Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Chapter 9 - From Chengannur to Calicut and Back

Chapter 9


I had some business in Calicut and made a long journey from Chengannur by bus first to Trichur and then to Calicut. It involved a full day’s journey from Chengannur, which is the nearest town and railway station. Chengannur is in central Kerala and Calicut is in northern Kerala. The journey would take me through the guts of God’s blessed country.

At Chengannur I tentatively enquired if there was a train that goes directly to Calicut, the city once ruled by the Zamorins. This is where the Portuguese first set up their trading post. I was told there weren’t any trains going directly to Calicut so my best bet was a bus. The state-run bus service, The Kerala State Road Transport Corporation is dependable and therefore I asked the nearest officious looking man.

“Where can I make an enquiry?”

“Isn’t that itself an enquiry?”

Brilliant! That was the sort of repartee for which my fellow Malayalis are famous, though an interrogative was answered by an interrogative. He didn’t sound cheeky and said this with a smile, so I didn’t mind. It’s good to have a sense of humour in Kerala, a state where people use humour with even solemn occasions. Nobody, not even the high and mighty is above a bit of teasing and ridicule.

“What is it you want?”

“How can I get to Calicut? Is there a direct bus?”

Only then did I receive the answer I wanted, “No, there aren’t any direct buses, you will have to change at Trichur.”

Throughout this leg of the journey I could see foreigners, their alabaster white skin shining among the brown and the black skin tones of the local inhabitants. A former tourism secretary of Kerala had discovered that the state had great tourism potential and set about promoting the state’s beautiful backwaters, green vegetation, wild life and rich cultural heritage. The state had actually been a haven for all the major religions of the world, and had a rare natural beauty that was worth watching. Therefore, he inferred, it could be a great tourist destination.

The campaign was successful and, thanks to his efforts, the world is now discovering the beauty of this Shangri-la – Kerala – that has been hitherto been a secret that only the Gods knew about. And they didn’t share it with anyone, least of all, rubber-necked wanderers. I assume it was that advertising campaign that propelled Kerala to the forefront as, “God’s Own Country.” The result of his efforts has been serendipitous and threw open a lot of opportunities for an already affluent state. All it takes to be in business is a traditional style Kerala house and a few Kettuvallams. Just as my friend Varghese Thomas, a prosperous businessman is doing. It is so named because it is made from jackwood planks, held together, believe it or not, by ropes and not by nails. Tourists especially like the Kettuvvallam boat ride on the Vembanad Lake on his Kettuvallams. The ancient Kettuvallams were once used to transport rice, spices, and handicrafts from the interiors of the state to the coastal towns for export. Now they are luxurious apartments fitted with deckchairs and toilets.

Everywhere I went I could see tourists, some even dressed in Kerala’s ethnic dress of kurta and mundu (traditional white unstitched apparel knotted around the waist). I was delighted to see a foreigner fold this pristine white couture with the felicity of a real Malayali. I then felt ashamed that I had never tried wearing the mundu, though I was born in Kerala. The problem was that the inconsiderate thing kept unwinding every time I wound it around my waist. I decided that I would be the laughing stock of my fellow Malayalis if it were to give me the slip unexpectedly. And here was this white-skinned foreigner folding it with such grace and command that I almost turned green shade with envy.

I tried striking up a conversation with the above-mentioned man but he seemed cold and inscrutable. There wasn’t enough trust, I guess, looking as I did with my longish hair, my soiled Levis jacket, and blue denim jeans. But then, irony of ironies, I was in what he should have been wearing and he was in what I should have been wearing!

Why was the man mentioned above in India, where there is no orderliness as in western countries, permissions took too long to materialize, and tickets were such a pain to obtain? May be he was so fed up with the system and structure of the western society that he really craved something totally chaotic as travelling in India and the free flowing and luxurious feel of the Kerala mundu. The reason frankly baffles, my dear reluctant mundu wearer. I just needed a clarification of my thoughts, and, sorry to disappoint you dear sir, theft definitely was not on my mind.

The Westernized Oriental Gentleman (wog) and the Easternized Occidental Gentleman (eoG) are as much disparate as chalk and cheese. I guess both detest each other passionately judging by the look the above personage gave me. I digress.

All through my journey from Chengannoor to Calicut I was assailed by posters of a “Kerala March” organized by the Marxist Communist Party that had the slogan, “Social justice, and integrated development.” Then I found that, in fact, several parties were supporting this march. Another party had announced a “Kerala Walk,” and yet another something similar. These posters had prominent pictures of several leaders and announced in bold and screaming letters their noble objectives beside several movie posters of the leading film stars of Kerala - Mammooty and Mohan Lal.

I had the distinct feeling that these marches, protests, strikes are symptoms of a deeper malaise and the politicians were only indulging in tokenism. I don’t blame them; they live and breathe the present inevitable situation. Never mind. They are not able to bring back governance and address issues of corruption, crime and theft and were merely indulging in a show of strength to maintain their grip over the people. Antony may be right everything is politicised and sensationalized in Kerala. 

Many hoardings along the way had film stars and attractive female models, displaying clothes, jewellery, cars, marbles, and expensive products.  Some of the brand names advertised included “Nelluvithakunnathil” and other such unpronounceable words. These aren’t difficult if you know their meaning which in this case was, “place where paddy is sowed.” Sure, traditional still holds a stern grip over God’s own countryside.

The driver of the government-owned bus was a short irascible man, who was also a demon for speed. He was bald, had close- cropped hair and was so small that he had to lean to the side to turn the steering wheel to the left or to the right. But, despite his small size, he was a bully on the road. His idea of driving was to overwhelm with the size and speed of his vehicle. He did this by driving in the centre of the road and boldly overtaking on the right and swerving wildly to the left to avoid a head on collision as other vehicles braked and scattered furiously. Three-wheeled rickshaws he treated with utmost contempt careening straight into them and then forcing them on to the mud embankments.

He seemed so absent-minded that he would take his eyes off the road and would seem as if he was enjoying the passing scenery, something he passed every day. Once a private bus overtook him, he became so mad that he made an obscene gesture at the conductor of the bus, who also responded in kind. In Calicut he threatened to abandon the bus when people requested that the bus be stopped at unscheduled stops. For me he represented the tough, though diminutive Malayali, so representative of the scrawny ones who can clamber up coconut trees in minutes.

The Malayali accent is unique, with an extra emphasis on vowels. Many a time when the Malayali accent is criticized, I say that it is the uniqueness of the language that makes a Malayali sound awkward when he/she speaks a different tongue. I am no linguist, but a friend who is one, told me that some languages in India, for expediency sake, have glossed over the difference between “ta,” “tha,” and “thha” except in Malayalam where these words still maintain the distinct identities they should, according to the underlying common rules of Sanskrit grammar.

Also every Malayalam word ends in a vowel, and, if there isn’t one, a vowel is gratuitously implanted. So “bus” is “Bass-eh” and paper is “paper-eh.” However I was quite amused when a bus service had this title splashed boldly across its frontage, “Eee Yem Yess,” meaning EMS, the name of the bus. To be more specific it should have been “Eeeyu Yemmu Yessu,” with the vowels drawled ever so slowly and thickly across the floor of the jaw.

While on the subject of names the Malayali’s propensity for exotic sounding names seemed to result in surprisingly unpredictable names being used for products. I even found a hoarding advertising “Terror Cotton Casuals.” I do not know if it is a spelling error – which I doubt – or a deliberate reflection of the times in which we, rather Keralites, live in.

On the way back from Calicut by train I met a buttermilk seller named Komalan. He wears his mundu folded and tied high above his knees, is unshaven, has nervous mannerisms, and talks in a loud voice. He had a story to tell. He had contested for the Kerala state legislative assembly seat from the area – which the train was passing through – and had lost. His party was the right-winged Bharatiya Janata Party, which he has deserted for not doing enough to get him elected.

He was selling butter milk for Rupees Five when the price marked on the plastic sachet was Rupees Three. A passenger had complained to the police and he was arrested. He didn’t even have a valid vendor’s license. The judge offered him the choice of paying a fine of Rupees One thousand or undergoing imprisonment for one month. He opted for imprisonment as he wanted to see what prisons in Kerala were all about.

“And what were prisons like?” I asked.

“The first thing I would do on becoming a Member of the Legislative Assembly would be to clean up the prisons,” said this Malayali, a Brubaker in the making.

“Are they so dirty?”

“Filthy,” he said.

He said he had changed his party after losing the elections. He is a member of the Trinamool Congress Party now, as he found the right-wing communal ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party unacceptable. I don’t know how much of what he said was true, but he seemed the typical Kerala politician, opportunistic, adaptable and willing to change ideologies if it didn’t suit him. In short, a turncoat.

Every town I passed had posters with “Panimudakku” written boldly across them. Panimudakku means stoppage of work to demand more wages. There was one on thirteenth and another on the twenty-fourth of the month. It is a blessing or a curse in Kerala, depending on whether you are a politician or a harassed member of the public.

Obviously, these frequent work stoppages are hurting the industrial development of Kerala. Job generation is almost zero, or, hovers in negative territory. It is frightening if one imagines what would happen if the money transmitted by expatriate residents working in the Persian Gulf stopped. Industrial activity was rife with unrest of Panimudakku and tourism was only beginning to develop. The economy was fragile with the huge wage bill arising out of the workers demanding more money and the excessive amounts paid as pension to the already retired government employees. The situation is scary. Successive left-leaning governments had pampered government employees and casual labourers with huge hikes in salaries and perquisites, which were difficult to fulfill.

On the way back from Calicut by train I passed through Divine Nagar. For a state steeped in Godly things and Godly customs this name seemed appropriate. Divine Nagar in Pota is where the Christians go for spiritual healing. A large number of Christians travel every day to attend sessions in the Catholic institution situated here. Spiritual healing and reaffirmation of faith, I am told by a Christian, is to be had here in these morally corrupt times. I have heard a lot of praise for this institution and want to visit it at some point, though this trip was too hectic to even contemplate it.

Everywhere I travel I see a struggle between tradition and modernity. Farming is still done the old-fashioned way with plough and farm animals and harvesting and threshing is still done with the hands and feet. Traditions and superstitions of a religious nature co-exist with scientific and rational thought. Everywhere there is an uneasy balance between different ideologies trying to dominate.

In Cochin I had seen a quasi-religious group’s conference of some sort. The entire city was plastered with huge welcoming arches, posters of leaders, colourful flags, and the noise level was well near deafening. People were revealing in displays of spiritual elation of some sort. Near my brother’s flat in Cochin a temple festival was going on and there were high pitched music being played and performed throughout the night. Sleep was impossible, a torture.

Aside from these manifestations of religious fervour there was another more insidious presence all over Cochin. Besides, what could be expected than godliness in God’s country? There were posters advertising all sorts of products. There are international brands competing here thanks to the sudden affluence. A huge advertisement for a brand of jeans screamed, “Attitude in my genes.” Interestingly, it showed a hunky male model with a come-hither look with one hand suggestively thrust in the fly of the gene, sorry, jeans.

Advertisements also provide comic relief which I found in a huge hoarding at a city intersection in Cochin. It advertised the services of a Dr Sanjeev Master, bsc, md, who is the “Physician of the Anti-narcotic India.” It was a tall claim, as doctors aren’t supposed to advertise according to medical ethics. His medical qualifications became instantly suspect. Scruples take a beating, often in Kerala, and people in distress go to such pseudo doctors. As the former executive secretary of the Advertising Standards Council of India, I had wrestled with issues of “truth in advertising.” This advertisement triggered a recollection of those experiences.

This reminds me of another time and place when I had found this strange mauling of the words of a former prime minister on the walls of Erode Junction in Tamil Nadu. The offending inscription read, “The most impartant [sic] thing about on [sic] administration is the blief [sic] in its fairplay and integrity.” I had copied it verbatim, so its authenticity is not in doubt and this inscription is prominently displayed on the wall of platform number one of this important railway junction. As some time copy editor I found this sloppiness, um, quite pervasive and deplorable.

Calicut is a clean town in comparison with other Indian towns. In the short time I was there I took in the sights quite eagerly. In Calicut, during my peregrinations, I saw a long queue snaking out of a shop in the middle of the night. It was eleven in the night and all shops except this had closed. I had gone out to have a late dinner and was curious as to what people could be queuing patiently to buy at this time of the night. Then I glanced at the signboard above the shop. It said “videsha madhyam, licensed vendor,” meaning “foreign liquor, licensed vendor.” Foreign alcohol meant whiskies, brandies, gin, and the like, and weren’t foreign at all except in name. These alcohols manufactured in India are termed “foreign” to distinguish them from the local palm toddy and a brew called “charayam,” or, arrack, which are freely available.

Admittedly, Kerala is a state with a serious drinking problem of which alcohol companies and the government are well aware. No party is complete without the sip or tipple. Excise duty on alcoholic drinks is prohibitively high. The government’s rationale is that it will discourage consumption. However, it doesn’t seem to have had the desired effect. Consumption of alcohol is at a very high and there were advertisements everywhere promoting alcohol in the guise of mineral water, soda and other harmless products.

Advertising alcoholic drinks is prohibited. But the powerful alcohol companies have found a way around this problem. Their strategy is called “surrogate advertising.” Their strategy to, what shall we call it, ensnare, seems outwardly simple and harmless: launch an alcoholic drink, launch a few batches of mineral water with the same name and advertise the mineral water. The message gets to the people and the advertisement has its desired effect.

“Charayam,” or, arrack, the inebriating local spirit, has been given quaint names in Kerala according to their strength and potency. The strongest one, my parish priest Roy Varghese once told me is called, “boomi kuluki,” which means “quaker of earth.” Another, equally potent drink, is called, “garbham kalaki,” which means “aborter of fetuses,” implying that if women drink it, the fetuses would get aborted. I had made a note of these amusing names then, hoping to use it sometime. This is my chance!

On the train from Calicut back to Chengannur was a very smart and articulate boy travelling with his equally articulate mother. They seemed products of the opulence of remittances from the Persian Gulf and spoke in English. The boy kept up a steady spiel blaming his mother for not buying him anything, and not even asking if he is hungry and needed anything. He wanted to sleep in the middle berth of the three-tiered sleeping arrangement in Indian trains because, “I haven’t tried it, so far.” To this his mother shot back caustically, “Don’t even try it.” I found the exchange between them quite amusing. When they were about to alight at their destination, the mother became quite nervous, and the boy said, “You don’t have patience.” The mother gave him a dirty look. The boy then said, “Even I am losing my patience now.”

I wouldn’t have written about these fellow travellers if it hadn’t struck me that they were the epitome of the new Kerala, smart and articulate to the very core. At the same time a beggar boy with surprisingly regular features came into the compartment and begged, half sitting half crawling on the floor. He only wore a half-trouser. His hair was caked with mud and dirt. To me he was the symbol of the deprived Kerala, driven to poverty for life. I gave him a rupee and took his permission to photograph him. When I showed him his picture, he became quite overjoyed and smiled broadly.

An interesting fact advertised by a mobile phone service-providing company mentioned that Kerala is a state comprising five-hundred towns, one-thousand-two-hundred villages, and thirty million people. A common characteristic of villages in the north of India were the clustering of a few houses into a village, surrounded by fields. However, in Kerala, because of the shortage of land or otherwise, throughout my journey I found houses spread over every inch of land and even the hills were terraced into cultivable land. The Malayali’s house sits in the middle of his property, be it a hill or a gorge. As a people Malayalis are very attached to their land and may be a Malayali’s individualism develops out of the keen sense of protecting his turf from encroachment. Because of this fact, boundary disputes are widespread and most neighbours are locked into some misunderstanding over the right to their private property.

In the northern parts of India in between villages there are long stretches of uninhabited land, maybe, rocks, hills and ravines. However, in Kerala, may be, because of the high population density there aren’t any uninhabited or barren lands anywhere. Most Kerala villages are well connected by private bus services and information and news are disseminated quite fast by newspapers and the electronic media. The prestigious Malayalam newspaper Malayala Manorama had termed Kerala as India’s largest town because of these characteristics and I, former employee, tend to agree. A Malayali’s smartness and awareness comes from what the British termed “native intelligence.”

This intelligence has given rise to a high degree of political awareness and a keen spirit of competition that has maintained a balance, though uneasy, at political, economic and spiritual levels. I say spiritual levels because in Kerala religious leaders are powerful and sometimes elections in churches are fought on political grounds. The occurrence of religious extremism as it has happened elsewhere in India seems remote. A Malayali is a person who convulses at all times with the exultation of temporary victories or the defiance of transient defeats.

I remember a conversation I had with a friend and party activist some time back. I had said that I wished to come back and settle in Kerala and enjoy the serenity amidst the coconut palms. He had scoffed at me and said, “Then be prepared to join The Party.”

“Which Party?” I asked. Not knowing which party he was referring to.

“Why? The Communist Party, which else?”

Then I knew. In Kerala “The Party” meant the Communist Party. As a corollary, “Partykaran” meant a Communist. He was a “Partykaran.” He was a card-carrying Communist Party activist and was canvassing my membership even before I had come back to spend the rest of my life in writerly solitude. I also realized that without a political outlook and support nobody was safe in the state.

Such heightened awareness, and such involvement had given rise to a fluid situation in my beloved home state. From 1956, when the state was established, and till today there have been nineteen ministries that have had an average of around two years in office, though, by rule, the tenure of each ministry was set at five. The politics of Kerala and that of the Malayali is very shifty and fluid. Period.

In the very first election to the legislative assembly in 1957 people chose The Communist Party of India to govern them. This has given rise to a lot of conjecture and jingoism. The reason? The Malayali is still proud that this was the first Communist Party government to be constitutionally elected by the people anywhere in the world. The rest of the Communist countries were either dictatorships in the name of democracy, or, just plain oligarchies manipulated by a few ideologues.

Why should a people elect a government that has widely been perceived as authoritarian? The reason is not far to seek, at least for me, a person who is, so near, but also a little distant to see the fine differences. Though I was born in Kerala most of my forty-odd years have been spent outside it and that has given me a different perspective on my state and my people.

Let me state clearly what I am waffling towards. Kerala is not only a state but a state of mind. When I am in Kerala, I am in the Kerala state of mind. I talk loudly, use exaggerated gestures, am cynical, and use my critical faculties to the extreme. I have to. Nobody is spared the biting wit of a Malayali, not even religious potentates and political satraps. And, well, you ought to believe this as it comes straight from the clichéd horse’s mouth.

This fact – state of mind, et al – became obvious to me during my trip to Calicut. Outside a Calicut railway magistrate’s court was this admonition, “Anyone making nuisance would be prosecuted.” As I aimed my camera to take a picture of the warning, I was told by a policeman to leave the premises. Fearing the effect the “nuisance” value of my camera would have on the government’s efforts to promote the state as an undiscovered Shangri-la, I left the place. Wonder why they have such rules that are more of a nuisance than anything else?

Wait! I have just seen the tip of a submerged iceberg. There is more. There are laws against the use of modern labour-saving machines because of the policy of left-leaning governments to promote physical labour. Rear dumper trucks, tractors, and excavators are not permitted by the well organized labour unions in Kerala under the pretext of depriving them of their rightful earnings. I talk elsewhere of the practice of “Andi kashu” which is a system by which if anyone is found using mechanized forms of loading and unloading the organized labour union members, by touching the vehicle being unloaded, have to be paid, by law, their pre-determined charges.

One sector that has suffered because of such retrograde policies is farming. If one is able bodied there is nothing like farming in Kerala to make a living. On the other hand if you depend on labour then it is a different game altogether. Organized labour unions demand around Rupees One Hundred and Seventy Five a day for casual labour, more than the average in other Indian states. Agreed, at this high rate productivity can be improved by farm mechanization. Here again, Kerala takes a step further backward than medieval Europe or even other states of India. Mechanization is frowned upon, and the labourer has to work with his hands to plant, harvest and winnow paddy, climb coconut trees and dig wells.

In God’s own state, anything mechanical or industrial is frowned at. They are labelled as anti-labour and immediately boycotted. In fact, I wonder if Luddites who once smashed machines in post-industrial revolution Europe are reincarnated as card-carrying members of left-leaning political parties. Both the Left and the so-called Centrists indulge in industry bashing. On the way back from Calicut I saw this poster about a “Smart City” software park which was coming up in Cochin. “Smart City is not progress, but daylight robbery.” I am partial towards software parks that enhance programming skills, but sceptical about business process outsourcing Centres. The reason is that outsourcing Centres add no skills to youth except calling people in the United States and speaking in their accent. The skills of a generation lies in how much they can innovate in the various processes of business, not in letting them do staid clerical jobs with precision. Remember, these words come from the horse’s mouth.

Anyone doing business in God’s favourite country has to be prepared for the risk of a sudden strike and paralysis of work by their employees. Likewise farmers are apprehensive about farming considering the high cost of casual labour. There is not even the hope of using machines as any sort of mechanization is frowned upon. Most parts of this fertile state that has two seasons of rain remain fallow and uncultivated. Vegetables, and farm produce is imported from neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Therefore Kerala is for the most part a money order economy that may remain stuck in a time warp to the delight of lungi-wearing white people who would want to re-discover the quaint farming implements of prehistoric times alongside the most modern gadgets such as mobile phones and the internet.

In Cochin, on my way back from Calicut, where I made a stop to visit my mother, I saw the outward signs of a society that had a surplus of money to spend. There were advertisements splashed across every inch of space. There were huge car- and electronic-gadgetry showrooms, spiffy looking hotels, and neat multi-storied apartment blocks. Obviously, people were splurging the earnings of their absentee relatives who were toiling in the far away Persian Gulf, America and Europe.

In fact, the whole of Cochin is advertisement land. Everywhere you will find advertisements. Myriad hoardings jostle for space on every mall front, be they for lingerie or for designer cloth labels. The craze to sell was everywhere. One such clothes store was named, “Yahoo, Men’s Store.” The young, proprietor-looking owner lounged near the cash counter, looking a bit bashful as I entered. I wondered what would be his reaction if I pointed out to him the true meaning of the word, “Yahoo.”

Not that anyone in Kerala would mind being called a “Yahoo.” I saw buses rather pretentiously painted and decorated as “Benzy.com” and “Vazhathundiyil.com.” I entered a decrepit looking internet café to find mostly girls sitting in pairs inside wooden booths, surfing, I don’t know what. But out there, in Kerala where thousands of years of human evolution is telescoped into a bellow-like tightness, where you can find the Sanskrit theatre art form of Koodiyattam co-existing with pop and rap songs, this is a minor aberration, a matter less attention seeking than, say, a foreigner adept at tying his mundu around his waist better than the son of the soil, that’s me. Example: the man in Cochin who so sneeringly forestalled my attempts at conversation.

Drollness apart, the colourful lungi and its pristine white cousin the mundu are the preferred attire of a majority of the people. Mundu is the trouser of Kerala while lungi is the pyjama. I think this harmless and diaphanous attire conveys the myriad attitudes of its wearer so very well. Thus a mundu or lungi tied well above the knees is an indication that the wearer may be the local hoodlum. So, run! The sudden untying of a tied loincloth is a sign of humble respect for the approaching person and the holding of one end of the mundu in the crook of a finger while walking is the sign of the local rake. Lest I forget, a loincloth fully lowered to the toes is a sign of a “manyan,” a gentleman and a respected person in Kerala.

The wheels of the government moves ever so slowly. With constant changes in the government, ironically, the section that benefited the most are government servants. They are pathetically unproductive and negligent. For simple documents as birth or death certificates the local official ties the mundu a little higher – the equivalent of belligerence – and expects his hands to be greased. As if that wasn’t enough, one can be made to go in circles by the negligent attitude of the drones that inhabit dusty, cobweb-filled government offices.

I have heard that even Bishops expect bribes to be paid to visit folk during weddings, burials and baptisms. They take it as their right. And the faithful don’t consider these gratifications as a bribe.  Corruption here is something of an institution. A government servant had told my father-in-law that a bribe was a matter of his birthright, and no one had a right to deny it. It was a naked threat, and those who dared to oppose it were suitably hounded and harassed.

So, steeped in a tradition of corruption, a Malayali migrates, seeing that things are bad in Kerala. When things in Kerala don’t work out he migrates to other parts of India and the world. He is an eternal traveller. It’s in his blood, so to say. The Persian Gulf is a favourite destination, where they work as technicians and clerks.

At Cochin airport, where I went to receive my brother, there were a lot of teary eyed women with children crowding around the exit halls. Their men were going to the Golden Gulf to make a living and I can relate to what they must have been feeling. Just a few years ago, I had left my wife to go to the Persian Gulf, and to my immense relief, she didn’t shed any tears. Amidst the smell of Brut and Channel and the flaunting of Ray Ban glasses I could sense the tremendous grief that surrounded their lives. Their husbands lived in a politically charged country with people from many different nationalities. Some of those embarking now may disembark someday, sadly, as coffins. I knew. I had lived there.

The most amazing thing about God’s Own Country is that whether it is Hinduism, Christianity or Islam, it is celebrated in its purest form, in its fundamentally extremist variations. That may be the secret of why these religions have survived in this unlikeliest of places in the world, where every ideology finds a home, every extremist cult finds firm adherents. There are Bible-thumpers, extreme rationalists, as well as Communist pamphlet distributors. On the way to Calicut I saw a huge university-like campus dedicated to, oh, what else, research in Marxism. Guess they awarded doctorates in Marxism in its vast colonnaded portals. I couldn’t catch the exact name as the bus sped at a lunatic speed, driven by the madman I had described a few pages back.

On the train back from Calicut I also make acquaintance with Shibu Cherian. We talk about many things including the Kerala March that had been called by Pinarai Vijayan, hailed as the hero of working class and as a contender for the chief minister’s throne. Shibu, a small-time functionary of the ruling centrist Congress-led United Democratic Front, had major differences with his own party as well as the party in the opposition – The Left Democratic Front – of which Pinarai was the leader. His learned opinion, delivered in a bombastic and self-righteous tone, was that politicians were playing havoc with the people.

“Recently my party (the Congress Party) came up with the concept of a Smart City in Cochin that would attract investment from information technology companies looking to take advantage of the qualified programmers and skilled workforce.”

“That’s a good idea,” I say, “Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad have benefited from that tag.”

“Yes, but immediately the Left Parties have called it, ‘Daylight Robbery’ and have said that instead of creating jobs, it would only lead to loss of identity. What loss of identity?”

I remember the posters I had seen in Cochin. “Smart City is not progress, but daylight robbery.”

“Ah, well, I can see their point,” I said. I know. I could agree with that viewpoint having worked in outsourcing units. These back office operations are under constant pressure to keep their projects alive and make undue demand on employees.

Seeing my vacillation he said, “Even in my party there are elements that oppose the Smart City. They say Kerala is not yet prepared to be the back office of the world.”

“True. Some outsourcing units are more guided by greed than principles. Besides, corporate ethics are difficult to implement when you are thousands of kilometres away,” I volunteered.

“What kind of a man are you? Can’t you see this is progress, something that will take us forward?”

Shibu’s sudden aggressiveness and antagonism took me by surprise. He had taken my viewpoint seriously and emotionally. Only a short while ago he seemed as if he was a friendly person, at least, that’s what I thought. Suddenly, he had become very emotional as if I had hurt him deeply. It seemed I had touched a raw nerve.

That brings me to the subject of my clansmen’s, well, um, clannishness. On the contrary, a Malayali treats another with a degree of contempt, as seen with Shibu. This contempt is healthy; I feel, again, my jaundiced view. Malayalis have an intrinsic individualism that makes them prominent anywhere. Perhaps the clannishness is only an indication of how alienated they feel when thrown into the great melting pot of Indian cultures. It’s not that they are clannish in an organized and deliberate way, but out of a need for survival. Inside their so-called clans there is divisiveness and extreme conflicts, as a look inside any Malayali Samajam would show. Again, I have seen the same Malayalis – who were accused of showing clannishness – turning bitter enemies in changed circumstances.

In a Malayali Samajam that I am a member in New Bombay I have witnessed the internecine pulls and pushes of successive regimes for power. I have, somehow, without my knowledge, been so alienated from the proceedings that I no longer attend their “kala paripadikal,” meaning “art programs.” For a Malayali art is like daily helpings of rice.

But about one thing I am in agreement with the average Indian perception of the Malayali. So here it is from the proverbial horses’ mouth. If not clannish, my fellow clansman is terribly emotional and jingoistic about his identity, which for him means anything that has an iota to do with his existence in God’s preferred country. It really is as if God hasn’t chosen Kerala to reside in without a reason. His citizens, be they Hindu, Muslim or Christian, once they are converted, are deeply committed.

My experience with Shibu Cherian, my fellow passenger in the train from Calicut proves it. For the rest of the journey he buried his nose in a copy of the Malayala Manorama Weekly. On the rare occasions when he would gaze up from his magazine, his mouth would curl as if with the bitterness of having eaten bitter gourd. He would then clear his throat loudly and spit, all to show his displeasure of me. It was as if he found me a traitorous renegade who lacked the qualities of being a Malayali. I had disagreed with his ideology.

The feeling that I had somehow hurt Shibu hung over me for the rest of the journey. On the train were several pilgrims clad in black shirts, black loin clothes, black cloth covered packages tied to their heads, and black beads on their necks. Their faces and eyes glinted with atavistic fervour, enlightenment, and ardour. Then I realized that it was the pilgrim season to Sabarimala. Devotees were converging from all over India into God’s Own Country. The land God chose as his own, was host to one of the largest confluence of devout Hindus from all over India.

The black-clad pilgrims were everywhere. The penance before the pilgrimage included abstinence from meat and avoidance of shaving and hair cuts. Also, they weren’t supposed to wear anything but black. Groups of them would chant, “Swamiye Shararanam Ayyappa,” praising Ayyappa, or, Manikantan, the deity they were going to worship in Sabarimala, situated in my native district of Pathinamthitta, Kerala.

According to legend, Ayappa actually lived in the Pandalam palace as the son of the then king Raja Rajasekhara. I do not know if this is the same Chera king Rajasekhara Varman who ruled Kerala in 825 AD during whose time the Vazhapalli Inscription was written. Myths and folklore have been strongly woven into this story about how king Rajasekhara of Pandalam found an abandoned baby on the banks of the river Pampa on a hunting expedition.

Moved by the baby’s radiance and grace the king adopted him and named him Manikantan, one who has a bell around his neck. Ayyappan, too, is depicted as having a bell tied around his neck. The king didn’t have a child at that time and assumed he was a gift of God and promptly gave him the best education and training, obviously, to prepare him to be the future king.

Meanwhile the queen gave birth to a son. But Ayyappaan being older was designated crown prince as he was the elder son and therefore heir apparent. A corrupt minister, seeing Ayyappan’s popularity with the king, is believed to have prevailed over the queen to pretend to a severe stomach upset, the remedy to which was leopard’s milk. The brave crown prince Ayyappan is believed to have volunteered to go into the forest to fetch leopard’s milk to end both the king’s and queen’s agony. He was granted permission and disappeared into the forest, to the relief of the queen, whose son could now stake his claim to the throne.

Alas, not to be! Manikantan, that is, Ayyappan, is said to have entered the palace riding on the back of a leopard, and thereby asserted his divinity. But Manikantan soon realized that he was set up and that his foster mother’s stomach pain was merely a pretentious ploy to test his valour. Realizing this he decided to leave the palace. His foster father, the king, implored him, but he stuck to his decision.

He is believed to have asked the king to build the present Ayyappan temple on the banks of the river Pampa in Sabarimala where he resided in the thickly wooded jungle. Folklore and myth has it that Ayyappan never came out of his self-imposed exile. Pilgrims trudge through six kilometres of thick forests and river crossings to arrive at this temple to pray for his blessings and for atonement of sins. Sometimes penance is also taken to extremes. A man from New Bombay is said to have walked more than a thousand kilometres to this holiest of temples of God’s Own Country. Quite atavistic as it may seem, religion rules the hearts of God’s people.

Sometimes I wonder how this state of 500 towns, 1200 villages and 30 million people would become such a storehouse of religious fervour, faith, and adherence to custom. That too, a Malayali’s devotion to his God or his ritual is shown without any rancour or violence against other religious communities. Sitting in a bus one day I observed a rally of faithful Christians pass through the centre of a town holding candles in their hands with a loud band playing ear-splitting music on traditional percussion instruments, such as the chenda. It is a “perunnal,” or, festival of a local Syrian Christian church. On the outskirts of this loud and din-filled area were several hastily erected business stalls that were frequented, judging by their dress, by Hindus. Religions meet and disperse peacefully in Kerala.

Outwardly it seems God’s country maintains an atmosphere of religious tranquillity unlike other states of India. Onam is a Hindu festival but, even Christians and Muslims participate in this celebration of harvest when the great demon king Mahabali is supposed to visit his subjects. Easter and Christmas are occasions of strict observance of religious customs for Christians but are also celebrated vicariously. The annual meet of the Christians on the banks of the river Pampa, and the various Christians’ festivals are the high points of their lives. For the Muslims there is, no doubt, an equally varied calendar of religious events.

What amazes me is how these religious pilgrimages and festivals co-existed without blood being shed, that too, in a politically sensitive state. To this I would assign some credit to the Communists and the Rationalists. Their cynical, yet, significant presence sees to it that there, mercifully, aren’t any clashes or riots as it happens elsewhere in India.

When on the subject of God, Malayalis are one, except, of course, the Communists. All Gods are equally respected. Which itself is a heavenly blessing. Communalism – not to be confused with Communism – has made a late, though subdued entry into Kerala, compared to its firm entrenchment in Gujarat state. I find that in Kerala, fatefully, all Gods receive equal respect, perhaps because no one wants to incur their displeasure. That may be the reason why political rallies may lead to violence but religious rallies are the most peaceful. But, then, I have never seen a people so religiously oriented, transforming the very word religion into something of a cliché.

In a state that is fully literate – a feat the Malayali takes uncommon pride in – it is not unusual to find the countryside littered with institutes and colleges offering professional courses in engineering, medicine, nursing, and liberal arts. However, strikes and stoppages have paralysed the education system. Hardly a month goes by without a protest march of some sort. Kerala is also the land of marches, shades of, I guess, Chairman Mao’s Long March.

As the former chief minister AK Antony said, every issue finds protestations and protest marches. I do think protest marches are good for a unique democracy such as Kerala, however, it is when it becomes too much that I begin to doubt if it is a good thing. However, I feel it is due to a Malayali’s heightened political awareness that such protests occur. No regime can survive the constant jockeying one can witness in Kerala politics. The people here, blessed with a keen mind, are aware of the nuances of governance. They refer to their leaders by their first name. And the students here are also not much behind and the students themselves are politically aware. However there are many who like my friend Rajiv are in politics for fun, for some “time pass.”

Pride, tradition, custom, modernity coexist; but still the die hard Malayali spirit persists, through adversities, through strikes and stoppages. There is a firm belief, to which I subscribe, that God has put his uncommon faith in blessing their state with the cornucopia of plenty. I could see plenty of this courage during my trip to back from Calicut. This, and several other images captured on my camera are still fresh in my mind as I conclude my Calicut visit.

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