Anjana Menon’s book on living in Kerala during the pandemic has a healthy dose of humour that makes the journal-like entries enjoyable.

Author Anjana Menon in a black and white image looks sideways smiling, behind her are a number of book shelves
Features Books Saturday, February 19, 2022 - 15:19

It strikes you, when you read Anjana Menon’s Onam in a Nightie, of how quickly one gets used to things one had marvelled at not so long ago. When you live in a place for months or years on end, you forget a lot of what you have around you. Anjana, who is visiting Kerala from Delhi, in her book reminds a reader in Kerala that this is what you have in your state. For others, she paints a cosy picture without throwing adjectives to suggest anything. All she does, in true journalistic style, is present the story she saw.

Anjana was a journalist for years before she resigned to start a consultancy firm and freelance. In mid-2020, when COVID-19 was looming large in Delhi, she and her brother packed their bags and flew to their parents’ home in Thrissur of Kerala. “I landed in Kerala planning to stay for a month or two, but I ended up staying for seven,” she writes at the end of her book.

A year later, she’s back here. “I’m in Kerala right now, escaping Delhi’s bad air and also promoting the book in Kerala. It’s a very exciting time for me as an author to talk about my idea of Kerala,” Anjana tells TNM, adding that she is collaborating with Kerala Tourism on this.

To someone in Kerala, Anjana’s observations can at times be quite refreshing, when you think, oh that’s one way to look at it. And at other times, they are so obvious you wonder how you never noticed it before or else forgot about it.

She writes about the system in place – run by a team of police officials, health workers and volunteers, who offered their time and service for free – to make sure people weren’t breaking quarantine. It was written about in plenty during the initial days of COVID-19, when Kerala was lauded for its early precautions and practical solutions.

By the time Anjana landed, it was July 2020. Kerala was seeing the first of its spikes after having been able to keep the cases at a  minimum for months.

Stuck in a room that her cautious parents had kept ready for her a floor above them in Thrissur, Anjana writes about the conversations she had with a man, who called from the police station every day, and a woman from the health department – Sajith and Stella – to check in on her. There were also the police officials who came to the front of her house and asked her to wave from the balcony to check that she hadn’t broken quarantine. These became friendly exchanges and Anjana started looking forward to the calls. She was very impressed one day to be visited by a couple of policewomen riding on a Bullet bike to ask after her.

“I was writing about the everyday episodes during my quarantine because of the time it afforded me and also because this was a unique moment in history, where the whole world was crippled by a pandemic, forcing us to recalibrate and reflect on our lives,” she says.

But as the days passed and they were sure that she was not a “quarantine-breaker” the calls stopped. Anjana was then left to find out for herself about the way people live in the city. There are adventures both in the house and outside of it – not your find-the-killer kind of adventure of course, just the interesting, relatable ones involving among others, her parents’ helper Shivankutty, who may or may not turn up every few days. I ask her if he knows about the book.

“Some of the characters know about the book. Mostly they were thrilled to become part of a historical record, rather than a fictional one. Unfortunately, I have not been able to track down Shivankutty. True to form, we have to wait for him to turn up,” she says. Shivankutty can be adorable like that.

Also sweet were the ways in which people around Anjana and her family seemed ever-ready to help. One restaurant owner, who does not have the dish they ask for, goes to the trouble of getting it from another place and delivering it to them. Anjana must live in a really friendly corner of Thrissur.

In her book, she also gives you details of Thrissur favourites – the gigantic ‘Round’, the pooram, the Bharath hotel, and the food. Only, beef appears to be starkly missing from all of it, especially considering Malayalis love for it. Her reason for this: “The book is very true to my experiences of the state as an outsider looking in. I’ve tried to capture the things that surprised me. In doing so, it filtered out things that are widely known.”

Among what surprised her the most, despite having visited Kerala many times before, was the efficiency of public services. “To have things that work like they should was a completely new experience. To not have to wrangle and hustle was refreshing. It was almost like being in an advanced economy where you don’t have to hustle for the things that your taxes pay for, the things you are owed,” she says.

When pressed for the “thoroughly disappointing revelations” she says that there were none, but that there are pockets that lag. “Both alcoholism and the lack of suitable employment opportunities affects a vast number of households, despite the high scores the state has on education and healthcare. There is also an undercurrent of sexism that deserves to be stamped out,” Anjana observes.

In one chapter, she mentions the reactions she got while driving a car. In a humorous description, she gives an account of how one security man would alert all the others around to keep safe when a woman driver was spotted. Anjana’s anecdotes have a healthy dose of humour that makes the journal-like entries enjoyable. To add to it, she got child artist Anujath Sindhu Vinaylal, who became famous for his painting of ‘My mother and the mothers in the neighbourhood’ and designing a Kerala Budget cover, to do the illustrations both on the cover and the inside pages. It somehow makes the book more intimate.

Read: Kerala boy’s painting on mothers wins international award days after his mom’s death

“Anujath’s talent is prodigal. There is absolutely no doubt about that. I basically explained the spirit of the book, the characters that would work on the cover and how there should be caricatures. It was very easy for him to capture these elements to produce a lovely cover because he is so gifted,” Anjana says.

The vision of the book developed after she began posting her everyday musings during quarantine on social media and people seemed to like them. As for the title, Anjana did get to wear the all-convenient nightie Kerala women had long adopted in lieu of the movement-restricting saris, “albeit borrowed from my mother”.

Also read: This is what global giants do: Authors heartbroken over Amazon’s shutdown of Westland

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