I have had mixed feelings about Kerala all my life. Yes, it is home and yet it has never been ‘my home’ in so many different ways. I think that ambivalence comes from my inability to see malluland as my birthplace. Born and brought up in the Middle east, otherwise known as the second home for all fellow malayalis, I lived a childhood that was carefree. For instance, when I walked out of my air-conditioned home, there would be an air-conditioned bus waiting to make sure that I did not get to even feel the insane heat that is a characteristic of the country. From there, I would go to my school, air-conditioned of course, and sit with like-minded kids of my age and study. I never thought that this was what one would call privilege.
To be honest, if someone ever asked me about my time back there, I would simply go blank. I had nothing to say except that I had a ball of a time because it was all so normal and so given. But that was until my father lost his job and sent all of us back home. Suddenly, I could not keep my mouth shut.Why are we living in a broken-down house? Why don’t we have a/c? Why are there mosquitoes in India? Why are people talking in Malayalam and not in English? Why are people dirty? Why does it smell? So many angry questions and so few answers.
Years later, as I made my way through college and then university, I realised how cocooned I was from most of life’s realities for a long time. A 100 rupee note made so much difference. To my mother, it meant evening snacks for us if she cuts down on auto fare. But as time passed, the hardships vanished and soon, the home I knew became the home that I detested.
So when ASER Kerala happened, I took it on with so much dread. What is it like to return to a place where your family is, where you will now work and where you will have to meet people and engage? I was so sure back then that it would be a nightmare. But when I reached home, once again, the experience sent me back to that realisation that I was so privileged.
In Kerala, our work rested more on women. Right from the households we surveyed to the trainers and volunteers, all of them were women. Thus,what we had in hand,were a large bunch of sordid tales, each one outweighing the other. Some surveyors told me how abusive their spouses were while some others talked about that time in their life where they had no money to buy iron pills during their pregnancy. At a home where this sweet grandmother hugged me to tell me that she spoke Bengali as well as Malayalam and told me tearfully of how she should not have left her children in Kerala when she went with her husband to another state, I couldn’t utter a word. Because as we spoke, her 17-year old grandchild was struggling to do division. The mother, a drop-out, was telling me how the child has no father and so we should not fill the column at all.
As women, each of them reached out to me in so many different ways that for some miraculous reason, I could feel them. I can also say that a part of me, the woman part, had its fill. So even when I spent a night at a hotel that I wasn’t sure of or when I walked around wondering if I had lost my way or when I steered conversations away from questions on my marital status, I just knew that Kerala had metamorphosed into a home that I never imagined it would ever be. Perhaps, from now on, this is how I would remember it.
Communication Associate, ASER Centre