Walrus Moustache, Mundu & Metal Watch: The Vanishing Style of the Malayali Man


Walrus Moustache, Mundu & Metal Watch: The Vanishing Style of the Malayali Man

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

If you have been to Malayali weddings, you would be forgiven for thinking that the bride resembles a life-sized gold jewellery stand. This is unfortunate, because sartorial austerity has long been a great Malayali virtue. Ostentation often has to be excused, and in the bride’s case it is a necessary show of prestige and the generosity of her family on a wedding day – a very important day. But at other times, even sunglasses need a good excuse to be worn. According to one Malayalam film director, actor Mammootty wears them in public because he’s too shy to face the star-struck people who hover around him.

Having lived for more than 24 years in Trivandrum, Kerala, I but became aware of this profile of Malayali humility, at least of the men, only after reaching Delhi, the land of preening peacock people.

This austerity in clothing is but different from shabbiness, which is the work of the intellectual, who is too vain to look presentable. Neither is it the lungi, a homely comfort men change into. The virtuous austerity of Malayali men is the formal middle (-class?) style – conceited neither in flamboyance nor in simplicity; serious but not boorish; casual but not loose. The middle style is a time-honoured Malayali respectability, alas one waning under a global monoculture.

Over the years, this manliness has evolved a few constants and variables, but its spirit can be clearly felt. Starting from the top, there is a plain relaxed shirt (it could be a simple cheque), usually with a straight hem, which is left untucked, and if long-sleeved, folded at the elbows in a neat rectangular block. A tucked-in shirt is a dash of seriousness too much, as is the full sleeve, and therefore is usually allowed only to professors or other serious men, on serious occasions.

Trousers arrived with modernity, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they and electricity became accessible to the Malayali at around the same time. In many Malayalam films trousers are worn by the newly rich Gulf Malayali or the prodigal son who has returned from the film city of Madras. As opposed to the more common sight of the traditional mundu, trousers became an acceptable form of urbanity and youth.

The middle style is a time-honoured Malayali respectability, alas one waning under a global monoculture.

For instance, in the 1989 film Carnival, one Bharathan stuns his rural love interest by appearing in “pants”. “Engjanund? (How is it?)” he asks the woman who looks admiringly at him. Her brother too is in awe. “How many pockets they have!” The mundu, of a more mature character, was a return to an older time. My father travelled in a mundu to his village in north Kerala, but to his office he stood on smart trousers.

Then there was the classy watch: A metal watch was likely seen on a hard-working hand, whereas a gold-and-enamel analog with a leather strap decorated a humbler young hand.

An irreplaceable feature of the style was the sandals. To replace them with shoes was an error in taste. To me shoes are objectionable as they are a form of self-abuse, and wearing them for a day atones for a lifetime. But the reason it’s strange to the Malayali heart is its boorishness, its appearance that is too conspicuous for plain sight. In school, we had a similar sentiment against the English teacher, who was given a grudging respect. Speaking a language few understood, they had to them an offending confidence. English, they said, was important to our careers. We had numbers to back our pride; what right did they, who spoke an alien language, have to feel so sure about the world? The Hindi teacher, by contrast, instructed in Malayalam and sometimes even helped us cheat in exams – a humility we loved. A sincere humility, likewise, was a fundamental aspect of the middle style and what made it so likeable.

However, the most important aspect of this style was also its most vain, making it almost the man’s corporeal address: a moustache on a clean-shaven face. A trimly maintained, thick walrus moustache today is famously patronised by the Kerala Police, and inspirits its motto: polite but firm. While the hairless face is the norm to many forces in India, the Kerala Police do not mind a walrus, and many of its men wear it proudly.

But the middle style was a perfect articulation of the Malayali male and to a great extent it still is.

Perhaps no. one is a more charismatic metaphor for this Malayali manhood than the legendary India football captain VP Sathyan. Gentle eyes set in a rugged square face with a bristly walrus, Sathyan’s visage, like lightning to thunder, preceded his temperament He was calm, statesmanlike, strong-willed, dependable and a natural leader of men. The tough-tackling India captain, from the classic Kerala Police football team, was India captain for ten years in the Golden Era of Kerala football, and was loved by many. His life was memorialised last year in a blockbuster biopic.

Some images seem strikingly out of character – for instance, a frail Mother Teresa skipping rope with a child in the streets. Sathyan’s suicide at 41, when he jumped in front of a Chennai train in 2006, provoked such a dissonance – a grave, tragic one.

In many ways, the virtuous middle style is fast becoming an old way of dressing as well as thinking as its patrons slowly pass away. Jeans and T-shirts and other new conveniences, and the oddity of the walrus among modern men, are slowly homogenising the Malayali and his ways with that of the global citizen.

A few months ago, partly in vain, partly in memory of my father, I tried growing a walrus moustache to the amusement of my friends, but realised I now belong to the new world and soon regretted the indignity of fighting a lost battle. But the middle style was a perfect articulation of the Malayali male and to a great extent it still is. It speaks of home and authenticity, his liking for a casual respectability, and holds a genuine manly charm.

As the world becomes more and more his home, the Malayali becomes more and more ordinary. Surely, this must be the last stand of an age where he belongs first to Kerala and then the world. For good grace, maybe, he must follow the world willingly than be dragged along by it.