Yahiya, who runs a thattukada, has become famous for his unique ways of protesting - from police brutality to demonetisation.

Maxi Maman Meet the Kerala man protesting injustices in a nightie with half shaved head
news Human Interest Tuesday, July 24, 2018 - 15:59

A frail little man sits outside the Kairali Theatre in Thiruvananthapuram. He's wearing a nightie, a dress that's usually worn by women, has a half-shaved head and a half-shaved moustache. Nearly everyone gathered there, at the venue of the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala, knows the old man’s story. So even before you reach him, they fill you in.  

He wears a nightie as a protest, all that half-shaving is another symbol of protest. The first, after an incident with a policeman, the second for demonetisation.  

“You should watch the documentary on him, they are screening it here now,” someone says. The original title is Oru Chayakkadakkarante Mann Ki Baat. The festival book has translated it to Mind Matter of a Tea Vendor. Mann Ki Baat might have brought unwanted attention. 

His name is Yahiya, but people call him Maxi Maman ('maxi' because of the nightie and 'maman' is Malayalam for uncle). He is over 75, reckons Sanu Kummil, the director of the documentary. 

“I have always seen him around, where I live – in Kollam,” Sanu says. Yahiya has been wearing the nightie for many years. People at Kadakkal, where Yahiya runs a thattukada (roadside eatery), have accepted him that way. 

It began one day when Yahiya was beaten up by a policeman. He was pushing around his mobile thattukada (before it became big enough to have a permanent place), his lungi folded and tucked in. That’s when a policeman passed by. Yahiya kept his lungi tucked in, and the policeman had a problem with it.

 “I didn’t know that it would be considered a sign of disrespect,” says the poor man in the documentary. The policeman beat him up and from then on, Yahiya switched to nighties. You didn’t have to tie it up or bring it down, no matter who showed up before you, however big that person was.  

(Yahiya with Sanu)

The documentary is told through a humorous narration and many cartoons to narrate the back-story. Yahiya was born in a poor family, as one among 13 children. He tried going to school but found it impossible to stay hungry for such long hours and dropped out in the first grade. Instead, he found odd jobs to do. One day, he walked into a big house and asked for work. They employed him. Yahiya was given all sorts of work all day long, and in return he got food to eat. 

He had no complaints. That’s all he needed then. A philosophy he would follow through life - earn only what was needed, no more.  

So, Yahiya worked hard for 13 years in that big house. He got ‘promoted’, says the narrator, to climbing coconut trees. “One day when he was on top of the tree, he saw a beautiful girl next door, Suhara. He asked her for her hand,” Sanu says, sitting besides Yahiya. Everyone laughs. Yahiya too offers a toothless smile.  

Suhara’s family was poor and happy to give her hand to Yahiya. Here, Yahiya would again display his unique ways of doing things. He offered to everyone who came for the wedding ‘mookipodi’- tobacco powder - to sniff, because that’s all he could afford. 

But then, life would not always be so simple. When the couple had a little girl, Suhara began telling him to go to the Gulf and earn a little something. No one would marry their little girl for mookippodi, she said. Suhara sold her property to give him the money to go abroad. 

So, Yahiya was forced to leave to Saudi Arabia and live a life tougher than the one we read about in Benyamin’s Aadujeevitham. He became a goatherd, ate very little, earned very little. “For years, I didn’t even take a bath or cut my hair,” he says. He went home once, and the couple had another girl. But seeing their misery, Yahiya again took to the Gulf. 

The money he sent back home got his two daughters married off. It was time to return. 

By then, however, Yahiya had jumped jobs and didn’t have his original passport with him. When he came to Mumbai with his fake passport, Yahiya was caught and sent to the Pune jail for months.  

It is after this that he came home and started his thattukada. The nightie days were yet to come.

(Poster of documentary)

“His thattukada was a success because of all the cooking he had learnt back when he worked at the big house as a domestic help. He wouldn’t use the masalas bought from shops. He would powder the spices on his own and add them,” Sanu says. 

Naturally, Yahiya’s food was loved. He also had an unusual pricing system. Every meal cost Rs.10. But if you asked for a second helping and then wasted it, you’d be charged  a fine of Rs.25. Yahiya talks like a lottery agent when he quickly lists the menu: One chicken free if you buy five chickens (dishes), five dosas free if you buy ten dosas.  

It was all going well for Yahiya until one night when two men who came to eat at the shop robbed him of all the money. So from the next day, he started burying all the notes in little pits on the ground, and taking them back the next morning. 

About Rs 23,000 was buried like this when November 8, 2016 came and Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the note ban. Yahiya quickly dug up his notes and went to stand in one of the long queues before a bank.  He reportedly stood in the queue for two long days. But at the end of the second day, Yahiya fainted. He was old and unwell.  

Dejected, he went with his money to the stove of his thattukada and burnt all the notes. He also shaved off half his hair and declared that it would be left like that till Narendra Modi’s government fell. On the first anniversary of demonetisation, he shaved half of his moustache, too. Let Modi go, he’d say, and then he will grow his hair and moustache back. 

That’s Yahiya’s tale. And when we look for him a second time, he’s gone. Back to his home, to his thattukada, to earn his bit for the day, and only what’s needed.  

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