When Zechariah Joseph, a retired Indian Air Force sergeant, decided to form an official community of people who were six feet tall or above in Kerala, most people ridiculed him for wasting his time.
That was 1999. Seventeen years later, Joseph has proved the doubters wrong – his Kerala Tall Men Association, which began with 15 members, now represents 5,000 individuals from different strata of society, including executives, engineers, doctors, lawyers and even unemployed youth. Members use the platform to discuss issues that are seldom considered by the shorter majority of the world.
Although age has caught up with Joseph, the 75-year-old was animated as he recalled why he felt the need to set up an organisation dedicated to tall men.
“No one cared about the difficulties we faced while commuting.” said Joseph, who stands tall at 6 feet 3 inches. “We squeezed our legs in between narrow seats while travelling on buses. We protected our heads from hitting the roof if we preferred to be strap-hangers.”
“Our hotel stays were not comfortable, as we never got longer beds.” he added. “We struggled to buy clothing and footwear that fit us. Even teachers discriminated against tall students in schools and colleges. They forced lanky boys and girls to sit in the last row in the classrooms, and everyone euphemistically called us ‘backbenchers’, which eroded the confidence of even the brightest pupils. Classmates ridiculed us with funny nicknames.”
A lifetime of taunts and ill-consideration made Joseph angry. When he returned to Kerala after stints with the Indian Air Force, Qatar Air Force and a leading company in Kuwait in 1996, he shared the idea for the group with his tall friends.
Three years later, in 1999, the Kerala Tall Men’s Association was born, with Joseph as the founder president. His friend Jose, a physical education teacher, became the secretary, and Jimmy, an engineer, was elected treasurer.
Joseph believes that the association has inculcated a sense of pride among tall people in Kerala, the majority of whom are either introverts, simply because most public spaces are unable to accommodate them comfortably.
“We remind our members that height is a gift from God, to keep their heads high,” said Joseph.
Scaling new heights
At present, KTMA has 10 active district committees in Kerala, and officials are considering the formation of State units in Punjab, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu.
“We believe KTMA is a truly international organisation as many of our members have migrated to the US, Canada and the Gulf countries,” said Tigris Antony, who was elected president in 2010.
The association has run into its share of trouble. In 2011, a faction of the KTMA split from the main group, causing bitterness and feuding in the ranks. The splinter group couldn’t make its presence felt and soon faded into oblivion.
Though the outfit has around 25 women members, Antony said the association would not change its title.
“KTMA would lose its identity if there was a change,” he said.
Advocate KK Kavitha, the tallest woman in Kerala at 6 feet 3 inches, and president of the women’s wing, said she saw no need to change the title either. “Let us continue the legacy,” she said.
Kavitha confessed that the association had helped her deal with an inferiority complex, as a result of her unusual height.
“I cursed my height till I joined KTMA,” she said. “Regular meetings and interactions with people who have the same wavelength helped me overcome my inhibitions. Now everyone knows me in Kerala. The association has made me a star.”
Giants among men
The KTMA has recently begun to provide employment for members, with the formation of an event management company called the Kerala Tall Men Association Executive Force, which provides security cover for celebrities, and controls crowds during major events.
The tall men in black suits and caps won many hearts, when football legend Diego Maradona visited Kerala, and subsequently at events attended by cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar and music maestro AR Rahman.
On working days, Antony’s phone never stops ringing.
“I get calls from people and organisations inquiring about our services,” he said. “At present, we have 500 members in our group, but we are unable to meet the growing demand.”
KTMAEF follows a military-style hierarchy. Its director, Antony, is the troupe leader. He is assisted by district captains, supervisors, assistant supervisors, senior and junior guards.
Antony said the KTMAEF provides a sufficient salary for the unemployed tall men of Kerala: “Our members make a decent living now.”
If the KTMA has taken huge strides from 1999, it is all thanks to Zechariah Joseph, who despite his ill health, is determined to care for his organisation, he said, until he is six feet under.