An Instagram video shows a woman wearing a Kerala saree and celebrating Kerala Piravi - the state’s birthday, with peppy Malayalam music in the background. In another video, the same woman shows her audience how to do fish braids on her hair. On Halloween, she does a make-up tutorial on her partner, transforming her into a pretty deer with antlers. All of this might seem like regular Instagram influencer content, but the ‘Inverted Coconut’ handle has become popular among Malayalis. Why? The influencer is Aparna - a half American-half Chilean woman who is seen chatting away in flawless Malayalam.
“If I close my eyes, I can’t even tell that she is white,” says one user on the comments section. While Aparna is a perfectly Indian name, the young Instagram star, who has 71,000 followers already, is not Malayali by birth. When she was 3 years old, her parents moved to spiritual leader Amritanandamayi’s ashram in Kollam where Aparna was raised for 12 years.
“My parents met and fell in love in India, the place they visited to experience spirituality and a higher calling. They travelled across the country and finally reached Kerala, which blew their minds. I was born in the USA and when I was three years old, my parents shifted to Kerala for good and that is how I speak such good Malayalam. Cause I am, for all intents and purposes, a Mallu,” she tells TNM.
Aparna did her schooling in Kollam, and lived in the Amritapuri Ashram with her parents. At the age of 15, she moved back to the USA - a shift which proved to be a huge cultural shock for her, as she was used to the slow life in Kerala.
“When I studied in university in the USA, I was part of a community of Malayalis who were born and raised in America. They used to jokingly call themselves coconuts - cause they felt white inside, but they were Malayali outside. And in my head, I went ‘woah’, cause I felt exactly the opposite. I am white outside, but so much of a Malayali inside,” she says, adding that this is how she named her Instagram handle ‘Inverted Coconut’.
Aparna started the handle about 9 months ago. “My intention was just to practice the language as I had left India 15 years ago and my Malayalam was getting rusty. So this was a space to only speak in Malayalam. And I feel happy that a lot of people have been inspired by the handle and are following the page, although I don’t do anything serious. It is just a fun handle,” she says.
Aparna now lives in a French village, with her partner who is a cardiologist. Together, they have uploaded several interesting videos, where Aparna is seen explaining things in Malayalam to her audience. But how often does she visit ‘home’?
“Home is Kerala and I try to visit at least once in six months, at least before the pandemic. When I come there, I meet my friends. Their parents invite me home for Malayali food. I spend time by the beach, hearing the sound of the waves breaking. I grew up by the beach, so it is very special for me,” she says.
Unlike most Americans, Aparna also confirms that she has a high spice tolerance level, and this gets in the way of her enjoying South Indian food from restaurants in France. “Here you get North Indian food. Naan and curry etc. South Indian food is mostly Dosa. But even then, the sambar doesn’t taste as good as what you get back home. Here people cannot enjoy spice and hence even the sambar is bland. So I want to get home so that I can have my idly, dosa, chutney sambar and other food that I love,” she says.
Back when she was in school in Kerala, Aparna used to be the only white student in her class. “I used to be called Madama- (foreigner) because I am white. I learnt Malayalam thanks to my friends because we teased and laughed and spoke in Malayalam. But that feeling of being treated as an outsider is not good,” she says.
The key to breaking in, Aparna says, was language. “Language just breaks so many barriers. People who until a second ago, felt that I was a foreigner, would immediately be surprised and speak to me normally when I speak in Malayalam. They will invite me home and give me food. You know that moment when I speak and the barrier breaks… that is such a beautiful moment to watch. People’s faces just change,” she says with a laugh.
Though she doesn’t live in Kerala anymore, the young influencer is very much rooted to the state. “My mum and my partner’s mum still live there and I have to go back to visit my family and my friends,” she says.
You can follow Aparna Mulberry at InvertedCoconut.
Watch her interview with TNM here: