The Rich Vegetarian

An Examined Life

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Big Feelings

O Kerala, I have Big Feelings for you.

But it is a complex situation. A lot of love, an equal measure of nervousness, a hefty dose of the imposter syndrome, a heart full of pride (misplaced?)… it is all in there.

Let me explain.

I am a born-n-bred Mumbaikar (or Bombayite, as we were called before the city’s name changed). I grew up in this heavily populated behemoth of a city, crazy and gorgeous and polluted and filthy and magnificent and majestic… It is easy to run out of adjectives when you talk about Bombay. The city is maddening and aggravating in all these ways but it only takes a quiet Sunday morning for me to fall in love again. And it leaves me breathless. And like many other Mumbaikars, I also feel that this city is still young, wild and raring to go. And I am the old one here. I, who always thought of myself as the young girl who grew up in Bombay, am now the middle-aged woman. And Bombay is only getting started with her youth and wild days and colorful nights.

Us Mumbai folks speak many languages. Most of us speak Hindi, or some version of it. Either the grammatically correct one (if your family hails from North India) or the Hinglish version (if you liberally mix English in), or a third kind (which has Marathi words thrown in). I am sure there exists a fourth type, and a fifth one too. To put it simply, we (or I) speak a smattering of languages. My apartment building had many families originally from Gujarat, so Gujarati is another language I have a fair understanding of. Then there is the matter of Marathi, spoken by so many of my friends… so yes, I can follow a good bit of Marathi too. Oh, I forgot about Tamil, another language I was exposed to in my childhood.

That leaves Malayalam, my native language, my mother tongue… It is the language spoken in Kerala, the southernmost state in India, known as “God’s own country,” where my family hails from.

As a child, I spoke Malayalam at home. I even learned to read and write it at school (for four years). We watched Malayalam films, visited Kerala every summer vacation, met up with extended family, cousins and friends regularly… All in all, I had a decent grasp of the language, and I was comfortable speaking it (albeit with some English thrown in).

But then it began to change. For one, I married a guy whose family came to Mumbai by way of Gujarat, and they spoke Gujarati. Of course, that proved to be an advantage for me because I follow Gujarati pretty well. But then, my connection to spoken Malayalam suffered. Next, I moved to the United States, and that did not help either.

Like every expatriate, I spent a few semi-frantic years trying to keep the connection alive. I hunted up favorite Malayalam films on Youtube. I got hold of Malayalam books so I could maintain my knowledge of the spoken word (that one remains intact till date). Despite massive apprehension and fear of looking/sounding foolish, I took (and continue to take) every opportunity to speak Malayalam with fellow speakers, even as I am nervous about using the correct tenses and phrases, etc.

All in all, I am unsure and lacking in confidence but I desperately yearn for improvement. I want to be the girl who switches between languages flawlessly. I want to be that effortless individual who can navigate languages and cultures with consummate ease.

The truth is that I am not that individual. I hope to attain that image someday but it isn’t my current reality. I will (forever?) be the girl who speaks/writes/expresses primarily in English.

And all of this may have been perfectly acceptable, if not for the fact that my heart beats loud and proud for Kerala. I take immense pride in the fact that I have roots there. I couldn’t count the many ways I adore God’s own country. Kerala’s sights and sounds, tastes and fragrances bring me home every time. My love for Kerala is probably irrational in many ways (and I think it may be the case with my father too, another hopeless romantic). It is based in nostalgia, family, sensory recollections, language. It is a bit of a strange affliction, not shared by my sister who had a similar upbringing. Is this notion all romantic, and more so, because I live abroad? Perhaps. But I am a romantic, just like Daddy, and that’s probably why both of us are crazily in love with Kerala.

I once wrote an old post where I quoted, “You can take the girl out of Kerala but you cannot take Kerala outta the girl.”

Leaving India has only made the Kerala-shaped corner of my heart beat louder.

As for Malayalam, I will continue my adventures. I may look/sound foolish but I am not lacking in sincerity.

Being a Homebody/Inspired by La’s Orchestra

A book I love dearly is “La’s Orchestra Saves the World,” by Alexander McCall Smith. I had borrowed it from the library a while ago. I read it, loved it… and returned the book. There was something about the story that resonated so deeply with me… that I couldn’t stop circling back to it in my thoughts, again and again, in the months to come. So I bought the book and read it again. Loved it in a different way this time.

La's Orchestra Saves the World

La’s Orchestra Saves the World

The book tells the story of La (Lavender is her name), a young woman living in London with her charming husband. When her marriage collapses, La leaves London to go live in Suffolk, a small town in the English countryside. She arrives to a home that is in dire need of repair, love and attention. She gets to work, prettying up the home and making it inhabitable. She meets her neighbors and starts a new little life, quiet and hardworking. World War II is looming on the horizon. La feels lonely and isolated in her new environs. She has no one to share her thoughts with except the hens she tends to on a daily basis. La’s life changes when she meets Feliks, a Polish airman at the local army base. The story unfolds against the backdrop of war and its surreal possibilities, finally ending many years later on a happy, loving note filled with the voices and laughter of children, friends, and family.

At a point in the story, La wonders if she is a handmaiden. A person who is always watching, never acting… One who feels fervently but expresses little. As she busies herself in her little home — tending to hens, growing potatoes, hanging laundry, cooking, cleaning — she wonders about her insignificant contribution to the war efforts. She is not a nurse or an activist or a soldier (did females fight in the war? Probably not.). She perceives her life to be limited, circumscribed by the boundaries of her little village and the mundane existence of its inhabitants.

We live in a world that is ever telling us to do more, travel more, work more… be more. There is no end to being busy and achieving… stuff, whatever that means. I made myself believe that that was the right attitude. That was the way of growth, progress. I was always aware that this idea didn’t resonate with my inner self and I lived with that disagreement for many years, willing myself to be part of this march onward.

I think La’s story cemented an idea that had been germinating within me for a while.

I am a homebody. I like a little life. I am not exactly inclined to travel and discover the world. I derive nourishment from my home and the little rituals I engage in. I don’t regard house chores as dull or a drag. They provide a certain predictable rhythm to my life. I don’t have the drive to excel as a home-maker or a career woman. I am the happiest when I have books, tea, cooking on my agenda. All in all, a life that is equal parts cozy and nourishing, where I have time at hand, family a phone call away, old heartwarming films to watch, and Malayalam in my ears — yes, that suffices, thank you very much.