Countless years ago, on a fairly mundane but ominous-in-retrospect Thursday evening on the eve of my seventh birthday, my father had The Conversation that all Mallu Dads must at some point, usually on the eve of their son’s seventh birthday, have with their male progeny. “Son,” he told me, “I know you have friends from all over the country in your school, and they’re all lovely children. But… you’re different. You’re notbad-different, just… Special.” The Mothership’s meticulously indexed library of family photographs (Ref: Aug-Oct, 1991;, pre-measles, post C- in Fingerpainting) will show I arched my eyebrows like the best in the business, suitably impressed by the enormity of the occasion. “Son,” my Dad continued, looking away from the thunder and lightning and the late Monsoons that dutifully lashed against our living room window, “you’re a middle-class Mallu man.”
He told me how, as a Mallu man, I was blessed with superior qualities other races just weren’t privy to, how life had been handed to me on a silver banana leaf by virtue of my lineage alone. I would have to deal with the good looks, the charm, the terrible terrible popularity with the ladies, he said. I’d also have to put my superior Mallu brains to good use, he said. I would grow up to become a computer engineer in the Silicon Valley, he said, or a dentist in some posh English county like all the nieghbours’ kids. “It’s part of our culture,” he explained. Some of those predictions were proven wrong over time. Some, like “not too long before you start sporting a thick moustache like mine!”, over a little less time. But I’ll always remember what he told me while tucking me into bed that night: “There’s always a choice, son. You can either spend your life under-achieving to compensate for your natural awesomeness, or you can light up the world with it. Just don’t, ever, be Evil.”
Nearly twenty two years later, staring right through the eyes and into the soul of a little Pahadi man in the foothills of the Himalayas, those words came back to haunt me. Girlfriend and I had come across the native while struggling up the deathtrap that is the trek from Barsheni, a tiny little town in Himachal Pradesh, to Kalga which would be our basecamp for our trek to Kheer Ganga. We were tired, we were starving, and we were cold. We had been walking almost twenty minutes in the wintry chill of June. It was either him or us. To his credit, the native showed no signs of fear, the little tyke. I told Girlfriend, gently: “darling, we have no choice. It’s the human thing to do. You’re struggling, too.” “I wouldn’t be if you’d just carry your own damn suitcase,” she muttered, “who brings a suitcase to a trek, Boyfriend, who?” The poor thing was losing it. I had called dibs on being Navigator days ago.
But even as she borrowed desperately from the last of her moral reserves, even as she stumbled over the last few centimeters she would spend as a righteous woman, I knew: the madness had to end. The natural order would prevail. But we weren’t like that, Girlfriend and I. Girlfriend had read Roots six times, and retweeted Toni Morrison Quotes religiously. I had only watched Django Unchained a few days ago. Far be it from either one of us to take advantage of a historically and economically disadvantaged community for personal gain.
I looked up one more time through my polarized Ray Bans at our destination- Kheer Ganga, home to the holy. This mission was the culmination of the work of a lifetime, and it would involve collateral. We would have to make a judgment call, and we would have to live with it the rest of our lives. It was Time. We’d have to middle-class it, or run the risk of never making the climb. “Native,” I said purposefully, as I looked him in the eye, “five hundred bucks to carry our stuff all the way up and lead the way. An extra hundred if you don’t crumple my casual-yet-elegant cardigan. We cool?”