Many former students of Mumbai’s Goethe-Institut Max Meuller Bhavan remember a story told by Frau Bharucha, one of the institute’s most loved teachers, about her unexpected encounter with Malayalis in Germany. When she was a student in a small West German town, the Parsee woman was invited by a nurse friend of hers for lunch. Expecting to have a traditional German meal, she was in for a pleasant surprise. In that cosy and quiet flat there was a strong aroma of Kerala’s culinary delights. Frau Bharucha’s German friend shared a home with Malayali nurses, who cooked a special meal for their Indian guest.
This anecdote that the teacher happily shared with many students dates back to the early 1970s, and the nurses who treated her to fish curry and other delicacies were part of the first generation of Malayalis who moved to Germany and were affectionately called “Brown Angels.”
West Germany in the 1960s was well on its way to becoming an economic giant that needed workers from abroad. While many of the blue collar jobs were taken up by men from Turkey, the shortage for doctors and nurses could not be fulfilled from nearby countries. The demand for nurses was particularly high in old-age homes and mental hospitals.
Recruitment by the Catholic Church
The Catholic Church, which ran many hospitals in Germany, looked to Kerala to fill this void, and the initiative was taken by a few priests in the European country and the southern Indian state. In a brilliant documentary, directed by Shiny Benjamin, titled Translated Lives - A Migration Revisited, Rev Dr Heiner Koch, former Auxillary Bishop of Cologne said the Indian bishops told him that there were many young and resourceful people in Kerala who were interested in living and working in Germany.
Girls in their late teens and early 20s, were offered contracts to move to West Germany, where they would be trained to work in hospitals. Announcements were made in various parishes about the opportunity to live and work in the country. Many of the young girls who took up this opportunity came from big lower middle class families. In Shiny Benjamin’s documentary, some members of the first generation spoke of living a modest existence in Kerala, but never being hungry. The first group of young women to move to West Germany were given very basic training in the German language and told about their future home before leaving Kerala.
Some of the first people to shift to the country actually went on a long journey to West Germany by ship, while some travelled by train to Bombay and got inside a plane for the first time.
A new way of life
Although they felt a cultural shock after arriving in Germany, they were made to feel welcome in this strange and alien land. However it still took a lot of getting used to. All of them saw snow and experienced bitter cold for the first time in their lives.
The German hosts were surprised that the nurses initially insisted on sharing rooms instead of living separately. Almost all the Malayali women came from large families and could not understand the ‘German concept’ of privacy. The first nurses to move to the country terribly missed their families, and there are accounts in Translated Lives of them crying over their sense of loss every evening during the first few months. This was a time when letters took weeks to get delivered and phone calls were prohibitively expensive.
As they got adjusted to life in West Germany, they began to find varying degrees of happiness in the country. Many nurses supported several family members in India for decades, including by paying for the dowry of their siblings! A few of them married German men, while others married Malayalis who moved to the country and found themselves in the role of house-husbands.
In Shiny Benjamin’s documentary, there are several stories of hardship. One nurse spoke of working only night shifts so that she could take care of her young children in the daytime. There were also a few cases of broken and unhappy marriages since men from Kerala felt a sense of shame for being financially dependent on their wives. Other Malayali men felt jealous and angry when they saw their wives interacting with their German male colleagues.
As is the case with Malayalis everywhere, the community in Germany became better organised and started to form Kerala associations. A few of the nurses took German citizenship, while others who stayed back decided to remain Indian citizens. Their children (and grandchildren) who were born and raised in Germany have embraced the country’s culture, customs and traditions.
Building on the success of the first generation
The experiment to bring Malayali nurses was a grand success in Germany. They have built a good reputation with their hard work and dedication, which some attribute to their upbringing. “I think it has something to do with their family tradition,” Koch said in the documentary. “Caring for people who need help, sympathy and care for others…This profession as nurse, is suited to those who hail from large families with many members.”
In the 1960s and 70s, West Germany recruited around 6,000 Malayali women to work as nurses in the country. Their success has fuelled an altogether new demand for nurses from Kerala in Germany. Earlier this month, the Kerala government signed an MoU with the German Federal Employment Agency for the hiring of nurses from Kerala. Under the so-called Triple Win scheme, 10,000 positions are expected to open up for nurses from Kerala.
In the age of social media and WhatsApp, the lives of these soon-to-be recruited nurses will in many ways be easier than that of those who made the pathbreaking voyage to Germany in the 1960s. It is to that very generation of “Brown Angels” that both the Malayalis and Germans owe a great deal of gratitude.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ and ‘Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’)