Just back from the Kerala History Congress of 2022 where it was the sheer magnanimity of Dr Joe Sebastian, the Secretary of the Congress to invite me as a panel speaker on films and history. The Congress was organized many times and postponed each time doomed by the pandemic and closure of colleges. Hence, when travel was eventually allowed, his colleagues and he put together this impossible task in a record time of barely a week. In this they organized the Congress in as many as three cities, with Ernakulam, closest to Cochi had speakers from outside the state. The host of the conference was St Teresa’s College of Ernakulam.
This was the first time that I interacted so closely with Kerala formally and for work. My earlier visits to the state were that of a tourist, interacting with local guides and boatsmen, hoteliers and cabs. Notwithstanding my many friends from the state, this was the first time that I interacted with the Malayalee society in their own settings. What struck me most, mainly due to my familiarity with cinema, how everything was conducted as smoothly as a pantomime drama. No one rushed here and there, no one called out to one another in loud voices, no one seemed to be confused, none crossed paths with others, and there were no collisions, no cross purposes, no conflict, no confusion. With almost close to a hundred girls, in an all-girls college, everyone knew their place, position, role and duties. Glasses of water was served, followed by trays to dispose the glasses, snack trays came with savouries wrapped in tissue paper. I was very surprised when a student brought me some water in a separate glass; embarrassed I asked that there was no need for the special treatment, she said that the water served for the rest was warm and she knew that I am being from Delhi was used to drinking water in room temperature. I was impressed by the young woman’s alertness and intelligence.
Malayalees are courteous and concerned. Never in my life in Delhi or Calcutta or in my travels in Mumbai or Chennai, have people offered to carry my bags. In Ernakulam, no one allowed to have even a shred of baggage on me, even the lightest of files was carried by someone or the other; it didn’t matter if she were the Head of the Department. Usually in India, girls are shy of lugging things, in Kerala, it did not matter those girls carried heavy stuff around. The hotel staff worried more about my meals than I was, as if the matter of my comfort was personal to them. Passengers at the airport were helping me with the trays and trolleys, bookshop owners took a personal interest in what I read. People conversed too; they greeted freely and generously.
They are clean too. The city was spotlessly clean and looked rather done up; but somewhere the city struck tradition. It did not have the anxiety of Calcutta that is somehow trying to cling to its old glory and at the same time trying to politely accommodate its forever encroachers who claim its spaces and landscape, nor did it have the supercilious ostentation of Delhi where one is trying to make a point, nor the little weariness of Mumbai, not quite knowing where it is headed to, Cochin seemed confident, contended and sorted out in its state of being. It sat there, oblivious of what others would think of it, receiving the world hospitably but in its own terms. When a young student asked me what my plans for Onam were, I realized that most Malayalis thought that Kerala was the centre of the world. The compere of the cultural programme, a well spoken articulate young girl constantly referred to the state as the country and indeed Kerala is known as God’s own country.
Buildings in the city were painted with traditional hues of white and yellow with heavy cornices and canopies, traffic was steady and somewhat slow, disciplined and restrained. All the lights worked, and one hardly saw a policeman around. The spaces for shops, temples, mosques and churches, schools and colleges, wayside eateries and repair shops seemed neatly contained within their demarcated spaces. Known for its stern caste system, everyone here knew their spaces. Caste system means many things of which the discriminative hierarchy is only one aspect; the caste system has many attributes and perhaps being content in one’s space, knowing one’s social duties might just be some of the good fall outs of this undesirable institution. Perhaps due to this good side of the caste system, Kerala works so smoothly with a great deal of social cooperation in the attainment of its public goals. Perhaps this too is the secret to the high levels of social development indices of the state and its literacy, its ready and eager supply of labor force, the strong presence in the labour force across the world, its distinctive contribution to education, intellect and culture.
In the college, everybody spoke only Malayalee. They had to consciously try to speak English. Even the papers were mostly presented in Malayalee and the paper presenters mostly interacted with the students in their mother tongue. Bengalis of India do not speak their language with such fluency as they mix English and now Hindi with it, but Malayalee’s can speak for the entire length of their conversation without resorting to a single word from outside their language. This means that the language has kept abreast of times with its phrases and idioms able to capture the essence of the times. The power of language must lie in the power of its people and culture which must have adapted and even been on top of affairs in the presently evolving world. Bengali groups which lament the loss of language must mark that the power of a language to be relevant to its times must inhere in the power of relevance of those who speak the language. Malaylees have proved their relevance, and which is why they speak their language with such fluency and fervour.
The girls of the college that hosted the congress put up a cultural programme in the evening; this was to showcase Kerala’s heritage. In any other college we would have put up a show for folk music, band music or pop culture; but here it was classical performances, and the crowds went wild with excitement over a rendition of mohiniattam as much as they tapped and clapped for Western rock that concluded the programme.
Kerala History Congress has a two-fold agenda; one is to develop social history and the other is to develop appropriate methodologies to study social history. The idea behind this is to make history relevant for the present. Through the papers I understood that Kerala is not an easy “country” to study for it has very strong allegiance to monarchy; perhaps it would have shone out like the jewel of India if the princely state of Travancore was allowed to be. Its leanings to the CPIM, and now to the Congress or a regional party or even if the BJP ever makes a mark will be for the one and only one agenda and which is to define its identity securely against being absorbed indeterminably into a homogenous set of universals. More than citizenship, the Malayalee seems to have pursued a social and a civic entity; more than a political space for contestation of identities, they seem to have chosen a public space for enlisting cooperation. They are comfortable in their own skin, content within themselves and yet that holding on to their spaces has not made them resist the world and erect walls against it; they have been able to carry their traditional selves into the future and in this way create a future for their tradition. That is the power of the Malayalee.
It is not as if there are no contradictions in the above picture as a young teacher from the state observed that there is too much of insistence on family connections, social status, peer networks and hence gatekeeping of new entrants into spheres of excellence. The much-disliked Mallu inbreeding in general discourse is perhaps a case in the point. The network not only works in keeping people out but also keeps ideas out too. It works both ways, to create a resistance among people in accepting the ideas of the more learned as much as it prevents the entry of talent into the existing network of achievers. Therefore, in Kerala, success must be identified and facilitated for each of its many social groups. No wonder then, despite the powerful amazons of Kudumshree, centralized powers of bishoprics, of the King, the state and the public investments are of such importance. A professor told me that Telengana was poaching industries from Kerala as also the industries wanted to flee the state due to its strong trade unions. Trade unions is essential to its society as a strong social group, a tightly knit network which cannot have its benefits compromised with the growing compromises on its closedness by private industries.
Kerala has its own discipline, its self-discipline and cannot be commanded from sources other than they accept. The caste society has strong ethos guiding its members that coheres them together as well as marks them out from the rest. These have both empowering as well as disempowering elements; while we acknowledge so much of the latter, we fail to recognize the former that has lived on in India since aeons of time, been its primary means of generating the material civilization and providing for its capital as well as supply of labour. Sociologists ask rather different questions and does not recognize the normative; for a sociologist it is a world of cold and hard facts, and the caste system is such a fact. The sense of agency of Kerala draws from its self-restraint in civic space, an inner sense of duties towards the world and self and a strong recognition of the role of the self in making a difference in public life and its long history of the caste, its oppression and the fight of the reformers against it, the many religions of the state, the strong princely states, the external orientation of the economy, the predominance of the cash crop, the land with its waters and the sea with its rain clouds have all worked together in creating the self-identity of its people. Ideas of citizenship seems to have also been contested in some instances, as I gather by absorbing the general tone and flavour of the papers, conversations with the students and teachers and of course by generally absorbing the atmosphere of the state.
In the Congress, a paper presenter discussed the film Martanda Varma, based on the legendary king by the same name who modernized Kerala. In his pagentry and spectacles, in his anger and benevolence, in his stern justice and large mercies, the King contains not only the legitimacy of his rule but the entire persona of Kerala. During my PhD, two Malayalee examiners attacked my thesis of cinema vilely with impositions of their interpretation of cinema as darshan etc. I realized that the Malayalees know only a single film namely Martanda Varma, and it is this film through which they watch every other film, and its directors make their films ever since. The ethos of Martanda Varma guides Kerala even today, just as in the heydays of the court of Travancore. The King still lives on and yes, of course, how could I miss it, still governs the land, regal, confident, contended, contained, extending courtesy to the world, concern for all, a model for cooperation rather than of competition and/or conflict. It is indeed a country unto itself, forever living up to a standard defined by the King, and forever congregating in the grand pageantry to show solidarity among its various social groups, guided by and commanded by the forever living, Martanda Varma.