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Published on: 03/13/22 5:53 AM

Book review: Onam in a Nightie by Anjana Menon

A Malayali in lockdown

 Anjana Menon`s lockdown anecdotes make for a diverting read for Keralites and non-Keralites alike.

The author,  a media professional, just happens to be in the right place at the right time: Thrissur during a Covid lockdown. To begin with, she isn’t exactly thrilled about lockdown rules, the isolation, the attendant boredom. Slowly, she becomes habituated to these factors even if temporarily, and the writer in her starts to look at grist for her mill.

Which she finds aplenty, much to her own as well as to the reader`s delight. And by the end of the read, the latter is possession of several salient facts that include the layout of the magnificent Vadakkunathan Shiva temple, that the ubiquitous nightie still serves as unofficial state attire, that Kerala handled the onset of the coronavirus with an efficiency and calm that would have done Europe proud. Even this reader, a Malayali herself, was quite impressed on reading the passages involving the author whining, of all things, about the lethal local mosquitoes to Kerala Police, discussing the best broadband providers in town with them, starting a chatty relationship with someone she thinks is a cop but who turns out to be one of the many volunteers manning the quarantine help desks at police stations, migrant workers (the Hindikkaaru) staying back and being fed and looked after, cabbies at the airport frantic when the author forgets to take the  protective covering off her feet, and a roadside hoarding for a sari store featuring a masked model!

Fond reminiscences 

Menon reminisces fondly about the famous Thrissur pooram with its percussion orchestra, prodding mahouts, throbbing crowds, the vedikettu (fireworks)  and the showstoppers, the caparisoned  elephants. She tells us how the state machinery,  as well as the citizen army of volunteers, helped get Kerala back onto dry land after the 2018 floods. She makes amused references to the people`s obsession with news channels, the 600 old- age homes across this sliver of a state, the pull of lottery tickets and the return of the once omnipotent coconut oil. She gives us the best description of achappams (rose cookies) that I have ever read — page 28, if you want to know. She introduces us to Vasu the electrician who calls Menon`s parents from a market,  asking if they`d like him to bring fresh plantains along with  the fan regulator they need for the house. She gets us to meet the irrepressible drunk, Shivankutty,  who like most Keralites, says the author, is in a Gordian knot with alcohol,  and his far-from-bhayankari dog Rosie.

Menon tries for a wry note all through,  not shying away from touching on the famed misogyny of the Malayali male, how the comment adi (passing of salacious comments) is buttressed by sly groping hands, the notorious nokku kooli,  the state`s obsession with gold and suchlike. However, what comes through strongly is her undisguised fondness for Kerala, that `victim of high literacy, low poverty, unbending self-assuredness and elastic resilience.`  At times, she  does do the rather improbable Delhi-Thrissur comparison,  but no prizes for guessing which city wins.

And this passage, lest we forget: A Kerala commonality overtakes everything in the state, including religion. You will see the same brass lamp in churches that you see in temples. You will see mosques with clay-tiled roofs and wooden architecture and white lime walls. The Thazhathangady Mosque in Kottayam, believed to be centuries old, is a testament more to Kerala architecture than Islamic influences.

No Mallu snark

The illustrations by Anujath Sindhu Vinaylal are equally charming.  Featured on the front jacket as well as below each chapter headline,  are things  ubiquitous to God`s Own: pi-dogs, crows, killer mosquitoes, dragonflies, crabs, snakes,  coconut palms, jackfruit, banana  stalks,  men in mundus… and the relatively recent addition of health workers in PPE gear,  as well as the women cops who do the quarantine rounds on their Enfield Bullet motorbikes.

Interestingly, not much of the characteristic Malayali snark is to be found in this book. It`s all heart where Kerala is concerned.

Onam in a Nightie, Stories from a Kerala quarantine By Anjana Menon. HarperCollins Book. Rs 299. 243 pages


Anjana Menonbook reviewCovid tales from KeralaHarperCollins BooksKerala in the lockdownlockdown storiesOnam in a Nightie

Sheila Kumar • March 13, 2022

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