Monthly Archives: September 2008

Parvati Nair, Phoenix Garden, London WC2H 8DG, 13 June 2008

While travel is really what I suppose my life experience has, in essence, been about, homeland has been a kind of constant preoccupation.

My parents are Indian. I was born in Oslo. I later realised that I was conceived in Cambodia, in Phnom Penh. My father was a diplomat and, in theory, we moved every three years, depending on his postings. You never knew where you were going.

For my parents, home was very clearly India. Not just India. As you know, Indians are very regionally oriented. My family is from the southern tip, from Kerala. There’s a very strong sense of cultural identity. So, their sense of home was very strong.

Barely avoiding the war, while they were expecting me they travelled from Phnom Penh to Laos, I believe; and, from there, to Bangkok. From Bangkok to India. From India they came to London. And, from Newcastle, they took a ship to Norway. By the time I came here to study at university, I had lived in seven countries, and only in India for a short while. A person like me doesn’t really have a sense of national identity. I have always found it very curious that people would be willing to kill themselves for their nation. Nationalism seems odd to me. I agree with Benedict Anderson, that it is a constructed idea.

Because I grew up in an embassy I was surrounded by emblems of the nation. The crest of India was everywhere. That ancient, deep-rooted sense of Indianness that all Indians are supposed to feel, always felt false to me. I was never quite sure what was there behind it all. But, then again, the reality of being Indian hit me when I started crossing borders and frontiers after I got my Indian passport.

Strangely enough, though I have been eligible for a U.K. passport since the age of 21 I resisted applying for one. My Indian passport is one part of my Indianness I have wanted to cling to. I only gave it up two years ago, when India acknowledged its huge diasporic population. The government introduced a new system whereby you could be an Overseas Indian Citizen, which I am now.

In addition to my Overseas Indian passport, I brought a map because it was the one thing we always had at home. An essential item to locate where you might be going next. My father also used to own a globe, which sat on his desk. He still has one.

I also brought an orange, partly because the biggest chunk of my life has been spent in the Mediterranean, between Morocco, Tunisia, and Spain. That’s probably the main reason for my being a Hispanist. I have a sense of affinity with the Mediterranean. Interestingly, whenever I’ve been to Greece or Italy I’ve felt out of place. Though there’s a tangible similarity in colours and sense of place, they’re somehow different. I suppose it’s a question of personal identification. This is probably what lead Mark and me to buy a disused olive oil warehouse in a village south of Granada. The association of oranges and with the Mediterranean has been with me since childhood. Just before going to Morocco, we had lived in Poland during the Communist era. The contrast with the  jewel-like colours of the South was particularly striking, especially the orange trees. Ever since then, I’ve loved citrus fruits and trees. In Poland, it was cabbage every day and you had to queue for hours to get fruit.

The last thing I brought was a photo frame. I collect photo frames and hoard them until I find the right photo. If I see a frame I like and it’s affordable I put it to use or give it away. I like the idea of the photo frame that’s not been filled yet.

©Parvati Nair, 2008


Regeneration, `Lost and Found’ (9), Parvati Nair, London, June 2008

© Geoff Oliver Bugbee (

There is, in fact, a man I remember with a suitcase. I met him on a train. On the Grand Trunk Express, to be precise, some twenty or more years ago — Grand Trunk Express? A coincidence of name? If you know about great railway journeys or have watched television programmes about them, then you might be aware of the Grand Trunk Express. It runs daily between New Delhi and Madras Central Station, or Chennai Central, as it is now known, stopping at 36 stations along the way. The journey famously takes 35 hours and 35 minutes, so that if you left New Delhi at about 8pm this evening, you would reach Madras early in the morning day after tomorrow. The journey is a magnificent one, crossing as you do the length of India, from the north to the south. Most maps don’t really tell you the truth about distances in India. Perhaps because Europe tends to lie at the centre of maps we get here, India seems marginal and small and all bunched up. So it is not till you get there that you realize how vast India really is. In a single journey, the GT Express, as everyone fondly calls it, covers 2186 kilometres, making it one of the longest train journeys in the subcontinent.

I shared a compartment with this man. He slept on the upper bunk opposite me, while I had the use of a lower one. Below him an elderly lady settled in and her son, who slept on the bunk above mine, was, she told me, accompanying her on a pilgrimage to South India. In an unspoken act of chivalry, the men, it seemed, had left the lower bunks to us ladies. For most of the 35 hours, the old lady chanted prayers, stopping only to eat or sleep. Sometimes, she sung them and other times she recited slokas in Sanskrit. Nobody seemed to mind. The blessings she sought might just come by our way too. Her voice melded with the landscape that went coursing by. By mid-morning the day after we left, the faded greens and dust of northern India were giving way to the denser colours of the tropics. The earth began to turn red as we headed south and the trees were thicker and darker green. At one point I fell asleep, only to be woken by a small hand patting my head. Startled, I jumped up. I turned and saw that the hand came in through the open window and belonged to a little child selling sliced mangoes. Sister, buy some, please, she was saying. We had stopped at yet another station. At every station the children crowded at the windows, trying to sell us fruit, matches, cigarettes, pens. The old lady’s son, a young man of thirty or so, kept busy going in and out of the compartment. He would get down at each station and stretch his legs. Once or twice he came in with four cups of very hot, very sweet tea, refusing to take money for the drinks. At mealtimes, when the waiters came by, we ate solemnly, with the knowledge that if we did not eat what we got, we would have to go hungry. As the train lurched along, the old lady smiled at me from time to time. Then she began to speak to me. The lady seemed concerned that I was travelling alone. She asked if I was married. When I said no, she appeared worried. Why not, she asked in a hush voice. Is there any problem? No, I said. Then why not, she insisted. I hesitated. I don’t know, maybe because I haven’t met the right person yet, I finally replied. She found that funny. Like a little girl, she burst into peels of laughter. ‘Child!’ she said, ‘that only happens in cinemas! In real life, God finds us a man and we live with him. So stop looking for the right man and do as God says.’ On the second night, the old lady’s son unpacked a small cassette player and played some music. Kabhie kabhi mere dil me khayal aatha hai … Every Indian, diasporic or desi, knows the song. The old lady sang along. So did her son. The sounds of the flute and the shehnai floated out over the passing fields and villages, song clouds that brought rain with them. Once we had crossed Maharashtra, the rains met us. The monsoon moves northward in India, hitting the south first of all.

Only the man on the bunk above the old lady did not speak at all. He sat up throughout the trip, a suitcase by his side. It was a small brown one, with an old-fashioned padlock on it. He even slept sitting up, a pillow propped up behind his head, the blanket thrown over his huddled knees. The first morning, he removed a key from the inner pocket of his waistcoat and carefully unlocked the suitcase. I was amazed. Inside were sunglasses with an assortment of frames, all in bright colours – light pink, deep pink, indigo, navy blue, lime green, yellow, black, silver, gold and many, many more. There might have been a hundred or more pairs of sunglasses in there. Every now and then the man would remove the pair that he was wearing, put it back in the suitcase and then take out another one and put it on. The garish colours of the frames contrasted with his sombre dress – a grey cotton kurta salwar with a respectable waistcoat on top. In thirty-five hours, he must have done this at least thirty-five times. Maybe more. Below him, the old lady carried blithely on with her prayers, unable to see what he was doing, while I watched them both from my bunk facing them. Of course, I could never really tell where he was looking, as his eyes were always covered by the dark lenses.

We reached Madras Central at about 6am. The Grand Trunk Express has some 25 coaches, all of which are usually so very full that people have even perched perilously on top of the train throughout the journey to hitch a free ride. The crowd was thick and chaotic as we stepped off the train. Everyone seemed to be talking at the same time. I turned to say good-bye to the old lady and her son. ‘May you live long, my child,’ she said. She patted my cheek fondly with her right hand.

The man with the suitcase stepped out behind me and walked past us. He did not look at us or say good-bye. He seemed eager to get going. A porter went running up to him and took the case from him. The porter wore a coiled cloth on his head. Dexterously, he hoisted the suitcase up onto the top of his head and walked quickly behind the man down the length of the platform. I watched them go, until they finally disappeared in the milling crowd.

In holding this suitcase in my hand, that scene from so long ago surfaces unexpectedly. Of what use are memories?

One word alone comes to mind: regeneration.

© Parvati Nair, 2008

Thampi Lady (Arumana Ammachi Panapillai Amma Srinathi Lakshmi Pilai, Kochamma of the Arumana Ammaveedu, Wife of Visakham Thirumal, Maharajah of Travancore

1 September 2008

Dear John,

The understanding I have is that the old aunts dressed very much like this lady here. 

You can see what I mean about the ears! The jewellery she is wearing (necklaces) is traditional and symbolic, indicating her status and wealth. Jewellery and body ornaments are a central aspect of Nair families and a subject of much discussion amongst the women (even now!!!). Unfortunately, Nairs were originally invaders of the south and took ownership of lands — paddy fields, coconut groves, spice fields. Most have a spacious ‘tharavadu,’ or family home often set in the middle of the fields with a small shrine attached. Some of this changed abruptly in 1956, when communism was voted in to the great detriment of many wealthy Nair families! I recall that my grandmother had to dismiss her family goldsmith — a permanent member of the household — for safety’s sake. After that, he had to go and sell his services to shops and families on an ad hoc basis, something he had never done before. It was a very sad goodbye as the two families had been together for at least three generations, probably more. Later, when I was a child, he would come over and work inside the house (as opposed to having his own workplace on the grounds) when we visited and my grandmother wanted something special made for one of us grandchildren. In fact, come to think of it, Kerala was the first place on earth where communism was voted in! Suddenly people were naming their children ‘Lenin’ and calling each other ‘sakhav’ or comrade. It didn’t last long. By the 1970s, mass emigration to the Gulf began and people happily embraced the capitalist way of life. Now they’re all off to the US and Canada as well. 

Thanks, John, for opening so many doors via this suitcase.

Un abrazo,

[For more information on the Maharajahs of Travancore and Nair women see:]

[This portrait has been placed in the public domain by the Arumana Ammaveedu Family]

‘A Nair Lady’ (1928)

From a set of watercolours by Rao Bahadur M. V. Dhurandhar. Part of the personal collection of Professor Frances Pritchett (Columbia University). This and other watercolours from the set may be viewed at: