Being Malayali in New Delhi

Updated: Aug 9


Many things have apparently changed in India in the two years I was stubbornly stationed in Dubai skirting my Covid fears. One of them is the way my country has got digitized. When I landed there last month, I felt both impressed and nervous to see the country transacting its daily business on the go with a few nimble taps on the phone. Things were done online before one counted 1, 2, 3. Money played hopscotch between buttons, virtually changing hands in a jiffy. However, for some inexplicable reason, the spouse and I eschewed the new methods, because we are not used to it in Dubai. Here, we only netbank and swipe. No dalliance with payment apps.

I felt very primitive going around with cash, and that too 500 Rupee notes, when even a barber at Connaught Place operating out of a briefcase had a ‘phonepe’ board planted next to him! People shaved on the lane and paid for it online! I was struck by the contrast of it - the itinerant barber still existed, surviving all the odds that came with the passage of time, but he had modernized in other ways. Only those who had phonepe could get his services. What a melting pot of old practices and recent progresses this country has become, I thought.

One thing that I love doing while I am in the capital city is loitering aimlessly at CP. I capture every sight and sound around and put them in memory cans to last a lifetime. That’s what travel is all about, isn’t it? Small moments that occupy big spaces in our life; spaces that eventually become our alter worlds.

On a day of less distractions in the receding phase of winter, I hopped on an Uber (that ubiquitous blessing of a transport), eager to touch base with the old familiarities of the place.

‘Hanuman Mandir, CP,’ I said, and before the driver had a chance to gauge my religious and political affiliations, I added, ‘near the emporiums.’ Before I knew it, I was driven to where I had to go and I opened my purse to pay the fare. I plucked a 500 rupee note and extended it.

‘Chutta nahi hai,’ said the driver. ‘Google pe kar deejiye.’

Damn! I should have known that this pickle was waiting for me.

‘Google pay nahi hai. Ab kya karen?’

I almost heard him say, ‘Yeh kaisa namoona hai?’

I avoided his gaze, waiting for him to change his mind and fish out the change he had kept stashed inside. But none came. He suggested that I could ask the vendors on the roadside, and after I got off, he parked the car a few meters away. I was grateful that he didn’t resort to rude language, which was very likely in those circumstances.

I strutted around flashing a 500 rupee note, desperate for help, almost getting to the end of my tether. What do you think the chances of anyone having or sparing some change would have been? Right. Cipher.

It seemed as if the human beings present there - the people who busily dug into their samosas and chaat, those who darted hurriedly to God knows where, the florist, the paanwala, and everyone else - had all conspired to shrug or shake their head.

Minutes trickled down my back in the form of sweat and the Uber guy honked from his parking. I put my hand up requesting patience, but I saw no easy way out of the quandary. I looked at the lame 500 rupee note and laughed inwardly at the irony. ‘Useless,’ I muttered under my breath.

There was only one way to get around this fix – take the same cab back and get the change from the spouse and dispose the guy off. I seriously considered the option, loath to give up on my wanderlust, and scanned the place one more time, not knowing what I was looking for. Some sort of divine intervention, perhaps?

I started walking towards the cab knowing miracles didn’t happen when we asked for them, but only when we deserved them. And today, it wasn’t ordained in my name.

I took one last glance around, half-disappointed that my fixtures for the day had gone for a toss. That was when I spotted something familiar in front of me. A board with the word ‘Kairali’.

If I could add a new synonym to ‘miracle’ it would be ‘Kairali.’ If ‘hope’ had a new verbal manifestation, it is the word ‘Kairali’. If belongingness had found a new meaning, it was in a showroom that bore the name ‘Kairali’.

I hurried towards the govt. emporium that sold handicrafts from Kerala.

‘Chechi, can I get change for 500?’ I asked eagerly, convinced that help was at hand. Chechi and Chetta. Two words that bring all Malayalis under one umbrella and fill their hearts with fraternal love!

‘I must pay the Uber guy and I have no loose notes with me. I didn’t get it from anyone, that’s when I saw our shop,’ I said sounding dire to the lady behind the counter in chaste Malayalam. I am now smiling at the thought of using the phrase ‘our shop’. Nammude kada. How instantly I had established my association with it!

I don’t want to trivialize the sanctity of that moment by detailing it overly. I could shelve the whole incident as a mere happenstance and forget about it, I need not stretch it to sentimental levels and make gooey stories out of it, but the truth remains. The miracle man had revealed Himself to me in the form of a fellow Malayali. It needn’t have happened. That it did is what makes me believe yet again that when the dice of life rolls, the odds, more often than not, will fall in our favour.

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