Gangs of India

The Tall Task of Marking Maradona

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Extra tall men were once seen as freaks in Kerala. But a tall people’s association has won them acceptance and special jobs--as security guards for Diego Maradona, for example

Height is not just a number for seven-foot-one-inch Kamarudeen Ahmed. It is something that broke him as well as remade him.

Kamarudeen is probably the tallest man in Kerala. At age 9, he was already so tall that he had to stop going to school. Classmates and teachers would treat him with scorn. Being tall is one thing. Being too tall makes you look like a freak. But one day, when he was 26, walking along Kodambakkam High Road in Chennai, a car stopped near him. In that car, as Kamarudeen claims, was the filmstar Kamal Haasan, who had a small role in a movie to offer him. Thus began Kamarudeen’s cinema career. He acted in a handful of Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu movies. However, it didn’t do much for him. For a livelihood, he has had to rely on odd menial jobs. And now on the verge of turning 50, he has not yet been able to shrug off his sense of alienation from the world at large.

Kamarudeen’s life, though, has certainly been better since 2001, when he joined the Tall Men’s Association of Kerala (TMA). This is a club of men who are 183 cm—roughly six feet— or taller. “The greatest advantage is that I don’t feel very tall after joining the association,” he says. Around him are people like Ajesh, 6-foot-8-inches, and Rakesh, 6-foot-10. He doesn’t feel abnormal among them.

Tigrees Antony, president of the association, says that the primary objective of the group is to assure its members a sense of self-confidence and urge them to ‘walk tall’ no matter what. The Tall Men’s Asso- ciation encourages its members to stop being embarrassed by all the stares and whispers directed at them.“Being the centre of attraction is not a bad thing,” says Tigrees, who stands at 6-feet-5-inches.

The association was started by Sacharia Joseph, a 6-foot-4-inch retired Air Force man, as an informal family group of ‘like-heighted people’. They would get together and share their experiences, and this led them to set up an organisation to voice and claim their ‘rights’.

Shorter people rarely notice their travails, but for them, ‘fitting in’ is a challenge in a bewildering variety of ways. Public transport vehicles are not designed for tall men. They have to crouch low on buses. Train berths are too small for them to sleep in any comfort. Readymade garments of their size are unavailable. They have to look for tailors and bear their derisive smiles, not to mention frequently long waits for their clothes to be delivered. Footwear is difficult to find too. Shoe shops do not stock their size, and so they have to place special orders, cramp their feet into whatever is available, or get used to their toes sticking out of sandals.

The association aims for a truly inclusive world, one that accommodates very tall men. It has written to the Government to have vehicle manufacturers take the predicament of tall men into account while designing buses and the like.

The association also tries to make the most of its members’ size. By way of charity, for example, it deputes its most imposing members to act as crowd managers at public events. The association has formed a task force called Tall Men Executive Force, which has been its main source of revenue (the TMA charges Rs 1,000 for a day’s work at an event).

The idea has been welcomed in large parts of Kerala, with the force being invited for inaugurations of large textile or jewellery shops (to be found in every nook and corner of the state), and also for large weddings and stage programmes of film and television stars. Some 100 members of the force were present at the recent visit of Argentine football legend Diego Maradona to Kannur for the inauguration of a gold shop.

“Meeting Diego Maradona was like a dream came true,” says Rakesh Panangadu, 6-foot-10. “We were able to meet Maradona only because of our height—the same factor that caused us such a sense of shame in our childhood.”

For those who have grown weary of being called ‘long legs’, ‘ladders’ or ‘beanpoles’ (they have had no escape from these nicknames), being valued for their towering presence is a big boost to their self esteem.

Ajesh KS, for example, is now clear that his height is a blessing. As a commercial photographer who runs a photo studio and often shoots weddings, he speaks of how his height gives him a privileged view of events to get just the shots he needs.

For most TMA members, their extraordinary height gives them an opportunity to be on the other side of the camera—as actors in movies. They have already made notable contributions to Malayalam cinema. In a movie that takes its inspiration from Gulliver’s Travels, for example, 17 members of the association have key roles in the climax, a scene that has the film’s central characters— a group of short men, 4 feet or less—in a fight with Brobdingnag- ians (Brobdingnag being the fictional land inhabited by giants in Jonathan Swift’s seminal eighteenth century tale). Kamarudeen Ahmed, who had an important role in that movie, even lost a tooth in a sincere effort to make the fight scene as realistic as possible. “No lookalikes and stuntmen are available for us,” he says, “so we have to do everything ourselves.” He does not regret his lost tooth, though.

Regardless of its name, the TMA is not just a men’s group. KK Kavitha, who is 6-foot-2 and regarded as Kerala’s tallest woman, is a member of the association too. She works as a lawyer in the Magistrate Court at Vaikkom in Ernakulam district, and says her height enables her to make eye-contact with judges seated on their high platform. “I think it helps me,” says Kavitha, “They know me personally, and I am easily identified by clients, colleagues and judges wherever I go.” She is pleased with the advantages of her height. “[But] it was difficult to get a good match. I got married only at 32.” Her husband is of the same height.

Given that tall men far outnumber tall women in India, finding height- appropriate marital alliances may seem especially difficult for males. But it is not a pressing issue. “Many of us have married women of normal height,” says the 6-foot-5 Tigrees. “In fact, height does not matter after marriage. It becomes insignificant.” As a father of two children, he knows that a physical mismatch need not get in the way of a conjugal relationship.

The adjustment they seek is a social one. What they want, above all, is to be seen as regular people. Their own attitudes, the association believes, play a transformative role. First, just being with others helps. ‘I am not the odd one out,’ they realise. Once they accept this, they reinforce one another’s confidence. Over time, it changes how they feel about themselves. “We get respect from people when we go for events,” says Laiju P, the association’s state secretary. Even the cops seek their help to control crowds.

‘Height,’ declares the association’s website, ‘is a gift of god and we are proud of it.’ It is not about being the odd one out, its members learn in due course, it is about standing head and shoulders above the rest. And this makes all the difference.