While on a brief visit to my home town (now called Thiruvananthapuram) in the midst of the sweltering summer, I could not help but notice the sweeping change in the attitudes of the ‘aam admi’ as well as the well-heeled. I was in the city to do a couple of repair jobs for my Laurie Baker-modelled house which I had recently inherited from my father. Built with no beams, the house stands tall even after 25 years. I was ready to face the electrician, the plumber, the carpenter and the cleaners along with their idiosyncrasies—or so I thought. Surprising me, the electrician reported home at 8 am sharp, followed by the carpenter and the plumber, while their assistants waited for command. The rigour was almost military. Meanwhile, I was still in my nightclothes, sipping coffee. I had expected all of them to come to work leisurely, as was the case several years ago when my father used to fiercely oversee such things and chase the shirkers. This time the work began with clockwork precision. The only break was lunch (an hour) and work resumed immediately after and went well beyond the stipulated hours. Not once did I have to resort to cajoling them.
Professionalism was here to stay, I realised, as the workers followed the strictness in the days that followed. The cleaning women, on the other hand, arrived after office-hours since this was a supplemental income for them. Neatly dressed in saris, they took on the task: washing, sweeping, scrubbing and removing the cobwebs with a vengeance. Soon enough, the house was squeaky clean. They bid me goodbye and requested me to take down their phone numbers so that I could call them on my next visit. The changes were clear. Everyone wanted to lead a good life and they knew they could have it by working hard on their chosen professions. This revolution was tangible. Here lay a truly developed society.
During my stay, I woke up one morning to the rhythmic sound of dry leaves being swept in a neighbour’s compound. Balancing my coffee mug, I walked up to my terrace to get a clear view. The picture I saw left me aghast. A retired gentleman with very high academic qualifications was actually cleaning his own compound. He had several servants at his beck and call but he chose to clean his own garden. This was indeed a revelation. Another retired neighbour revealed that he kept no servants. He washed his own car, tended to his own garden while his wife took care of the other domestic work. His explanation? “My children are all abroad so it’s just me and my wife. This will keep us healthy and active, besides giving us time to do things whenever we want, at our own pace.”
All this seemed like American to me and not typical of the ‘Mallu’ psychology. Whoever thought Nair gents from distinguished families would do household chores, buy vegetables and grocery, let alone sweep their own compounds!
The Trivandrum Club which goes way back into the 1890s deserves special mention, for not only did it give me respite from my daily cooking, but also served me authentic Malayali cuisine with a smile. The smile this time came from the heart. There seemed to be a camaraderie between the guests and waiters. The gulf had definitely narrowed from the days of the British Raj and the elitist planters. No longer did waiters sulk on being summoned to the table more than once. The waiters knew what they were doing and the guests were more than ready with their compliments.
Before going to see a Malayalam movie, I warned my husband that there would be a lot of harassment at the theatre and wondered whether we should put ourselves at risk. But then the lights dimmed, the movie began and to my surprise, there was no hooliganism from a crowd of students and regular movie-goers. During the interval we got talking with a young student. He was doing his B.A in English literature, while working as a cashier at FlipKart and taking a course in aviation safety.
My husband asked why English literature; pat came the reply: “I want to speak English well. I am sure something will rub off on me after doing my graduation in this subject.” An interesting change in outlook, since back in the ’80s, English-speaking students in this city were ridiculed and called part of the ‘aash bush’ gang, yours truly included. I believe this is the dawn of realisation when the young, middle-aged and the old in this city are making a real effort to wean themselves out of a closed society.
Marks & Spencer had a special bikini sale with “free fitting and measurement” by experts. This was clearly a clarion call for the ladies like myself, who went in and came back ‘busting’ a whole lot of money!
A former editor and journalist, Mumbai-based Meera Nair is currently a communications specialist
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