Being locked down and far away from the green fields, coconut groves, backwaters, misty hills and sandy beaches of Kerala, many Malayalis have had a longing to be in Kerala during this pandemic. A large number of these people are either first generation emigrants or people whose parents were raised and educated in Kerala, and hence grew up with stories about the “native place.” As the decades pass, there is an entirely new generation of Malayalis attaining adulthood who can neither read nor write Malayalam or be termed anything close to being a native speaker of the language.
Every city or town in the world that has more than a handful of Malayalis would have some sort of Malayali association that celebrates Onam and other festivals. Families in places as far from Kerala as the Canadian west coast try to keep traditions alive by doing more than their cousins would do back in India. Classes are arranged for children to learn classical music or a dance form like Bharatanatyam. (Note the immense economic opportunities for teachers!)
Despite the best of efforts from homesick parents, a new generation is coming of age abroad for whom Kerala and the concept of being a Malayali are alien. This makes one ponder over the question of what really does qualify a person to be a Malayali in the second decade of the 21st century. Are the children of labourers who study in Malayalam medium schools and speak the language at a native fluency ‘more Malayali’ than the grandchildren of Malayalam speakers who couldn’t speak a sentence in Malayalam without a struggle?
At times it’s more convenient and practical for a person of Malayali heritage to completely embrace the identity of their place of residence. Take the case of politician and film star M G Ramachandran (MGR). Here is the case of a Malayali with roots in Palakkad, who was born in Kandy, Sri Lanka, and mostly raised in Tamil Nadu. He even wrote his autobiography Naan Yen Piranthane (Why I was Born) in Tamil, the language of the state where he attained great heights and was deeply loved. No attempts by his political opponents to discredit him on account of being a Malayali seemed to work.
Then there were those like Prof Abraham Kovoor who immigrated to Sri Lanka and lived out his life in the country but still chose to wear his Malayali identity on his sleeve. Watching his introduction at the beginning of the film Punarjanman, it’s hard for anyone to doubt how much of a Malayali he remained. Essentially he was able to retain both his old and new identity publicly, unlike in the case of MGR.
This writer’s interactions with acquaintances and family friends in North America reveal a glum picture of the Malayaliness in the millennials and those younger than them. While life in more egalitarian societies means they have in large part managed to shed caste-based biases, and are happy to marry people of different ethnicities, such people are well on track to becoming like Italian-Americans - people who are proud of their roots but linguistically and culturally too far separated to really be able to be a part of the country of their ancestors.
Being connected to Kerala
Malayalis in general tend to have a much more light-hearted approach towards their language than their Tamil cousins. An attachment to the land, culture and cuisine bind the greater diaspora as much as Malayalam. However, in this age of COVID-19 when no one is really sure when “normalcy” is going to return to the world, the younger generations of Malayalis will only grow more distant from their own heritage.
For the Malayali identity to survive, it’s more important to reach out and embrace anyone who wants to associate with Kerala. Widespread promotion of the Russian language and the country’s literature has not only attracted ‘fans’ to the Russian-speaking world but also even led to the creation of people who yearn for the mysterious Russian soul. Perhaps it’s time for the Malayali leopard to be as embracing as the Russian bear.
When the world does see “normalcy” again, a serious attempt should be made to bring more of the world within Kerala’s cultural fold. It is, after all, the state’s readiness to embrace all kinds of influences that has made it what it is today. An infusion of new ideas and people may help Kerala evolve while expanding the Malayali identity.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ and ‘Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island')