My Evolving Hometown in God’s Own Country
My hometown, Trivandrum or Thiruvananthapuram, as it is now called, has been evolving from a never-will-change Indian town into a bustling place. I witnessed the changes four and a half years ago and again in February during a whirlwind two-week visit in which I left behind the snowbanks of Lexington for the start of the hot tropical season. The street, where my mother occasionally lives, didn’t look familiar with a new mosque and a neon extravaganza arching over the gates of Trivandrum club, a popular venue for weddings. The building frenzy has resulted in more looming structures visible from my mother’s home. The noise of construction that plagued my visit four and a half years ago hadn’t abated. Nor had the braying of dogs that punctuated the night, making me recall the sad fate of a man who’d been killed by canines on my previous visit.
On that vacation, I’d encountered a couple of beggars, one an English-speaking man at the airport, who, with outstretched hands, had made it clear that dollars would be welcome. This time a greedy porter demanded twenty dollars instead of the five I offered, an amount I’d been told was generous. As I feel sad for anyone reduced to wretched circumstances, I was relieved now not to be approached by a single beggar, and, in fact, I didn’t encounter one throughout my whole stay in my hometown. In the late 1980s, when I’d been a new immigrant in America, I’d been plagued by memories of unfortunate beggars in rags who’d approached cars at traffic stops, rattled tin cups aboard trains, and knocked on residential gates for hand-outs.
It was good to be in my mother’s vacation home, a duplex in a residential building, erected on the property where her house used to stand. Daily assaults of dust from the surrounding construction had robbed the apartment of its glamorous new appearance. My sudden decision to go to Thiruvananthapuram to accompany my mother back to Lexington seemed fortuitous as her servant had left the day before I arrived and without me my mother would have been alone at night. Her cousins sent us delicious food, including my favorite, puttu or rice flour laced with coconut strands, which my mother turned into spherical confections of sugar and ghee that I relished. Visitors began streaming in and, as usual, the worst version of myself, jet-lagged and tired, enthusiastically received them.
Thiruvananthapuram is the capital city of Kerala, or God’s Own Country, as my home state is called because of its beautiful lagoons and backwaters and sweep of coconut trees. The town is headed toward material prosperity and less abundance of natural fauna because coconut trees and banana trees are being cut to free up space for new buildings and roads. Traffic has become worse as there are more cars and more lanes, but, fortunately, cows don’t amble by anymore. (I’ll never forget the time, decades ago, when, seated in a car, I was startled by a cow whose face almost touched mine through a window.) The lifestyles of the poor are improving with less working hours, better pay, finer clothes, longer vacations, and more possessions. Fewer people from the lower classes need to work as servants, and consequently, many of my relatives preferred to take me out for a meal rather than invite me to their homes. Restaurants thrive since people have more money to spend. Everything has multiplied: stores, banks, salons, cafes, bakeries. Electronic gadgets flourish. When I visited my favorite Ganapathi temple, I saw how the new era intruded – there was a big digital clock on the roof.
In the Devi temple, opposite my mother’s apartment, the gold-domed sanctum evoked Trump for me. Heaven is known for its glittery gold my mother told me after I whispered the color reminded me of Trump.
Trump seemed to reign in Thiruvananthapuram, judging by the support he garnered whenever I talked about politics. “You’re not getting enough information here,” I said to one of his fans at the end of our exchange.
“You’re misinformed there,” he retorted.
“You know there have been racist incidents since he became president,” I told another Trump admirer.
“There has always been racism in America,” he said.
“There’s much more racism there now,” I said, disappointed I couldn’t change anyone’s opinion.
Two of my best friends from college dropped by to see me. One was the highest-ranking female police officer in Kerala, a role model for girls and women, and the other was a bank manager, who helped lift hundreds of women out of poverty with small loans. I felt like a country bumpkin in the company of my tech savvy and glamorous looking friends. Lekha, the Deputy Inspector General, took me to her new house, designed by her, and I was awed, touring the white structure with its two kitchens (one for the maid and one for the mistress) and a second floor library that opened out onto bedrooms on either side, one of which led to a veranda that functioned as an exercise/relaxation area for her son.
I visited another residence, constructed before the building boom, owned by a well-regarded poet called Neerada. My uncle’s enthusiastic praise for the house had piqued my curiosity. Neerada’s artistic aesthetics had done justice to her home, designed by the award-winning architect, Laurie Baker. The house’s brick edifice was castle-like with a turret and the feeling was echoed in the interior, where a balcony projected onto the living room and overlooked an inviting jhula or swing set. Tall gold lamps gleamed against circular brick walls that supported a soaring ceiling, vital elements of design to ensure the home was effectively cooled. This dwelling, memorable for any visitor, deserved to be featured in an architectural magazine.
In spite of those admirable residences, I mourned the loss of what had been one of the finest houses in Thiruvananthapuram, built in the first half of the twentieth century by my great-grandfather. It was the home where my mother and her countless cousins had a privileged existence growing up under the care of my great-grandmother and great-grandfather, who’d been a Diwan Peshkar (akin to a Prime Minister) of the kingdom of Travancore when it had been ruled by the British. My great-aunt had inherited the house, and whenever I’d visited India as a child, she’d welcomed me and invited me to play on a swing suspended from a big tree. Twin staircases on either side had bracketed the house’s exterior. In my teens, I’d been attracted to the musty and dusty library that had been underneath one of those stairs. The shelves in the room had held classics that could have been valuable editions. The house had witnessed births, weddings, and tragedies. One of the worst times was when we’d all congregated to grieve my great-aunt’s daughter and son-in-law, who’d perished in a plane crash on their way to attend my great-aunt’s granddaughter’s wedding. Instead of celebrating the upcoming nuptials, we’d cried and consoled my great-aunt and thought of her three orphaned grandchildren.
The twenty-first century had seen the house’s demise. In its place stood a large apartment building that had a pathetic library, shabbily furnished and stocked with only a few dozen books. In the cage-like elevators, music reminiscent of Yanni’s tunes played. As joint families were falling out of fashion, single families lived in the apartments, though some residents enjoyed the proximity of relatives in separate units. My great-aunt’s daughters lived in different apartments and got together every day. Even though they’d been accustomed to spacious rooms, they now preferred the convenience of compact areas that required less maintenance. One daughter, currently an elegant grandmother with a long white braid that flowed to her hips, invited me to a dinner of puris or breads, whose puffy surfaces didn’t deflate as easily as mine did in Lexington. As mouth-watering and varied as the dinner was, in my great-grandfather’s time meals would have been a lavish affair cooked by half a dozen servants. That era has long since disappeared.
A cousin treated me and a few relatives to a rooftop restaurant at the hotel, Windsor Rajadhani, for an all-you-can-eat buffet. In the lobby, a gold clock that could have belonged to the Trump Tower seemed a good focal point for a group photo. My extended family gathered in front of it and I clicked my camera several times. I knew the pictures I’d taken would prove to my sister in Virginia that opulence was making its way into what was once a sleepy town. In the beginning, we had the restaurant to ourselves as people in Thiruvananthapuram prefer to have late lunches. The lush view of coconut trees would have been perfect but for the mushrooming buildings. Still there was enough greenery to marvel over and calm nerves and motivate me to snap more pictures. My cousin located her apartment and pointed to it as well as other landmarks. The food was sumptuous and, though, there was no chocolate cake (my favorite dessert), the chocolate pudding was an excellent substitute. When I went to college in the early 1980s, only three or four restaurants existed; they didn’t have any of the elan and ambiance present in this rooftop restaurant. Women didn’t frequent restaurants then without male escorts. Now I watched three women walk in and not a single eyebrow rose up. One of my aunts, conservative and yet progressive in certain matters, dines in fine establishments with her staff of servants seated at the same table. Such an egalitarian experience would have been unheard of in her mother’s time.
In the olden days, food had been almost ubiquitously served on banana leaves in Thiruvananthapuram. Now I missed nature’s disposal plates that were environmentally friendly and fun to eat off. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law came from Madras to see me, and since we all craved an authentic Kerala experience, my mother took us to Mother’s Plaza, where the waiters ladled a traditional birthday feast on banana leaves. In an effort to promote cleanliness, the servers wore surgical caps and plastic gloves! This in a town where good bakeries used to have flies hovering around desserts inside glass counters. The waiters enthusiastically enlightened us about each item as they doled out colorful accompaniments to be savored with the rice, and studded our banana leaves with pickles. Delicious authentic Kerala meals were something I’d taken for granted when we’d celebrated birthdays years ago.
One evening my progressive/conservative aunt took me in her car to her beachside cottage and, on the way, I saw more churches and mosques than temples, a testimony to Kerala’s diversity. One of the churches was a vision in white with walls of white concrete, a contrast to the older churches that had brick façades. In the last few years, more Muslim women favored headcoverings, and I saw a few women wearing scarves as we passed by. Conservative attire had received a boost due to the influence of the Middle East, where many Keralites worked. I was told Muslims didn’t get along as well with Hindus as the previous generations had, but I’d experienced friendliness from a Muslim taxi driver who’d been aware I was a Hindu from our conversation. Further down the street from my mother’s place, residents of an apartment building awake daily to the crowing of roosters, followed by the call to prayer from the mosque, then the peal of church bells, and finally the clanging of temple bells. In an ideal world, the harmony of the past would remain while churches, mosques, and temples spring up.
Billboards cluttered streets while statues of prominent historical figures imparted character to the town. In addition to the proliferation of churches and mosques, there were many new shops ablaze in neon lights. The elegant display of clothes and other items in Fab India was impressive. The products in this boutique-like store had a polished look; I was reminded of my futile quest years ago when I searched for a flawless souvenir in different stores. The salesmen patiently folded the many kurtas I unfurled to inspect. Foreigners, once a rare sight in Thiruvananthapuram, contentedly browsed in Fab India. At another boutique, I had an entirely different experience. A saleswoman looked at the salwar kameez I tried out and tugged my clothes and pushed my skin to demonstrate how I could make my bulges disappear. To add to my mortification, she shouted my size to another saleswoman, loud enough for other customers to hear. After I returned to my mother’s apartment, I discovered the salwar kameez she’d placed in my shopping bag was the wrong size.
People were slightly more progressive than they used to be in their attitude toward romance, servants, the role of women, but many displayed poor manners. I had brought what I thought were perfect gifts (the result of hectic shopping between snowstorms), but I felt the lack of graciousness from most of the recipients. They acted like they had the right to receive and I had a duty to give.
I was appalled at the inefficiency and rudeness I encountered at a salon that had been upscale only four and a half years ago on my previous visit. No one sat behind the front desk. A woman popped out of a room and asked if I’d come to get my hair shampooed.
“I’m here for my appointment with Jayashree for an herbal treatment,” I said.
“She’s not here,” the woman said with a poker face.
“But I made an appointment,” I insisted.
“I’ll call her,” she said.
I sank into a bench and, after a while, a sweeper handed me a copy of The Hindu. Jayashree sauntered in half an hour late, not bothering to apologize. “My appointment was for 9 o’clock,” I complained.
“I had yoga,” she said as if it was the most natural explanation in the world.
“Then why didn’t you make the appointment for a later time?”
“Normally the class is if over by 8:30. Today it went on for a longer time.”
I didn’t leave, knowing the service and the charge, cheaper than what I’d have to pay in American salons, would be worth what I’d put up with. The last time Jayashree had massaged my scalp with herbs my hair had looked fabulous for four months. Now her expert fingers lathered and kneaded and I relaxed while she asked nosy questions about my lifestyle. “You have extra weight. You should go for yoga,” she advised me.
I looked at her reflection in the mirror and then at mine. For years I’d been defined by my slenderness and now I resented being reminded of my extra pounds, accumulated from indulging an insatiable sweet tooth.
“I go for walks,” I said, the knots of tension returning.
My American-born son once glimpsed a scene from a movie shot in Kerala in which a man verbally abused a child. “Is that boy a slave?” he asked.
“No, he’s the man’s son,” I explained. “Parents in Kerala believe they have the right to talk harshly to their children.”
One British proverb often quoted in Kerala was, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Politeness was considered superfluous, especially between family members. I generally avoid Malayalam movies because I tend to cringe watching the impolite interactions between characters. Still I sometimes succumb to the award-winning movies or the big hits that are as good and occasionally even better than Bollywood movies.
On my last day in Thiruvananthapuram, I received a final parting shot of rudeness from a resident in my mother’s building. As I stepped into the elevator with a friend, I greeted the neighbor. She didn’t say anything in return, but merely glowered like a bull about to charge a matador. “Haven’t you gone?” she asked, her tone distinctly unfriendly.
“I’m only leaving in the night,” I answered.
When we reached the ground floor, she exited the elevator without even a goodbye escaping her lips. “How rude!” my friend remarked. The neighbor’s lack of manners was appalling, considering she’d visited my mother a couple of days ago, and, while we’d chatted and I’d served her cookies from America, she’d complained that the residents of their building didn’t bond together socially.
Once upon a time the innate rudeness of Keralites had flourished alongside their hospitality. Guests were viewed as gods. However, because of busier lifestyles (more working women) and fewer servants or no help at all, hostesses have stopped routinely bringing out refreshments and snacks for visitors. Relatives sometimes stayed in hotels instead of using the guest room of an extended family member. In the olden days, it would have caused breaches in relationships instead of the almost audible sighs of relief. My mother lamented that hospitality was dead. I was lucky to feel welcomed wherever I went.
Fortunately, the affection of relatives, friends, and their servants lingered in my mind after I returned to Lexington. Perhaps their love will remain unchanged years from now as neon lights blaze over more and more residential apartments; and the clusters of emerald trees give way to yet another overpass; and more temples, mosques, and churches spring up, boosting diversity and clamoring for attention in their unique way; and restaurants, department stores, and boutiques multiply; and my aunt’s charming seaside cottage attracts commercial neighbors like the new fishing factory that seeped its stink while I was there; and the Arabian sea, that shows off its shimmering, wavy blue ribbons along the roads, beckons a record number of international tourists to its crescent coast. Though there will be donuts and muffins and croissants, the true flavors of Thiruvananthapuram will be preserved in foods like puttu, appam, stew, thoran, jukka upperi, and payasam. And, steeped in nostalgia, I’ll find it hard to remember that I’d once longed to leave what had been a sleepy town and go to America.