Illustration: Shyam G Menon
This article presents a view; it is not the only perspective possible.
It was a hot summer afternoon and I had just ordered a dosa for lunch at Thiruvananthapuram’s Arul Jyothi restaurant. Three people – a woman and two men – still engrossed in discussion, got up to leave at the next table, their exit a matter of slow progression punctuated by each twist in the conversation. The subject was a fireworks explosion that happened at a temple 50kms away, less than 36 hours earlier. Over 110 people died, several hundred were admitted to various hospitals with injuries.
To recap – the temple management was denied permission to conduct a competitive fireworks display. While district authorities said it was blanket denial of permission, according to versions in the media, the attribute ` competitive,’ was interpreted as key to permission denied. The management went ahead with the display as a non-competitive affair. Discreetly however, it had all the ingredients of competition and investigations after the tragedy exposed the use of banned chemicals and more stocks of explosives in the neighbourhood. The whole affair was an exercise in illegality. Watching the packed explosives on TV, I couldn’t associate any of that with civilian festivals. Their size and dimension reminded of medieval war. In the immediate aftermath of the April 10 accident, a judge moved the High Court seeking an end to such firework displays. None of the politicians shown on TV could bring themselves to ban fireworks. With elections imminent, the Chief Minister said: we have called for an all party meeting on the matter. The Paravur incident was merely the worst in a list of fireworks related accidents in the state. Fireworks and elephants are deemed essential for festivals in Kerala. A narrow, long state between hills and sea, Kerala has one of the highest population densities in India.
At the same time that a bunch of people died for nothing in Paravur, a train carrying water was heading to Marathwada in Maharashtra, where successive droughts had left people thirsty and cast their lives in difficulty. There is no such debilitating water shortage in Kerala. For sure, the state’s summers are getting hotter. This April, Thiruvananthapuram was unbearably hot and humid. But there was nothing in Kerala similar to what I read before I left Mumbai: a Maharashtra with only 25 per cent water; Marathwada with just five per cent. Every time I am in Kerala, I travel by road to get an idea of what’s going on. The dominant motifs shaping my impression remained the same this year too – premium on well settled life, hoardings of brides clad in jewellery and couples getting married, hundreds of advertisements for businesses dealing in gold, apparel, building materials (to construct houses), mushrooming supermarkets and malls and rising garbage. It is a picture of life drawn overwhelmingly from well settled, consumerist existence. It is physically defined and possessions-based. After days of seeing big houses and hearing stories of success, I withdraw to my shell. My Kerala visits typically end so. Yet I keep going back, for the place shaped parts of my perspective.
Some years ago, I got a call from a man in the foothills of the Himalaya, whose daughter was getting married to a “ Kutty from Kerala.’’ Concerned about the groom’s caste, he called me up. I said Kutty betrayed nothing relevant to what he wished to know; it is used affectionately and does not signify religion or caste. “ How can that be?’’ he shot back agitated. “ Well in the time I spent in Kerala, I have known Govindan Kutty, George Kutty and Ahmad Kutty,’’ I said. It left him totally confused. Indeed a Malayali approach perplexing others in India is the idea of the human being as just that without immediate focus on religion and caste as co-ordinates. This appetite for what you are as opposed to who you are, has I suspect, much to do with Socialist influence in Kerala. The discomfort others have with it has much to do with how little Socialism caught on elsewhere and how rapidly the idea of equitable life is shrinking today.
I grew up in Kerala, in times dominated by Communism. They guarded their politics with the same zeal as the Right worships its gods and rituals. Back then, it was red flags and posters of Karl Marx, Lenin and Che Guevara. Like the muscular gods of today’s Right, art in service of Socialism was all about a muscular working class. Both are not art; it is propaganda. My father ran a small business. That was enough for us to be branded `bourgeois.’ Yet I have always felt that a touch of Socialism, which seeks equality, is essential to sensitize the Indian mind growing up on a diet of unquestioned prejudices and inherited privileges. In 1957, Kerala was home to the first democratically elected Communist government in the world. By 1982, Kerala settled into a pattern of two opposing political coalitions as choice for government. When people tired of red, they voted for the Congress. They were the moneyed lot, close to plantation and business lobbies, with a penchant for fishing in communal waters. Besides its erstwhile business bashing-doctrines, the Left in Kerala was stridently vernacular in flavour. Sometimes I think the Left in Kerala was Left in name but actually ethnic. In politics, that pays dividends. Now in addition to Communist paraphernalia in Kerala, you have posters of Hindu gods, mahotsavam, mahayajnam and saffron flags, not to mention the state’s share of the same in Islam’s green and Christianity’s business of a church. Each of these religions, account for approximately a third of the state’s population. They are mutually competitive. Each community takes pride in its political clout, share of millionaires, famous personalities, real estate, wealth etc. Much effort goes into keeping these communities as clearly etched silos.
Privately, Malayalis knew that beneath the veneer of being progressive, a regressive Kerala existed. In as much as the Left and Right were similar in cadre-based structure and behaviour, their disagreement over religion made them foes. People elsewhere in India associate Kerala with matrilineal succession. They find it hard to believe patriarchy exists in the state. Patriarchy is a gender based-tendency, a zone of comfort. At the height of Communist rule, the neighbourhood party heads and functionaries kept an eye on life around; not at all different from what Right wing forces currently do. Just as today’s Right wing enforces a culture from centuries ago, those days, the Left worried over any thought process potentially questioning the Communist world. Making a fortress of one’s imagination and having an opinion on how others should be, has fancied anyone with enough drift to dominate. Having seen these tendencies in the Right and the Left, I view it as anthropology in action; you once read Desmond Morris, now you see it as documentary film. While cadre based-power was the language of the Left and the Right, the Congress let money speak. Whatever the route adopted, in the end everything was about fiefdom. Some of the huge marches in the state were called shakti prakadanam or display of strength. Over time, from weddings to festivals and political campaigns, nothing was deemed worthwhile without a display of one’s clout.
Illustration: Shyam G Menon
A giant remittance economy, Kerala currently has a lot of young people of school and college going age and a large number of ageing citizens. In the flux, thoughts and things resembling anchors – that proverbial “ settled’’ – are valued. On the threshold of refining tradition and proposing new thoughts, society repeatedly relapses to the old. In November 2015, courtesy a non resident Malayali businessman, Kollam (in which district, Paravur is) was host to one of the costliest weddings staged in India. News reports estimated the expense at Rs 55 crore (Rs 550 million or roughly $ 8.2 million). Indians living overseas see India as heritage. They also see it as proving ground; a venue to showcase their success. In one, a living country seeking evolution reduces to heritage museum offering identity to overseas sponsor. In the other, a regime of the moneyed displacing those not so, is encouraged. If the Japanese adapted their designing ability to a Tokyo increasingly short of space, the approach visible in Kerala is money laden offensive to secure scarce space for big houses, big cars; the mega life. Already stressed land, gets stressed further. Still, few would have it differently. If you extend this line of reasoning, it is not difficult to see how impressive having an elephant on a leash or staging massive explosions as fireworks is. Associating this with grandeur, it doesn’t mind irritated elephants running amok or losing over 110 lives to loud explosions while elsewhere in India, trains bring drinking water and school children in Mumbai raise funds to help a parched Marathwada. According to news reports, in the run up to the temple incident, residents nearby had sought relief from loud fireworks as the explosions were damaging their houses. You have to reflect well on the Paravur tragedy, go past surface politics, to notice the mind-set. Two days after the incident, it was the turn of the organizers of the Thrissur Pooram festival, famous for its fireworks and caparisoned elephants, to argue for tradition on TV. The silver lining I saw was that three ordinary people chose to discuss the Paravur tragedy over lunch at Arul Jyothi. All three said festivals have reduced to commerce and competition fueled by money. The swiftness with which the tragedy became the stuff of serious discussion brought hope.
I often wonder what cultural heritage is in the modern context. Like a computer’s hard disc, our brain is not an infinite storage space. Born in one place we live to discover a universe. Given that, I suspect cultural heritage must become an underlying elegance and things elegant, are typically simple, occupying little memory space. Heritage in simple terms does exist in Kerala. Vishu, the popular Malayali festival fell four days after the Paravur tragedy. Vishu is associated with the flowers of the golden shower tree. My small family was together for Vishu after a long time. While the offerings – an arrangement traditionally called Vishu Kani – were being readied the previous night, my mother recalled what the poet Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon wrote in Malayalam years ago (my translation in English is given below each line):
Ethu dhoosara sankalpangalil valarnalum
No matter what murky circumstances you grow up in
Ethu yantravalkrita lokattu pularnalum
No matter what mechanized world dawns
Manassilundavatte gramattin visudhiyum
Let there be in you the purity of the village
Manavum, mamatayum, ithiri konnappoovum
Fragrance, love and some flowers of the golden shower tree
I liked that. If I may add my bit – such elegance and simplicity is what visits the mind after a long run, a hike, a mountain climb, a swim, a canvas painted, a piece of music composed or a round of meditation.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)