My hairstyle being the root cause of public nuisance and intense ridicule isn't a new phenomenon. It has always been so ! But even my appearance has come under the scanner very often. So let me recount some of the instances that have made me feel like an alien.
In early days in Kochi as a bachelor, I used to visit a famed Dosa joint practically every day for my midnight snacks while I prepared for the All India PG Medical Entrance Exam. This joint was run by a Konkani family. They didn't know me and I used to converse in my uncomfortable Malayalam with them.
After one and a half year in Kochi, I moved to a small hospital in Ponkunnam. While back in Kochi on a weekend, I again decided to visit this joint. Once there, the owner recognized me and told his brother in Konkani, "This Setu [used for North Indians] boy had probably gone north for some time. Now he is back".
I savored my favorite onion dosa without uttering a word. While leaving, I told them in Konkani, "Your dosas are really nice and the red chutney you serve is unique. It is typically Konkani in taste". I didn't wait for their reaction. The next time I was there, they had done their homework and knew my complete antecedents.
Long Sharp Mustache and the CBI Diary
I worked in Ponkunnam for almost 2 years. While there, I used to travel by bus to Kottayam frequently to watch latest Malayalam and Hindi movies. On one such journey, I was trying to catch some sleep. But the middle aged person next to me was in no mood to let the sleeping Doc sleep.
He poked me on my shoulder and asked, "Where are you going ?". I was annoyed, yet replied politely, "Kottayam" and closed my eyes again. He poked me again and asked, "Where in Kottayam ?". I was in no mood to divulge and hence sai, "Just like that". Then came the next question, "Where do you live ?". I said, "Ponkunnam". He wasn't happy with that and went ahead with, "No, which your native place ?". I too was determined now and replied, "Kochi".
There was a creepy smile on his face and he said, "You are not a Malayalee. You can't be from Kochi. Are you North Indian ?". I was having great difficulty keeping my eyes open and here was a pest not allowing me the pleasure of a short nap on a speeding bus. I said, "No, South Indian".
He must have been a leach in previous life; just not ready to quit sucking. His next question was, "What do you do ?". I said, "Nothing special". "But you should do something for a living. So what is your job ?" was his riposte. Then he asked, "Are you a businessman ?" I replied, "Mmmm, something like that". Pat came the next query, "What business ?".
Now I was at a loss. If I say something and he starts probing the answer, I'd be in further trouble. So I just smiled and said, "Just some small business here and there". He almost concluded, "That means you have a blade company, right ?". Too sick of this nuisance, I just nodded and tried to turn to the other side to catch some sleep.
After what seemed like a short break, the poke was back. He shook me up and said even as I was trying to catch my breath, "You were bluffing all the while. Now I have completely deciphered you. You are very shrewd. Now I know what you do. You are from CBI or Crime Branch and you are here to investigate a case in the high range".
I was still in a daze and asked him, "How did you make out ?". He triumphantly declared, "You may be CBI but we Malayalees are highly educated and intelligent you see. Your secretive behavior, your language, your looks, your color and above all that sharp mustache is very typical of CBI or Crime branch. You have that Police look". Must have been watching too many Police and CBI movies !
I have never been happier when a journey ended. First thing I did after going back home was to trim my extra long mustache !
North Indian Connections
Almost 17 years in Kochi and I still am not accepted as a local even though I have developed a decent client base in my profession. I also have a sizable Punjabi clientele thanks to my love for Hindi. I was at my daughter's school recently attending the district level arts festival. I am fairly well known there thanks to the popularity enjoyed by my daughter.
After her first performance and during lunch break, a gentleman came and told me, "Your daughter's performance was really nice. She should have won. But the CD spoiled everything and unfortunately she might lose because of that". I just nodded and smiled. He was right, she came second in the Folk Dance event due mainly to the substandard CD.
While I was still busy eating, I had a call from one of my Punjabi clients. As I was conversing in pretty decent Hindi, this gentleman kept staring at me. Once I finished, he came to me and said, "So I guessed right. You are North Indian. So are there Shenoys in North India too ? Your daughter and wife speak pretty decent Malayalam. How is that ?". I said "I am from the North is right, but just north of Kerala. My wife is from Kerala and daughter was born here too. That is why they speak decent Malayalam". This was a nice man. He took my reply and left me alone to mind my own business of eating.
Hot blooded Young Man and Pandi-monium
It was on a night duty during my early days in Sudheendra Medical Mission. A young lady was brought to casualty with fever and vomiting. It was already past midnight. Her husband and father were accompanying her. I talked to her in whatever Malayalam I could muster and examined her.
As I sat down to write down the prescription, her husband asked me, "Doctor Pandiyaano ?" meaning, "Doctor are you a Pandi ?". By this time, I had come to understand that 'Pandi' was an insult the Malayalees used to refer to the daily wages workers from rural Tamilnadu. 24 is a very very tough age to control your temper even for a Doctor. I retorted, "Ningalkku Vattundo ?" meaning "Are you mad ?".
Stunned, that man asked, "Why do you talk like that ? What is this ? You are insulting me". By now, I had realized I might have crossed the line. Yet, I had to defend myself. I said, "See my Malayalam might not be good enough. But I have enough knowledge about this state to understand 'Pandi' is an insult. I am here at this goddamned hour examining your wife and trying to help you people and you are out to insult me. That put the doubt in my mind".
His father in law intervened and said, "Come on Doctor, he is a young man with hot blood. You should be generous". I politely reacted to the older man, "Sir, I am at least 4 - 5 years younger to your young man and hence my blood must be hotter. Why should I suffer an insult like that ?".
The 'young man' had cooled down now and said, "I did not mean to insult you Doctor. I just asked if you were a Tamilian". I too replied with utmost cool now, "Oh, now that is much better. If you had used the same word earlier, everything would have been fine. Anyway, let us move on. And no, I am NOT a Tamilian".
There have been many a Pandemonium of different magnitudes before and since. Perhaps I can keep them for another day and another post !