Editor’s note: On Sunday, we published an article titled ‘Why going to Kerala is unlike any other back-to-the-roots trip’. It was primarily an account by author Shinie Antony why she resented returning to the state to visit relatives. The article triggered a storm of protests on social media and in WhatsApp groups that it was shared. Below is a counterview by a writer who thinks Antony hasn’t really understood Kerala and why the state is unlike any other.
Many people born to parents who hail from Kerala but are raised in larger cities find Malayali society judgmental, narrow-minded and even nasty.
It is a common complaint among such individuals to abhor having anything to do with Malayalis. I remember a Malayali friend from college who was raised in North India who used to be particular about befriending only non-Malayalis. He was honest enough to state point blank that he had learnt it the hard way about how people of his hometown ganged up against those who were raised elsewhere.
It is true that a bit of prejudice runs in Kerala against those who do not subscribe to the local viewpoint, traditions or even a conservative dress code. This puritanical streak targets in particular women who return from big cities, especially in the rural parts of the state.
A Curious Contradiction
In Kerala’s defence, the same can be said about city-slickers returning to their roots in other parts of the country. But the complaint by itself is interesting because it leads to a curious contradiction.
If there is one state that has achieved the maximum in terms of human development in India, it is Kerala. It is the most literate state in the country and its health services are often compared with Europe. (Recently, the state won international acclaim for the efficiency with which it dealt with the Nipah virus outbreak.)
Kerala has been Swachch (clean) long before the Abhiyan (programme).
Sure, its cities are also struggling now but Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode have not once broken down like Chennai, Bengaluru or Mumbai and surely do not register the apocalyptic pollution levels of Delhi. This monsoon happens to be the first occasion when Kerala is struggling to cope with waterlogging and landslides across the state.
The achievements in terms of standards in providing services is the result of having moulded a society that gives value to education and quiet efficiency over caste and religious dogmas that appear to be the foundation of societies in the Hindi heartland.
Kerala is surely among the safest states in the country but faces a peculiar problem in context: even an incident related to manhandling here is registered as a police case as the citizens are demanding and the police — when compared with the policing standards in other parts of the country — do register FIRs more often.
This has meant that the National Crime Records Bureau reports a staggering amount of cases from the state. It is a joke to even think of comparing the law and order situation in Kerala with the trigger-happy states up north where guns go off accidentally at weddings and neighbours kill one another for a parking spot and where large sections of the population shudder when they think of visiting the police station.
It is also a truth that Kerala is still unexposed to organised kidnapping or extortion mafia or even the sub-group of crime listed as dacoity wherein groups of armed men make away with the loot after killing or maiming family members, which has been a feature of big cities in many other states on account of rural distress and forced migration.
Newspaper reports suggest burglaries and cases of theft are on the rise of course and so too are cases of political violence. (The latter is a theatre in its own right and so is subject to political interpretations and therefore is not the right barometer to measure a state’s record in maintaining law and order on a day-to-day basis.)
There Are Problems
But for all the gains that have been made over the years, the Kerala society has remained culturally stagnant for a few decades. It is now apparent that despite its tremendous record in education, health and society-building, narrow-mindedness, bigotry and moral policing are on the rise. All this has also led to society becoming more judgmental when it comes to dealing with outsiders and even its own who have returned from other cultures.
For instance, it is difficult to understand why all hell broke loose — in a state that has a good share of its population living in the United States and Europe —when a few youngsters decided to organise an event marking their right to kiss in public spaces.
In another case, a teenaged boy and a girl were taken to task by school authorities when they hugged in public. The school was forced to backtrack after intervention by activists and Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor. (The boy in question scored record marks for the tenth standard exams that happened a few months after the incident, almost as if it was his payback.)
It is a fact that society in Kerala follows a certain conservative code. This is despite the fact that the state has perhaps the maximum number of people of Indian origin living around the world, with a good share of them living in free cultures.
Surely, a bunch of people who have been to bikini beaches around the world would be ok with slit jeans back home. But they are not!
Think about this: how do you explain that in Kochi, Kerala’s largest city, which reports stellar growth in sales of luxury vehicles year after year and the setting up of a whole new range of luxury hotels apart from and all other trappings of modernity, the shops close by 10 pm.
There is also a certain dress code that exists, though unwritten. It states that the common man and woman must look: well, common. That is to say that no departure from churidar and saris for women will be tolerated and even their right to wear jeans was hard-won around 20 years ago, with some colleges debating the issue even now.
Similarly, any man who refuses to be part of the clean-shaven or trimmed beard or moustache clusters too shall be treated as an alien.
Last year, Vinayakan, a teenager who preferred a hairstyle called Pompadour - involving shorter sides and a rolled up mop — was picked up for questioning by the police on account of his looks and died in custody allegedly due to torture.
A film song featuring a protest by the long- haired and bearded people dubbed as “Freakans” in Kerala became popular among youngsters. Instances of girls being targeted for meeting their boyfriends or even hanging out with the opposite sex continue to be reported.
There is thus a contradiction between Kerala’s identity as the most literate state in the country and its repressive and moral policing tendencies.
The problem perhaps is that education has not been able to challenge an increasingly deviant religious orthodoxy potently yet.
There have been several instances of priests and religious establishments of every kind issuing diktats to women in particular, prescribing standards of morality and steering society further away from individual liberty. This is despite the fact that instances of sexual abuse and corruption have shamed all religions in the recent past.
The second factor is patriarchy. This is a male-controlled society. Its political establishment, cinema, market place are all male-dominated.
This is true of the entire country but the difference is that Kerala is now becoming the cutting edge theatre of battle against patriarchy too. This is the only film industry in the country where a group of gutsy women actors and directors decided to take the all-powerful industry association head on.
These artistes have taken on the male-dominated and men-led Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes known by the acronym “AMMA;” ironically, the word in Malayalam means mother. They are fighting an organisation led by stalwarts such as Mammootty and Mohan Lal under whose leadership AMMA appears to be going soft on actor Dileep who stands accused of masterminding the sexual assault of an actress.
Kerala is among the rare states in the country where an organised fight is happening against religious orthodoxy and patriarchy. Now, believers are also seeking accountability from religious organisations, suggesting the beginning of a new era.
It is true that the society in Kerala — led by an arrogant and morally corrupt religious orthodoxy and patriarchy —has become narrow-minded and judgmental. But it is also true that this is the only state that has already finished its work in basic society building. This state has the best schools, hospitals, public transport and ranks high in public order.
Sure, society appears to have lost sight of its international identity with a history of cultural exchanges for thousands of years with the rest of the world and now presents a sorry picture brandishing thought control as its core identity.
But Kerala is fighting the battle for gender – equality and creative freedom while large parts of the country are yet to build schools or hospitals, stop horrific street crimes and riots or even wash the paan stains off the walls of government offices.
It is possible that Kerala may become the first state that will lay the foundations for a futuristic society that will respect individual liberty, diversity and gender equality. Just as Kerala established standards in just about everything else.
The newly sprouted movements against orthodoxy and patriarchy may well lead to a society that will become less judgmental and make visits to the state more fun.
KP Narayana Kumar is a journalist based in Kochi.
First Published: IST