Anita Nair is the author of the bestselling novels The better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress and a short story collection, Satyr of the Subway. Her children’s books include The Puffin Book of world Myths and Legends; Adventures of Nonu, the Skating Squirrel; and Living Next Door to Alise. Her books have been translated into over twenty- five languages around the world.
This much is certain: it is impossible to get two people in Kerala to agree upon anything. Give them a subject - nuclear weapons, the American Presidential elections, earthquakes, Maxim Gorky, or the family next door and they will argue about it with as much acumen and aplomb as any star attorney in a TV soap would. And yet, bring up the principle of make do and everyone will hasten to agree that it is the only way to survive Kerala. Make do is the deity everyone worships. Make do is the reason why the average Malayali goes through life convinced that he is the liveliest, shrewdest and most intelligent of all Indians. This despite the high rate of lunatics and suicides. Make do is just about the only thing a Malayali does with little rancour or debate.
Each time I go home to a little village called Mundakotukurussi in Kerala, this business of make do confronts me with a sly giggle, starting with the jeep that jumps and leaps, screeches and roars in turns as it crunches up miles between the railway station and my ancestral home. If there was a road once, it exists in the memories of the residents of the village as a few mounds of gravel patched with tar. Right now, they have learnt to make do with a well- trodden path wide enough for a jeep to negotiate and navigate through.
How omnipresent the principle of make do really is I discovered on my last trip home. When I reach my parents’ house, it is to discover that the power is off. The level in the water tank is low. Around the house are clusters of giant plastic drums and traditional bronze vessels. This being the month of October, when the power fails, the rains have been known to oblige. I take a deep breath and look around me. Nowhere else in the world have I seen so many hues of green. The velvety green of the moss on the wall. The deep green of the hibiscus bush. The dappled green of the jackfruit. The jade green of the paddy…Leaves. Parakeet’s wings. Tree frogs. The opaque green of silence. In the evening, darkness will run amok on this canvas of green and it will be time to visit the temple where make do reigns supreme. Muthasikavu or the grandma’s grove is a little shrine edging the village. My grandfather re-built the broken down temple. Since none of the idol- makers could comprehend what it was he wanted hewn out of stone or fashioned in metal, he set up a sandalwood pedestal and made do. In the Muthasikavu, there is no deity. Only a lamp that glows from within the sanctum sanctorum. You make do with what your imagination can conjure up and that is the face of divinity. In this village that has neither a guardian deity nor a regular place of worship, they have learnt to make do with this family shrine. And so when they require divine intervention, they make their request to the old lady of the grove. The drummers begin to tune their instruments in preparation for the Velluchapad. The oracle is a tall lean man with gaunt cheekbones and eyes that burn. His hair is wet and straggly after the ritual bath and hangs to his shoulders. He walks into the temple with giant strides and breaks into a guttural scream after few minutes. The drumbeats drown all thought and the Velluchapad begins to dance. As abruptly as the dance began, it ends and the Velluchapad begins to run, circling the temple. Sometimes the divine power refuses to let go of the Velluchapad and then he begins to slash his head till blood drips down his nose. Slowly his body loosens and the clenched- in look on his face dissipates. Being a Velluchapad, I decide, takes a lot of making do. It can’t be easy being a repository of divinity; pitching yourself into a state of nervous energy, cutting your head open to appease a savage god; all to keep a family fed and clothed. There is enormous prestige attached to the position but these days, Velluchapads have few rituals to officiate at and hence have to make do with alternate sources of income. This one is an electrician’s assistant by day.
I trudge the narrow path back home. The power goes off. It comes back in a minute and then goes off again. On and off, on and off. Three times is a signal to indicate that the power won’t be switched on till next morning. Little lanterns shaped like glass eggs light up rooms. in more affluent homes, the emergency light comes on. There are no harsh surprises, none of the not- knowing-what-to-do. Palm leaf fans and mosquito nets; transistor radios that will bring the world into the homes even if the TV can’t; candles in saucers and generators. With these the village will make do till morning or whatever time the power chooses to return.
I sit in the veranda and watch the rainfall. A frog leaps joyous with wetness. A baby scorpion scuttles out; flooded out of its dry home, it seeks refuge in a crack in the floor. In the morning, coconut clusters that would have sagged from the assault and battery of the storm will be propped up and tied. Rotten plantain trees will be uprooted and new ones planted. The land will be repaired. Nature that kills will also heal. And perhaps it is based on this seminal knowledge that the principle of make do thrives. Kerala when offered to the world is a package wrought of colour, traditions, dainty foods, coconut lined lagoons and marvellous beaches, where green and light, 100% literacy and ayurveda, boats and elephants, all find their place. God’s own country, the brochures tell you. If you’ve been there, you’ve been to paradise, they cajole.
What of the total lack of industry, high unemployment, a competitive and conspicuous consumerism, bureaucracy, corruption, or the stifling conservative attitudes, the average Malayali asks. Does the world really know what Kerala is all about? Only if you have lived here will you understand, I am told again and again. As I collated material for this anthology, it is this I sought. Writers who have a congenital craving to want to read between lines and see beyond what is on display. To probe beyond the surface and tap into the seams of everyday. To shrug aside recycled nostalgia and to see Kerala for what it truly is. Voices that haven’t succumbed to the sheer beauty of Kerala and who have been able to decipher, if not appreciate, the conundrum that Kerala is. A repertoire of voices that either in English or in Malayalam, in essays, fiction and poetry, have made definite forays into understanding Kerala.
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