Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Chapter 8 - Rural Life in God's Own Country

Chapter 8


From Cochin where my mother was I travelled further into the interiors of God’s Own Country, to my in-laws’ home in Pathinamthitta. The famous pilgrimage destination of Sabarimala is close to this district. The countryside is ever green from green foliage and evergreen coconut, arecanut, and rubber trees that thickly wood this area, broken by swathes of rice fields nurtured by abundant water.

From a city bustling with wealth and bristling with hoardings, such as Cochin, I was now in the deep interiors of Kerala. My in-laws are retired teachers. In fact, all of them, including my wife, their son- and daughter-in-law are teachers. I am the sole exception. This state definitely is teacher friendly. It is a well-paying profession in this job-starved region. My father-in-law retired as the headmaster of a local school and draws a pension of about Rupees four thousand which he will continue to receive till his death. My mother-in-law, also a teacher, now retired, will also receive a like amount.

The total income of this family along with the income from their rubber estates would be an enviable Rupees 40,000 per month, much more than what I was earning in Bombay working eight hours, six days a week. Certainly, this is a good income for an Indian family. Also a lot of their food items came from their own fields, and there isn’t much impulse or vanity buying. They had all the characteristics of a solid middle-class Kerala family with a high savings rate.

They have a cow, a calf, rubber estates, rice fields, and live a pretty secluded life in the interiors of Kerala. The reason for their bourgeoisie affluence, ironically, is socialism. Successive socialist governments have favoured the working class with huge and unaffordable pay increases. The state’s treasury is empty; still, these popular measures were doled out as sops to win elections. There was a solid lobby of leftists in the bureaucracy and administrative machinery because of these populist measures. That explains the almost lackadaisical attitude one encounters inside the offices of most government run institutions. It is very difficult to get work done. They have strong unions to support them.

The government also privatised education. It seems they wanted to create armies of graduates, nurses, electricians, and mechanics to work in the Persian Gulf and around India. Today, almost every house boasts of a son or a daughter working in the Gulf. The Persian Gulf is seen as a panacea for all problems, financial and social. So, naturally, there is a lot of disappointment when the dream goes sour. There are scores of private institutes offering courses and a computer institute that offers a course to train “office computer clerks.” I saw this in an advertisement displayed outside a computer training institute in Cochin.

Obviously these private institutes aim to train people to work in the Gulf. People are willing to pay anything to get a certificate of some sort so that they can immigrate. There is a “Spoken English Class” that offers to train students in speaking and writing proper English in a month for just Rupees one thousand. Ironical? Indeed it is. As usual, let the buyer beware, there are no guarantees or promises made.

Private education has also given rise to churlish situations. With the growing number of schools offering English-medium education there are no students in the government run Malayalam schools. Therefore teachers in government-run schools go to houses and canvas parents to send their children to government-run schools with promises of offering free uniforms and books.

The growing affluence resulting from Gulf income has given rise to another problem – theft. With the young and able-bodied working in the Gulf, there aren’t any youth left in the interiors of Kerala. Theft is rampant here. Our ancestral house in nearby Kidangannoor was burgled three times, one of the reasons why my brother shifted house to Cochin, a busy city, which offers more security.

Theft is being carried out by gangs who work in the night. There are rumours of extremist outfits being involved with these gangs. If this is true, it is bad for the state. In fact, once when I was in Kidangannoor thieves had entered our house and made off with our holiday expense money and valuables. When we complained to the police the stock reply was, “You identify the suspects, and we will arrest them and extract a confession.” Horror of horrors they are asking us to do the detection work! Then they would use their third degree methods after which even the innocent would confess to the most heinous of crimes. With their methods even an innocent man would confess to the crime. I had written to the then chief minister about the burglary in our house but my letters elicited no reply.

In the interiors of Kerala, amid the affluent government servants and Persian Gulf immigrants live the poor, the resourceless and dispossessed of Kerala. They are labourers, subsistence farmers, and people without political support or affiliation. They suffer their indignities in silence as they don’t have the money to send their children to expensive schools, or buy them private education. They may also be the helpless perpetrators of crime, drawn into it by circumstances. In fact, the hidden frustration of the downtrodden could lead, if unchecked, to major acts of violence and theft in future. I do not wish to be negative, but my observation is drawn from having experienced a theft in my own house at first-hand.

I made a short visit to my ancestral house in Kidangannoor where a cousin now lives with his family. The trip was brief and I had the joy of seeing the rice fields being made ready for planting. They were being ploughed in the traditional method using oxen and plough. I was glad to once again hear the commands given to the oxen by the man who was ploughing. His vocabulary included loud-pitched shouts and many guttural grunts and declamations.

Next day, as I woke up at sunrise, I was glad to hear a symphony of bird sounds, as if in an orchestra. Never had I heard such rich and varied sounds that reminded me of the richness of a symphony orchestra. I couldn’t identify all the sounds but recognized those of the cukoo and a native bird that we call by the name ookan.

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