Friday, November 3, 2006

Growing Up In Kerala...

[Written when Kerala celebrated the golden jubilee of its existence]

As often said it’s impossible to appreciate a picture unless you step out of its frame. When that picture is Kerala, and you have been brought up and spent almost all the time here, you feel yourself too involved to write something objective about Kerala. Acknowledging this handicap, I shall resort to writing a memoir rather than something which sounds like a ‘Lonely-Planet’ tour guide.

The most cherished of my childhood memories are the lush green paddy fields in my native place. Those days agriculture had its strong hold in Kerala and of course, its economy. Every family, irrespective of the professions, used to engage in farming and were almost self sufficient in rice and vegetables. Those were the days when most of the houses had a huge haystack in their compound, a water wheel in their cowshed and granaries full of rice. There was also a rich culture that flourished around agriculture- a lot of folk songs, festivals and games.

Kerala is a place which offers fertile soil for everything- from industrialization and communism to globalization and consumerism. Moreover, the politically conscious people of Kerala were among the first in the world to elect a communist ministry. Communism had spread so far and wide in Kerala that later when a wild plant showed a similar growth pattern, it was named 'Communist Pachcha' (Communist Green). The possible reason for this political enlightenment could be the close- knit social structure here. Any given evening, you could find political analysts under banyan trees and in the tea shops who could even give the Prannoy Roys and the Rajdeep Sardesais a run for their money. Any international political development had its impact in Kerala. I vividly remember a midnight victory- march passing by the very night Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

I read in today's newspaper that Kerala now ranks first in computer literacy in the world. This invoked memories about the literacy campaign in the late '80s. It had become a mission that reached every nook and corner. I remember our old maid who used to look after my sister becoming neo- literate. Even before this, Kerala was on the forefront in literacy, thanks to a good number of magazines circulated and the village libraries. Besides being a cradle to many budding writers, those libraries once used to be a forum of Kerala youth, mostly unemployed.

The love of letters must have been present in the Malayali, much before all this. Recital of Ramayana in the month of ‘Karkkitaka’ had been a routine for him. More than its religious connotation, this has helped in nurturing a love for the language for many generations. They later began worshipping the Malayali stalwarts of literature MT, Mukundan and VKN. In Kerala often religion takes a backseat in such aspects. Every year a good majority of the kids who come to my grandmother for ‘ezhuthiniruthu’ (a Hindu ceremony whereby a child enters the world of letters) are Muslims.

Films made in Kerala once formed the crème de la crème of Indian Cinema. And owing to the wide- spread film society movements, even the average Keralite got glimpses of world class cinema. This is another of the memories I cherish, walking back with my parents at midnight, clarifying my doubts on Adoor and Padmarajan films.

The early days of television also bring nostalgic memories. My maternal house which had the only TV set in the whole locality used to be a mini cinema hall when Thiruvananthapuram Doordarshan showed its weekend movie. Few years down the line, dish antennas invaded Kerala roof-tops and cable channels served full course entertainment in our living room. Like everything else, the Malayali devoured that too.

I think my generation grew up witnessing rapid change. Agriculture has now become a burden which few dare or care to carry on. Kerala is fed by the rice produced in the neighboring states. People like my grandmother still long for the rice cultivated in our own fields. With that, we have also lost a rich legacy of songs and arts. Those granaries and water wheels can be seen even now, but showcased at heritage resorts. Nowadays, seldom does a Malayalam film make its mark internationally. We have lost almost the entire generation of teashop analysts and village-library critics. You may accuse me of over-romanticizing the lost past, but for me, these are the elements which defined the place I was brought up.

Stepping out of the frame and looking back, I find Kerala and moreover, its people full of contrasts. A geography that ranges form high western ghats to places below sea level; a language whose accents change so widely that one sometimes has a tough time talking to a fellow Malayali from a different part of Kerala; a land that has 44 rivers but where people have to wait for corporation water tankers to quench their thirst; a plethora of festivals, rituals, art forms, literary traditions. People, who frown at anything new, but become the first to adapt them. (It’s now amusing to remember the initial protest against computerization in Kerala); people who rarely give any ruling party (even if elected with record majority) a second chance; who were ready to bestow a church for the space research agency, but protest against an Express Highway construction; people who are notorious for their laziness, yet have proved that they could materialize wonderful ideas like the recent Kudumbasree...

I think the whole of Kerala is symbolized in its traditional sadya served in plantain leaf- a little spicy, a little sweet, a little sour, a little crispy, a little hot, a little cold- yet so ambrosial...

Disclaimer: This is not an authentic description on Kerala or its people. The views expressed here are the personal observations of the author. They are not based on any statistical data or survey. Offence to any place or group of people is unintentional.

[Thoolika: November 2006]