In the travel circle, xenophobia comes as no surprise in hamlets this far out in Tamil Nadu. I was lucky to escape from it in Alagankulam.
The welcome in this tiny fishing village manifested in an almost homophobic sort of love. In other words, the gender divide was predominant here.
Women bonded with women and the men with men. And, bonding with women here was a completely different story.
One such group of women gave me an opportunity to shape myself around a new culture in this storied village.
I made friends with younger women who came from homes that resembled mine. They shared smaller homes with parents, siblings and extended relatives. When all of them were looking for any reason to get away, I stepped in with my tales of a progressive life. They’d found their momentary escape. In return they bared their hearts in private conversations which went on for hours.
The women were similarly draped in an attire unique to the village: an inky batik skirt, blouses and veils in hues of iridescent blues, Java greens and mellow yellows. The colourful drapes mirrored the colours of the peacocks which, like the villagers were not confined here.
Besides the community dress code, there was a community desire too. It was obvious in their longing to join their husbands working in far flung places.
When our long days were over the women smothered my palms with henna. Not to mention my hair which was slick with coconut oil and decorated with fresh flowers. This was their way of saying I was one of them now.
As the sky turned darker we were often crowded around in the kitchen or the backyard waiting for the men to finish dining. It was customary to eat after all the men had eaten. We didn’t care about the lacey Idiappams which had gone cold and the aromatic chicken stew without any chicken!
Once dinner was washed down with hot water and the makeshift community kitchen tidied up, I waited as, one by one, the men summoned my new friends back to their homes.
Getting along fine
These memories of my little-world remain vivid today. But what I don’t remember are the rest of the people. I must have interacted with several women, teenagers and toddlers in the many homes I visited, mostly as a wedding guest.
I didn’t understand their language but I understood them. The older women without teeth who smiled ever so often. The shy women who giggled when somebody translated what I said to them. The louder women who gossiped. The mothering women who checked on me and the indifferent women to said their goodbyes before I could say hello.
It took me leaving Alagankulam and observing the way others think about space, or privacy to realize that what I did in the village was not unique to me, but perhaps unique to my home.
For in Alagankulam where the population was hoarded together, it was often necessary to turn what others saw as public space into personal space.
And, because it was a village after all, that was done with a certain unmatched flair:
In Alagankulam, a trip to the beach was not simply a trip. It was a meeting place for the young and old with the shallow waters of the local beach.
In Alagankulam, a path was not a path. These narrow lanes were invitations to homes anytime of the day. There were no uninvited guests here.
Leaving only to belong
When people walked on these paths, there was an undeniable swagger shared by those who were from here. It was innate. It was ancestral. For the streets belonged to them, belonged to their forefathers who lived on them. Some outlandish predecessors footed a route abroad and soon many followed.
What crossed their minds as they ventured to unfamiliar lands; so far away from the warmth of these sunbaked sandy lanes?
They grew up on it, fell in love on it, fought on it, cried on it and laughed on it. Did they find it hard to leave? Or, was it a release from it all?
I should know, because away from the security of a city miles away, I had done the same- in trying to belong here.
It’s been years since I could call Alagankulam my official residence, and yet the feeling of it being mine — the people, the endless banquets, the women’s banter and the smell of fresh flowers that lingers around them has not gone away.
I’m not sure that feeling ever will.