humans. At last, he managed to get a grip on the handle, only to find it frustratingly wrenched from his grasp as one of the porters brushed past him on the platform. It was then, when his attention was momentarily diverted from the train, that he saw the young man, in a full sleeve shirt and carrying a briefcase, running along side him, also intent on catching the train. Ahmad redoubled his efforts, and pretty soon was able to gain a handhold. He jumped onto the footrest on the train, and hauled himself into the carriage. No sooner had he went in than he heard an indistinct shout behind him. He knew the protocol. He turned back and proffered his hand, which was promptly grabbed. The young man managed to gain a foothold by means of a complicated jump, and Ahmad hauled him in. “Thanks….” the young man gasped. “No problem”, replied Ahmad.
They proceeded to their compartments, which by coincidence happened to be the same, and sank down into their seats, grateful for having caught the train. The young man immediately proceeded to take out a book from his briefcase and engrossed himself in its contents, while Ahmad, like the conscientious reporter that he was, took out his PDA and began checking his emails.
That hourly ritual having been completed, Ahmad flipped it shut and began aimlessly studying the contents of the paper he had bought at the station. He was already aware of all the main news, but wanted to see the spin put on the raw news that he, along with several other reporters, had brought in the previous night. It was the job of the editors to shape the news into a concise, readable package. But the process often ended up cutting out some of the sensationalism and potency of the material. At least, this was Ahmad’s opinion. He heartily despised the armchair editors who ruthlessly cut out chunks of the news that the field reporters painstakingly put together.
Ahmad shook his mind free of thoughts about errant editors, folded up the newspaper, and began inspecting his compartment and fellow travelers with some interest. The compartment was empty except for a young mother who was busy cooing to her infant and the young man who was still busy reading. Ahmad lost interest in the busy mother, and began to focus on the man. He caught a glimpse of the title of the book he was reading. “WHAT IS RELIGION?” “Interesting…. “thought Ahmad, “not what I would expect a young man to read”.
“Is it a good book?” Ahmad asked. The young man looked up at him. “This one…?” He enquired. “Yes”, Ahmad replied. “You see, I do read a bit myself. I haven’t ever come across this book. What does it speak of?” The young man smiled; a curious sort of smile, wry and mocking at the same time. Instead of replying, he closed the book shut, and asked, “What’s your name, sir?” “Ahmad Khan”. “Mr. Khan, to answer your question in short, yes, it is a good book. But I believe that the real question is not how good the book is, but what good you are able to extract from it.””Well said” replied Ahmad,” so, what good were you able to extract from this book?”
“That there need be no such thing as a religion for man to attain nirvana, or oneness with God”. “Oh, then religions are useless?” “Not exactly, Mr. Khan. Religion was invented by wiser men as a tool to keep the less morally upright among us humans on the straight and narrow path to nirvana.” “Are you a Hindu?”Khan couldn’t contain himself. The young man seemed taken aback, as if he hadn’t expected this question.” No Mr. Khan, my name is Althaf Raza”. “Althaf, “, began Ahmad,” you are a Muslim. How can you say that there is no such thing as a religion? Aren’t you denying what the Prophet said ?”
Althaf seemed at a loss for words. It seemed as if he were unsure of how to proceed. Finally, just as Ahmad was about to elaborate upon his point, he smiled again, that same, half wry, half mocking smile, as if he were patiently entertaining a rather slow child. “Whatever the Prophet said, he said several thousand years ago. It will not be logical to expect the entire code to remain applicable to our modern life. Things have changed; the world has moved on, science and technology have brought us to levels of growth unthinkable in the Prophet’s time. He was, after all, a human being. He had to preach what was imaginable in his time. It is upto us to extract those portions of the Koran that are applicable to our modern life and use them wisely.”
“Assuming the logic of what you said just now to be true, what portions would you be referring to?” “Why, those that teach tolerance and equality, of course” It was not so much the answer as the certainty with which it was said that triggered Ahmad’s passion. He felt the old familiar rush of adrenaline course through his body, and his breath quickened. His psychiatrist had taught him to watch out for these signals and to immediately focus on more peaceful thoughts, but he chose to ignore the advice this time. Althaf’s indifference could not be tolerated.”I accept what you are saying about equality, Althaf. I have no issue with that. But what you said about tolerance is way off the mark. That concept might perhaps have held water in the Prophet’s time, but not now. Tolerance in today’s world will have to mean standing back and letting people of other religions exploit us Muslims; and that is simply unacceptable.” “How many of our brethren have succumbed to persecution in India itself? Right from the British Raj, where we had to satisfy ourselves with lesser pay grades and rank than the Brahmins, to modern Gujarat and Malegaon, where we are being persecuted systematically?”
“If we are to go back in time, Mr. Khan, then what about the Mughal era, where Mughal kings persecuted the local Hindus by making them pay more tax as Jizya and pilgrimage tax, all to force them to convert to Islam?” Althaf seemed unfazed by Ahmad’s vengeful speech. Ahmad felt small beads of sweat form above his eyebrows, always an indicator that his temper was being tested. “Yes, I admit errors have also happened on our part, but taken as a whole, ours has been the most persecuted race. What about the Crusades?”
“Don’t you think, perhaps, that it is time to move on and put the past behind us, Mr. Khan?”
“We are nothing if we forget our past, Althaf”, Ahmad leaned forward, eager to push his point across. “Ours is one of the oldest religions around, and we would not have existed so long if we were to forget our past and forge ties of tolerance and understanding with kafirs”. At last, the word had escaped from his mouth. He had long ago consciously made a decision not to use that word or to assign its meaning sub consciously to any non Muslim. But still, in moments of weakness generated by such heated discussions, he proved unequal to the task of restraining himself. Althaf seemed taken aback at first, but then a smile formed on his face. It had no hint of mockery.
“So what do you propose should be done, Mr. Khan? Wipe out all other religions? Will that strengthen Islam?”
“I ….. I don’t know” admitted Ahmad. In fact, he had asked himself this question several times in the past. For long agonizing hours he had wrestled with this question, exploring it from several angles, analyzing its relevance, questioning its feasibility. It had torn away at his mind, fracturing the veneer of tolerance and respectability that enabled him to blend into the civilized society of which he was a part. And as always, the question had remained just that, an enigma without an apparent answer, as Ahmad had to accept defeat, so as to maintain his sanity.
“I don’t know if that is the ultimate solution, but I do know that it is humiliating to mutely watch the outrageous horrors being inflicted upon Muslims worldwide. It sometimes enrages me and makes me feel impotent that I’m unable to actively pursue some course of action which would provide justice to our dead brothers”” Perhaps you should join some relief organization, Mr. Ahmad, or do some charitable work”
“It ….It doesn’t seem enough, Althaf, its almost like mopping up the spilt milk. We need to ensure that no one dares to upset the milk bottle ever again….. You know what, in some way, at some level, I think I approve of the Jihad these mujahedeen are waging”
Althaf remained silent, his smile replaced by a quizzical look, as if waiting patiently for Ahmad to continue.
“Oh, I know I must sound terribly ruthless, Althaf. It’s just my nature that I get worked up easily and in my anger, say things which I really shouldn’t…… Let me be clear that I do not condone terrorism in any way. It’s just that I sometimes feel helpless at my own inability to bring about any change…..”
Althaf smiled again, the same old smile, and it began to irritate Ahmad. It was almost as if this young man was silently patronizing him. Althaf, seemingly sensing Ahmad’s irritation, glanced at his watch and began to get up. “Well, Mr. Khan, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, but I have to get off at the next station. I’ll leave this book with you; perhaps you will find it interesting. And yes, there are people who are ready to do what it takes to correct injustice. It just needs will power and the capacity to make sacrifices.”
Althaf collected his suitcase and left the compartment, leaving Ahmad clutching the book, trying to decipher the meaning of his erstwhile companion’s words.
Half an hour later, a passenger who went into the latrine three compartments away from where Ahmad was sitting was surprised to find a briefcase left unattended inside. He considered going to search for a security guard to report the matter, but then decided that it was probably not worth the trouble. Its owner would come back to get it soon enough.
“In a shocking development, it has been reported that the Lucknow Express has been derailed as the result of a severe explosion that ripped through 8 of its compartments. The incident happened just outside the Lucknow main station, at 9:00 pm tonight. Rescue forces and firefighting teams have been called in, and a massive search for survivors is underway. Official reports state that the death toll currently stands at 200, although reliable sources report that the actual number is close to 450. Police have already started an investigation, and the chances of this being a terrorist attack are quite high….” The news reader’s face was suitably grim as she announced this tragedy. Then the frame changed, and the horde of people milling outside the department store, trying to catch a glimpse of the news as it was being displayed on the TV sets for sale, was treated to a live coverage of the accident scene. The camera zoomed in on a hand clutching a book. The body was buried underneath the debris, leaving only the hand visible. Embers had fallen on the cover of the book, partially burning away the letters of the title, until only a few letters were visible….”W.A. .. R…….”
Author’s Note: This story is a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Terrorism is a cowardly and barbaric act, and the author strongly opposes it, in any form. The author asserts his copyright over this story and its title under the terms of the copyright laws in force in the country you are reading this work in. No part of this story may be used, copied, distributed or displayed without the author’s prior permission.

The quick and dirty 5 step guide to attending Mallu weddings – for married couples

The popularity of my previous posts on the esoteric art of navigating Mallu wedding ceremonies has seemingly made me quite a celebrity amongst select circles. I have received multiple emails from my pained readers, detailing their own harrowing experiences on the battlefields of the Great Malayali Matrimony. All filled with gore, I assure you.
Scanning through these mails, it struck me that I had not properly addressed the plight of one select group of people who are often forgotten the minute they step out of the limelight- the hapless young couple who promised to share life, love and the TV remote on the hallowed grounds of Guruvayoor or Palayam church. They are the centre of attraction for an entire day, and then are sort of relegated to the background as fresh recruits step up to face the fire. Their duty done, they retire into the Elysian fields of marital bliss. No one cares what happens to them afterwards, as they try to find their feet and learn to buy two different TV sets and cable connections.
“It won’t do”, I said to myself. “If no one will take the responsibility of guiding them through the post wedding phase, I shall.” But before we go any further, my dear reader, I should like to warn you that I am not yet married. Ergo, I am just about as much qualified to give you marriage advice as Bugs Bunny. So follow my directions with a pinch of salt.
With that mandatory disclaimer out of the way, let us return to the matter at hand. The first three years of marriage can be tough. It’s often a period of exploration and discovery, where the languid joy of waking up in each other’s arms in the morning can quickly turn into abject loathing after the first unintended fart. And those are just the personal moments. Social events can be hell too. Take for instance, that traditional rite of passage – attending the first marriage after your own. Things can get pretty ugly if you don’t know how to roll during these occasions. Fortunately, these three rules can ease things up a bit.
Rule 1
Faced with any question, you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you
You have no other rights.
Rule 2
Guys should steer clear of middle aged ‘uncles’
To a man they all consider themselves experts on personal finance. Coming from an era where government jobs were the ultimate wet dream for any self-respecting graduate, their personal finance advice begins and ends with real estate. Compound that with mid-life, existential and a host of other Freudian crises, and they will often end up persuading you to buy apartments in Perumbavoor or potato farms in Coimbatore. Not a great idea. If ever you are caught in such a situation, there is a right and a wrong way to deal with it. I shall illustrate with dialogues.
Wrong way
Uncle: “Sandeep, now that you are earning so much money, have you thought about investing some of it?”
Sandeep (pleasantly surprised): “Why yes, Uncle. I am building myself an emergency savings fund worth three months of living expenses, while at the same time contributing to a retirement index fund and a fairly diversified mutual fund with a healthy choice of risk, given my age and future earning potential”
Uncle (horrified): “My dear child, do you even know what investing means? Real estate, that’s what it means. All these funds are totally fraud. I invested some money ten years ago in Teak and Manjiyam plantations, and have not received a single rupee back. They are all fraud people, trying to sell you fraud things. You should only invest in land, I am telling you. Land will always be there for you. In fact, my sister Girija’s son has some potato farms in Coimbatore, why don’t you just take a look at it? Golden investment, I am telling you.”
Right way
Uncle: “Sandeep, now that you are earning so much money, have you thought about investing some of it?”
Sandeep (with a faraway look in his eyes): “No uncle, any extra paisa I have goes to the Sai Baba foundation.”
 
Rule 3
Girls should steer clear of ‘aunties’, those dangerous ‘saree clad assassins from Palakkad’,whom I have had occasion to refer to in the past.
If you are caught, be prepared to fend off questions like, “You have grown so thin, aren’t you getting anything to eat at your new place?”,” Why do you still go to work, isn’t your husband earning enough?”, “When are you buying a house, or do you plan to stay in those rented flats forever?” and “When can we expect some good news?”
That last question may seem innocent, but beware. Roughly translated, it means, “You have been married for 3 months now. When do you plan to start a family?” Most of these aunties come from an era where they took the phrase “Go forth and multiply” to heart, and where family planning meant waiting for 2 months after child birth before trying again. They share the Vatican’s hatred of condoms, instead preferring to adhere to the time tested mantra “Don’t start nothin’, won’t be nothin’”
Unfortunately, there is no simple way to escape if you get caught. Borrowing and adapting from the US Army’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) training manuals, the best course of action is to make yourself inconspicuous to avoid attention. If caught, try to confuse the enemy with random comments about their husbands and escape before they regroup and try to launch a counter attack. If all else fails, commend your spirit to God and tell them that your husband has had a vasectomy. It’s better to go down fighting.

The Three Month Itch

The first couple of weeks after joining any new job is traditionally called the honeymoon period. It is because apparently the work life in this period is exactly similar (see what I did there, ‘exactly similar’?) to your honeymoon. Everything that is, except for the gratuitous sex. (Perhaps even that. Hope springs eternal). By this logic, the couple of weeks before joining the above mentioned new job must be the bachelor (or bachelorette) paradise, when the specter of a settled life is looming large before you, but there is still time left on earth to enjoy. People spend this time in different ways. Some go to Goa, get drunk and pee into the ocean. Others buy a DSLR and head off into dirty alleys, only to click pictures of a stray cat and post it on Facebook under the heading ‘Glimpses of Life’. Like the pussy cares.

I, being the lazy sort I am, decided to stay put at home. I reckoned that since I was soon to become an expatriate, any ‘home-time’ I could grab would be welcome. This, however, created certain complications. Relatives have a bad tendency to visit, and an even worse tendency to ask uncomfortable questions under the aegis of assumed knowledge. Especially when they cotton onto the fact that you are a bona-fide MBA who works at a FMCG company.

(Setting: Living Room. Dad sitting on sofa, reading ‘The Hindu’. Yours truly sitting on the bean bag, immersed in the latest copy of Playboy (I can sense your disbelief. But you don’t have any way of disproving what I say here, do you? Ha, thought so.) Enter relative from front main entrance)

Relative:  “Mone, So, MBA completed, eh? Good Good. When’s your joining?”

Me: “Three months later”

Relative: “Three months, eh?? Such a long time…All because of this recession only.”

Me: “…”

Relative: “Which company was it again? Your mother did tell me the name, but I forgot”

Me: “XYZ”

Relative: “Ahh. Yes. Never heard of it. How is the company?”

Me: “Not bad. It is the largest FMCG company in the world”

Relative: “FM eh? Ohh like this Radio Mirchi and all… Is there any money in it?”

Me: “Err no. Fast Moving Consumer Goods. FMCG”

(Dad snickers in the background)

Relative: “Ohh, Goods Company. Will you be working at the docks or with the Railway?”

Me: “Erm not exactly. These goods are more like those you see in supermarkets.”

Relative: “Ohh, groceries. So you will be working in Andhra Pradesh.”

Me: “No, this company handles a lot of things. I will be working in the marketing department.”

Relative: “Ohh, sales. So will you have to go door to door or will they set you up in a shop?”

(More snickering from dad)

Me: “No. I will be in charge of brand development”

Relative: “Ahh, Brand. Does it sell well?”

 

Me: “……..yes, brand sells well. We buy it from Andhra Pradesh in bulk, transport it by rail to Coimbatore and then by road to Cochin. Then we ‘market’ it over the radio and finally sell it through small stalls spread all over Kerala”

Relative: (turning to Dad, who by now is choking back his laughter) “See? Today’s technology is so advanced. It’s a good thing I keep track of all these by reading the paper, else I would have been so out of touch.”

I am tired of being a bachelor. I want to get married and have sex.

The Female Guide to attending Mallu weddings

My previous note on the topic seems to have touched a common chord with my peers everywhere. This, combined with the fact that I have been cooped up at home due to an unexpected extension of my joining date (apparently my company decided that the later they allowed me to join, lesser the damage I could do) prompted me to think of something which I do not normally think about. Girls. Ha.

My train of thought ran somewhat like this. Since the ratio of girls to boys in Kerala is slightly greater than 1 (yeah, that’s right. Read it and weep, you ArjunPandeys and Aditya Kashyaps) it stands to reason that a typical mallu wedding could and should consist of a few PYTs of my age group. Following that train of thought, it is only reasonable that such PYTs be subjected to the same treatment at the hands of saree clad assassins from Palakkad as would the poor guys. After all, Kerala, under communism, achieved gender equality much before the rest of India did. So, a set of guidelines for PYTs to counter such attacks (in the same vein as the original post) should be of a great help. After all, I am nobody if not someone who likes to devote every waking hour to the aid of PYTs.

Girls attending mallu weddings are mostly subjected to questions regarding marriage, health or children. If you are above the age of 20, you will be immediately categorized into one of three possible slots.

  • Educated – This means you are still studying and as such, can be marked down for a possible future match. If you have taken up MBBS however, you can be hunted down without mercy anytime.
  • Employed – This apparently means that you are desperate to settle into married life. Any employed girl who wants to remain single for some time is looked upon with deep suspicion. “Avalkku affair kaanum” (She must be seeing someone) will be the universal chant.
  • Married – Married girls have it tough in a different fashion. Any girl married for over a year is expected to have produced one child and be planning for the next.

Irrespective of your slot, these guidelines should come in handy.

  • Faced with any question, you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you. You have the right to speak to your mom. If you cannot find your mom, God save you.
  • Try not to wear a saree. Handling its myriad folds and making sure that you do not trip over yourself as you walk is a major distraction when you are trying to fend off the questions and remarks of aunties. In fact, this is a secret weapon which mallu women have developed over the decades to ‘distract and conquer’ young ladies whom they want to interrogate. If you have ever attended a wedding sans saree, one of the first questions would be, “Ohh, why didn’t you wear a saree? You are old enough now, you know.” The auntie is actually thinking, “Shit, she is going to be a tough one to break.”
  • If you belong to the “Educated” category, you will be quizzed about the course and college. Always reply “Engineering” and follow it up with the name of the closest engineering college. This will buy you time (the 4 years until you get the B.Tech degree) and save you from having to explain why you thought going to NIT Suratkal was better than going to Ponnani. Never say that you are a medical student. Since it takes nearly 6 years or more to become an established doctor, you could be poached any day starting tomorrow.
  • If you belong to the “Employed” category, you will be asked about the company and location. Thankfully, girls do not have to field “salary” questions. In response, you can name any company under the sun except Infosys (in which case, you will immediately be referred to Girija for further consideration), but the location has to be Technopark, Thiruvananthapuram. Any employed single girl working in Noida or Bangalore is automatically assumed to have a boyfriend. And an employed single girl working overseas must surely be in a live-in relationship. “Ithu Kali kaalam alle?” (Isn’t this KalYug?)
  • Never allow the ladies to hold your wrist. Over the years, hardened veterans develop an amazing ability to predict vitals such as body fat content, haemoglobin level, bone density and even menstrual cycle just by holding your wrist. Worse still, they will then proceed to give you a detailed diagnosis of your problem and how the same symptoms resulted in health complications for Mrs. Kurian’s daughter.
  • If you are married, tell them your husband recently had a vasectomy. Trust me; it is far better to shock them than to have them plan your family over the wedding lunch.

If you get the chance, tell everyone (including the bride, God knows she needs some relief) the story of how Girija’s son was caught for watching porn while in school. Every victory, however small, counts.

Note: My good friend Yazhini Chandrasekharan recently took the trouble to contact me all the way from wherever she happened to be when she contacted me. A travel aficionado, she keeps changing her Facebook “Location” tag several times a day. Google has given up searching for her. So has Vodafone. Apparently gypsies do not have to pay bills. But I digress. The reason she messaged was to remind me that girls in Tamil Nadu have to face the very same problems that mallu girls do. I don’t disagree.