“Paravur is better than Paris.” I started, then stared at my father, who had just made this outrageous statement as though it was the most accepted fact of life. It went against the fervently held beliefs of my girlhood, every glossy magazine page that I had filed away, every sentence that I had smuggled into my brain. Which inebriated writer had said, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast”? Hemingway? Hemingway! What do I have against that Ernest statement?
I only have this slip of a land that seems to stretch its legs between the ocean and the backwater, a little-known swatch of brown between aquamarine and mossy green. Paravur was a place with seemingly predictable patterns. And yet, that place became my past and formed my present. When I walk, wherever I walk, I have its mud sticking to my soles.
Paravur was far from the city of light. Darkness would descend on that small village in Kollam in Kerala in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as soon as the houses had turned in after dinner: rice and fish, in every single home, the last red smear of the curry scraped from the mud chatti, a curry leaf sticking to the rim. Leftover rice would be soaking in water for a mildly fermented breakfast the next morning. There would be one house where the lights never went out. We created our Paris as we refused to switch off the boxy Dyanora TV. We thought a remote was an unnecessary expenditure and stretched on the couch, kind of like Nadia Comaneci on the beam, and dexterously manoeuvred our big toe to manipulate the knobs.
It was there, staying awake in that village, toe on the button, that I wandered into every country with my father: his passport had expired; I didn’t need to have one. June 1986. Our television was a year old, with grains as big as tennis balls, and 20 men from the neighbourhood squeezed in front of it every night for a month. I walked into the football fields of Mexico with them, surrounded by the whiff of black coffee, bidi smoke, Wills cigarettes and sleeplessness. We were all Diego Maradona. There was a football stuck to our left foot. Later, I would find that it was the first time Doordarshan had telecast live the entire World Cup matches.
If sport was delicious insomnia, then art came without fig leaves. That was Lesson No. 2 and I learned it, again, in the midnight glare of television. I saw for the first time frontal nudity. Paul Cox’s Nun and the Bandit — Gosia Dobrowolska removed her habit and we watched, my father in a chair in front of me, as though nudity was the most natural, beautiful thing in the world. That moment of unexclaimed silence between us taught me two things. Nudity doesn’t have to be accompanied by exclamations of surprise, disgust, shame, or censure. Art just is — look at it.
There was high art and low art and everything in between in a five-kilometre radius in Paravur. Art was a purple night of Kathakali. We spread newspapers and mats on dew-soaked ground amid a host of old people in white clothes — which is how I remember it — and watched Nala and Keechaka and Poothana, our eyelids drooping in the lamp light as the moon crossed the sky, until their roars jolted us awake, shaking the last fibre in the body. We never clapped when the performances by the maestros ended. We just got up, rolled our mats and walked into the first light of the morning. If you look closely, you can still find a daub of green Kathakali paint on my forehead. If I stay still for a moment, I can still hear the chenda drumming in an invisible horizon.
Art was the cheap Manorama weekly that reached my grandmother’s home every week, as it did every other house in Kerala in the late Eighties. Its serialised pulp fiction — poor Hindu girl falling in love with rich Christian boy, a blood-thirsty yakshi sulking in an ancient house — came with drawings of buxom girls in long skirts and snug blouses. They all had big kohl-lined eyes, the same elegant nose and straight hair that reached their round hips. They gave me the first intimations of love, sex and rape.
When a relative molested me at home, I fled from him, not because my 10-year-old body had sensed it was wrong but because Radha or Clara or Ayesha in one of those novels had recoiled in fear and shame and terror when someone tried to abuse them. They let me know that I should not be touched or groped here, there or anywhere. That was rightly or wrongly Sex Education 101.
Paravur was everything: home and the world, local and global, right and wrong, art and life. The age of innocence began and ended there. The most prominent caste in Paravur is my caste: the Ezhavas. They are a marginalised, backward community in the state although they were educated and well-off in Paravur and the neighbouring Mayyanad even in the late 19th century. In that insular patch of land, where there were just a handful of Nairs, some Muslims, no Brahmins and hardly any Christians, I was deluded into believing a) that we were superior people or b) that we lived in a society where caste did not matter. That illusion sustained itself admirably until I went to college in caste-obsessed Thiruvananthapuram. Suddenly, every name had a caste surname as appendage. Suddenly, people started enquiring blatantly: “So what’s your caste?” or subtly, “So what’s your father’s full name?” I realised, with a start, that I belonged to the peg called OBC. It took me a while to say hello to that abbreviation, that identity.
Paravur is now a small town trapped in time. There is still one good bakery and its egg puff (one half of a boiled egg with spicy onions encased in puff pastry) can do to me what the madeleine did to Proust, one big fish market (with some of the best anchovies, red snappers and karimeen in the world), one pricey flower stall. There are no new schools I would want to send my children to, no good hospitals where I would readily admit myself. I do not opt to live in my crumbling old house whose walls are peeling; where the civet walks in through the gate, climbs up the guava tree and sneaks into the attic every night. I am even glad that I escaped what could have been its stifling parochialism and nosey neighbours. Yet I never broke free from Paravur. I learnt it, unlearnt it and relearnt it.
If my being has an axis, then you will find it tilting in that brown earth. If my past has a pincode, it will be 691301. If you hold me against the light, you will find that place glistening like a watermark in me. It is the only place where I can rest in peace. Paravur is my yesterday and my longed-for tomorrow. Paravur is better than Paris. I have never been to Paris, true. But you have never been to Paravur either.