Home versus Home
This one is for lovers of everyday simplicity; the ones who find joy in the first rains and the blooming of flowers in the neighbouring tree.
We embark on a flight from Delhi to Kochi with great trepidation, a face shield, a surgical mask, blue disposable shoe covers, a white hair cap, rubber gloves and our own packed food, I read while I am seated on an airplane only equipped with a mask, being compressed on both sides by strange men hogging the arm rest. I double-check that the government’s COVID-19 contact-tracing app, Aarogya Setu, is working and has not disappeared from my phone, the prose continues as I remember that the app has been collecting dust on mine since 2020, and no one at the airport seems concerned, anyway.
I travel to Vadodara from Chennai, armed with Anjana Menon’s new release Onam in a Nightie: Stories from a Kerala Quarantine that recounts stories of her life in quarantine (and some after) during the first wave. With the third wave pushing me home for remote work, her reminiscent tales of Covid as a new and unknown virus bring a surreal feel to the reading experience.
An everyday affair
With a writing style that reminds one of Sudha Murthy’s anthologies — simple yet entertaining, laced with a tinge of humour — Onam in a Nightie is a collection of stories exploring daily affairs in Thrissur (often compared with Delhi, and other cities where Anjana lived) in the life of the quarantined author. From the disciplined quarantining system in Kerala, to driving practices and the Swaraj Round, every little aspect of the central city in the state is explored through her eyes; much like a journal. In fact, that is exactly what the skeleton of the book was.
“I was writing because I was stuck in a room in quarantine and the writing broke the monotony of a dull day. I was enjoying the unfettered style which had no real purpose other than to bring me joy. It’s only when I started sharing some of the writing with friends that I realised others loved it. Some of them then called and told me there was a book in there somewhere and that’s when the thought first came to me,” she explains. The book, an insight into her life, is written with immediacy capturing details honest to, and dependent on, her perspective.
On the outside, looking in Anjana’s words paint Kerala in favourable colours, often comparing the efficient systems to the chaos of Noida and Delhi. But, just when one wonders if this is one-sided, the Delhi influence in her presents itself in small doses, perhaps when putting her foot down when the transportation of her car is delayed, or when she and her brother roam town determined to ‘make Diwali happen’ in the unenthused southern state.
As a fellow South Indian raised in the north, Anjana’s words ring very true: ‘I am what you could call the proverbial outsider, with a claim to being an insider’. And a great deal of the book deals with this identity. Of this, she explains, “Each city taught me something about myself, about people and cultures, so I’m grateful that I got to live in different places and I enjoyed that.” While there is an interesting social commentary about the different cities (Thrissur, Delhi, Noida, London and Singapore), whether intended or not, much of it is a result of personal experience over the years.
As Anjana explores her surroundings in this precarious time, she also peppers in stories of yore, derived from her childhood. She takes you back to when alcoholic drinks in films were actually chekkuvellam, according to her grandmother, and she enjoyed the goli sodas and banana leaf lunches during summer holidays. “I would say it was uplifting to relive those memories… It was thrilling to follow a dragonfly and to try and catch tadpoles or go mango-picking. I think the book goes beyond my childhood. It is about a life that so many readers have left behind, which was full of small joys.
The book looks back at that way of living, a shared experience, in which we created happy memories without the next best smartphone or gizmo and where life was lived, warts and all, and not curated on a social media platform,” Anjana observes, mentioning that many readers have found themselves indulging in nostalgia while reading. Sprinkled every few pages are also the line illustrations of Anujath Sindhu Vinaylal, which bring to life these scenes.
This one is for lovers of everyday simplicity; the ones who find joy in the first rains and the blooming of flowers in the neighbouring tree. There is no intense plotline or heavy character development, but there is elaborate imagery, relatable nostalgic and current events, and descriptions that transport you to God’s Own Country.