Nkosi Sikelel Malayalees *

*God Bless the Malayalees

“You can expect to find a Malayalee in every nook and corner of the world”, is accurate for my family tree. My great grandfather worked in many places like Sri Lanka, Vadodara, Chikkamagaluru according to Ammachi’s memory. Ammachi aka Mariamma Mathew Ittyerah is my paternal grandmother who still compares me to how “grown up” she was at my age, and chides me for not being the same (basically how your typical Mallu should be in a patriarchal society which consists of getting the girl in any family hitched ASAP).

Life was pretty sorted for Ammachi as she worked after tying the knot at 20. In 1966, she got a job in Kerala at Kattanam CMS High School, Alappuzha, and was a teacher in this institution till 1981. She never ever faced the issue of unemployment at that time. This was probably due to the vacancy of posts for teachers in countries abroad. As she narrated her years of experience in the teaching field, one thing was understood: arriving at Africa made a difference in her growth as a person.

“I later received the lecturer position that used to be a big thing back then, because it was very rare to get,” Ammachi tells me as she massages oil onto my scalp, like how she usually does once in a week, and continues her story. Though education was pretty much at par in Africa and India, people valued professions like medicine, agriculture and teaching a lot in Africa. Hence there is a difference between the ranks of position between teacher, lecturer, and professor over there.

“You know your Dadda had the most interesting childhood compared to your maavis, I feel; because of him only we moved a lot. He was such a crybaby like you… Even now also the reason we all are here is due to his transfer.”

Since the last child of the family (my father) was a boy my grandparents and great grandparents pampered and spoilt Dad a lot. It led to an extent where Ammachi and Appacha left my dad’s sisters back in Kerala at a hostel, and took only Dad with them to Nigeria. All because he didn’t want to be left alone, away from his precious Mummy and Pappa.

Now when you tell kids in school or college that you’re a Mallu but from abroad the first question they are bound to ask is, “Gulf?” But no, not me. Appacha, Mathew Ittyerah got a job in agriculture which he had applied for in Nigeria, and decided to take his beloved wife and pampered son along with him. Since the head of the family was and is a man as per our traditions, no questioning but just following was done. Then when my dad got his PR fixed through her, the next thing I knew was that I was in a plane and had touched down in Ixopo, a small town in the middle of two cities, Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

Dad being his usual self

Ammachi and Appacha are attached to three places (apart from their hometown Kerala) — Nigeria, Lesotho and South Africa. South Africa being the most loved, since they spent half of their life there. But the concept of learning languages never occurred to either of my grandparents, which is currently apparent even today as my grandma still doesn’t know or understands Kannada, despite being in Bangalore for almost 11 years. Compared to the rest of my folks, I feel like I am slightly better in that way as I still remember how to sing the national anthem of South Africa (Nkosi Sekelel’i Afrika), and also manage to survive with my broken Kannada.

In 4th standard, I received quite a lot of attention and was a source of entertainment for my Indian classmates. “Oh my God, you’re a Malayalee but from South Africa?”, “Sing the national anthem please!” So with my right hand placed over my heart I would give in to this peculiar request and begin. I still do sometimes even now. All their amazed eyes were on a little brown girl who knew the entire lyrics. However, identifying and understanding race was very difficult for me, and I have been teased enough for this.

I found myself explaining to South African kids that very often that you can be a Christian from India, which is also your motherland. You are also not a Hindu, and it’s called Bhaarath and not Hindustan, that you are not a Muslim from Pakistan, that butter chicken and naan is a North Indian dish whereas dosa and sambhar is South Indian but yes, they are both Indian cuisines. Our attire includes sarees and there’s a lot of languages like Tamil and Malayalam besides just Hindi. Eventually, I just gave up and allowed them to assume whatever they thought. But my resignation was also because of my lack of knowledge about India as a country.

I never knew that my brother’s birthday fell on the same day as Children’s Day until I came to India. I only knew what it means to be a Malayalee Christian, about Onam celebrations, how Kerala is a very hot place yet has beautiful beaches, and that Malayalam is my mother tongue. Every other piece of information obtained was solely based on the Bollywood film industry. That’s another reason why my family and I somehow survived in India when we first arrived as we knew Hindi.

When I asked Ammachi if she misses anything from those days, her response was a mix of bittersweet emotions. The Sunday brunches with her family friends, especially the Malayalee community in the neighbourhood is one of the things she will remember and cherish. They were there for her at all times; helping her from the day she became a grandmother, to the last goodbye at the airport. “I will always be grateful towards God for blessing me with such lovely people like them”, she says after clearing her throat. Life in a small town was simple, and back there, my favourite place used to be the public library which was only a few blocks away from my flat.

No place in this world is safe though; be it now or then. Even Appacha’s horrifying death wherein he got shot, did not stop her from working or going back to Kerala. Crime was an integral factor that needed to be worked on in South Africa with car hijacking, shoot outs and theft being at the top of the list. I remember having a friend in school whose father got murdered after being kidnapped. Ammachi’s also retired in 2007 and she could only get her pension in South Africa.

But then my dad received an offer in Bangalore in 2008, so we moved to India. Thus began the whole visa application process, photo sessions for passports, saying goodbyes and not to forget, selling each and everything; from our furniture to music albums and movie collections just to afford those flight tickets. Although the situation right now is difficult in some ways, none of us regret moving here, and even if we say we regret it, it’s just another one of those ‘heat in the moment’ things.

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Anna Mariam Ittyerah

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