The much awaited trip finally happened and I was soon wedged in the window seat of the Emirates flight headed for Dubai. The long and uneventful flight dropped me off at the swanking airport hall in Dubai where I had to spend another 6 hours watching the bustling humanity. It was fun, for the halls were initially overflowing with people in the morning hours which gradually tapered off as time flew by, to coincide with the flight and landing patterns. As I sat, I saw many of my fellow Malayalees at work in the airport, cleaning up, working in the shops or chatting with one another. It was a group of people, the Malayali NRI’s in the ‘gelf’, that I understood pretty well. Some were soon flirting with the Filipino girls at shop counters, some gossiping with their own brethren during their breaks. The shops meanwhile were disgorging people with swollen bags full of duty free stuff, and Indians coming out had their two mandatory bottles of booze under their arms, to take back home. From gold to dates, you can find anything you want in that huge and ‘happening’ airport, and I was soon to find that another one was being built nearby as an expansion project.
Soon it was time for my flight and I found that I had been upgraded to business class. The long flight from New York was taking its toll on my weary body and creaky bones and all I wanted to do was doze off after about 24 hours or so on the go. I found that this was not going to happen soon, for it was certainly interesting to hear and watch our friends in the plane. Some were emphatic in demands for ‘old monk rum’ to the stewardess who was asking if they wanted high end scotch or wine, only to be politely told that Bacardi was the only spirit of that kind available. Later it was a request for ‘porota & mutton curry’ when told that chicken and Veg were on the menu. Ah! That reminded me, it was the first time I was seeing an entire airline menu printed in Malayalam, certainly interesting translations if I recall right, and I only wish I had scanned or purloined one to put up here, but weariness just made it slip off my mind..The pretty African stewardess was concerned with the fatigue on my face (actually she was just being polite and practicing). I dozed off eventually just as the plane was nearing the Malabar Coast towards the dusk hours of the Oct sky laced with heavy rain clouds and pretty soon I was lost to the world. Not for long though, we soon landed in Calicut where as expected, my baggage took ages to get to the conveyer belts. I was watching those big & heavy cartons or LCD TV’s that the Gelf worker bought home, instead of suitcases of the past, and the enthusiasm with which they were yanked off the belt with many helping hands and deposited in creaky trolleys destined for the waiting four wheeler outside, with much amusement. The NRI was back home….after enriching the state for the last working year with his remittances to his relatives and various banks and the construction and paint industry of Kerala, now he was finally here, to spend all the balance or some more at the various restaurants, cloth shops and possibly in gold purchases, or loans to suddenly needy relatives. But well, the cycle has to continue one more time, till it the end of the 20-30 day vacation and the man was to head back to the gulf.
My wife had gone to Calicut a few days earlier, so she and my brother in law were updating me with all the happenings at Calicut, the fabulous Kishore-nite they witnessed, the various political gaffes (part and parcel of malayali life – the dissection of the state political characters and their life) and the musical scene. After a couple of days there, I was off to our ancestral home and village – Pallavur. It was still mercifully the same, with hardly any changes to show. The change of scenery was certainly interesting; from the fall colors and golden yellow leaves of North Carolina to the white blinding sands of Dubai and now the mellow green of the paddy fields, the serene though rare breeze and the evening rains. Ah! I felt at peace…the temple was active, and looking all spruced up after the Navaratri celebrations.
My brother had a lot of family news for me, and his children updated us on other happenings and gossip. A mandatory shopping visit to Coimbatore and the food we ate there (actually the tempting mint-lime juice) hit our intestines hard and made us a bit sick for a couple of days, but it was not too bad. There the Tamilians as usual (and rightly) complained about the horribly unsettled and undisciplined driving by Malayalai drivers in Coimbatore, not sticking to lanes and doing all wrong things or disobeying lights. But the money they spent in the shops was a great compensation, I guess. In the background there was a steady rumble of news about Mullaperiyar amidst a couple of tremors, the fear of a dam collapse as the two governments argued upon the basis of an ancient water sharing and dam operation treaty established by the British. To exacerbate matters a movie was soon to hit the screens about a dam disaster…and the TV anchors spun it around and around, increasing the rhetoric and exhorting action, instead of professing calm and intelligent thought or level headed discussions.
But we were soon off to Cochin and from there to Bangalore. The Bengaluru airport was a revelation, classy for Indian standards and the Volvo bus service to Jayanagar exemplary. But Bangalore was as expected, crowded, fast, happening and dusty. It was totally different from the place where we had started our family and family life. Things had changed so rapidly, and we just could not make out some of the places anymore, for gone were the familiar landmarks of old times. People had tons of money to spend and frequented the hotels and shops and malls, there were cars and two wheelers everywhere. We even got on to spanking new Namma metro and went from MG road to the end of the line (forgot the name of the station) and back, all of 6 stops. Bangalore had lost its old world charm for us, but it was still a fond memory. Here I met a budding chef and Jewish (Cochin) history enthusiast T Zakriya and we talked about Goitein and Friedman and the Geniza for a while and the Jews who traded in ancient Malabar. So nice it was, to see this young man interested in the history of our land.
A night in Cochin, a trip to the Lotus club, shopping by the bustling MG road and the crowded Panampally junction, across the Mamooty bridge (he lived there once, in a house that previously belonged to my friend Madan) at Girinagar, and while gobbling the Naushad biryani, we were uneasily wondering at the pace that India was going through and the throes of development and the run for the attainment of material desires. Everybody was brand hunting, and it was chic to have the latest model smart phone or the European model Car…In the middle of all this, my SIL took me to the state archives where I was trying to find material that would help me get to the bottom of a story that had once taken the region by storm. I got what I wanted but knew that those records were not going to last too long, for those ancient manuscripts were fading away in the weather and neglect due to lack of funds.
Finally back in Calicut, and my trips to the various book shops started. A few books of interest had come out in the last two years I had been away, but otherwise life was pretty much the same, though building work was apparent at all corners. The beach was pretty much the same, but more organized, and the new beachfront at Beypore a place to go for some relaxation. The Kadavu resort, true to form had a nice ghazal evening to boast though the food was mediocre. But the food hunt was compensated by the ever reliable Paragon though the Sagar hotel had sadly deteriorated from the past. Paragon now is even more popular after Rahul Gandhi quickly hopped in for some rice and fish curry one night and Soniaji later had food delivered to her from Paragon. I could not unfortunately have my favorite Nannari sherbet from the juice mash after the stomach issues, post Coimbatore.
That was quite the end, I suppose, and we were soon back. At the JFK airport, we chanced on a young girl from Ankara, a medical exchange student with whom we exchanged news about Istanbul and Turkey and how we missed that lovely country. As we loaded all our boxes into the taxi, the driver – a black American asked us aha…you have brought all of India back with you eh? And later, much to our surprise he asked – “how is the corruption in India these days? Has that guy who fasted brought some change?” I was open mouthed in surprise to see this coming from an American taxi driver. I mumbled that everything was pretty much the same, and he said ‘My friend, for things to improve there, Mahatma Gandhi has to be reborn’. For a while, I was totally taken aback and lost in thought wondering what would happen if the Mahatma were indeed reborn and wandering around Bombay where the politician Pawar had just been slapped by an irate citizen or Delhi where a minister was using government planes to fly her shoes. But realization set in, we were back in Raleigh.
The leaves on the trees are all gone, the community is well lit with Christmas lights, the air is cold and dry and winter is setting in after a normal fall. An occasional shower brings in a change, but North Carolina is running true to ‘fall’ form. The people, I thought looked a little happier than last year, with a little more hope even though the worlds markets were topsy turvy and the Euro world in deep doldrums. What was missing was the full smile I saw on the faces in India, so it must be the difference in approach, even though the Indian Rupee was tumbling to new depths and the greenback grimly hanging on. The business scene and the world is still in a slump, I suppose. Everything seems normal if this is normal, at least it has been like this for so long that normalcy has to be redefined, I guess.
So I am back home friends, and hope that all of you are keeping fit and fine, hale and hearty, looking forward to a season of holiday cheer and the New Year…….