As the Airbus 319 aircraft I was in battled heavy winds and mild snow of the Tatar Strait (which separates Sakhalin Island from the Russian mainland), I was excited about going to a place where I made a name for myself as a journalist and writer.
For me, there was so much of familiarity in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the capital city of the oil-rich Sakhalin Island. The city, which is about the size of Palakkad, has a population of around two lakhs, but is a very strategically important centre of the oil and gas industry. Over the last decade, it witnessed a major economic boom on account of the development of energy projects, but unlike places like Dubai, once the projects were on stream, the influx of foreign visitors to the island reduced to a trickle.
I had moved out of the island in 2007, but still felt a strong connection. Each of its well organised streets held memories, both real and those that felt real because they were the setting for stories in my book- Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island. As much comfort as I felt, and as warmly as I was welcomed back by friends and acquaintances, it was hard for me to feel that I was “home.” I indeed love Sakhalin and the rest of the largest country in the world, where the wholesomeness, hospitality and warmth of the people more than make up for long and freezing winters, but there’s a kind of spiritual connect that I only seem to feel in a stretch of land that begins after the Palakkad Gap and stretches as far as Guruvayur.
Except for a small stretch when I was 7 years old, I have never lived in Kerala. It was always a place I visited once a year to be with my grandparents. I grew up on stories about the villages of my parents and my subconscious mind is probably filled with the yearning of loved ones who left Kerala in search of better financial opportunities, but with a dream of coming back and living out their lives in Palakkad.
I grew up in New York and Mumbai and my only daily connect with my “native place” was the Malayalam language. Besides speaking it with my parents, I remained familiar with Malayalam, largely thanks to cassettes of films staring the likes of Mohanlal, Mammootty, Nedumudi Venu and Thilakan. Maybe at some deep level, I always believed I’d end up moving to Kerala one day.
When I see how people in other countries go through their entire lives speaking nothing but their mother tongue, I begin to feel some kind of envy. Even in Mumbai, where I am based most of the time, my Malayalam is restricted to conversations with my mother, or a couple of neighbours. And I find myself today in a city that is an 8-hour flight to the east of Moscow!
In the Russian city of Khabarovsk today, the expected maximum temperature is -15 degrees. While central heating ensures that I can dress lightly indoors, I’d need 4 layers of clothing to stay warm outside, even then, there’s nothing that can protect one’s face from chilly winds that come from the Amur River. It’s on such February days that I have the greatest desire to put on a mundu-veshti and head to the Guruvayur temple. More than a craving for some delicious Malayali food, I feel the need to light evening lamps in the temple’s corridors and watch the elephant procession of the deity.
It’s in the most freezing part of the long Russian winter that I wish I could walk in Tipu’s Fort in Palakkad or just feel the warmth of the Kerala sun by a paddy field.
If someone asked me where I’m from, I’d have no choice but to say Mumbai. However I know deep down within that even if Palakkad is a place that I may never live in, it is very much in the spiritual sense, my home. The land of my forefathers and the one true place on earth where I’d belong no matter what! Many non-resident Keralites have this deep longing to be in a place that they will probably never end up living in. Alas, we remain envious of those people who are not uprooted, but walk on the same paths that their great grandparents treaded.