Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Chapter - In Kerala - God's Own Country

Chapter 7


At last I arrive in Cochin where I will be staying at my brother’s flat on a busy road where the traffic roars throughout the day and the speakers of the arts council built in memory of poet Changampuzha at night. My mother is ailing and in the next few days she has to undergo an operation. The journey was very tiring. There is a quaint old temple which is visible clearly through the window of the flat. I can see the tall masts made of pure copper on which the temple flag is hoisted, the devout make circles around the deity, chanting some mantra under their breath.

The temple is typical of Kerala’s emphasis on spirituality, and, in the other extreme, rationality. After all I am in the heart of God’s Own Country. It is a sprawling structure, hemmed in by high walls from all sides. There are a few red tiled structures that have a triangular pinnacle, usually, for ventilation. In the next few days there are cultural shows, recitals, classical music performances to the accompaniment of loud rhythms played on the chenda, the local percussion instrument.

During Onam – the harvest festival – there would be performance of the Kaikottikali – women dancing in a circle clapping their hands, much like the Garba dance of Gujarat. There would also be murals made on the ground with fresh flower petals, and huge feasts with as many as forty courses of delicacies that would keep coming one after the other. Onam – probably the biggest festival of its kind in Kerala – has its mythical roots in religion.

It goes like this. When the benevolent demon king Mahabali ruled over Kerala, all his subjects were happy. But the Gods got jealous and sent Vishnu to curb the influence of Mahabali. Vishnu took the form of a beggar and asked Mahabali for three foot-measures of land and the generous king granted the wish. Suddenly the God grew to his full stature and measured the earth with one step; with the other step he measured the heavens. Then he demanded that he be given the third foot and Mahabali replied, “You can fulfill the promise by stepping on my head and banishing me to the other world. But please grant me the wish that I should be able to visit my subject once every year.” This coming of the great king Mahabali to visit his subjects is known as the festival of Onam – which also coincides with the harvest season.

From the window of my brother’s flat I can see a nervous crowd waiting for buses. All their eyes intently watch the road from where their bus would emerge, from a corner, or a twist in the road. They comprise of school- and college-going children, men and women going to work, and devotees who are going back after worshipping in the temple. Those who are returning after worshipping have a smear of sandal paste on their foreheads. It is quite obvious to me that religion plays a big role in their lives.

A Malayali by nature has an inherent love for religion, and tradition. This is by no means a sweeping generalization. There is also another side to the ardent religiousness that is inherent in every Malayali. There are those who are sworn atheists, and Communism is a strong political force in Kerala.

AK Antony, former chief minister of Kerala says in a newspaper interview, “Everything is politicised beyond the limit. Anything you touch becomes controversial, that is the characteristic that has continued over the years [in Kerala].” What he means to say is that a political awareness exists at the village, community, and administrative levels. This often leads to discontents of its own; quite possibly, the politicising Antony is talking about.

The rise of communism had dealt a blow to communalism (the polarization of society according to religious castes, of which there are many in Kerala.) However, of late religion and religious ostentations are showing resurgence as can be seen from the elaborate shows put up during religious festivals. In Kerala religious ideologies are locked in a tug-of-war with atheism and non-conformism at either ends. The result is a mixture of pulls and pushes in so many directions that ultimately peace and good cheer prevails. A Malayali has a devastating sense of humour and can, therefore, laugh off religious, caste or political bigotry.

A friend of mine, Rajiv by name, had confessed that though he had no basic party affiliations, he would work for the party that would offer him more money. He had been to protest marches, banner campaigns, pasting of slogans on public properties and had participated in strikes of many parties with strikingly opposite ideologies. He, like a lot of young Malayalis is opportunistic and treats all religious and political fervour with a touch of sarcasm. Rajiv is no exception. I could get the best nugget of unbiased views from this child man.

KR Gauriamma, a leading politician, says in a newspaper interview, “Keralites have learnt to live with foreign money. Earlier Keralites were crazy for government jobs. Now even the good-for-nothings are going abroad and working with discipline.” The craze for money and material possession may be what is driving the Malayali abroad for jobs, but at home also he is not averse to making a little money on the side.

At a prominent hospital in Cochin where my mother was undergoing treatment there seemed to be a sordid lack of proper procedures and amenities. A decrepit lift creaks and stops mid-way between floors, and my mother is admitted in a room on the sixth floor. When I try the stairs, I find that access is barred by a locked door; there is nobody around to even hear my irate pleas. I tear my hair in frustration. The nurses are young and inexperienced and just out of nursing school. In all probability they had paid money to get a job and their only hope is to immigrate to the Persian Gulf to make a profit on their investment. Despite the more than ordinary fees charged by the hospital, the services are deficient and nobody seems to care. Healthcare is a booming business.

The hospital is done up in rather expensive tiles all over. There are tiles on the outside walls, ceiling-high tiles in the corridors, inside rooms, toilets, tiles everywhere. Everything was so flawlessly tiled and made attractive that I hoped that the services would also be a little more efficient. But no such luck. Where did the money for so many tiles come from? It was such a bother buying some medicine from the bustling pharmacy downstairs and getting back to the room where my mother lay. I had to virtually run an obstacle course. I had to wait in a queue to enter my prescriptions, wait in another to pay money and in another to take delivery. Everything was hopelessly disorganized and in the background was the deafening sound of masons cutting tiles, and the shouts of workers fixing them. 

With increasing affluence of Persian Gulf incomes people no longer needed to work the farms and most of them gave up active life to watching serials on television. There are channels wholly devoted to Malayalam movies which are quite popular. What all this boils down is that killer maladies like diseases of the heart, high blood sugar levels and blood pressure diseases are keeping the queues at hospitals long, as I could see from the people thronging downstairs.

The hospital mentioned had grown without real purpose or structure except that of making money. As someone said, “Mo money, mo problems,” and the problems of Kerala seemed to me to be caused by the inflow of money and the recklessness that resulted from it. The signs of organized labour can be seen throughout Kerala. Each party has their own cadres of organized labourers wearing distinctive uniforms. In one particular area I passed through, some labourers were digging a trench. I saw that most of them wore distinctly red, saffron, yellow, blue and green shirts. When I asked a friend what this meant.

As mentioned, the labourers were organized into unions by political parties. Communist party union members wear red shirts, Republican party union members wear blue shirts, Bharatiya Janata Party union members wear saffron shirts, and members of another party, the name of which I don’t recollect, wear yellow shirts. It was the rule that these unions should be equally represented in all work being undertaken by the government or its contractors.  It was rather nice seeing this wide spectrum of colours working together, a rainbow coalition, of sorts. I made a note of the organizing skills that must have gone into such political rainbow coalitions.

On my way home from hospital, one day, I saw a police jeep fitted with a wire mesh on its windscreen. In Bombay the police fit a wire mesh to the windscreen if there is a threat of violent demonstration. What was unusual about this was that the wire mesh was fixed permanently to the windscreen. The police have to be alert at all times for strikes and protest marches which are very common. It had a hinged design that would enable it to be to be lowered in case things went out of control. During peace it stayed up, as a sort of visor, held by what is called a stay latch, like a policeman’s hat’s visor. This did indicate only one thing – strikes and unrests were a permanent feature of my native state’s politics.

Rajiv had told me that sometimes strikes and stoppages were announced by rival parties for trivial reasons. The main purpose was a show of strength. He had participated in several such stoppages. Vehicles found on the road would be stoned by the party’s workers, even burnt. He, the carefree opportunist that he is, had participated in such demonstrations of parties with opposing ideologies. For him it was nothing but having some fun and being paid for it. Ironically, the fun part involved damaging public property and setting government buses on fire.

Then there are many myths woven around the much misunderstood Malayali ego. Xenophobic, yes, but not much more ego than the normal-sized Indian ego. Some members of our community would preface their talk with, “No I am not an egoist,” but contradict it in their very next statement by stating, “But I like things done my way.” But here again opposites co-exist. Just as it happens in any community, there are Malayalis with big egos and those with no egos. There are Malayalis who have a preconceived and opinionated idea of what they want from life. When things don’t match their ideals they show their cynical side, as is the case with the orange seller I met during my peregrination in Cochin. On the other hand there are Malayalis who go around with a humorous and self-deprecating view of life.

In this category I include Bridge Pappy. He is a contractor in a North-Eastern Indian state and his occupation was bridge building. By bridge, I mean, bridge in singular, since all his life he kept building a single bridge. He has an interesting modus operandi. He specializes in building a bridge across a stream which, when the stream was in spate, would be washed away. He would persistently contract to build the bridge again, and once more he would be awarded the contract. And, then again, and again. He knew all the people concerned and for him getting the contract wasn’t very difficult. No need to state here that a lot of the bridge building fund went into bribes. What was amusing was that that this caricature of a man shamelessly went around boasting about this to everyone, with an absolute lack of ego.

All around Cochin there are posh cars, gold markets, clothes showrooms, and glitzy shopping malls. A lot of sudden affluence is to be seen everywhere. It also has its downside in that alcoholism is on the rise. No Malayali celebration is complete without the salutary imbibing of the spirits. From my relatives I hear of a cousin who is working in the Persian Gulf who is addicted to drinks. The word used to describe his habit was “thanni” which means “water” in Tamil. Some Tamil words were borrowed and used pejoratively by Malayalis. The most commonly used insult in Malayalam means “hair” in Tamil. He, the cousin, had tried several jobs and businesses in Kerala and had then immigrated to the Persian Gulf.

His parents were the first to immigrate to the Gulf many years ago and, they too, lived in the shadow of the traumas they had gone through. The Persian Gulf was where money can be made but was also a frustrating place to work. Rules are rigid and labour conditions are inflexible. I knew, as I had worked there. I feel most Indians were unprepared for the extreme rigors of working in the Gulf and therefore succumb to drinks. I had seen it with my own eyes. Living away from their families, mostly, in a desert, was the opposite of the carefree life of open paddy fields, swaying palms, and plentiful natural resources of Kerala. If only this green paradise had a few more industries and job opportunities!

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