I considered the sudden proliferation of Mallus in my world. The awareness of this pleasant proliferation set in when my colleagues clamored for an authentic mallu meal. I’ve never cared much for people’s ethnic origins from an identity perspective. But trifling cultural differences add to the richness of one’s interactions. I don’t fancy myself a writer, but cultural idiosyncrasies do stoke my writer’s intrigue.
With dinner plans in place, I found myself in the company of a half mallu, two self-confessed fraud mallus, a Bangalored albeit authentic mallu and oddly enough – a lone Punjabi. The motley crew headed to the backwaters of Hyderabad in search of an apartment-turned-restaurant serving the real deal. Our hopes of finding the place were buoyed courtesy the freshly made appams. We practically smelt our way to the non-descript apartment. As we reached the restaurant, the affable Punjabi felt a sudden urge to prove his non-existent mallu credentials. He proudly displayed his knowledge of mallu cuisine which he had picked up over the course of a brief stopover in God’s private estate.
The menu was a vegetarian’s nightmare complete with surrogate menu items- innocuously named “meat” dishes. Holy cow! I chuckled. The waiter offered me a choice between a cashew-coconut based stew and a coconut based stew. Reconciled to the lack of choice, I ordered the appam and one of the stews which the waiter deemed tasty. The semi-exotic stew of half-baked mallus nodded in approval of my choice. The matriarch of the home-restaurant also smiled endearingly. Contrary to perceptions created by the unimaginative and literally bitter karela-kerala pictures floating around on Facebook, the meal had hints of sweet coconutty flavor. I concluded that choice and variety in menus is highly overrated. A racy and familiar Malayalam hit item number with over-zealous dancers played happily in the background.
Meanwhile, the lovable Bangalored mallu and I jabbered away in Kannada, childishly pretending it was our secret “code” language. She and I cried ourselves hoarse when the code was broken, which is hardly surprising considering there were hardly any colleagues whose careers hadn’t taken them to Bangalore. I proceeded to confessed that Malayalam was one code I could never decipher. It’s a tongue which is intriguingly unintelligible to non-native speakers.
I reflected on how differences add such flavor to life. I further dwelt on the stew of assorted cultures that was India. As with all stews it has its own distinctively Indian base. I can’t seem to put my finger on the common Indian cultural base. I speculated that it could be coconut. I don’t rule out cashew-coconut combo though. The grand Indian “thali”( as the twitter-savvy Tharoor would have put it) is decidedly more flavorful than bland national projects rooted in singular identities. This was my single big discovery in Europe. Thank goodness for the EU project, cursed be the Euro crisis though. Had the Europeans melted into a cultural stew they could well have avoided the financial soup they are in now . The Germans would have been more than willing too feed the Greek economy. Had the Keralite economy needed help, we would have happily bailed them out in exchange for an appam or maybe two..three would certainly have done it
One doesn’t need a national chauvinistic mission or vicious identity politics to protect rich cultural legacies; one just needs a healthy aesthetic sensibility. A stew of cultures lets other people flavor the taste of assorted sub cultures and claim it as their own, as did the lone Punjabi. But I have wondered if the coconutty base would drown out other flavorful tones to create a uniformly boring cosmopolitan Indian stew? The authentic coconutty mallu meal proved me otherwise.