Saturday, September 08, 2007

The French connection

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express

A French woman, married to a Malayali, tries to come to terms with the complex society in Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

One Sunday evening, at the Abad Food Court in Bay Pride Mall in Kochi, nearly all the tables are filled with stylish young couples, bawling children, bored husbands, matronly wives, and an old man leaning heavily on a cane. But it is just one couple that is at the centre of attention. They sit at a small table, gazing into each other’s eyes. Through the glass walls, shoppers stop and stare. A group of college boys ogle unabashedly. Two of them surreptitiously take photos on their mobile phones.

The man has curly black hair, black eyes and is wearing a white mundu. She has brown hair, kaajal-rimmed green eyes, a dash of sindhur in the parting of her hair, and is wearing a beautiful Kerala saree.

His name is R. Rajesh, 33, from Pattanakad and she is Corrine Mathou, 29, from France. So what was their feeling while all this intense staring was going on? Says Corrine: “I saw one lady call all her relatives together and point at me. I felt like a monkey. This sort of staring and pointing happens everywhere I go. I don't think it is because I am a woman or that I am married to a Malayali. It is just because I am a foreigner.”

Rajesh says a few days ago, Corrine went to his office on Marine Drive and later, they stepped out for a walk. A few seconds later, a colleague followed them downstairs and he saw many people were staring at something. “When he checked, it turned out that they were all looking at us,” says Rajesh. “Sometimes, the staring is to the point of rudeness.”

He says that when he is with Corrine, people will pass comments like ‘He has made a good catch by marrying this Maadama. Now he must be earning in dollars.’

“When I married this French girl, everybody felt I married her for money or to go abroad. Both assumptions are wrong: she does not have any money and I don't want to leave Kerala.”

They met in 1999 when she came down from Paris to learn Kathakali at the Vijnanakalavedi Cultural Centre at Aranmula, near Pathanamtitta. He was working as an administrative officer at the centre. It took them years to get to know each other, “because of the conservative society,” as Corrine says. However, they became close in 2004 when they went on a trip to Cambodia. Corrine had gone to do a comparison of classical Khmer dance with Mohiniyattom, while he accompanied her as a photographer.

They got married in 2005. Today, she is learning Mohiniyattom and doing a doctorate on the ‘aesthetics and the philosophy of art’ from St. Denis University in Paris. So, she travels back and forth. Rajesh is working as a senior sales consultant in a UK-based travel firm in Kochi. But ever since their marriage, Corrine is getting a crash course in Kerala culture.

“Whenever I visit homes, I always see that the men are idle, while the women are busy doing the housework,” she says. “This never happens in France. The husband and wife share the work. If one cooks, the other washes the dishes.”

She pauses, smiles sweetly at Rajesh, and plunges in the knife: “In fact, one of the minus points in our marriage is that I have to do all the housework. He always asks me to make tea. If I don't make tea, he won't have tea. That was really surprising.”

Corrine says this kindly and without malice. Her sweetness becomes clear when after a few minutes she provides tea and biscuits at the dining table of their seventh floor apartment on Chitoor Road. She is slowly getting adjusted to the dominance of the male in Kerala society. However, she has already got used to the lecherousness.

Whenever she traveled on the train, men would approach her, and say, ‘Hello, are you on vacation?’ and thrust visiting cards at her and say, ‘Call me, or send an e-mail’. “It seems to me that they thought all white women were prostitutes,” she says. In despair, she would rush to the air-conditioned bogie and there, well-dressed gentlemen in their forties, wearing ties and shoes, would do the same ‘visiting card’ routine.

Says an animated Rajesh: “In Kerala, the number of married couples who have a thriving sexual life is very small. They are living together for the sake of the children, the family, and society. By the time they are forty years old, they stop having sex with each other. That is why these middle-aged men pounce on women like Corrine.”

Corrine nods and says, “I also get the feeling there is very little sex taking place in marriages. Once a woman becomes a mother, her sexual life seems to be over. Now her focus is only on her children. It seems to me you cannot be a mother and a wife at the same time. The wife eats and eats and becomes fat and ugly. Eventually, the husband ends up looking elsewhere.”

Both husband and wife look at each other. Then Corrine takes a deep breath and says, “Having said that, I would like to say that it is impossible to understand such a complex and deep culture completely, unless you are born and brought up in it.”

True, but what both have said is food for thought for our morally conflicted society.

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