I know what it feels like to see a white face after months and months in Tamil Nadu. It happens to me too. That’s part of being a vellai mappillai.
After months of living in a part of India that is not yet ruined by the plague of tourism, months on end of seeing mostly Tamil people, Tamil smiles on Tamil faces, when you do finally spot the occasional pale, waxy-skinned Australian, German, or British tourist attempting to blend in by wearing a hippy tie dye, bangles and necklaces, dreadlocks or braids or simply wearing the comfortable uniform of the Patagonia international army, the mosquito-repelling baggy trousers, the pink, clip-on fanny packs, men with pony-tails and capri pants, or hiding under the wide brimmed jungle-style Crocodile Dundee hats in downtown Chennai, you think: oh, look, look, whiteys!
And you stare. I mean, I do. I was one of them.
When I first came to India in 2008, I resolved to never get caught by all that poisoned water I was sure was everywhere in India. Not me!
I was going to be prepared. I was not going to die of dehydration in the dangerous jungles in mysterious India.
I would lean down by the murky creek and stick my little glass straws connected to my newly purchased portable purifier and ha-ha! I would drink myself back to strength, making it safely out, Shantaram!, from that bacterial hell hole, damn it!
Of course, I never once used the expensive contraption. Never found any use for it, since, obviously, bottled water is available pretty much everywhere, as testified by the plastic debris blanket which reassuringly plasters Mother India in just about every corner.
Yes, I was that diffident, scared white man tentatively inching through the constant threats of In-di-aaaah.
‘Oooo, I’d love to go to In-di-aaah, but I’m so scarrrred...’
How often do I hear this phrase in Italy?
Compared to the Tamil languor and apparent sweetness hiding behind the smooth skin and the santosha post-prandial gaze of most locals, we whiteys look just so stressed, consumed, wrinkly, tense, pursed-lipped, nervous and fidgety.
When I see them (us), I perceive finally what I must look like to the Tamil eye: crazy, stressed, rude, tense, out of sync with the flow, bro.
Not a pretty sight. I realise it sounds like the thought of someone gone native, but to me it’s a reminder of what an overly determined power of the will can do to our physiognomies – proof of what weather and mentality can do in altering the external aspect of your body.
It’s harsh and difficult to live in this South Indian equatorial climate. It’s tough for everyone to face the economic conditions here, the Chennai traffic, the corruption, the abuses of power, caste and class, politics and discrimination.
And yet it’s all so well hidden, in Tamil Nadu, so skilfully repressed by the wide-spread customs and mores.
But the vellais, the goras, dragging their over-heated, swollen white feet into town, they show their strife.
The lines of their stories are etched in the wood of their skin.
As the late Italian actor Anna Magnani once said: ‘Please don’t retouch my wrinkles. It took me so long to earn them.’
Our faces are truly open books, telling stories of cold winters full of flus and colds, taxes that are too high, traffic too thick, and aggressive attitudes with each other, while that November freezing cold settles into the continent of Europe and makes everyone’s soul cringe.
I do know what I look like to the eyes of these two Tamil boys waiting to fill up my tank at the gas station and elbowing each other as they giggle: “Vellai, vellai…”
Odd, out of place, curious…exotic!
In Tamil Nadu in the 21st century, my gas station episode mirrors somewhat what it must’ve been like to see my Gujarati father-in-law wearing bell-bottom pants, a tight elegant shirt, curls down to his shoulder while hitchhiking alone from Venice to Naples, on his 1966 Italian journey.
A handsome, Jain vegetarian Gujju from madras loving the land of pizza and pasta. And being loved back by an economically booming Italy, where wealth was much more equally distributed than today.
When I took him and the whole acquired family for a tour of Italy after our wedding in 2014, I warned him that the country I grew up in had radically changed since his last trip here. Italy is not as kind towards the browner race as it was in 1966.
Increasing waves of migration from Asia and Africa have brought out the old fascist and racist spirit in the land of pizza/pasta.
Turns out he again got by splendidly with the locals, maybe thanks to his smile and serene disposition. Still a cool cat after all these years.
Excerpted with permission From Mappillai: An Italian Son-in-law In India, Carlo Pizzati, Simon & Schuster India.