(Published in Mint Lounge, August 25 2018)
In 1924—the year Kerala last witnessed a devastating natural catastrophe, also in the form of a flood—a British official in Thiruvananthapuram decided to enlighten his superiors about the Malayali’s character. He was describing the husband of the ruling maharani when he added, out of the blue, that besides being “strong willed” and “somewhat mulish”, the man was “like most Malayalis avaricious and mean”. Leaving aside the racism and yawning generalization, the irony was that these remarks were made only months after Malayalis had shown themselves to be anything but “avaricious and mean”, though admittedly their willpower was on magnificent display. As floodwaters turned much of central Kerala into a swirling nightmare that year, with corpses floating alongside temple idols and smashed houses, Malayalis had joined hands to save each other. Abandoning caste, creed and other assorted differences that ordinarily made them “mulish”, they were able to prevail over the worst of nature’s furies, setting an example to themselves and the rest of the country.
To be sure, this is not, as Keralites suffer from a calamity of terrible proportions today, a sentimental ode to the spirit of the land—there are unsentimental facts also in play. Just as the state government now proves itself exemplary in the performance of duty, then, too, the authorities demonstrated an admirable sense of responsibility. Thousands were fed and housed, efforts were coordinated with citizen groups, and reconstruction efforts followed so that despite the horrors of 1924, revenue rose in 1925, and the economy expanded.
While facts and figures tell the story well, underpinning them, however, is a cultural sensibility. Kerala had already seen, generations before, in time of a political crisis, large movements of refugees, to whom sanctuary was guaranteed; in the fight against caste oppression, it set new standards of mass mobilization, with men and women unbending against the might of the orthodox and powerful; and in building a sense of community, from the remotest housewife to the haughtiest sarkari babu, many were the conscious efforts that helped shape the idea of the modern Malayali as we celebrate it today.
The examples are diverse. Politically, the most cataclysmic event to afflict the region was the invasion of the fearsome Tipu Sultan in the late 18th century. As fire and steel wreaked havoc like never before in Malabar, thousands fled to southern Kerala, where refuge awaited them. In a time of fragmented culture, where even spoken Malayalam varied vastly from one district to the next and caste pride mingled with regional snobbery, this exodus of north Keralites to the south helped preserve much of their own high culture. Northern deities sailed down rivers to temporary shelters, hosted by the gods of the south; the proudest Brahmins of Malabar, who looked down on their fellows beyond Kochi, formed new bonds; and a whole host of princes, poets, camp followers and dependants arrived in tremendous numbers, many of them staying for years, supported by communities that opened their doors and coffers to aid these bedraggled souls. It was trauma that led to this exchange, but they faced it together, emerging many times wiser.
Then there were the social movements. In 1924, when the Vaikom Satyagraha was launched, demanding right of access to temples and public roads for low-caste groups, it moved quickly from an activist’s cause to a wider social statement. Village women with no means or method of participating in the actual event showed their support through the pidiyari scheme: handfuls of rice sent by the poorest of homes to tell those protesting in Vaikom that they were not alone. The Ezhava community, downtrodden till a few decades earlier, took the lead, but it was joined by others too. Nair leaders helped organize jathas, or processions, long before the Dandi March, leading hundreds from each part of southern Kerala to Thiruvananthapuram to show a united face to those who wielded power. At Vaikom itself, where Mahatma Gandhi was kept standing at a distance by a “purity”-obsessed Brahmin grandee, another Brahmin rode an elephant with a Pulaya—among the lowest of the low—and paraded through the streets simply to make the larger point that they would chart a better future together.
Organization was key to this. Sri Narayana Guru, the spiritual icon of the Ezhavas, emphasized education and organization—the two went hand in hand, creating not only economic might but also political clout. And through this was birthed a stronger, empowered sense of community. Mahatma Ayyankali, the leader of the Pulayas, did the same with his own castemen, and, years before them, Nadar women asserted their right to dress as they pleased, aided by Christian missionaries. Even Brahmin women, denied a real education, sought out magazines and books. Secluded by custom in the menstruation room every month, they devoured literature helped by their maids, a network of subversion hidden from the policing gaze of their conservative fathers. These were daily battles to be fought, and there was a larger war to be won. But Kerala produced men and women determined to rise to the challenge. By the late 1940s, even guns did not scare them and when an authoritarian administrator tried to enforce an authoritarian “constitution” in Travancore, factory workers at Punnapra Vayalar rose by the hundreds, united by common feelings and political convictions, against a regime whose time to fall had come.
Like streams that meet a large and mighty river, these small mutinies sparked off great ideas. And as time passed and the state moved ahead, its people were wedded even closer together. Malayalis are not easily impressed—they are cynics who refuse to brook tall leaders, grand promises, or totalizing narratives. They quarrel and bicker with an enthusiasm unsurpassed. But there is healthy vigour to this, for the most part, so that when trouble appears around the corner, the quarrels are cast aside, and they rise together to confront whatever lies ahead. So many ideas, so much history, and such a long tradition of holding power, in its diverse forms, accountable has led to this happy state. And the result has been that no matter what perils manifest, the one thing you can count on Kerala society to do, is to face it bravely—hand in hand, every last man and woman doing their bit.