Tuesday, July 26, 2011


My father was one of the earliest people in Kerala to manufacture soap. He had a soap factory in Thevara. My mother used to go into fits of laughter each time she related the story of my aunt’s – my father’s doting sister – effort at marketing her dear brother’s product.

My aunt was doing her graduation in St. Teresa’s college. She had a friend - let’s call her Theyyamma- who was deeply distressed 'cos she was not fair – and therefore not lovely.

‘My brother is manufacturing soap’, said my aunt to Theyyamma

’Soap? What’s soap?’

‘It’s a cake like thing which lathers. If you wash your face and body with it, it’ll remove all dirt. More still. If you leave the lather on your face overnight, and wash it off in the morning, you’ll be several shades fairer.’

Theyyamma went home in a high state of excitement.

But she did not come to college the next day – and the next, and the next - - - .

When my aunt came back home from college on the third day of Theyyamma’s absence, she found Theyyamma’s mother at home, looking worried, and my mother who was with her looking tense.

‘What happened to Theyyamma? ‘, my aunt asked T’s mother. She hasn’t been coming to college for three days now?’

“Theyyamma has become FAIR’ said my mother sharply. 'Her skin has come off her face!”

Fortunately for my father, those were not days when people rushed to the consumer court.

And fortunately for Theyyamma, my father apparently hadn’t USED too caustic stuff in the soap – for her skin came back without any damage, thereby not adding one more illustration to the repository of examples of the Malayalam proverb VELUKKAAN THECHATHU PAANDDAYI (what was applied to become fair caused permanent discolouration).
This happened in the late 1940s.

Today, five decades later, women continue to try out home remedies and multinational products to lighten their complexions.

And the ads for these fairness creams are so idiotic that one cannot but marvel at how anyone – from models to script writers – can have any involvement with them. i recently saw one in which the dhoti clad pundit complete with the mark of Vishnu on his forehead stride to the tune of Vedic chants to dig out ancients wisdom from antique books handed down to him to find the formula for fairness – all because his daughter was denied a job on account of her colour. Of course, the wisdom of the forefathers did not let him down. The result – herbs crushed and made into paste to create the ayurvedic Fair and Lovely cream!

Of course, the daughter is selected for the same job after a week’s application of Fair and Lovely!

And now, the fairness bug has bitten the male species too. I belong to the generation where the more idealistic believed that handsome is what handsome does, and less idealistic ones believed that handsome is tall and dark. Now all that’s changed. Now handsome is fair! And so we have fairness creams for men, and equally ridiculous ads selling them!

How does one explain this obsession with fairness? No dearth of theories, i know, but can i have yours?

Friday, July 08, 2011


My cousin Martinette (name changed, of course), about ten years older than me, held her hand behind her back and asked, ‘Where’s aunty’

‘Upstairs, with the seamstress’. I replied.

She walked backwards till the stairs, giving me vicious looks all the time, then whirled around so fast that i couldn’t see what she had in her hand, and bolted upstairs.

Martinette – i hated her. That look on her face portended impending danger for me. I was in the 7th standard, and did a lot of things Martinette didn’t approve of. I used to read a lot, something she believed spoilt a girl. And i read English novels. Some of the Erle Stanley Gardner books had covers of women who looked and dressed like Marylin Monroe. During one of her visits home earlier, Martinette carried one of them to my mother and told her i was reading pornography! Amma was shocked, distressed and furious. For two reasons. Her daughter was travelling down the primrose path that led to hell. Also, Martinette had a vicious tongue. She’ll make sure that the whole family with roots in many parts of kerala and India will come to know of the path chosen by amma’s darling daughter whom she had put through Nazareth convent for years, while she(poor me) should have been playing cricket with her brothers, and climbing trees. I still remember the way amma came into my room holding the Perry Mason thriller.

‘What rubbish are you reading?’ she demanded with anger and sadness in her eyes. The second emotion upset me, and i was furious with Martinette who stood triumphantly next to amma, her Iago like beady eyes moving expectantly between amma and me, her jaws literally dripping with the blood she was about to draw.

‘It’s not rubbish, amma’, i said.

‘It’s dirty, aunty, it’s dirty. I know, you read it if you want’, butted in Martinette.

‘Yes, you read it amma, and you’ll know it not a dirty novel’, i said, looking earnestly at

‘I don’t have to read it. I can see the picture on the cover’, amma said. It was the picture of a slim tall blonde win a red gown with plunging neckline and a long slit in the skirt which exposed most of her long leg. To make matters worse, she had a cigarette hanging from her lips.

Martinette was looking at me with such glee that that the well-bred soft-spoken girl that amma had brought up cracked like a mud face pack and the real me emerged. I jumped up, snatched the book from amma, grabbed Martinette by her hand and dragged her to my father who was reading newspaper in the living room.

“Where are you going, Molly. What are you doing? Leave Martinette alone’, she shouted after me, following me. Poor amma, she was really upset. Amma probably thought i was going to throw her out of the house or give her a beating. Martnette, then, would have something more to talk about me to all my relatives.

My father put down the paper and quietly sized up the situation. He seemed to have got the right picture of what was going on.

I held out the book to him and said, ‘is this a dirty book? Martinette says so and amma believes her.’

Ichayan (i call my father that) looked at the book and asked Martinette, ’what’s wrong with this book? Have you read this?’

‘No’ said Martinette sheepishly.

‘Then how do you know it is dirty?’ asked Ichayan.

‘Look at the cover’, said Martinette, still assertive and belligerent.

‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, he told her. He then looked at amma and said, ‘i bought her this book yesterday’. That was not true. But i was delirious with happiness. So was amma. She was ecstatic that my father had removed the fuse out of a potentially explosive scandal.

To come back to the next episode, I wondered what she was up to as she raced up the stairs. In a few minutes, i heard amma call me and i went up, nervous.

Amma was reading my autograph! I was leaving the school i had studied in for seven years and had passed the autograph around to my friends. She looked at Martinette with a poker face and said. ‘Ask her’.

Martinette opened the autograph at page in which was written
Drink hot coffee, drink hot tea, burn your lips and think of me. The signature looked like Ram.

“Who’s this Ram? ‘asked Martinette.

I ignored that pest and, looking at amma, said, “Rama, amma, Shenoy’s daughter’.

‘Oh’, said amma, smiling.

Martinette opened another page in which it was written

Life is not a Midsummer Night’s dream
Nor is it a Tempest.
It’s a Comedy of Errors
So spend it As You Like It

‘Well’, i said looking at Martinette with all the contempt i could hoist on my face.
‘What a message! Is this what you talk among yourself? How you trivialise all the Christian values! How horrible your friends might be!’ she said, miffed that the first bullet proved to be an empty cartridge.

Again i ignored her. I turned to amma and said, ‘amma. Don’t you recognise that they are all Shakespearean titles?’

‘Of course, i did.’ she said calmly.

Martinette’s face clouded over with a malicious, hate filled expression.

‘What about this?’, she asked, trying to smile triumphantly but ending up with an ugly grimace. Her final salvo, she read out from the page.

You no worry, you no care
You go marry a millionaire
When he dies, you no cry
You go marry another guy.

I laughed. So did amma. Martinette’s jaw dropped in utter consternation.

‘Aunty, you don’t find anything wrong with the advice given to her?’ she asked, angry and bitterly disappointed.

‘I find it very funny’, said my mother laughing. ‘That’s just an exercise in rhyming.’

You should have seen Martinette’s face. If she had her way, she’d have punched amma till my mother passed out and would have pounced on me like a predator.

‘Molly, why don’t you call all your friends one day for lunch’, asked amma.

That busybody has ever since kept away from my house.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011


A new word has gained currency in Kochi now. HINDIKAAR, which takes my mind back to the few years i was in Mumbai where the average Mumbaiker referred to us from South India as Southies. The less literate or sensitive ones used, without any qualms, the term Madrassi to my face. A couple of times i reacted saying that there are four states to the south of the Vindhyas and Madras is only one of them. A thirty year old once even argued with me that there is no State in the South called Madras. I looked at her with celestial contempt and left the matter at that. Subsequently i learnt that, spurred on by my contempt, she took the trouble of finding out about the erstwhile Madras state!

Now we ‘southies’ are resorting to the same type of stereotyping. The influx of labourers from North India – from Bengal, Orissa and Bihar - had added a new dimension to the demography of Kochi, and the non-Dravidian language they speak has given rise to this tern HINDIKAAR – those who speak Hindi/those from the land where Hindi is spoken. In other words North Indians. Cheap sentiments, i admit, but i feel avenged :-)

As is common knowledge, the high daily wages in kerala coupled with the paucity of labour in the state and the backwardness of the north Indian states are responsible for this unprecedented inflow of this labour force into kerala. All sections of kerala have become bourgeoisie and the proletariat is imported. You go to hotels, construction sites, you find these Hindikaars. The electrical or plumbing contractors who come to your house have Hindikaars to assist them. You don’t find many in the carpentry field, though a week back, i found, one who came with them to do the polishing of wood items. They are excellent workers and have picked up Malayalam too – and slowly picking up the legendry kerala style of working. Manoj who comes to clean my garden is becoming more demanding. Earlier, he used to work from 9 to 5, sometimes even 6 with no major lunch break and happy with the tea and snacks i give him, so that he can finish the work in a day. This time he left half the work unfinished at the end of the first day. When i questioned him, in a rather light hearted manner (‘cos i knew this was bound to happen), he confirmed in his accented Malayalam what i had suspected.

“Gardeners (meaning malayalee workers) would take four days to finish this work”

“Next time you come, you work as you always did. I’ll pay you double’


Satyam”, i confirmed. I wanted to repeat 'satyam' thrice like they do in movies, but refrained as it’d be too dramatic.

And Kerala has begun to mentally accommodate the inevitability of migrant workers here. The destination boards buses have now begun to include Hindi! How different from Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra! Is it that Keralites and practical first, and sons of the soil only after that?

However, there were a few news items the past few days which make me suspect that Kochi is going the Mumbai way. The exodus to the big (Kochi big? Maybe in terms of the wages) changed the demography of Mumbai, climaxing in growth of Tamil Underworld and extreme parochialism Rajthakeray & Shiv Sainik style. In Kochi recently, a migrant worker (Hindikaar) beat up a local man and the locals retaliated. Could such episodes lead to the rise of Dons offering protection for hafta to the Hindikaars? Can’t rule it out.
Soon the migrant workers will become a vote bank and that will change Kerala politics beyond recognition.

Slums may not appear the Mumbai way on account of the terrible shortage of land in kerala and highly vigilant public. But crime rate has already begun to climb, and the nature of crime too is getting to be ruthless on account of the anonymity offered by the migrant status and the easy escape route through trains.

The shape of things to come in Kerala is going to be largely dictated by the way Kochi grows into a big metro.