From the land of coconuts

From the land of coconuts

Edited by Shinie Antony
Rupa & Co, 2009,
pp 255, Rs 195

Shinie Antony, editor of the book, has described it very well. A ‘fiction-nonfiction-memoir-travelogue anthology’. That just about sums it up.

‘The Leaf And The Thorn’... an introduction by the editor prepares you for what to expect from the book. It shamelessly dwells on what it means for the Malayali to ‘be Malayali’ and touches on some of the issues covered by the authors in the book. As expected, the range covered is diverse, from emotional fiction and drama, to religion, politics, art, music and urbanisation; the book will hook a discerning reader. A short sketch of each author follows the stories, bringing to light the background and the context of each piece.

The fictional works are pleasant to read, gently drawing you into the book. An ‘Odd Morning’ is an interesting, unconventional introduction to Kerala, being the story of a young woman who wanders into the state and decides to live there for an indeterminate period and ‘The Countryside’ is a brilliant work that explores the attitude of a cloistered town towards the twin taboos of sex and casteism. For a non-Malayali reader, these bring clarity to the book and will probably prevent them from floundering too much when it comes to non-fiction works. Even though they are brilliantly written, the double quagmires of malayali politics and religion need a deeper understanding than the allotted 10- 15 pages.

Some other stories like ‘Hijack’ and ‘Three Men on a Train’ bring out the non-conformist writings of the authors. If read in isolation, they could mistakenly portray malayalis as slightly eccentric, if harmless people. However, as part of this book, they shine as counterpoints to heavier political and religious cast of some of the other works like ‘The Argumentative Malayali’.

As expected, many of the pieces have a distinctly religious cast to them, ‘Fort Lines’, and ‘A Matter of Faith’ being the most prominent among them. They belong to the anthology, inasmuch religion dominates much of a Malayali’s routine. A beautiful balancing art between prose and poetry is ‘The Strange Sisters of Mannarkad’, a tale of religion and faith. The intertwining of Christianity and Hinduism has been described in a very intriguing manner. Other aspects the book touches on are art, literature and culture, with pieces like ‘The Mundu Brigade’, ‘No Sex Please, We have Cable’ and ‘Orhan Pamuk, Nair and I’.

‘Silent Cats’ deserves a special mention. A gripping one-act play, exposing the hypocrisy of society and the pain of a young woman cowering in a conservative society, it works like the focal point of the book. Yet, it is ironic that this piece need not be restricted to a representation of a young woman in Kerala and may be applied, without too much imagination, to any woman in any state across the country.

Kerala, Kerala... winds up with a bang with ‘Building Brand Kerala’, a succinct narrative of Kerala as it was, is and hopefully will be.

On the whole, the book is a must read for any non-Malayali wishing to understand Kerala and its people better. A word of caution here — it is in no way a comprehensive guide to Kerala or Malayalis, rather, it serves as an introduction to the state and its residents, their behaviour and their passions. For the resident Malayali however, it renders in beautiful detail the dear and familiar. And for the non-resident malayali... it feels like going home.