The Home I Left Behind

Kadekkal family ancestors

     Even though I admire writers for their flair and endowment, writing as a craft has never been my forte. But at times, certain emotional needs demand to be expressed; such an urge is what compelled me to write this. Something very close to my heart is our annual ‘pilgrimage’ to Kerala, India, where I was born and was raised, which I do with a religious fervor every year in the fall. The journey is exhausting, and the event is expensive and often harrowing. Yet I always look forward to my next expedition from the very day I return.
     As strange as it may sound, thirty years of life away from my fabled land has only drawn me closer to it; enriched my appreciation of the wealth of its traditions. The reality that those who still live there hardly cultivate those traditions – that they find those values less than fashionable – make it all the more alluring. Often it takes an occasional, exceptional visitor from afar to rediscover, expose and sing the praise of the richness of our land to keep us reminded of its preciousness. National Geographic Traveler magazine recently placed Kerala among the fifty places of a lifetime to be visited, one of the world’s greatest destinations, where beauty, serenity and heavenly pleasures await the visitor. In the wake of our president’s visit to India, the subject may have an added appeal, even though he failed to visit that part of the country.
     If the heat and humidity of the place don’t make you uncomfortable, the incessant downpour of the monsoon can paralyze your plans. The swarming mosquitoes and stampede of ants can give you more company than all your relatives and friends combined. Even if the din and clamor of the downtown traffic sound like music to your ears, the exhaust fumes will choke you as you gasp for a breath of fresh air. It is a challenge for the meek and courageous alike to cruise the roads, meandering through the potholes and puddles, negotiating the kamikaze drivers, imprudent pedestrians, autorickshaws and speeding buses. If one hasn’t had the thrill of Russian roulette, crossing M. G. road in Ernakulam by foot can offer you an experience, equally challenging. Piles of litter, loads of garbage, stinking drainage and a barrage of plastic have ruined the once-upon-a-time clean image of Kerala. Corruption is commonplace, accountability non-existent and pride of one’s profession remains a dream bygone. Again, what is the passion that draws me to the misery of an experience, year after year? Well, I have my reasons. I go there for the people. My people: my mother, my family, my relatives, my friends and well, maybe even few of my countrymen.
     I go there to see Nature, the lure of the scenery, the serenity only Kerala can offer; its food, its culture, its poetry, its literature, its passion, its personality and the nostalgia which is the reward of it all. I go there to devour that distinct Kerala charisma, perhaps appealing just to my senses. I go there in quest of a beauty ideal as enticing as it is elusive.
     Each year, when I leave, I hug my mother, touch her feet and get her blessings; then I take a long, lingering look at her, engraving her image in my mind, to last for a year or a lifetime, until I see her the next year or perhaps never again. As I part with moist eyes and a lump in my throat, she remains my most compelling reason to go back the next year.
     My mother is eighty-four, her frail body frisky despite her age; her alert mind anxious about all the happenings around her; her wrinkled skin having never had a make-over or her stained nails ever a manicure; her white, oily hair, fresh from the daily bath and exuding the scent of thulasi leaves; her forehead smeared with sandalwood paste, bhasmam or kumkumam. I watch her with affection and admiration as she paces the distance of our yard, swaying a little, chanting her daily prayers, perusing the needs and flaws of all the houses of her children, suggesting, commenting, and accusing them as she pleases, while getting the essential daily exercise for her body, mind and soul. I chat with her about our ancestors, their valor and their escapades, about neighbourhood gossip, catching up with my year of absence, about her approval and displeasure of the deeds of her sons and daughters, their spouses and children, her stand on the political matters in Kerala, India and abroad. Every year when I leave, I feel that I haven’t done enough listening, giving me a reason to go back and make up for the lapse.
     I enjoy the company of my family members, with whom I have maintained a loving relationship through the years. Their excitement over my presence and their expression of affection make me feel wanted. Perhaps the most desirable feeling in life is that of being loved. I have always kept harmony with my in-laws; when they receive you with a warm smile of love and gratitude and then serve your favorite dishes, the feeling of contentment is worth the visit every year. I feel relieved to find that informality is alive and well, when friends and relatives walk in as they please, to chat over a cup of tea or a meal of that time. Even though we vehemently argue about the anarchic democracy of India or the self-serving politics of America, we always part as friends. We analyze the corruption pervading every fiber of India and criticize the political morality of America and the amorous adventures of its leaders. Whether it is a family reunion or a wedding reception, visiting a sick one in the hospital or just a trip to town, vacation in India is an eventful, exciting experience on a daily basis.
     I love rising early, going up to the terrace and gazing at the green expanse of the still waters and the blue blossoms of the hyacinths. I get enchanted watching the majestic coconut palms waking up in the morning stillness and the blanket of the distant dew lifting over the stretch of brackish encroachment which have ruined the paddy crops a long time ago. Sipping coffee, I often wait for the sun to peer over the distant horizon before he climbs over the clouds and claims the world with his scorching heat. Often, I am jolted out of my reverie by the scream of the train, speeding over the nearby rails, carrying its contents to its destination. The day starts slowly but picks up pace in a hurry – there is rarely freedom to relax or ruminate; you are always in the midst of people, events, experience and noise…but I love the charm which is concealed within the cacophony.
     The food? The tastes I grew up with, the delicious dishes most typical of Kerala as Bill McKibben puts it, “the spicy food may be the best vegetarian cuisine on the planet!” Equally fascinating is the attitude of the people; the audacity, the effrontery, the insolence… their distinct disposition may be their biggest strength and their most disgusting weakness. Then again, outsiders see Keralites as the ones who “meet you on equal terms, with neither the subservience nor the rage you’ll find in much of the third world.
     Then there are the sounds, rather the noises and scenes that evoke old memories in me. The rumble of the broom scraping the sandy surroundings of the house; the chatter of the raindrops falling from the ledges of buildings; the symphony of the cawing roosters, the croaking frogs and the cackling crows; the bells and the blaring music from the temples, the devout, distinct resonance from the mosques, the parade of people in white flowing to the churches on Sunday mornings; the animated political debates at the village tea shops, the processions, the protests, the slogans and the strikes…the list is endless but nevertheless is the embodiment of the vim and vitality that is Kerala.
     Only a Malayalee at heart can savor the subtleties of our mother tongue. Far from being a connoisseur of the language I derive immense pleasure from its poetry, its lyrics and its literature which imbue the ethos and the imaginative mesmerism of our land. My heart aches for those, especially our children who cannot understand or appreciate the nuances of such an ancient and opulent language.
     As I pause with reverence at the site where my father was cremated and ponder over what he has been to me, I get immersed in a melee of emotions: gratitude, pride, guilt, loss and above all, love, all of which bring me a sense of belonging. What I am today is due to what he has done yesterday. My accomplishments are from his benevolence; my pleasures owe debt to his endurance. The fact that I chose to venture out and settle in the lap of luxury in a faraway land cannot change the reality of where it all started. That feeling of commitment emerging from a sense of belonging is perhaps the very essence of my desire to visit every year, to return to the place I once called home. The contentment I derive from these trips is serene, beyond words. These trips are my ‘trysts with destiny’. I feel blessed to have belonged.           (May 1999)

Author: Dr. Venugopal Menon

Was born and raised in a loving family in pre-independent India, became a doctor, served Indian army, got married, then came over to America with wife and a daughter, established as a successful Allergist, raised a family of three children, was involved in many social establishments, retired, and wrote memoirs, 'My Mother Called Me Unni, A Doctor's Tale of Migration'.

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