Column | Early glimpses of Malayali life in the Gulf

A significant Malayali diaspora emerged in West Asia in the early 1970s when people from Kerala went in large numbers to the Gulf countries. Representative image: Ai Canva

It is widely accepted that a significant Malayali diaspora emerged in West Asia only in the early 1970s when people from Kerala went in large numbers to the Gulf countries that witnessed an oil boom. Archival records from Britain and the oil-rich West Asian countries, however, suggest an entirely different story.

Take, for example, the city of Bushehr in Iran or Bushire, as the British called it. The city was occupied thrice by the British, with the second occupation lasting from 1856 to 1857. Britain appointed a Resident in the city, who was in regular communication with the officials in India.

On September 17, 1858, the Resident in Bushehr received a letter from the Chief Secretary of the Marine Department that was based in Fort Saint George, Madras. “I am directed by the Governor in Council to forward the accompanying 3 copies, with translations in Hindustanee and Malayalam, of Act, No. XXI of 1858, of the Legislative Council of India, for the regulation of Native Passengers’ Ships and of Steam Vessels intended to convey Passengers between the Ports within the territories of the East India Company and those in the Red Sea or Persian Gulf; and, in reference to Section 19, to request that you will pleased to cause the Act to be translated into the Vernacular languages of the stations under your jurisdiction, and its provisions to be made known to the Masters of Vessels carrying Native Passengers thence to the Ports of British India.”

Although the word Malayalam is spelt wrong, one is intrigued as to why a copy of the said act in the language was sent to what was then called Persia. Hindustani was more or less a lingua franca for Indian traders who went to the Gulf from Bombay and Gujarat, so clearly there was a need for a translation. It would take some serious research, though, to know about the existence of a Malayali community there. Given the fact that Bushehr was a major port for the wider region, the city was probably a transit point for Malayalis in West Asia at that time. Their story needs to be uncovered.

A Malayalam drama in Bahrain
In June, 1948, the British Resident in Manama received a letter from the Bahrain Keraleeya Samajam (BKS). This society, which by the look of its regularly-updated website is very active in 2024, was formed in 1947. The Arab nation began exporting crude oil in 1932 and it was the new oil industry that led to the migration of Malayalis.

In the letter to the British Resident, the BKS asked for permission to mark their anniversary with the staging of a Malayalam drama at the Bahrain Sports Club. “The name of the drama is ‘POOJA ’- a story based on Ideal Social Life and reveals a vivid picture of Social Life in Kerala,” BKS President K P Pillai wrote in the letter.
It’s interesting that the society used the word Kerala almost a decade before the formation of the Kerala state.

The permission to stage the play came within four days of the request being made. Archival documents show that British officials in the Gulf were stricter with such permissions for Hindustani plays before India attained independence. They were expectedly paranoid about Indian revolutionaries and freedom fighters gathering support from Indians in West Asia, and even demanded translations of the script in English before agreeing to give permission.

An Iraqi fable?
Among the stories that have been passed down from generations in Malayali families is one of labourers from different parts of Kerala going to Iraq. According to these stories, Malayali men fell in love with Iraqi women in villages and this was reciprocated.

As the stories go, the women’s families were open to the idea of their daughters marrying these men from distant Kerala, and didn’t even insist on these men converting to Islam. They, however, allegedly insisted that the men who married the local women agreed to stay back in Iraq permanently and not take their wives back to India.
This writer hasn’t found any evidence to suggest that such a phenomenon ever occurred. But what if there was a grain of truth in this?
Putting myths and half-truths aside, there is definitely more to the Malayali immigration story to West Asia than most of us know.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai) 

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