'Onam in A Nightie' (HarperCollins) by Anjana Menon can be tagged as a spontaneous literary outburst to vent suppressed emotions over social incongruities in the backdrop of the unique culture and heritage of Kerala as experienced by someone who has been far away from it, yet very close. In a first-person narrative, the author flavours it with a tinge of humour and pads it up with anecdotes and facts.
In a flamboyant flair of story-telling, the writer nails the common cardinal truths camouflaged by the complexities of humdrum life. The early chapters paint a realistic picture of the cultural as well as social divide of the two regions Anjana is attached to – Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala where her roots are, and Delhi where she grew up. The writer waxes eloquent on the unique traditions of her native place and delivers a fabulous commentary on the vibrant national capital.
Anjana banks on a style that swings between sarcasm and humour for the dramatic vibes she juggles with throughout the narration. Also, at times she dons the garb of an activist, like when she states, "This is a problem everywhere in India—the attitude towards women drivers. In Kerala, it’s acute. When they see women drivers, car park attendants usually ask others to stay clear as women reverse or pull in."
"In Kerala, more than half the population is female but you don’t see nearly enough women behind the wheel of a car. The state government wants to change this and is recruiting female drivers for vehicles used by the public sector and government units," she writes.
The narrative is presented in a milieu that is too contemporary and current. Take for instance this observation which you cannot disagree with: “I spot bamboo rice, which comes from bamboo and not paddy fields. I make a mental note that this could be the next fad in foods, it’s just an Instagram post away”.
"In Kerala, wheat has come out of the shadows, jumped the queue, and gone mainstream," is another example.
At the same time, it remains so colloquial and stays close to being local and archaic, in tune with the theme. And, the Covid pandemic and the collateral lockdown hold up an engaging canvas to portray an exciting tale. Rather than pitching on a centred plot to lift aesthetic spirits, the narrator chooses to dissect societies and mindsets to lay bare the unwarranted obsessions in a lighthearted vein.
The dichotomy of the cultural ethos of the two regions is best described in the chapter, 'Onam in a Nightie' in which a kaleidoscopic view of two festivals - Onam and Diwali is presented. The ritualistic fervour of Onam with all its ingredients is detailed interestingly.
Anjana magnifies some truths and brings them up closer to the eyes more than ever before. How to interpret them is left to the reader. It is in this light the nightie - 'Kerala's national dress', the government jobs, village offices, migrant labourer communities, Corona Devi, food habits and obsession with parcelled packs are accounted for.
On occasions, she prods the conscience too like, while narrating about dogs in the context of the climate-triggered disasters in Kerala, she observes: "In a disaster wrecked on man, of man’s own doing, from decades, of pillaging the environment—the only saviours were the four-legged, creatures."
Anjana's 'Onam in a Nightie' is not just an elaborate and thought-provoking take on the caprices, prejudices, superstitions, follies and foibles people so sinfully and unabashedly associate with, but a zealous portrayal of the power in life's simple joys and emotions.
The precise diction, the vivid picturisation and the witty narrative style make 'Onam in a Nightie' a fabulous read.
By the time the roundabout track that begins at Thrissur Round, takes you to Delhi, Singapore, London, the US, Thailand, Middle East, etc. and then back to the Thrissur Round, you complete a circle, relieved and ever more cheerful.
About the author
Anjana Menon is a columnist who shuttles between Delhi and London. After studying literature, she got absorbed into a journalism career that took her to Southeast Asia and Europe with Bloomberg News. She returned to India as one of the founder-editors of the business newspaper Mint and then ran a television newsroom before setting up her content strategy consultancy. She is a co-author of What’s Your Story? The Essential Business Storytelling Handbook (Penguin Random House).