Samantha Kannan’s novel ‘A New Journey’ is based on her own experience of living in Kerala, teaching at a school in Kumbalam.

Samantha, a white woman wearing a red sari with green border sits between two girls who are standing wearing their blue school uniform and pig tailsSamantha with her students in Kerala
Features Books Friday, October 23, 2020 - 16:50
Written by  Cris

It was not just the distance or the fact that she, just out of college, was going to a new country on the other side of the world all by herself. It was that here at last was a teaching job she had been dying to do. With bags, books and a mind full of uncertainties, she took a plane from Chicago to Thiruvananthapuram that fall. A little more than two and a half months later, she would dread taking the same plane back home, no longer wanting to leave Kerala, a place she’s come to love.

This is how Samantha Kannan presents Jurnee, a woman who fell in love with Kerala, in her novel titled A New Journey. If you hadn’t known it before, it might sound like an extended blog that Samantha wrote of her own trip to Kerala six years ago, when she taught at a school briefly. The book is her way of immortalising those memories and dispelling stereotypical perceptions of India.

Samantha is somewhat of an Instagram celebrity, putting out videos of her speaking Tamil alongside her Indian husband Kannan, or wearing saris, complete with poovu and pottu (flower and bindi). That story will come in another book, a sequel that Samantha has been writing. The first one is on the two months she spent in Kerala teaching at a school in Kumbalam.

“I visited Kerala at a very confusing time in my life. In real life, I was just 24-25 and still trying to figure out what I wanted from the world as well as what I wanted to give back to it,” Samantha tells TNM in an interview.

Learning to say ‘dei’ and loving ‘aviyal’

“I was completely open to the experience because I went alone and didn't have any distractions. I barely even had a network. I only had the people around me and they taught me everything. I was almost their child, learning how to wash clothes by hand. Learning how to open a cashew nut shell. Learning how to say ‘dei’ with just the right emphasis to get my point across. They cared for me, protected me, taught me, and sometimes even hand-fed me. Not to mention how great the winters are compared to Chicago and how delicious the food is. If I could eat aviyal (a Kerala dish of vegetables) every meal for the rest of my life, I would,” Samantha says.

There are whole paragraphs left to the descriptions of food from day one of her visit to Kerala – well, from Jurnee’s visit to Kerala but a good part of the novel is inspired by the writer’s experience, sparing the odd exaggeration. Jurnee is just a name she adopted for the story – borrowed from a friend. “I really liked the feeling it evoked, and the extra meaning it would give A New Journey. I asked her permission to use it very early in writing, about three years ago, and she enthusiastically agreed,” Samantha says.

Curious habits

Jurnee’s innocent musings of a world you had taken for granted makes you wonder about its curious habits too. She looks with wonder when a waiter tries to teach her how to eat dosa and chutney using her hands. Why doesn’t he use both hands, she wonders. 

In the school, Jurnee is left in the lurch when teacher after teacher tells her ‘I will just go and come’ and never come back. Her friend tells her that’s another Kerala habit – you never say bye. There is such a practice in Malayalam – people use ‘varate’ (will be back) instead of ‘potte’ (am leaving). But translating that into English seemed uncommon, maybe it’s just a practice in the school.

“It happened to me twice in one day and it really confused me. I genuinely thought they had just run off and forgotten about me and I was really upset by it, but after it happened again I realised it's just a common phrase,” Samantha says.

Yet another charming difference was the way everyone told her to stop saying thank you and please so many times. We were just not that formal, they said.

The ‘pennu kaanal’!

But nothing offends Jurnee, even if it shocks you, as a reader. At one point, a family she is staying with arranges a Kerala style ‘pennu kaanal’ (ritual as part of arranging a marriage), keeping her in the dark (with good intentions, of course). Poor Jurnee has no clue that while visiting a temple, a man was taking a look at her before the ‘official’ visit to his house. Even at the house, all she knows is that it is friends of the family till the stranger starts telling her she can learn to cook and wear saris from his mother. Why was this guy’s mother going to be her mentor, she wonders, when he launches head-on with a proposal. Will she marry him?

“The awkward proposal did really happen! It was shot for shot the same, from passing each other at the temple to going to his home shortly after,” says Samantha.

But she doesn’t express her shock or say a single rude word. She diffuses the tension with the need-to-check-with-her-parents line that she knew would be readily accepted.

“I guess in the back of my head the whole time I was thinking about the gravity of the situation. Many had not ever met a foreigner, and may never again, and I was representing billions of people. I didn't want to do anything to negatively impact or add to the stereotypes already in existence so I worked hard to properly assimilate to the local culture and gain their respect. They broke all of the stereotypes I had been taught and I wanted to do the same for them, luckily my quick thinking got me out of it respectfully.”

Adoring Nivin Pauly

Another time, someone says she is unlike other foreigners who dress skimpy and flirt with men. Samantha quotes from a Malayalam movie – Bangalore Days – to explain the situation. “It reminded me a bit of the end of Bangalore Days when Nivin has his heart set on Meenakshi, but ends up with Michelle who had all of the qualities he sought in Meenakshi. While it did hurt to hear such negative stereotypes spoken about myself and others from my country or race, it is not something that I often encounter and I genuinely don't believe they did it maliciously. Until we experience something for ourselves, we only know the representation of movies and Whatsapp forwards.”

Watch: Samantha talk about Kerala and her five favourite Malayalam films

Her preparation of going to Kerala included watching Malayalam movies such as Bangalore Days and Om Shanthi Oshana. It is sweet to note her adoration for Nivin and Malayalam movies.

Samantha says, “Malayalam movies are genuinely among the best in the world. The plots are so cleverly developed and really tug at your heartstrings. It's impossible to see a Malayalam film and leave it without feeling anything.”

School time

The best part of her visit was of course her time with the children of the school. From Samantha’s descriptions the children become as endearing to the reader as they were to her. There is not the shyness or reluctance of meeting a foreigner who has come to stay at their hostel and teach them. They welcome her into their lives, eager to make her feel welcome, vying for her attention and becoming friends with her the way children do. The questions are innocent and melt Samantha’s heart.

The curiosity and naughtiness of children, the educators who are very stern on the outside but would do anything for their students, some jokes that transcended language – all of these were similar to her own life in the village at the other end of the planet. “There was one student who knew more American pop songs than I did. And conversely, there were several differences. The warmth, friendliness, hospitality, and openness were unlike anything I'd ever experienced.”

She made friends not just with the children but the adults who didn’t speak the same language as her. Her descriptions of the silent exchanges with Cook Auntie – the cook at the hostel canteen – and the mother of one of the students are plain touching.

“Cook Auntie and Sajith/Snehil's mom were among the closest friendships that I had. We may not have shared words, but we laughed together, cried together, watched serials together. Words can be misunderstood, but a hug or smile cannot be,” she says.

“Despite only being there for a few months, I'm homesick for Kumbalam even years later,” she adds.

Anooj, inspired by Kannan?

Kumbalam is where the school’s located, a picturesque location in Kochi. Jurnee first reaches Thiruvananthapuram where she hangs around for two days before heading to the school. That’s where Jurnee meets Anooj, an Uber driver who becomes a friend and guide in her time in Kerala. He is always a call away, almost persistent with his help and advice, concerned about every single step Jurnee took. Little wonder that readers connected Anooj to Kannan, the man Samantha got married to.

She writes at the end of the book: “For those who follow me online, you may notice some parallels with Kannan and Anooj. This isn’t at all how we met, but I wanted to weave him into Anooj, so that I can write a sequel about our wedding. Watch out for its release on Valentine's Day 2021!”

She tells us, “Kannan and I met about 3.5 years ago and married last summer in Madurai. We met at a very boring event and when he found out I had lived in Kerala it was actually a big catalyst for our friendship.”

She began studying Tamil online two years ago and is now able to read and write and speak as well, though not fluently. “It's important to me to be able to communicate with my in-laws and to prevent the loss of language in future generations. I’m not fluent at all, but I do work quite hard at my pronunciation and grammar to hopefully reach fluency one day,” she says.

Also read: ‘Mayyazhipuzhayude Theerangalil’: M Mukundan’s classic on Mahe brings history alive