Onam in a Nightie📚: Buoyant & nostalgic, stories of homecoming and serendipitous conversations 🧳

Onam in a Nightie by Anjana Menon

I kept away from this book as long as I could; I found the title a bit of a put off. But the yellow cover wouldn’t let off, the book appeared in every bookshop I visited and was very visible. I had not heard of the author before and finally in one of the bookshops, my arms reached out and I began skimming through the intro.

The author is writing about the district of Thrissur in Kerala and I knew very little about Thrissur; I knew the people there had a peculiar accent (so did the people of other districts, beginning from Trivandrum, Kottayam, Kochi, Calicut, all the way to Malappuram) and then there was the famous Thrissur pooram (temple festival). The pooram is a big affair, attracting large crowds, celebrated with pomp and show, broadcasted on TV, marked by rows of colourfully adorned elephants, drum beats, fireworks. I didn’t think much of it, my sympathies were with the poor elephants, forced to stand in attention in the heat amidst the bustle and din and till date not a fan of crowded public spaces either….and the author reveals “The pooram and I never embraced, aborted by vulgar interludes.” I belong to a different district in Kerala, so my apathy seems justified, but the author is a Thrissur native and she is also not a fan of the famous Thrissur pooram !! Suddenly the book seemed worth a read, it’s about the author’s quarantine days in Kerala, non-fiction read, I like that. And a sale was made.

The book’s yellow cover reminded me of the beautiful and graceful hanging clusters of the yellow Vishu konna poov (also called Laburnum or Amaltas); the flower was in bloom everywhere in Kerala in March when I went down to attend a family function, the 40th day after death memorial service for my grandmother. 15 Apr was Vishu, new year as per the Malayalam calendar; I couldn’t spot even one laburnum in Bangalore though.

The book reads like a journal📖; opens during the pandemic year, work from home is the norm and the author and her brother travel from Delhi to their parent’s home in Thrissur, Kerala. Parents spent their working life in Delhi; retired and now spent time between homes in Delhi and Thrissur. They are happy to be in the proximity of their children in the uncertain times and the author and her brother are happy with the first hand knowledge that their parents are safe. The author settles for he 14 day mandatory home quarantine, all the while penning her thoughts past and present.

” A stay that dehusked memories – of things, places and people – who have nothing and everything in common. A recess that uncovered the townsfolk, and their relationship to the state, and my relationship to them.”

“(Kerala) A state wedged into the tip of India, imperfectly squeezed against the sea and the mountains, flexing itself for a sliver of space – a victim of high literacy, low poverty, unbending self-assuredness and elastic resilience.”

Onam in a Nightie by Anjana Menon

The author arrives in July, well into the monsoon season and is welcomed by the rain. Rain, food and Malayalam movies are the holy trinity of nostalgia triggers for a Keralite and almost every chapter in the book has mention of food; sweet and savoury, fried and steamed, homemade and bakery bought; a story in every bite 😋

” I’m enjoying my tea on the balcony, munching deep-fried banana chips, pazham varuthathu. This is the sweet variety – not the savoury pale-yellow ones that hordes of Malayalis grew up on and distributed to friends.

This one is dark brown, made from ripe plantains and a relative newcomer to the list of deep-fried snacks that Kerala is so in love with.”

Onam in a Nightie by Anjana Menon

Kerala was considered as a ticking time bomb during the pandemic years, due to the large number of cases the state was reporting on a daily basis. The state was in a flush of arrivals, faced with uncertainty, people from world over descended home to family and safety; but the state managed the trying times better than many others.

” Kerala is busy – learning, relearning, preparing, keeping pace, breaking old habits, coping with the new. The 2018 floods, a tipping point in its somnolent existence, when the monsoon rains recast itself into a nightmare and altered its relationship with Keralites forever.

In the two years since, the state administration has mapped every road, every public health facility, every available resource right down to its villages. It knows where its doctors are, its teachers, its volunteers, its engineers, its fishermen, its local leaders and it has drawn up an action plan that it can use in an emergency, It has an orange book.”

Onam in a Nightie by Anjana Menon

The author is a journalist by profession; a working Delhite, occasional visitor to her native town with resigned low expectations of town life and constantly surprised by how things work out esp. during the pandemic, with help from unexpected sources; unexpected and unimaginable in the confines of city life. Kerala has a more communal living which has both its upsides and downsides; everyone is eager and aware of everyone’s affairs and hence if you are slightly forthcoming people are ready to help; good deeds are reciprocated and the goodwill and trust is built over the years; it takes time. But you can never be too trusting either.

“Kerala is full of retirees like them. People who emigrated to big cities when they were young, worked hard and gave their children a good life.

Once they return to their ‘native place’, as they say in India, the friends of youth, the familiarity of the neighbourhoods they spent their middle age in, the relationships of the city they thrives in, are all left behind. The voids are too many to fill.”

Onam in a Nightie by Anjana Menon

The book grows on you. The stories are positive; everyday life is captured beautifully with a notes on the traditions and comparisons to the author’s life elsewhere around the globe. There is no place like home; but the person’s attitude to the place also matters as home becomes heaven only when we learn to to live with the people around us.

” Kerala’s roads are full of hurrying, honking bullies, big and small. In Kerala, the size of the vehicle doesn’t matter. I’ve seen autorickshaws hold their own. slowing down trucks that look ready to mow them down. I’ve seen motorcyclists who will occupy only the centre of the road, leaving no room to overtake on either side. I’ve seen India’s smallest cars unexpectedly swerve and occupy the wrong side of the road, just to overtake the mighty buses.”

Onam in a Nightie by Anjana Menon

Halfway, the nostalgia kicks in and tugs at the heartstrings… yes, it’s exactly as she says !! The gold jewellery craze, the prestige of a government job, the love for Malabar porotta, the empty houses, the mosquito menace and the majestic rains…“..the air feels fresh, my lungs feel aired and the cool sheets smell comforting because it’s the smell of my childhood. I doze off to the din of a million taps left open in the skies – the sound of monsoon rain drowning out the light thunder in the distance – my limbs sinking into the mattress in relief.” Pure bliss and always associated with coming home to Kerala…✨

” The monsoon is how Keralites know the school term has started (June), books vainly shielded from the rain, umbrellas flying away in the gusty winds and the chill of the wet school uniform on the body. “

Onam in a Nightie by Anjana Menon

Warm and witty; the stories move beyond the quarantine and Onam. The series of chapters present a kaleidoscope of impressions about people, places and things typical to Kerala; otherwise ordinary but the author turns the spotlight onto their idiosyncrasies thereby making them memorable narratives.

So does the author celebrate Onam in a nightie !? Nope; then who does; why the title !? You will have to read and find out😀 !! It’s an entertaining read full of wistful affection to all things quintessential Kerala; a slice of life, the good life. Though set in Thrissur, with a few changes in names and places, this can be the typical story of any district in Kerala. A lovely read !!

Till next post, take care !!

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