In my bustling suburban Bombay neighbourhood the most popular shop is a tiny kiosk that is run by a group of young to middle-aged men from Ponnani. I've known them for the better part of two decades and have always engaged in light conversation when their shop wasn’t witnessing a swarm of customers. Our conversations have always been in Malayalam - a big plus when what one mentions is not for much wider public consumption.
A day after a large religious procession made much more noise at a late hour than our courts permit, Ashraf-ettan, one of the owners of the shop told me that he can’t stand his co-religionists in the neighbourhood. Besides sharing space in a local mosque on Fridays, he said he had nothing in common with them. For all purposes he was a Malayali and that was the identity he chose to wear with pride.
In a cosmopolitan and (generally) well-integrated city like India’s financial capital, I’ve noticed that when it comes to non-Malayalis, the religious identity tends to come first for many people. Whereas for Malayalis, it’s all about Kerala and Malayalam. You’ll rarely find a Christian from Kerala in Bombay who doesn’t consider himself or herself a Malayali first.
This sense of kinship and bonding has led to envy and resentment that has manifested in various forms. Right-wingers, who feel threatened and insecure by the way Malayalis bond with each other, stop at nothing to malign Kerala. They’ll pick out random news about some religious nut in some part of the state and claim that Kerala is plagued by communalism. I was actually amused to see a comment on a popular news website where someone angered over the developments in Sabarimala called for Kerala and Malayalis to be kicked out of the Indian Union and sent to Pakistan!
A Maharashtrian friend said the envy is fuelled by the relative success that Malayalis have enjoyed in different parts of India. He believes the general perception is that Keralites help “their own” professionally and by default discriminate against others. I’m not sure about this, but I can see why non-Malayalis can get irritated with us for speaking in Malayalam in an office where there are plenty of people who can’t understand us. It’s not that Bengalis or Gujaratis don’t exhibit similar behaviour, but then again, the overall secular nature of Malayalis makes others feel insecure.
I am not even hinting that Kerala is free of social problems. Far from it! The events of the last few months surrounding Sabarimala exposed the degree of polarisation that exists in the state. Sarah Joseph’s books would also give people an idea of the problems that women in the Catholic society face in Kerala.
The state is not even close to being an economic powerhouse. The very fact that so many of us have no choice but to look for jobs and financial opportunities in other parts of the country and world speaks volumes. Yet, left-oriented policies have met with immense success in Kerala. It’s the very fact that the state has been able to largely educate its populace that has led to many people finding success in other parts of the world. Others attribute low poverty levels (and almost no visible poverty) in Kerala to the fact that Malayalis were able to benefit from the Gulf oil boom. But then again, who stopped those from other Indian states from finding greener pastures in the Arabian Desert?
Kerala and Malayalis represent many things that the Indian right hates. For them, we are a bunch of secular, beef-eating, alcoholics and we refuse to let religious identity trump our affinity to our language. The odd stories of communalism or social unrest in Kerala are perfect fodder for those who oppose a diverse, tolerant and inclusive India.
Frankly when someone asks me why Kerala can’t be like the rest of India, I ask him or her the reverse. India could use a lot more of cohesion and unity. It wasn’t too long ago that most middle class homes in urban India were leaning towards liberalism (and I mean the genuine kind and not the idea of liberalism propagated by the South Delhi elite). For India to really progress, that is the direction we need to move in. An inclusive and integrated India where we are Indians first! No people have set a greater example for this than the Malayalis, who essentially live the very idea of modern India.