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A book that captures the kindnesses and quirks of a small town

Anjana Menon's Onam in a Nightie, a series of slice-of-life stories set in Thrissur, is a rollicking read

The Aranmula Boat Race festival held during Onam (Representational Image) (Pexels)

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Rosie, the dog who bears this “name with endless possibilities,” is a nice shade of tan and somewhat overweight. She drinks tea and eats laddoos—as her person, Shivankutty claims—though he appears to have “no clout over her gastronomical preferences.” However, her regular diet seems balanced enough—milk with raw eggs for breakfast and meat and chicken for lunch and dinner—and she even gets in a spot of exercise at the convent where they both reside, says Shivankutty. According to him, she collects the stray balls when the nuns play tennis at the convent. “She has to run around a lot during the game,” he says, as “busy Rosie, adept ballgirl, fierce guard dog” runs behind a butterfly with a wagging tail, hoping to befriend it.

Rosie is possibly my favourite character in Anjana Menon’s charming memoir, Onam in a Nightie, a series of slice-of-life stories set in Thrissur, where Menon, who describes herself as “the proverbial outsider, with a claim to being an insider” lived, for a while, after the pandemic began. But there are some other unforgettable ones: chatty Kerala police officers; Stella the counsellor; Sajith, the very friendly covid volunteer; Vasu, the electrician, a banana-connoisseur and of course, the aforementioned Shivankutty, the odd-job man with a drinking problem. They flit in and out of the book, which, as Menon points out in the preface, “started as a humdrum journal of my quarantine until epiphanies emerged in the tiny details—a remark here, an episode there that triggered a smile or a memory.”

Anjana Menon
Anjana Menon

Memoir is often a tricky genre to navigate,  running the constant risk of becoming a somewhat self-indulgent narrative. Menon, however, manages to avoid that by keeping her “I” in check. While indeed a character, she is one of many, and there is room for all her characters to be and breathe. Thrissur is the hero of the book, really, and Menon does a great job of capturing the essence of the town, its culture and people, offering a perspective that manages to straddle the fine line that divides the outsider from the insider.

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Perhaps my only grouse with the book was the long-winded explanations offered when it came to “regional” references. For example, the description of achappam as a “wafer munchie shaped like a delicate cast-iron trivet” felt unnecessary. Partly because it isn’t a Kerala-only snack—versions of the achappam or rose cookie are also made in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Goa, and Sri Lanka —and also because in the age of Google as well as a relatively less Eurocentric book ecosystem, it feels outdated. The same goes for calling a nightie “a boxy maxi” or payasam “a sweet pudding that can be made with any number of things”—all this ends up weighing down an otherwise breezy narrative.

 

The cover of the book
The cover of the book

Onam in a Nightie, in a way, does what William Faulkner does to northern Mississippi or RK Narayan to the fictional Malgudi or Ruskin Bond to Dehra and Mussoorie. It captures the grace and glamour of slowness, the surprising intimacy of seemingly-random relationships, the kindnesses and quirks of a small town where everyone knows everyone else and memories last forever. Humdrum everyday incidents—think a cobra fight, evening walks on an infrequently used railway platform, rotting chikoos or an ayurvedic massage—are lacquered with a gentle humour that amuses without offending and presented with a compelling theatricality that makes this book an easy, comfortable read as enjoyable as warm payasam, perfectly-ripened jackfruit or ethakka appams with tea. 

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