At Trivandrum, Pabla has it all figured out. Her dedication to her phone screen has paid off and she’s found us two gracious hosts in the capital of Kerala. So once we get off the bus at KSRTC terminal, we haggle for an auto. Pabla’s Whatapp has beeped informing her not to pay any more than Rs. 60 for the ride till Kowdiar. But one must struggle for a fair deal in big cities.
After rejecting and being rejected by some 10 odd autos most of who asked for more than Rs. 100, we were a little surprised when one finally agreed to take us for what we were offering.
Conversing and navigating is easier in Trivandrum as more people speak Hindi and English. This is an important city. The buildings are taller; the streets have a fair crowd of suited men and women with ironed clothes, neatly tied hair, gold bangles and earrings, always checking time on that black leather strap watch with a golden frame while waiting for some form of transport to ferry them back home at the end of the day’s work.
Everything official happens here. The Kerala University, the International Airport (one of the four in the state), the Central Telegraph office, ISRO, Department of Museums and Zoos etc. But important cities have a seriousness about them which is only broken at 4 in the evening when the children come down to play having rid themselves of their school bags and uniforms and after stuffing their faces with home cooked lunch. Then they are out on the road, each one screaming out a new rule for the game that’s under process all the way till sunset.
Most of Trivandrum, the moment you step away from the wide main road avenues with their various roundabouts, is a mesh of residential alleys snaking around the city, connecting one lane to the other and then suddenly leading back to the main road. It’s blinding really. One gated complex after the other. Walls, walls, walls, occasionally interrupted by an empty plot providing some relief to the eyes.
At the onset, this seems like a city of rich residents. Most houses have a compound with their own car parks, thatched roofs, frontyard and backyard along with a benevolent sprinkling of coconut tress all around. Almost all houses have a road leading up to it. Almost all houses have the priviledge of a car and a drive way. But later, much later, it will suddenly dawn on me that in Kerala almost everyone’s house is like this.
Of course, my only reference point is Delhi, a city that is so distinctly bifurcated between the planned posh colonies and the rather chaotic ghettos with the sky profusely interrupted with wires. If I would have paid any attention or showed any inclination to learn more about land reforms in India, I would have already expected this kind of careful, categorical distribution of land.
But the Trivandrum skyline is definitely erratic. The city is profusely under construction. From the looks of it, older houses with more traditional Kerala style of architecture are giving way to high rises and multi-storied flats. Umang points out that most of this development has only sprung up in the last 5-6 years.
Our hosts, Umang and Satendra are not from Trivandrum however. They have resided in the city for almost a decade now. From the crazy college days of IIST (Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology), they have now graduated to working at ISRO. They stay in a flat two story house with three bedrooms, two roofs, a narrow backyard and a kitchen so big that it can house 8-10 people in case the cook forgot the recipe. That’s how life is in Trivandrum. No need to stay crammed. For Rs. 14,000 you get a bungalow.
This bungalow belongs to bachelor engineers. Naturally, it’s messy. The floor has a layer of dust. Clothes cling to strings tied across the length of the room that’s been set aside for us and in the hall outside. Books stacked on the window sill give support to fine spider webs. There’s a model of a blue rocket on the table in our room along with another project in progress, currently protected from dust by a thick plastic sheet. A broken winged black helicopter hangs nose down from a nail just above the cupboard making for interesting wall décor. Then there’s the cover of a Rin bar, some empty snack boxes and shake glasses and an entourage of plastic packets containing god knows what treasures, all stacked on the floor.
The next day there’s a party. Umang and Satendra have invited some of their ISSD/ISRO friends over for dinner. There’s cooking. Pabla is making pulao. And she has many aids in the kitchen. Pabla names and the ingredient appears from some cupboard overhead.
The rest are laying out mattresses in the hall outside. Some rum has been acquired and there’s fresh green loot from Bangalore. There’s also attempt at music but mostly it’s too erratic disappearing into some melancholic pink Floyd tune or blaring out in its shrillest best some Bollywood number from some unfortunate era. Eventually everyone settles down with a glass and there is conversation.
Friends who have seen too much together, I believe, fall into a rhythm. They start to think alike. Their reference points are the same. Which is nice because then every introductory conversation goes in a similar and predictable fashion. It always starts with the funny stories when this one said this and that one did that. There are the smile faced reminiscent listeners, and the narrators each of who pitch in with a line that they do best. A group performance. A collective narration.
Eventually the performance pans out to make way for more organic interactions. Umang is from Assam and Satendra from Lucknow. Their friends are from Assam, Bihar and Haryana. It seems the northerners stick together here seeking comfort in linguistic connect. Anyone who speaks Hindi is welcome.
At Trivandrum, I know what the north and South divide is like. Not that there is animosity but just that it’s too unfamiliar. And for a bunch of people living far away from home in a city which is culturally so different from where they come from, one can only wait for the discussion to roll over to a sort of venting out, especially after the subjects have downed a couple of glasses. And it does.
Food is a contention, language is a contention, interactions with the locals are punctuated. Their ways, believes and lifestyle is different, the mindset and the corresponding ideologies are different. And all of it is a great source of humour; and as I figure, also a great way to connect with other northerners coming to the city like Pabla and I who have also and already felt that alienating effect tug at our sleeves.
This reminds me of Ajith in Delhi. He and his brethren are the flip side of this coin. Grown up with the beats of Chennai they must now deal with the ‘chaats’ of North India along with their ‘oye’and ‘abey’ exclamations. I wonder what the jokes go like in his native tongue after a couple of drinks.
The day ends with a quick visit to the Sangamukham beach. It’s around 12 when someone has the bright idea. There’s one scooter and one car and the seven of us. A 15 minute drive later, we are there. A convenient get away from those walled alleys to catch some fresh air before Umang and Satendra have to drive away 25 kilometers to work the next morning.