A toast to the Keralite!

Print edition : September 16, 2016

Migrants at Perumbavur near Kochi. Domestic migrant labour in Kerala is growing at a rate of anywhere between 6.8 and 11.8 per cent annually. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

JUSTICE Markandey Katju’s Facebook verdict that Keralites are the best Indians comes as a special Independence Day and Onam gift for Malayalees the world over. We cannot quite contain our joy. At last we have been recognised for what we are. And going by the venerable judge’s description we are not just the best, we are exemplary. We are the essence of Indian pluralism. We are the nation’s true secular face. We are the fount of its syncretic culture. We are like the early pioneers from England who set up the American colonies which consolidated as the superpower called the United States. And, we might add, we did not massacre an entire population (or almost) of original inhabitants, also called Indians, in the process. We are diasporic adventurers. We are the legatees of Sri Sankara, who geo-culturally defined Hindu India by establishing his strategically dispersed four seminal maths. We are, at the same time, like Narayana Guru, who spoke and preached the oneness of religions and castes. We are the friendly waiters in coffee houses across the country. We are the nurses in far-flung hospitals tending to the sick. We are the Gulf Indians who invite the Indian Indians and fete them. If we were concerned that we have been upstaged as the quintessential tea sellers by someone with the same occupational pride from Gujarat who stole a march over us and went on to become our Prime Minister, Justice Katju restores us the dignity of that stereotype by citing the reassuring joke about Neil Armstrong finding a Malayalee tea vendor on the moon when he landed there.

All in all, by taking this shine to us, Justice Katju has unwittingly placed a huge, and I might add unfair, burden on us. Unfair because we may now find ourselves having to live up to this idealised image. And living up to this image would mean giving up some of our dearly cherished habits and rights. We cannot, as a race, continue to be generally peevish and sarcastic and cynical about everything and everyone. We cannot as a rule be hair-splittingly quarrelsome and argumentative and when the rule becomes an exception, which is fairly often, take to fisticuffs or knives or swords or bombs to settle ideological scores. We cannot continue to enjoy that other stereotypical image (like that of the tea seller), which we have acquired with great pains and held on to dearly, about being like crabs in a box which keep pulling down the fellow crabs trying to get out of the box.

We cannot continue to be sublimely misogynistic even if 50 per cent or a tad more of our population is female. Latest reports suggest that if Kerala’s disciplinarian super-cop, Rishi Raj Singh, has his way, our glad-eyed menfolk will have to carefully time and restrict their ogling at women to 13 seconds because if they cross the 14-second mark they could be in deep trouble with the law. We cannot possibly continue to be intrusively and voyeuristically curious about the private lives of some of our fellow Mallu men and women for our overall light entertainment in print and on TV. We cannot be open or closet fans of Saritha and her sensational serialised taunts of the State’s male political movers and shakers who feature in the solar scam show, the biggest media hit of recent times.

Come to think of it, Justice Katju may have really put us in a spot. We really need to think this through. Do we want to live our natural, rambunctious, sloppy, selfish, iniquitous, sneering, snooping, salacious, devil-may-care Malayalee lives or rework our personalities to fit the idealised Malayalee of Justice Katju’s Facebook post? It is easy enough for him to post what he did, sign off with a resounding “Long Live Keralites!” and get on with his life and further FB posts. We are the ones stuck in the image trap. We are the ones left sorting out an identity crisis he has suddenly thrust on us and walked away. And as we try to untangle this, it may be in order to point out that the diasporic Malayalee altering the demographic of his place of work and residence outside Kerala is matched by the IDP (internally displaced person) from West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Odisha or Uttar Pradesh who has moved into Kerala in as big numbers.

If Justice Katju, trying to relive the nostalgia of being served by Malayalee waiters in the coffee house during his student days in Allahabad, ordered coffee in a restaurant in Kerala today, the chances are that he will have the added advantage of chatting convivially in Hindi or Bengali or Odiya with the one who serves him from one of this internal diaspora. The churning pluralism wheel brings us full circle. Yes, Justice Katju’s toast to the “Keralite” is judicious and considered. Because the Keralite now is far more than a Malayalee.

Migrant and male

A study released in 2013 by the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation estimated that there were over a million such IDPs, or what the study calls domestic migrant labour (DML), in Kerala and that the inflow was growing at a rate of anywhere between 6.8 and 11.8 per cent annually. The demographic profile of this pool of migrant labour continues to be almost exclusively male and predominantly in the age group of 18 to 29. Whether and how this young and male influx impacts the gender ratio of the original population in the State, which actually favours the female and which is gradually greying (the estimates being that in a decade the majority of the original local population will be over 40 years old), will be interesting to see.

As of now, while there is a surface hybridisation, there is no evidence of the trademark syncretic impulse of Kerala (which Justice Katju celebrates) absorbing these migrants. They are insulated in their everyday lives from the local host population. There is no miscegenation of the two; nor is there, happily, any systematic stigmatisation of the visitor-workers. The migrants live in conditions similar to, or worse than, the emigrant Malayalee in the austere-tenement, regimented-labour conditions of any of the Gulf States. You see them off work in the evenings or on holidays in small groups like floating detritus without any connect. But in slow degrees a market culture sprouts to meet their needs. For instance, a cinema in Perumbavoor near Ernakulam, catering primarily to this labour, showed (maybe still does) only Hindi or Odiya films. It is heartening, too, that a potential flashpoint hinging on the immigrant labourer did not flare up into DML-phobia when it turned out that the one accused in the morbid molestation and murder of a law student in Perumbavoor was a migrant worker from Assam. But the way we, including the news media, ignore them, are indifferent to them, in the cheek-by-jowl existence with them in this narrow strip of land even as we get them to do the manual or menial work our men will do only in other States or abroad, is also indicative of a peculiarly Malayalee gestalt.

The raging Malayalee phobia of the moment is about the stray dogs which have been turning feral and lethally attacking men and women on the streets. A morning walk is a risky business in Kerala these days with pedestrian-unfriendly dogs roaming around in packs while debate on a public policy to tackle them—whether they should be culled, sterilised or removed from the streets and assigned to designated, protected coops (whether to protect people from them or them from people is still unclear)—is raging in the corridors of power and in the news media. For the media, this must be a strange literal turn of events, having to do with the very definition of their profession. When a dog bites a man, goes the good old definition of news, it is not news; when a man bites a dog, it is news. In Kerala, dogs have obviously decided to challenge that definition. Or, they have taken to Kerala so much that they are on the prowl to make God’s Own Country into Dog’s Own Country.