Vineeth Abraham calls himself a “complete, utter and unapologetic bibliophile”. He loves books “not just for their content, but for their appearance, the font, the page quality, the smell, the edition, and most of all, the cover”. The owner of arguably one of the largest personal libraries in the country, Abraham hails from Irinjalakuda, Kerala. He worked with the Central Secretariat, New Delhi, during 1989-2017. In Shelf Life, Abraham writes about reading, books, and beyond. 

‘I’m an alien,

I’m a legal alien,

I’m an Englishman in New York’

English singer/songwriter Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting, sang these lines as the chorus of his song ‘An Englishman in New York’ from his second solo album ‘Nothing Like The Sun’ released in 1987. I knew exactly how he felt. I felt the same way when I came to Delhi in 1989 after getting a job with the Government of India. I had spent a few years in Delhi in the late 1960s as a small child and then three and a half years in Mathura from 1969 to 1972 when my father, an army officer, was posted in these places. 

However, the period from 1972 to 1989 had been spent in Kerala and I had vowed to myself that I would never return to hot and dusty northern India and would stay in green and beautiful Kerala. The fates, however, were conspiring against me and when I got a job it was in Delhi. As I reluctantly stepped off the train on 16 April 1989, my worst fears appeared to have come true. It was unbearably hot, dirty, smelly and dusty. I doubted whether I would last a month. To top it all, within a couple of days I realized that I was totally like a fish out of water. I was that most pitiable of creatures a Madrasi in New Delhi.

Confused geography

People reading this in the present day may feel that I am making a mountain out of a molehill and that Delhi is a cosmopolitan city that makes everyone feel at home. That was not quite true in the late eighties and the 1990s. Many Delhiites did not know how many states were there in South India, let alone where Kerala was. All people who did menial jobs as maids, labourers and rickshaw pullers were referred to as ‘Biharis’. Similarly, all south Indians came under the ubiquitous umbrella, that of the ‘Madrasi’. It did you no good to try and explain that Madras was only a city in Tamil Nadu and that south Indians could be from Karnataka, Andhra, Goa or Kerala as well as from other parts of Tamil Nadu. No. Madrasi it was and Madrasi it would remain and they found it amazing that many South Indians found it extremely irritating to be referred to as such. Whenever I was addressed a Madrasi I would bristle and retort that I was a Keralite or a Malayali but not a Madrasi. ‘Theek hai, theek hai’ would be the response. ‘Ek hi baat hai. It’s the same thing.’ One of my colleagues in the Department of Education dumbfounded me when he intelligently remarked on hearing I was from Kerala. ‘Accha, Kerala se ho. Hong Kong ke paas.’ It was clear that geography had not been his strong suit in school.

The second culture shock I received was the number of illiterates I bumped into. Coming from a state with nearly 100 per cent literacy this was something I was not ready for. In Kerala, we are used to the sight of labourers and headload workers poring over the newspapers over cups of coffee in the mornings and heatedly discussing the events in Poland, Serbia or Rwanda or animatedly kicking around the question of who was the better among Pele, Maradona, Messi and Ronaldo. It is taken for granted that everyone you meet is not only literate but also has a basic knowledge of politics, culture, the arts and sports and is willing to fight you at the drop of a hat if your views don’t coincide with theirs. 

When it comes to dressing, however, Keralites have a definite lack of sartorial elegance. We are used to half-sleeved bush shirts, lungis worn at half-mast and rubber slippers even in offices or in public. In Delhi however, everyone tries to be well dressed, long-sleeved shirts tucked into smartly creased pants and leather shoes are the norm rather than the exception. I was taken aback once at the Central Secretariat bus stop when a well-dressed gentleman walked up to me, pointed at a bus at the kerb with a board that indicated that its destination was Paschim Vihar, and asked me where the bus was bound. I surmised that he had realized that I was a Madrasi and was trying to take the mickey. I angrily replied in Hindi that the destination board was visible to anyone who wasn’t blind as a bat and that he could read it himself. He simply replied that if he could read he wouldn’t have asked me in the first place. That incident was a real eye-opener. You can’t judge a book by its cover and many of the people who were better dressed than slobs like me were unable to read.

Daryaganj and beyond 

While in the Department of Education I worked under a senior bureaucrat, an IAS officer who was a voracious reader and had also had several articles published in the newspapers and was working on a novel. We used to frequently discuss books and I also used to get books for her children from the Daryaganj book market. On one occasion while discussing some trivial issue she casually referred to ‘you Madrasis’. I immediately got my back up and retorted “ Ma’am I’m not a Madrasi, as you well know’. She immediately tried to soothe me and said ‘I didn’t mean it in a derogatory sense. I know you’re from Kerala but to us, all persons from south of the Vindhyas are ‘Madrasis’.’ I thought for a while and replied ‘That’s true. All you Biharis refer to us as Madrasis, irrespective of which state we come from. She turned red and shot back ‘I’m not a Bihari. I’m from Delhi’. ‘That’s OK, Ma’am’’, I said, ‘no offence meant but to us all persons north of the Vindhyas are Biharis ‘. 

She stared for a moment and then started to laugh her guts out and then said she’s never ever refer to a south Indian as a Madrasi again. One gets to understand a situation when you see it from the other person’s perspective. I’d like to mention here that I have the utmost respect for people from Bihar and some of the most hardworking and intelligent people I have met have been from Bihar. They just shared the misfortune of being typecast just like Madrasis or ‘Chinkys ‘as people from the North East were referred to.

The other strange thing I found about Delhi was the culture of bargaining. Where I came from, anything cost the same whichever shop you bought it from. In Delhi, it cost whatever the shopkeeper felt like quoting and one had to go through the long-winded ritual of bargaining before one got anything close to a fair price. The ritual began with the shopkeeper looking you up and down and trying to assess your net worth and how much he could con you out of. If he noticed you were a Madrasi then the cost would suddenly skyrocket. Inexperienced south Indians were easy prey, especially in markets such as Palika Bazaar and Karol Bagh. It took a couple of years of experience before you got used to haggling and beating down the price. The downside of this was that after I returned home to Kerala the habit persisted resulting in my copping some nasty looks and a few nastier comments.

Delhi delights

From all of the above, it must be clear that for me returning to Delhi was quite a culture shock. I enjoyed the food, spoke Hindi fluently and without a discernible accent and loved the cold weather, the three things most South Indians have difficulty with. However, I still couldn’t fit in and pined for my home state. Slowly, however, I began to notice the good points of Delhi. The one that impressed me the most was the open-hearted hospitality of the people. In South India people are very formal with visitors or guests, seating them in the drawing-room where everyone sits bolt upright and exchanges polite chit chat over cups of lukewarm tea or filter coffee. Here people were much more hospitable and informal. Even a first-time visitor was treated as one of the family, asked to sit on the charpoy and immediately handed a plate full of piping hot food and invited, nay ordered, to dig in. A sea change from those stiff-backed drawing-room rituals.

Sunday Book Market in Daryaganj

Similarly, the atmosphere in the office was quite informal as compared to government offices in South India and an easy camaraderie existed between persons of different grades and posts without any bossism or undue misuse of seniority. The conducive atmosphere helped in better productivity and a sense of belonging. One of the first officers I worked with put it across to me succinctly when I remarked upon this aspect. ‘Yahaan pe dande se kaam nahi chalta. Yahaan aap pyaar se hi kaam karva sakte ho’, which would roughly translate as you cannot get work done here by wielding a stick, only with love. An axiom our brothers in government offices in South India would do well to adopt.

Another admirable quality of the Delhiite was their resilience in times of strife. When I first came to Delhi the fallout of the problems in Punjab was very apparent and bomb explosions in city buses and public places, as well as a few shootouts, were common. It was amazing how the people of Delhi absorbed these shocks and moved on, taking these appalling incidents in their stride. The city buses would be as jam-packed as ever the day after an explosion. Life goes on, was the attitude as people refused to be cowed down and went about their lives with resilience and a quiet courage. The best part was that they didn’t make a song and dance about it as many Mumbaikars did after every calamity that visited Mumbai when the people and the media would go to town about the courage of the Mumbaikars. Delhiites are just as brave, but they are a teeny bit more modest about it, a surprising trait in an otherwise brash and extrovert city.

As the years passed and I remained in Delhi my attitudes began to change. I grew to appreciate the open, friendly nature of the people around me, the informality and friendliness in the office and of course the street food. I became a huge fan of the piping hot samosas and kachoris, bread pakoras, chole bhature and gol gappas and loved eating at the roadside dhabas. This was another change from my native place where people generally looked down on eating in the open from wayside stalls. I was a bit inhibited about eating from these stalls at first but soon overcame my inhibitions and became a serial street food guzzler. 

Paneer problem

The only thing I hated about Delhi was its love for paneer (cottage cheese). This was something you didn’t get in Kerala but it was numero uno on Delhi’s menu list. I hated the cold, rubbery, tasteless globs of off white cottage cheese but to Delhiites, this was the equivalent of caviar or manna from heaven. The moment they expected a guest at home they would cut slices of paneer and add to perfectly delicious dishes, polluting them beyond redemption. The last straw was when I went to a restaurant with my wife, scanned the menu which was chock full of paneer based monstrosities and finally settled on the only edible thing I saw on the menu, a masala dosa. Imagine my fury when that king of dishes, the dosa was brought to me with the masala infested by wormlike slivers of paneer. I gave the waiter a dressing down and he informed me with pride that this was no ordinary masala dosa, it was a Paneer Masala Dosa. Is nothing sacred anymore?

Vineeth’s library in Irinjalakuda

After close to 29 years in Delhi, I took voluntary retirement and returned to Kerala in 2017. Many people ask me if I miss Delhi after having lived there for so long. The answer is yes, and no. I don’t miss the dust, the smell, the traffic jams or the terrible heat. I do miss my friends, curiously enough almost all of them non-Keralites. Other than that I miss the Daryaganj book market, the street food and the friendliness of the people. And yes, I even miss the bargaining at the markets and that wonderful Delhi Hindi, heavily influenced by Punjabi and with cuss words instead of punctuation marks. Come to think of it, towards the end of my stay I didn’t feel like an alien anymore.

(To be continued.)

Read other parts of Shelf Life here.


Vineeth Abraham calls himself a “complete, utter and unapologetic bibliophile”. He owns a large personal library and resides in Irinjalakuda, Kerala. In Shelf Life, Abraham writes about reading, books, and beyond.

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