Thursday, 23 November 2017

What non-Malayalis don't get about Kerala

'A House for Mr Misra' by Jaishree Misra is an an interesting attempt to learn some facets of Kerala that's more like a patchwork quilt with appliqué work, depending on how you look. Here's an excerpt from the book:   

The fast-changing culture of Kerala was clearly exercising the police force in more ways than one. When we went to supervise the construction, we found that the beach was a magnet for young, illicit love, especially in the hot afternoon sun when no one else came to the beach and college lectures were at their most boring. They sat there, under brightly coloured umbrellas, motorcycle helmets flung on the sand, holding hands and canoodling and doing all the things young lovers do with such rash hope. What these hapless folk did not know was that the Vettukaud police liked nothing better than to round up young lovers and haul them off to the police station for a good ticking off. I had seen a few such youngsters sitting wide-eyed with fear in the back of a police jeep, and was tempted to halt their progress to ask why the police force was wasting its time when there were murderous motorists to catch (perhaps even murderous murderers) but, alas, I lacked the gumption. I had, after all, only very recently been described as “law-abiding” by one of their own kind and wasn’t in a hurry to disabuse them of this notion.

This is the thing that’s so difficult to explain to non-Malayalis. The strong streak of conservatism that overshadows and negates all those statistics that Keralites love bragging about; enviable demographics around education and health and child mortality and women’s empowerment that are shared with developed countries. A subtle example of that conservatism emerged in a conversation with a friend who recounted visiting an elderly relative that morning. When she arrived at her aunt’s house, she found that the lady had gone for a walk.

“Ah, nice. Does she walk with friends?” my friend asked her uncle.

“Friends!?” the man responded, a touch horrified. “No, no, no such thing as friends and all such nonsense. Luckily, my wife doesn’t waste time that way. I allow her to go for a walk every morning because the exercise is good for her.”

See what I mean by “subtle conservatism”? So subtle as to be nearly invisible when we’re talking about women who enjoy all the obvious trappings of emancipation. Malayali women come across as particularly fortunate when compared to their sisters in other Indian states (the best example being offered by Mr M’s home state of Uttar Pradesh) who continue to be severely downtrodden by deep-rooted patriarchy and chauvinism that take much more obvious forms. But stating with pride that a wife has “no friends” and is “allowed” to go for a walk every morning? The worst chauvinists are those who do not even recognise their own chauvinism.

Kerala is indubitably a good aberration in modern India and most people are aware that it is the only state to have achieved total literacy many years ago (not an untrue claim, although the measure of literacy is sometimes merely the ability to sign one’s name).

Most non-Malayalis also have a vague notion about the matrilineal system followed by the state’s large Nair community and genuinely believe that Kerala’s women are highly educated and empowered beings. Again, this is not untrue. Most women in Kerala, especially the poor, go out to work and proudly bring home their own bacon/beef/fish.

The problem, however, is that this veneer of feminism is a double-edged and very sharp sword. Perhaps its history does go all the way back to the matrilineal system, but the very act of empowering women to own their own homes and earn their own money would appear to have emasculated some men to the extent that they feel little responsibility towards home, hearth and even, sometimes, their own children. My maid’s husband was a shining example of that pathetic male species, lurching drunkenly back to her house whenever he was in need of money or medication and raining blows on her if she got mouthy or refused help.

This male apathy extends, unsurprisingly, to unemployment, alcoholism and sometimes results tragically in suicide (few know that Kerala’s suicide figures are amongst the highest in India).

An unexpected offshoot of this — in an odd reversal of the Gulf rush — is that the state has become something of a Mecca for large numbers of migrant workers from other states who now flock to Kerala in search of well-paid work.

They come from as far away as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and even Nepal and, at the present time, number an enormous band of 2.5 million people, mostly single men between the ages of 20 and 30.

Like migratory birds, their arrival is in times of good weather and rich pickings, specifically during those five months from October to March when the tourist season fills up Kerala’s resorts and the demand for exotic food is high.

We soon became frequent day-trippers to Varkala, one such seaside resort just up the coast from us that had a couple of calm blue bays perfect for sea-swimming. In October, we discovered that it was a popular destination for young back-packing Westerners escaping the European winters. As a result, by November, up cropped row upon row of temporary Goa-style shacks along the eating strip on the cliff. Every single one of them was manned by non-Kerala staff and Mr M plunged with great glee into the joy of being able to chat in Hindi, his mother-tongue.

I noticed the torrent of words that he had been stocking up behind Malayalam floodgates as he jabbered non-stop that November afternoon. Less than a week later, he was asking, “When can we go to Varkala again?”

Thanks to those 2.5 million North Indian migrants, he did not have to travel to Varkala every time he wanted to speak Hindi, however. Even our new electrician, a man called Cleatus, turned up with an apprentice in tow who turned out to be from Mr M’s state of UP.

“Cleatus? Is that a Malayali name?” Mr M asked, still unfamiliar with the inventiveness of Kerala Christian nomenclature (our neighbours included a “Bosco”, a “Jijo”, a “Joji”, a “Donaald” and even a rather Asterix-ish “Scholastica”).

“Yes, I am full Malayali,” Cleatus replied.

“But your employee here is from UP.”

“Ah yes, I refuse to employ Malayalis, lazy bastards,” Cleatus explained. Mr M found this hilarious, naturally, and got chatting animatedly to the pair of them.

“So you communicate with each other in Hindi then?” he asked.

“Well, I learnt Hindi in Goa,” Cleatus replied. “Worked there many years before coming back here, you see. You worked in London, sir? You are English?”

“No, no, not English. I’m full Indian too. Though not Malayali, alas,” Mr M replied. He then turned to the apprentice, “And have you learnt any Malayalam?” he asked.

“Him? Malayalam?” Cleatus interjected, thumping his apprentice on the back. “Is he capable of learning anything, I ask you? He’s a UP-wallah, sir. Stupid bastards, the lot of them.”

Most non-Malayalis also have a vague notion about the matrilineal system followed by the state’s large Nair community and genuinely believe that Kerala’s women are highly educated and empowered beings. Photo: PTI


Talking of stupid bastards

As mentioned earlier, Kerala’s muddled alcohol policy went through a number of baffling changes before getting finally derailed by a change of government. Its latest avatar was, however, totally nobbled by a Supreme Court ruling in 2017, which disallowed any commercial establishment anywhere in the country from selling alcohol if said establishment fell within 500 metres of a highway. Good intentions, but we all know that the road to perdition (or, in this case, highway to hell) is paved with etc etc.

Now, anyone familiar with the narrow shape of Kerala will know that the state is energetically criss-crossed by several state and national highways. If you spit hard enough, chances are your spittle will fall on a highway of some description. Uncle was particularly devastated to find that his beloved club (Trivandrum Tennis Club) was found to lie on one such highway. Even more gallingly, said highway veered off at a nearby roundabout, turning right rather than going straight as one would reasonably expect, leading to the scandalous outcome that the other two clubs in town (Trivandrum Club and Sri Moolam Club) were not sitting on highways. The iniquitousness of this travesty had reduced many a TTC member to bitter tears, I am reliably informed.

Anyway, overnight, Kerala was back (pretty much) to its dry state, this time by default. This was terrible news for the tourist trade — one of the last successful industries left in the state due to the havoc created by unions. Of the Supreme Court decision, even the principal secretary of tourism used the media to gloomily declare, “This is the death knell as far as Kerala Tourism is concerned.” Certainly, the numbers would appear to bear this out. Two years after the implementation of the 2014 alcohol ban, foreign tourist arrivals decreased from 7.6 per cent to 6.2 per cent.

This might not sound like too devastating a slide until somebody informs you that in 2010 the number had been a glorious 18.3 per cent. In direct consequence, the foreign exchange earnings went from 15 per cent in 2014 to 11.5 per cent in 2016 and is no doubt headed firmly south as I write.

When will our governments realise that bans do not miraculously stop people from indulging in banned substances, merely driving them to carry on their activities underground? A few ingenious ideas swiftly emerged among bar-owners, necessity being the mother of invention and all that.

My favourite one came from a roadside hotelier near Ernakulam who, rather than running around squawking in blind panic, calmly set about building a walled labyrinth between the highway and his bar. The papers were full of aerial images of this charming cement construction vaguely reminiscent of the hedge follies of ancient English gardens. It even made it to the pages of The Guardian. By creating this labyrinth, the bar-owner had cannily increased the distance from the highway to the door of his establishment to just over 500m. The local police station confirmed that this was perfectly lawful as the ruling did not measure the distance between road and bar as the crow flies but in distance walked. (See, that thing again: for every clever law, there will be a cleverer solution floating around somewhere when you’re dealing with Malayalis.)

Even if such bans did achieve the happy result of people shunning the amber nectar, a government simply cannot instruct foreign tourists to steer clear of alcohol during the one luxury holiday they have saved up for all year. Kerala, going by the tourism department’s own prize-winning advertising campaign, offers a lush green paradise, restful and easy-going, crammed with fresh healthful seafood served aboard converted rice-boats that chug lazily along palm-fringed backwaters.

Try asking the average Western tourist to board one such boat on a hot afternoon and fail to stick a chilled and gently sweating bottle of beer in his hand... I guarantee trouble ahead.

Government bodies should remember: tourists are not exactly coming to Kerala for the customer service.

We found that out for ourselves whenever we ate out, increasingly accustomed to being told that this or that was not on the menu. Given the hot climate, the most puzzling of such permanently non-available items was ice as Malayalis seemed strangely unacquainted with small cubes of frozen water that, in England or America or even in Delhi was brought to your table in massive buckets. Whenever (which was often) Mr M asked for ice in a Kerala watering hole, we were met with expressions on a procession of waiters’ faces that ranged from mystified to baffled to downright antagonistic. It had got so bad that the minute Mr M uttered the word “ice”, it triggered a migraine response somewhere deep inside my head.

One evening, a new neighbourhood restaurant took star rating in our numerous experiences of poor customer service.

We’d taken a large group of friends and family with us on this occasion. Once we’d settled around a large table in the garden, there rose the question of drinks. We knew there would be no point asking for ice or even for beers as this was, no, not bordering a highway, but merely an unlicensed establishment.

“Do you have Diet Coke?” Mr M asked.

“No, sir, ” was the response.

“Diet Pepsi?”

“No, sir, only normal Pepsi.”

“Fresh lime soda?”

“No, sir.”

“Okay, what do you have then?”

“We can get you fresh lime water,” the waiter said decisively.

Mr M was always unwilling to be taken in by assurances of “filter water”. He decided to push it. “Well, if you can make fresh lime water, surely you could get a couple of bottles of soda from the shop next door and make fresh lime soda, couldn’t you?”

“No, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“Why not?”

I started to shift in my seat, aware that from this point we were a hair’s breadth away from storming out, friends, family and all. And we hadn’t even gotten around to mentioning the word “ice”. That familiar old migraine was rearing its head somewhere at the back of my own. I was also keenly conscious that Mother and Aunt, with various pairs of bad knees and ankles between them, were in no position to do very effective storming.

“Your water is filtered, isn’t it?” I asked, trying to distract and symbolically using some of said substance to douse the flames that were just about to leap to life. But the waiter, silly man, had no idea I was at this point in time his best decoy.

He ignored me and kept his eyes on Mr M in an admirable effort at being manful. “Sir, there is no one to go to the shop for soda, sir.”

Mr M’s hackles were by now sky-high. “Okay, how about this? I will go to the shop and use MY money to buy a couple of bottles of soda. Then I will bring them back and YOU can take them to the kitchen and ask them to make us seven fresh lime sodas. Do YOU think you could ask THEM to do that, huh?”

Everyone at the table jumped a little at the shouted use of each pronoun. The waiter, unused to having seven sets of terrified eyes fixed on him, awaiting his response in breathless anticipation, chose the wisest form of least resistance.

He backed down, mumbling, “I will go and check, sir.”

But Mr M was really into his pronouns now. “Check with WHOM?”

“Manager, sir.”

Mr M was clearly too thirsty to wait for the manager and jumped up to depart for the shop next door. By the time he reappeared carrying two large litre bottles of soda, the manager was at our table, being sweet-talked by various female members of my family. We had managed to soften him considerably for, as soon as Mr M came, he accepted the bottles of soda with a charming smile and promised us our drinks in ten minutes.

Pleased with this small victory, Mr M beamed around the table, accepting the congratulations. At this point Uncle joined us, coming straight from the bar at Trivandrum Tennis Club in a slightly belligerent state. After Mr M had narrated our experience, he turned to the waiter who was still hovering, notebook and pencil at the ready.

“You don’t serve hard drinks?” Uncle demanded.

“No, sir.”

“You don’t serve soft drinks,” Uncle continued. Now the hapless waiter took refuge in polite silence. “Then let me ask you this. WHAT do you serve?”

Aunt patted Uncle’s arm and, as is his wont, he swiftly subsided. “Let’s order food,” she said, using her maternal voice, which always worked a treat on him.

“My order is very simple,” Uncle said. “Fish curry and rice.”

“You have fish curry and rice?” aunt asked the waiter, though it was only a rhetorical question as there could be few establishments in Kerala that did not serve fish curry and rice.

“We have fish curry, madam. But no rice, sorry, madam. Rice we only make at lunchtime.”

Our friend Rema, probably taking her cue from Mr M, leapt out of her chair. “Then let me come into the kitchen and make some rice for you,” she said.

Of course, Rema was pressed back into her chair and the restaurant did eventually come up with the goods, serving Uncle a bowl of steaming rice to accompany his fish curry. But the question remains: why does customer service have to be beaten thus out of a Kerala establishment?

I have a long-winded theory about a proud race that has never encountered domination or suffering and, therefore, does not know how to serve and kowtow and gratify. But Mr M has a simpler explanation. Just blame the Commies, he says.

(Source: Daily O)

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