Nothing generates as much pride in a Malayali as hearing about a member of the community achieving something remarkable outside Kerala. We’re all (justifiably) proud of Dr Verghese Kurien, E. Sreedharan and M. A. Yusuff Ali. The vast majority of us, whose life achievements pale in comparison to what these giants managed to do in different walks of life, feel good to know that these great sons of Kerala have such an outstanding legacy.
We are also quick to talk of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed’s Malayali roots and extend this to some film personalities and athletes as well. (Before Ajay Jadeja’s name came up in match-fixing news, I couldn’t find a single Keralite who wasn’t beaming with pride about the cricketer supposedly being half-Malayali.)
A lot of Malayalis tend to draw inspiration from their brethren who have made it big in life, but they don’t celebrate others who have overcome great struggles outside Kerala to help make the state what it is today.
I’m talking about generations of people who toiled to help transform Persian Gulf into modern countries with first-world infrastructure. Right from the 1970s, people from across Kerala have been migrating to the Gulf and working ridiculously long hours so that their families can have the kind of lifestyle that would have been unimaginable otherwise.
When there is talk of the UAE offering a large sum of money to help rebuild Kerala post the 2018 floods, Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Makhtoum said:
“The people of Kerala have always been and are still part of our success story in the UAE.” I have heard similar sentiments from citizens of other countries in the region.
Gulf Malayalis of all classes came to India’s rescue in 1991 when the country faced its most serious financial crisis by subscribing in large numbers to the India Development Bonds.
Nurses and caregivers
For a community that once broadly considered any young person who didn’t become an engineer or doctor a failure in life, there’s little pride associated with the important profession of nursing. The middle-class Malayali disdain for nurses vanishes almost automatically when a family member is hospitalised! Then all of a sudden, the idea of a Malayali nurse in Delhi, the Gulf or the West is a great source of comfort.
In a 2013 research report titled International Mobility of Nurses from Kerala to the European Union, Praveena Kodoth and Tina Kuriakose Jacob highlight the important role played by nurses from Kerala to fill shortages in the Gulf, as well as the West.
The report mainly focused on the possibilities for Malayali nurses to work in Denmark and the Netherlands, but quoted some interesting statistics. For example, 14,000 had cleared their certificates to leave for Canada, U.S., England and Australia in 2003; 15 years later these numbers are set to be substantially higher. We also know of Malayali nurses still working in dangerous places like Iraq and Libya.
While it’s not easy to get statistics on nurses from India working abroad, it’s almost impossible to get figures on those working as caregivers for the elderly. The following example is purely anecdotal, but can help throw light on caregivers from Kerala. A retired Italian scientist friend once talked to me with great pride about a woman (now in her 60s) from Alleppey who was a live-in caregiver for his mother who was paralysed for eight years. The Malayali caregiver, who went back to Kerala after my friend’s mother passed away, is considered a member of his family. The money she earned helped her educate their son in a private engineering college and for the family to have a modest home with more than basic middle-class facilities.
I completely salute the courage and determination of this woman to support her family from abroad. Here was someone who couldn’t speak three words in Italian, moving to the country and undergoing all sorts of struggles just to ensure the survival of her family.
It’s always wonderful to hear of a super achiever from Kerala (or with Malayali roots) overcome challenges and obstacles and become a household name. But many a time a person toasted by society did manage to have certain advantages growing up, advantages that were denied to the masses. These are the same masses who have toiled away in tough conditions to create the kind of life that will ensure their children have a good shot at living a high quality life. It’s time that we celebrated these people who I consider the very backbone of Kerala’s success. They are the very reason that we don’t see or hear of extreme poverty in the state. Hats off to these unsung heroes of Kerala!