Tag Archive for 'Kerala'

The hard life of Kerala’s celebrity elephants

Rollo Romig in the NYT Magazine:

One hot morning in Kerala, a tropical sliver of a state along the southwestern coast of India, I took a ride to Maradu, a town of nearly 45,000, to meet an elephant named Mangalamkunnu Ayyappan. He’s a leading-man type: darkly handsome, a bit of a rogue, the star of two feature films. During Kerala’s festival season, which nowadays stretches from December to May, he never gets a day off, parading in more than 200 festivals a year. As the tallest elephant among seven at Maradu’s annual function, he would be granted the honor of carrying a golden idol that evening.

Like any star, Ayyappan has groupies; his entry on the fan Web site Star Elephants commends his “clear honey colored eyes” and “majestic look.” But the fan sites don’t mention that in 1999, after a festival in Puthunagaram, he killed two assistant handlers, known as mahouts. It wasn’t an accident: he crept up on them as they slept on the roadside, picked them up with his trunk and trampled them to death. “Any other animal that had killed a person, they would have punished him by shooting him on sight,” says Sreekumar Arookutty, the director and writer of the popular Kerala TV series “E4 Elephant.” “But elephants get a special privilege in this society. An elephant has the right to kill one mahout, or two or three.” But why did Ayyappan do it? And why did he kill only the apprentices? “Only the elephant knows,” Arookutty says. “Maybe it’s because he wants to stop a new generation of mahouts from growing up.”

The captivity of elephants in south India goes back thousands of years. At first their use was mostly practical — tanks in wartime, timber forklifts in peacetime. In Kerala, elephants have been status symbols since the feudal era, and today most of its captive elephants are owned by private individuals. And it’s the only state in India where elephants are widely used for temple festivals. When or why this tradition started is unknown — no scripture commands it — but you can imagine how it may have happened: elephants were housed at temples between battles and were gradually integrated into religious festivities. Eventually, as soldiers and loggers replaced their elephants with machines, festivals became the best way owners could turn a profit on such high-maintenance animals. More:

The Malayali Nurse on the Moon

A superb piece in The Ladies Finger:

22fkIn February 2011, bodies of anti-Gaddafi protesters piled up in Tripoli hospital mortuaries, then spilt out in heaps into the corridors, onto empty table tops. A few days later came the stories of Libyan soldiers invading hospitals and ripping off patients’ oxygen masks, the wires connected to their monitors,their drips, their tubes, and taking them away.

Of the 18,000 Indians in Libya at the time, news reports say the majority were young Malayali nurses bandaging and swabbing the civil war. When the Indian government began evacuation of its citizens from Libya, many of these nurses were surprisingly reluctant to leave. Repatriated and living temporarily in Delhi, they roamed around Kerala House like ghosts wondering whether they’d had made a mistake. They talked about the loans they had taken for their courses, the fact that even big city hospitals in India think nothing of making a nurse work 65 hour weeks for Rs 3000 per month, their parents in rural Kerala. Who’d argue with them? By now, many of them are back in Libya.

You can put the Malayali nurse in the old teashop-on-the-moon comic scenario and the joke would still work. She is everywhere. She is rattling in a second-hand Japanese car, driving 150 km from Jebel Akdhar to Muscat to do her weekly shopping. She is all five of the thin, young women hovering behind and managing the mercurial, bejewelled Sardar doctor who looks outraged that he’s stuck in this dreary Bombay clinic. She is speaking German fluently in Cologne and struggling with English as she begins the process of emigration to the US. She is standing in INA market in Delhi with her friend, under a big sign proclaiming in Malayalam ‘Saudi nurse uniform thaiyar’. She is throwing on a hijab as she leaves her Jeddah home. She is the nurse in Delhi who was fired for speaking Malayalam in the lift when she asked her off-duty pal, “Pallil ponno?” She is also the nursing superintendent who fired her. She is the one who made everyone laugh at the idea of a nurse not speaking Malayalam. More:

The Suryanelli rape victim tells her story

Shaju Philip in The Indian Express:

In 1994-95, she came to Suryanelli in Munnar, a hill station in Idukki, to live with her family—her mother worked as a nurse with a plantation company and her father worked as the postmaster. Until then, she had studied at a residential school in Kottayam district and now, she joined class 8 in an English-medium residential school in Munnar. She would take a bus, the same bus, from the family’s tea estate quarters to school and back. It was a beautiful ride through sloping tea plantations and mist-covered hills. It was during these rides that she befriended Raju, the conductor.

 According to her statement to the police, Raju met her at her school on January 12, 1996. He wanted her to come with him on a trip and when she refused, he allegedly blackmailed her with a family photo album of hers. “I had given the album to my classmate Fathima. The day Fathima got the album back, I was not in the bus. Raju took it from Fathima, promising her that he would hand it over to me,” she says. “Raju also asked me to bring along some clothes and money for the trip. When I refused, he threatened to humiliate my family using the photos in the album. I had no choice but to go along with him.” Four days later, on January 16, she left with Raju on that trip.

Over the next 40 days, from January 16 to February 21, she was taken to Kumali (Idukki), Palakkad, Kozhikode, Aluva, Muvattupuzha and Kottayam in the state, and Theni, Kambam and Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, where she was raped by different men. The police believe that during this period, she covered around 4,000 km with her tormentors, who took her from one hotel to another, city to city, and forced her to have sex with strangers. On two occasions, she was raped allegedly by two men simultaneously. Though her condition worsened and she had serious injuries in her vagina, her attackers reportedly pumped her with pills and liquor to keep her sedated. More

When a little village in Kerala found itself caught up in a panic about the apocalypse

Sidin Vadukut in Motherland:

An hour away from Thrissur, in central Kerala, lies a little town that, to use a popular Indian usage, I call “my native place.” The town of Pavaratty is best known for the massive warehouse-like shrine of St. Joseph, a bustling local pilgrimage centre. The shrine looms over the town with a population of about 11 000, emotionally, geographically and architecturally. Distances are measured from the shrine. Events are remembered in reference to the shrine’s calendar of feasts and festivals. In Pavaratty the shrine is pole star, magnetic north, prime meridian and equator all rolled into one. This pivotal presence of the shrine imparts a certain intensity to the religion of the local Christians.

It is not a hostile intensity – the kind that leads to xenophobia or agitation. Quite the opposite. It is the benign intensity of Star Trek or Star Wars fans who, while acknowledging the unassailable superiority of their own beliefs, are quite happy to play along with your own under-educated biases. So while my grandfather had no doubt that Christians were God’s chosen people, he still believed that the great Hindu temple at Guruvayoor, 30 minutes away, was a source of divinity and power.

There is also a thick syncretic vein that runs through the Christianity of the region. Over the centuries, customs and rituals have changed hands between religions more times than many like to admit. For instance, each year before the shrine’s major annual feast on the third Sunday after Easter, a flag is hoisted up the pole in front of the church. The flagpole lines up almost exactly with the crucifix above the altar inside. But is slightly shifted to one side, out of deference to the deity. More:

Going on faith

Abraham Verghese writes for T Magazine of The New York Times on a recent visit back to Kerala, a visit that is blessed in more ways than one.

The morning I arrived in Trivandrum, the capital of the south Indian state of Kerala, I met my friend Vinita, a Hindu, who promised to accompany me on a visit to the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, a place that is generally off limits to nonbelievers. Though my family is from Kerala, we are Christians, a community dating back to A.D. 52 with the arrival of St. Thomas on these shores. “Doubting” Thomas converted Brahmins to the faith, who are now the so-called Syrian or St. Thomas Christians. And that morning, one of their fold was proposing to enter a Hindu temple.

I had always wanted to see this legendary Lord Vishnu temple, and not just because it had been very much in the news. One of the six vaults under the temple, dedicated in 1750 by the Maharaja of Travancore, was opened recently by court order and found to contain gold and jewelry worth a staggering $22 billion. more

A portrait of the ‘Artist’ as an old man

Keerthik Sasidharan in The Caravan:

The air in Edappal, the town of ‘Artist’ Namboodiri, was dense. The heavy humidity of spring encourages lethargy, as was even the case for Namboodiri. Submitting to precisely what the weather demanded, he sat shirtless, with his lungi folded up to the waist, relaxing in a reclining chair. The tiles beneath our feet were cold, a reprieve from the heat, so I decided to sit on the floor, by his side. My companions Majeed and Madhu, the second of whom is Namboodiri’s nephew, sat on chairs facing him. He had agreed to meet us, despite not being in the best of health. His voice trailed when he tried to speak loudly.

Madhu asked him about the recently-released documentary on his life by the award-winning director Shaji N Karun, considered one of India’s greatest filmmakers. “Ah yes. They are doing something… ” he said. Karun’s debut film Piravi won the Caméra d’Or at the 1989 Cannes International Festival. Unprompted, Namboodiri added, “He has a great visual sense.”

I could not help but smile at his observation. The ‘visual sense’ of a filmmaker was clearly what appealed to him. Once, while Namboodiri was on a sabbatical from his drawing and painting career, he worked with iconic director G Aravindan, and in that short career won the Kerala State Award in art direction. He never really pursued that line of work, and soon returned to his first love: drawing and painting.

My cup of tea had gone cold. I decided to take a photo to remember this evening with Namboodiri. On seeing my camera, it seemed like he was suddenly reminded of some unspoken code of sophistication. “Should I wear a shirt?” he asked.

His 86-year-old body is surprisingly well kept: his muscles are still taut, his skin is leathery and has worn well with age, his luxuriant silvery hair was tied up into a ponytail, and his spectacles dangled off his neck.

“Let it be. Unless the mosquitoes …” I had vocalised what he instinctively knew. He smiled and shrugged. He knew these mosquitoes. He was yet to draw them on paper, as far as I could remember from his work, but, he was watching them flit by, just as he watched my friends, me, our conversation, the cup of tea, the changing light in the skies and the children running behind cars on the street. So shirtless it was. I wandered about and took photos while they continued to talk. Noticing my lens focus on him, he sighed, and said, “What an astonishing thing. It might just rain in February!” More:

The nurse from Kerala

The Malayali nurse is ubiquitous to India’s hospitals and nursing homes, and even outside the country. Where does her journey begin? And what keeps her going? Nandini Nair in The Indian Express magazine Eye:

At 8pm, Christeena Rajan completes her six-hour shift at a small nursing home near Shadipur Depot in West Delhi. She walks down to her room, which she shares with a fellow Malayali nurse, and soon starts making porotha for dinner. Twenty-five-year-old Rajan, who came to Delhi in 2008, has been trying to settle her visa papers for the last six months. She had paid Rs 30,000 to a visa agency, handed them her passport, school and college certificates, hoping they would reach her to Jordan. The agency disappeared with her money and documents that charted and totted her entire life. She filed a complaint with Usha Krishna Kumar, president of the Delhi-based Nurses’ Welfare Association of India.

Krishna Kumar locates Rajan’s complaint amidst a pile of 20-odd brown files and thousands of punched A-4 sheets, where neat cursive handwriting spell out agents who vanished or hospitals that turned tyrants. Hospitals often hold certificates and crucial documents, turning staff into “bonded” labour by preventing their departure. But Rajan got back her documents and money, with Krishna Kumar’s intervention. Today, she is hoping to leave for Malta, “a small island”, she says, by way of explanation. When one nods, she asks aghast, “You’ve heard about it?” “What do you know about it?” one asks in return. “I don’t know anything at all,” she says, giggling loudly, “It’s a Christian country.” More:

The industrious god

Gautam Pemmaraju at 3quarksdaily:

The beleaguered liquor baron/industrialist/MP Vijay Mallya, considered to be the ‘Richard Branson of India’ by many, is currently seeking ways to rescue his debt-ridden airline. Having drastically cancelled flights over the last few weeks, the colourful airline promoter, who also has an Indian Premier League cricket team, an F1 racing car, one of the biggest private yacht’s in the world, a slew of vintage cars, amongst other baubles, has been defending himself against widespread criticism. Speculations of a possible government bailout have angered many around the country.

He is also a patron of the historic temple in the hills of Tirupati, in southern Andhra Pradesh, bordering Tamil Nadu. With a prominent guesthouse there, he is known to be an avid devotee of the resident god Venkateshwara (also Balaji, Srinivasa), and has never been shy with either devotion or largesse. Newspaper reports abound that every new aircraft of his first takes a flight of obeisance around the Tirumala hills where the temple is located, before ferrying passengers.

A former BJP minister of Karnataka and mining baron, G Janardhan Reddy, who is now in jail on charges of illegal mining, had donated to the temple a ‘2.5 foot long, 30 kg’ diamond encrusted gold crown worth over $10 million then in 2009. Recently the temple administration (the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanam trust or TTD) stated officially that there was no question of returning the gift in response to demands calling for its return. Political parties and other groups led protests against the ‘tainted’ offering, claiming that it “polluted the sacred ambience of the sanctum sanctorum”. Earlier this year, the now incarcerated politician and his brother (known as the Reddy brothers – partners in the controversial Obulapuram Mining Company) donated yet another diamond studded crown, gold laden garments and other ornaments worth around $3.5 million, to the deity at Srikalahasti temple, which is at the foothills of the main temple. More:

Shades of radicalism

In Time magazine, Jyoti Thottam revists the land of her people to try and discover how islands of radicalism have taken shape in a place that was once the model of tolerance and prosperity.

‘Qaliqut in Mulaybar is visited is visited by vessels from China, Sumatra, Ceylon, the Maldives, Yemen and Fars, and in it gather merchants from all quarters…We entered the harbour in great pomp, the like of which I have never seen in those lands, but it was bound to be a joy to be followed by distress.’

The port where Ibn Battuta made his grand entrance still welcomes the wide wooden vessels that have plied the Indian Ocean trade for centuries. The boats, called urus, carry construction material instead of coir and spices, and Malabar is now part of the Indian state of Kerala. But the old Calicut harbour is still a symbol of  the free exchange of people, goods and ideas that lie at the heart of Kerala’s culture. more

Transparent government, via webcams in India

The chief minister of Kerala has installed a webcam in his office and puts the feed online as an anti-corruption measure. Vikas Bajaj in NYT:

Thiruvananthapuram — Little Brother is watching you.

That is the premise for the webcam that a top government official here has installed in his office, as an anticorruption experiment. Goings-on in his chamber are viewable to the public, 24/7.

In an India beset by kickback scandals at the highest reaches of government, and where petty bribes at police stations and motor vehicle departments are often considered a matter of course, Oommen Chandy is making an online stand.

“Instead of taking action against corruption, I believe that we have to create an atmosphere where everything should be in a transparent way,” Mr. Chandy, who recently became chief minister of Kerala state after his coalition won a close election, said in an interview in his office. “The people must know everything.”

About 100,000 visitors logged in to the video feed on the day it began, July 1. And through last Friday afternoon, it had been visited by 293,586 users.

The chief minister — equivalent to an American governor — gave the interview during a break in negotiations with leaders of the state’s private colleges over the fees they can charge students. More:

Kerala temple’s secret vaults yield billions in treasure


Gold coins dating back to the era of the East India Company, sacks of diamonds, and solid-gold idols are among the treasures that have been found in the sealed vaults of a 16th century Hindu temple, according to temple officials and news reports.

The treasure, which had been sealed for over a century, is estimated to be worth at least $22 billion – making Trivandrum’s Sree Padmanabhaswamy perhaps India’s richest temple.

But if this news evoked images of a gung-ho archeologist on a daring expedition, you’d be on the wrong track. The extraordinary discovery was spearheaded not by Kerala’s own Indiana Jones but by fine legal minds of India’s Supreme Court. Treasure-hunting marks a first for India’s top court, which in recent years has raised its voice and expanded its policy reach on issues ranging from land acquisition, to black money to malnutrition – positions that have sometimes pitted it against elected officials.

Despite the Supreme Court’s enterprising spirit, it was difficult to see this one coming. The court dispatched a team of seven – former judges and temple staff among them – to open the temple’s secret chambers, the first of which was unlocked June 27. Of the temple’s six chambers, four have been opened so far. The remaining two are likely to be examined between Monday and Tuesday. More:

In The Times of India:

Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy said the treasure would remain with the temple. “The wealth belonged to the temple and it will be preserved where it was found. There is religious and historical significance to the findings. The state will ensure its security,” Chandy told reporters on Sunday.

Chandy said the police would patrol the shrine 24X7 and a control room had already started functioning. “Permanent security arrangements will be put in place only after consultations with the chief priest of the temple and the Travancore king who is the caretaker of the shrine,” the CM said.

When the sky opens

Monsoon in Kerala. Image: Vinod Kumar M. / under cc

Malayam writer NS Madhavan on the curious blindness to rains in Kerala, the first of Indian states to welcome the monsoon. In the Indian Express magazine Eye:

An urban legend attributes the Inuit language with the largest number of words for snow. In a similar vein, Khushwant Singh once wondered whether Malayalam has a rich set of words for rain.

Normally it ought to have; after all, rains are to residents of Kerala, what permafrost is to Inuits. On an average, Kerala receives about 118 inches (3,000 mm) of rains annually, nearly 60 per cent of which is contributed by the south-west monsoon. The rest comes from the north-east monsoon in November and pre-monsoon summer showers. Even so, Malayalam has only a sparse vocabulary for “rain”. It is referred to mostly by the noun mazha, sometimes preceded by an adjective. The word is combined with three or four verb forms to suggest various rain forms.

Probably that’s more natural; like what Jorge Luis Borges said about local colour, the Koran and camels: “A few days ago, I discovered a curious confirmation of the way in which what is truly native can and often does dispense with local colour; I found this confirmation in Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon observes that in the Arab book par excellence, in the Koran, there are no camels; I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this lack of camels would suffice to prove that it is Arab… while the first thing a forger, a tourist, or an Arab nationalist would do is bring on the camels, whole caravans of camels on every page…”

Likewise, in a certain way, Kerala is blind to rains: An event that coincides with the monsoon’s call in Kerala is the opening of schools after the summer holidays. The appointed day is usually June 1. For generations of children, it was an event they looked forward to with great eagerness. Everything was new that day; dress, footwear, books, hatchbacks, pencils, nice smelling new erasers and, of course, umbrellas. However, when the children came home in the evening, they would be drenched by what was usually the first monsoon shower. In the ’50s, schools on high ground were invariably closed as soon as they were opened, to provide temporary shelters to families displaced by floods. While fixing the academic calendar, Malayalees seem to have forgotten the advent of monsoon. Or, perhaps, there was no other way; every other day is rainy. More:

After the fall

In the wake of an historic defeat, can India’s communists finally break with the hidebound dogmas of their past? Ramachandra Guha in Caravan:

The recent defeat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala and especially in West Bengal—where it ruled for 34 uninterrupted years—calls for a detached, dispassionate analysis of the party’s place in the history of modern India.

In what manner, and to what extent, did politicians committed in theory to the construction of a one-party state reconcile themselves in practice to bourgeois democracy? What were the sources of the CPI(M)’s electoral appeal in Kerala and West Bengal? How were its policies constrained or enabled by its ideology of Marxism-Leninism? How should this ideology be rethought or reworked in the light of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the manifest attachment of the people of India to multiparty democracy? How might the CPI(M) restore and reinvent itself after these electoral reversals in Kerala and West Bengal?

In seeking to answer these questions, I shall start with the analysis of a printed text. This is apposite, since Marxists are as much in thrall to the printed word, or Word, as are fundamentalist Muslims or Christians. True, their God had more than one Messenger, and these messengers wrote multiple Holy Books. Withal, like Christianity and Islam, Marxism is a faith whose practice is very heavily determined by its texts. Thus, communists the world over justify their actions on the basis of this or that passage in the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin or Mao.

It was the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre who first drew attention to the parallels between a professedly secular belief system and religious doctrine. In a 1968 book called Marxism and Christianity, MacIntyre observed that “creedal uniformity, as in religion, often seems to be valued by Marxists for its own sake”. He added that this secular creed, like its religious counterpart, endowed its adherents with an emancipatory role denied to individuals who believed in more humdrum ideologies. To quote MacIntrye, “both Marxism and Christianity rescue individual lives from the insignificance of finitude…by showing the individual that he has or can have some role in a world-historical drama.” In this, Marxism and Christianity are akin to one another, and to Islam, whose devoted or dogmatic adherents likewise believe that their life and death find meaning and fulfilment in a pleasure-filled and enemy-free utopia. More:

Also in Caravan: Scenes from the last days of communism in West Bengal

Collapse of India’s Left

The front page of The Telegraph, Calcutta

Ashis Chakrabarti in The Telegraph on Mamata Banerjee’s victory and the collapse of Marxists:

Friday afternoon, Mamata Banerjee’s long march to “liberate” Bengal from the world’s longest democratically elected communist rule ended in a green revolution that was reminiscent of the revolutions — velvet, orange, rose, et al — that once felled the Berlin Wall and one communist regime in eastern Europe after another.

The big difference is this: none of those revolutions, except perhaps the one led by Lech Walesa’s Solidarity in Poland, was the making of a single leader the way the one in Calcutta has been Mamata’s very own.

It was in the making for several years, but the way it gathered momentum in the last few weeks was nothing short of a blitzkrieg that knocked the supposedly mighty edifice of the CPM down without the party leaders having a clue to what was about to hit them.

She began her campaign to end the CPM’s rule with the slogan: “Now’s the time” — that became the call to action in Prague’s Velvet Revolution. It proved illusory in 2001 but it has happened now.

But the slogan will take on a completely different meaning now. From now onwards, her years of street fight will be yesterday’s story. Both for Bengal and for Mamata, the story that unfolds from this morning has to be about her vision and work to create a tomorrow. It is not the ordinary change of government that comes and goes with every election, changing little in people’s lives.

For everything that she plans to do, she may have to undo plenty of things. The historic turnabout of the traditionally Leftist Bengal to her side is clear evidence that she has to reverse many of the supposedly irreversible legacies that have led to Bengal’s economic and social decline. More:

Ladies script sweep show: Sankarshan Thakur in The Telegraph

In The Times of India: Almost one-third of Indians will now be ruled by women. With Mamata Banerjee and J Jayalalithaa storming to power on Friday in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, they join two other women chief ministers, Mayawati and Sheila Dikshit, to administer 368 million, or around 30% of India’s 1.2 billion population.

But the day didn’t belong to just the women. It also belonged to the wise Indian voter who punished the corrupt and the arrogant with ferocious intent. CPM’s impregnable bastion of Bengal, increasingly working more for its cadre than the people, was blown to bits and its 34-year-old hegemony ended, while a corruption-tainted DMK, running Tamil Nadu like a family profit centre, was consigned to the dustbin.

The outcomes in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu dwarfed Tarun Gogoi’s hat-trick in Assam, the Congress’s shock defeat in Puducherry and the Left’s better-than-expected performance in Kerala, where it fell agonisingly short of the finishing line — 0.7% of the votes and four seats were the difference between the two fronts, UDF and LDF. More:


“Family suicides” in Kerala

Ananthakrishnan G. in The Times of India:

Family suicide is defined as the dominant person in the family killing the others before doing away with themselves. Sometimes , it features a suicide pact among family members.

A study by the Kerala State Mental Health Authority (KSMHA) says that 39 of every 100 family suicides reported across India, take place in God’s own country. The study has just been endorsed by Kerala’s Economic Review 2010, which was tabled in the assembly. In 2009, there were 13 family suicides in Kerala, which totalled 38 deaths.

Kerala also has the highest rate of individual suicide in India, after Sikkim. In 2009, suicide accounted for nearly 40% of all deaths in Sikkim, in Kerala it was 25%.

Why is this so? Most Malayalis blame “family trouble” . They are somewhat in tune with the rest of the nation . The national average of suicide caused by “family trouble” is 23.7%; while in Kerala it was 40.2%. More:

Kerala — Your moment is waiting

God in God’s Own Country

In July, activists allegedly belonging to a fundamentalist group called the Popular Front of India cut off the hand of T.J. Joseph, a professor of Malayalam at Newman College, a Christian minority institution in Kerala, for setting an exam question that they said contained a controversial reference to Prophet Mohammad. Earlier this month, his college sacked him. Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Indian Express:

The macabre story that unfolded in Kerala over the last few weeks is a harbinger of how complicated and threatening currents of religious politics are likely to remain. Some fanatics, allegedly associated with the Popular Front of India (PFI), chopped off the hand of Prof T.J. Joseph of Newman College for setting an exam question that was seen as containing a controversial reference to Prophet Mohammad. The college then terminated the services of the professor. Mahatma Gandhi University, the affiliating institution, has correctly served a notice to the college questioning the professor’s dismissal, but the Archdiocese has supported action against the professor.

It is always difficult to gauge the significance of any incident in the context of wider politics. But this story encapsulates many challenges of religious politics in our time. First, it provides more evidence, if any was needed, that a prolonged exposure of a state to left of centre and so-called progressive politics does not necessarily diminish religious sensibilities or fundamentalist sensitivities; it merely redirects and sometimes enhances them. This is for two reasons. Left politics and progressive politics in India have often been premised upon politically managing community identities rather than transcending them. This has often required reinforcing a sense of identity amongst communities, which in turn has required often deferring to their sentiments, even when these go against the grain of constitutional values. Just think of the CPM’s handling of Taslima Nasreen in West Bengal, another state where communal attitudes are slowly simmering under the facade of communist rule. More:

Tropical abstractions

In Harvard Magazine, a profile of Kerala-born, U.S.-based architect and painter George Oommen.

He creates his abstract landscapes mostly in acrylic and oil paints and, since 1994, has often used a drip technique in which he squirts water (or turpentine, for oil-based paint) at the top edge of the canvas and lets it trickle down, taking paint with it and creating a vertical line on the surface. “I use water to paint water,” he explains. Generally, he fills the frame with many parallel drips that, depending on the subject, can suggest raindrops on a window, wooden blinds, hanging vegetation, tree trunks, or the fabric of silk saris. More:


The video below takes you inside his studio:

Children by their side, Shashi Tharoor and Sunanda Pushkar tie knot

In The Indian Express:

Elavanchery (Kerala): Former Union minister Shashi Tharoor, 54, and his Kashmiri friend Sunanda Pushkar, 48, tied the knot on Sunday morning in the presence of their children and close relatives at his ancestral home here, 408 km from state capital Thiruvananthapuram.

The simple and elegant ceremony, attended by around 100 guests and lasting barely an hour, was rich in rituals of upper class Hindu Nairs, the Kerala community to which Tharoor belongs.

The wedding, held at the 200-year-old Mundarath Home where Tharoor’s grandmother Jayasinkini Amma lives now, was by and large a private function, except for the presence of Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar and former Indian diplomat T P Sreenivasan. No Congress leader from Palakkad district turned up. Jacob Joseph, the controversial OSD to Tharoor during his stint as the Minister of State for External Affairs, was also absent. More:

Mallakhamb — Indian pole gymnastics

Muziris: Lost and found

Thousands of years ago, Muziris was a thriving port city on the western coast of India, with links to the Roman Empire. And then, it disappeared. Now, four seasons of excavations in Pottanam, a coastal village in Kerala’s Ernakulam, have revealed that this could be Muziris. Uma Vishnu in The Indian Express:

The seafarers had been on the Arabian Sea for over a month and now, they saw the white foam of the Periyar river in the distance. Ahoy, Muziris! Down in the cellar of their ship, the amphora jars clinked gently, filled to the brim with the choicest of wine and olive oil. And of course, gold coins. In December, when they go back, their ships would be full again, this time with that black, fragrant spice their Roman masters loved: pepper.

This was the port town of Muziris, “emporium of the East”, located on the mouth of the Periyar delta, one of the biggest rivers in Kerala. Somewhere between 1st century BC and 4th century AD, Muziris was a thriving port city on the south-western coast of India. It flourished after the Romans conquered Egypt and rose to become a key centre for trade between the Red Sea and Indian Ocean regions—exporting pepper, precious stones, silk, beads, ivory and pottery to West Asia and Rome, and importing gold coins, glass, wine and wheat from there. So important was Muziris that it found a mention in ancient Tamil Sangam texts, such as Akananooru and Purananuru, and in early travelogues like the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, a 1st century AD maritime navigational guide anonymously authored by a Greek-speaking mariner.

And then, Muziris disappeared. Nobody knows how, but the most plausible theory is that the decline of the Roman Empire sometime in 4th century AD probably affected the Indian Ocean trade and Muziris lost in importance. It stayed in the classical texts and acquired an almost mythical air for centuries. But Muziris was too real to be forgotten, so the search for the lost port city continued. More:

Taliban-style courts in Kerala

From The Times of India:

Thiruvananthapuram: ‘Hotbed of terrorism’ is not the usual label for Kerala. But intelligence gathered by disparate agencies over the last few years suggests the description may not be far off the mark. Confirmation of this came with the horrifying incident of July 4, when a college lecturer’s right hand was chopped off in Moovattupuzha, a town in Eranakulam district.

The attack on T J Joseph was apparently in retaliation for setting a question paper that allegedly hurt Muslim sentiments. Police raids on offices of the Popular Front of India (PFI), whose activists are believed to be behind the attack, have exposed a well-oiled, pan-Islamist network fed by a heady mix of Wahhabism and hawala. Kerala’s deep-rooted Gulf links also come in handy for the PFI.

The revelations of the last two weeks are startling. It includes al-Qaida training tapes, Taliban-style courts that dispense justice according to Shariat law, literature on conversion, explosives enough to kill dozens, and documents indicating unusual interest in the Indian Navy.

Sources say it was one of the PFI’s Taliban-style ‘courts’ in Erattupettah in Kottayam district that decided Joseph’s fate. There are 13 more across Kerala, discreetly exhorting members of the community to stay away from regular courts which are deemed “un-Islamic”. The state police is now taking a fresh look at three murders in Kannur, including that of a police constable. There is some suspicion the killings were ordered by Taliban-style courts. More:

The Gulf wives of Kerala

Behind most Indian men working in the Gulf is a wife back home, living in a shared house bringing up his children with the help of her extended family. Rajni George talks to some of these women about what makes them stay behind and what life is like for them. From The National:

Amisha Nuhman, a slender 23-year-old Malayali Muslim, has been married for two years, most of which has been lived in Kerala, away from her husband who works in Dubai.

‘I want to live here,’ she says, referring to Thekkepuram, a tradition-rich village inside the boundaries of Kozhikode in Kerala. She grew up with a large, omnipresent network of grandmothers, mothers and aunts in a joint household, and it is clear that the generous sprawl of the extended family is her most natural habitat. Moreover, for her husband, who works for the UAE Exchange, a money transfer company, this arrangement is the most convenient one. He maintains a household in the motherland and earns more money than he would back home.

Nuhman is what has become known as a Gulf wife. She is one in more than a million. A 2008 Kerala Migration Survey conducted by the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in Kerala’s capital Thiruvanathapuram concluded that there are 1.06 million of them in the state, living a separate life from their husbands.

Settled in large ancestral homes with their relatives on hand and welcoming their men home every few months, they find balance as they reap the benefits of a modern economy and perpetuate an age-old way of life. Coastal Kozhikode (formerly Calicut), the third largest city in the south Indian state of Kerala, is home to many Gulf wives. The bond between these two disparate parts of the world is longstanding, as Kozhikode has a tradition of trading ties with the Middle East and a history of intermarriage into the Arab community. More:

The brotherhood of toddy drinkers

In Mint Lounge, an excerpt from Following Fish – Travels Around the Indian Coast by Samanth Subramanian [Penguin]:

If you ever find yourself on one of Kerala’s highways with an hour or five to spare, keep your eyes open for a distinctive black-and-white signboard by the side of the road. This board will have, in its centre, the single word ‘Kallu’ in Malayalam, and above it, a legend like ‘T. S. No. 189,’ the number being subject to change. If a few kilometres go by and you spot no such board—which in itself would be remarkable—you should flag down the first passing male cyclist or pedestrian and say just one word with a questioning drawl: ‘Shaaaaaap?’ If it is particularly early in the morning, throw in a sheepish smile for good measure.

You must note here that the drawl is everything. If you simply say ‘shop,’ you will get either an indifferent shrug or a vague gesture towards an establishment selling soap, toothbrushes and packets of potato chips. If, however, you get it right and say ‘Shaaaaaap?—like ‘sharp’ but without the burr—you will get an animated nod and detailed directions to the nearest toddy shop.

More often than not, you will then drive up to a walled-off compound that has one little structure easily identified as the kitchen, another little structure with bicycles parked outside it, and a number of individual little cabanas. There is, unfortunately, an explicit social code that kicks in at the shop’s gate. If you happen to look like a local or a paddy field worker, you will be led towards the common bar area; if you don’t, you will be requested, equally firmly, to take any of the cabanas that are free. Mixing is discouraged. If you insist on the common bar for yourself, you will get nothing more than a dirty look, but it will be a very dirty look indeed. More:

Mathematics in India

George Gheverghese Joseph, author of A Passage to Infinity, a study of the mathematical practice among scholars in Kerala, in interview with Amrith Lal in The Economic Times:

What are the major achievements of the Kerala School? How is it important to the history of Indian mathematics?

Apart from the work on the infinite series I’ve mentioned, familiar techniques of calculus — such as integration by parts, multiple integration, derivation of the power series for pi, sine and cosine — make their first appearance in the Kerala work. And, so do the remarkable approximations of trigonometric functions including the well-known Taylor series approximations for the sine and cosine functions.

These results had apparently been obtained without the use of infinitesimal calculus and only using the geometry of the circle as well as a sophisticated arithmetic of fractions and negative numbers within a well-developed positional decimal number system. The Kerala episode has helped to restore the unbroken continuity in the history of Indian math from very early times to the time before the emergence of European presence on the Indian subcontinent.

You have indicated that some of the findings of Indian mathematicians, including those of the Kerala School, predate similar findings in Europe. Was there a transmission of knowledge from India to Europe?

It is important to recognise that while Kerala was very much on the periphery of the politics and culture of the Indian subcontinent, its trade linked it with the wider world. Contacts have existed since time immemorial with the African coast and West Asia and for a time with the Roman Empire. And with the coming of Vasco da Gama, windows were thrown open beyond the Iberian Peninsula. Transmission of knowledge from India to Europe through the Arab conduit is well known and included Indian numerals and computations, ideas of Indian trigonometry and algebra and Indian astronomy. More:

The strange case of the twins of Kodinji

In a village in Kerala, something extraordinary is happening. The phenomenally high rate of twins born there far exceeds the national average, presenting medical researchers with a mystery that is as yet unsolved. Vinita Bharadwaj in The National:

The latest survey, from December 2009, counted 265 pairs of twins in the village, which is home to about 3,000 families and 13,000 inhabitants. This equates to a twinning rate of about 30 to 35 per 1,000 live births within a radius of about 500 metres. The average in the rest of the country is 8.1 per 1,000 live births.

The anomaly has caused a sensation in research circles and generated enormous national and international media interest in Kodinji in the past two years.

The number of reporters and researchers arriving unannounced is growing, not always to the delight of the villagers. Tucked away in the lush green northern parts of Kerala, Kodinji is a small village in the Malappuram district. It is a quiet, unassuming village with the noticeable signs of Gulf money pouring in to sustain its people. Small billboards advertising abaya fashion dot the road leading to the village and large multi-storeyed houses with wild gardens of banana and coconut trees function as symbols of prosperity.

At the day-long camp, 175 pairs of twins from the village, dressed in their Sunday best, are examined by a team of doctors led by Dr Sribiju, a dermatologist and geriatrician, who goes by one name. The doctors measure the twins’ height and weight and note down the vitals of each participant. A dietician then interviews the twins and their parents for a nutritional assessment. One of the examiners, who prefers not to give their name, later says the preliminary observations did not indicate any outward abnormalities in the twins’ health and well-being.  More:

Bringing it all back home

Does the astonishing volume of global remittances redeem the moral ambiguities of migrant labour? In camps, hospitals, beauty parlours and under doormats, John Gravois watches the money move. From The National:

Down the glass-fronted row of exchange houses along Abu Dhabi’s Liwa Street – the city’s unofficial remittance district, where hundreds of security cameras monitor a long, intermittent border-fence of plexiglas teller windows – Maridel Estrelles walked briskly one recent afternoon carrying a glossy faux-leather handbag and, as usual, a wallet full of other people’s money. Trying to keep pace alongside her was a young Bangladeshi man in a spread-collared shirt named Zilani, who carried a small, scuffed laptop folio with flimsy turquoise piping. They were rushing to catch a taxi to the Musaffah Industrial District, 30 minutes away, hoping to arrive there ahead of the clattering buses bound home for the labour camps at sundown.

A wholesomely pretty, disarmingly charismatic Filipina, Estrelles was dressed in a modest acrylic sweater, pale blue jeans and sandals, which slapped the pavement in double time as she walked. Without breaking stride, she called out cheerily to a cluster of blue-jumpsuited Bangladeshi construction workers sitting tiredly on a kerb, who blinked before recognising her and waving back. “Customers,” she explained, before stepping into traffic on Hamdan Street. More:

Reverse exodus of migrant workers in Persian Gulf challenges India

Emily Wax from Kochi in the Washington Post:

When his overnight flight landed, Abdul Wahib walked out of Kochi’s palm-fringed airport and hugged his family. After 24 years of working in the United Arab Emirates, he was home. He carried a suitcase and a layoff notice: His well-paid job as a forklift operator at Dubai’s once-bustling port was terminated.

Wahib’s airplane was filled with Indian laborers, some fired by text messages, dozens owed months of back pay.

“My flight was full of shocked men, sad men. I could think only of my wife and two children back in India,” said Wahib, 48, who had saved enough to buy a three-bedroom house in a sleepy hamlet of coconut groves and banana trees in the southern state of Kerala. “I didn’t want to disappoint them. India has become a strong nation. But it’s migrants’ money that has pumped through our banks and villages. I hoped I could find good work at home.” More:

The shrinking ranks of Kerala’s coconut pluckers

Kerala, India: Photo Jesse Goodall / Asian Window

Kerala, India: Photo Jesse Goodall / Asian Window

From The New York Times:

Pettah, India — As he approaches his first tree of the day, S. Mohan presses his calloused palms together and bows his head.

“Oh God, I am climbing the coconut tree,” he whispers. “Protect me from harm.”

With no safety gear beyond a strap of palm frond tied around his ankles, he launches himself onto the tree’s arcing trunk, which rises dozens of feet into the air. With a swift series of spider-like maneuvers, he is at the top of the tree within seconds, slicing the nuts from their stems with a heavy blade he carries tucked into his loincloth.

One misstep and he would surely fall, as much as 100 feet to the ground.

India produces 15 billion coconuts a year, a tropical bonanza that feeds a billion-dollar industry. Just about every coconut is plucked by hand. More:

The Malayali

Lost causes, alcoholism, eve-teasing, world politics, parochialism. Is there no end to the contradictions in the Malayali male? Nisha Susan in Tehelka [illustration: Anand Naorem]

malayaliIf you are a shameless believer in the utility of stereotypes you would agree Malayali men are inclined to wanderlust, substance disorders and angst. Mallus do get around. The average Malayali in Tiruvalla, Tippasandra and Timbuktu sets forth blithely towards the furthest point he can imagine. The pursuit of Mammon doesn’t quite explain it. Other communities have sold ice-golas, pushed mutta-dosa carts and made their fortune not so far from home. But the Malayali man? A teashop owner in Leh, a temple keeper in Madhya Pradesh, an arms dealer in Washington, a doctor in Nigeria, a botany teacher in Papua New Guinea – when these Malayali men left home neither they nor their families asked why they had to go so far. Once there, the Malayali abandons his languid air in favour of a furious work ethic and labours to arrange visas for the cousins he barely spoke to at home. For a long while now the location of choice has been the Gulf, from where came infinitely expandable suitcases and infinite variations of a particular phenomena: men who see their wives and children once a year for a month, men who bring up their children in Kerala while their wives work abroad, men who have never known what it is to be parented so they don’t know how to bring up children. It’s fairly normal in Kerala to have a family where four generations have grown up without parents. Men’s relationships with their mothers is thus either distant or stunted: one barely knows what these gaps are doing to the social fabric of Kerala, except when you speculate why it’s the country’s suicide capital. More: